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Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Archive for the tag “hatha yoga”

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self  by Stephen Cope.  Bantam Books 1999.  358 pages. 

It is not often I use the “M word” to describe a book.  No, I’m not talking about munchkin books or maleficient books.  I’m talking about masterpieces.  I am not certain if Stephen Cope’s bestseller is a masterpiece.  Maybe it is, maybe not.  Either way, it is pretty damn good. 

This is one of those books that entertains and educates you in a visceral way right from the start.  Large chunks are written in immediate narrative format–as in “he said,” “I said,” etc.  It is Stephen Cope’s personal yoga story–a sort of “pilgrim’s progress,” if you will–as well as the yoga story of his many friends and acquaintances before and during his long and continuing stay at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. 

We meet a man, a practicing Boston psychotherapist, who for a variety of reasons was feeling unsettled and dissatisfied with his life and then, somewhat to his dismay, found himself joining a religious community to do…what?  Much of the book is an answer to that and related questions: What did he want?  Why?  What was he trying to do at Kripalu?  What was–is–the meaning of yoga?  What is enlightenment?  Is such a thing possible?  Are there enlightened people in this world?  And what happens when all the things we try to keep hidden are revealed for the world to see?  

Stephen Cope furrows through all these questions and more.  His sincerity, his intensity, his intelligence, make the book a gripping read.  Its pages educate the reader even as Cope the protagonist is educated by his experiences in the ashram.  Yoga philosophy is pondered over, its depths turned up, and its many connections to Western psychotherapy reflected upon, all in gratifyingly sober, lucid prose.  This is no idealistic hippy’s tale, nor a wide-eyed New Age search for Reality.  In point of fact, it is one man’s search for himself, even as he helps us understand that the discipline, the science, the art of yoga, is there to help us lay ourselves bare to ourselves.  

“You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”  This book is a testament to these words, but it goes beyond them for the “truth” as yoga reveals to Stephen Cope is an ever living, organic thing, the stuff of our lives, which we either enjoy and let go of or cling to and warp, eventually to destroy. 

You will find yourself in this book.  In one of the many personal portraits Cope draws, you will find your own symptoms and neuroses, your fears, dreams and failings.  And when you do, you will know that yoga has something to offer you.  There is so much teaching here, and it is given in such generous, gentle and wise ways.  Most of all, I think the primacy of ourselves as bodily beings, as thinking, feeling, dreaming animals of earth, is borne out.  The body really is our temple, and yoga is our puja, an act of adoration, discipline and feast.  Cope nails it in what might be the defining statement of the book: “Because yoga asanas are not so much about exercise as they are about learning and unlearning, it is not the movement itself, but the quality of attention we bring to the movement that makes postures qualify as yoga” (230).  If this is so–and I know it is–then any act, any breath, any thought done with full and alive attention, is yoga. 

Bobby Fischer once said “Chess is life.”  I would say “Yoga is life,” and Stephen Cope’s book has made this truth abundantly clear.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Yoga Bible by Christina Brown

The Yoga Bible: The Definitive Guide to Yoga Postures by Christina Brown.  Walking Stick Press 2003.  399 pages.

I wanted to give a nice little plug for this nice little asana book.  I couldn’t resist buying when I found it in the local Harvard Coop–almost 200 asanas in a book that fits snugly in the hand.  Dense (in terms of information per paragraph or bullet point), to the point, practical, and perfectly arranged so all you have to do is look, do the pose, check, turn the page and repeat.  I’ve now made my yoga routine into THIS, just following it through and then starting over again. 

The asanas are ordered somewhat how you would find them in ashtanga yoga.  Each pose is named in English and Sanskrit, captured in several pictures and with numbered instructions, plus a little information box on where to put the gaze, preliminary and counter poses, easier methods, and effects.

The intro to the book has a brief but very informative overview of yoga philosophy and practice.  After the asanas come chapters on relaxation, pranayama, seals (mudras), internal energy locks (bandhas), yogic cleasning practices (kriyas), as well as sections on yoga for specific ailments and a sort of gazeteer to the world of different yoga styles. 

If you are looking for something incredibly practical, that you can just pick up and start into without a hundred pages of metaphysics, this book is for you.  I highly recommend it for its small size (you won’t be worried about bringing it with you onto the gym’s stretching floor), ease of use and directness.  A great buy!

Amazon rating: 5 stars

Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar.  Schocken Books 1966/1994, 544 pages.

As they say of Porsches: “There is no substitute.”  Legal notices aside, every yogi on the planet could say the same for this book.  And for once in a blue moon a sensational blurb on a cover–“The Bible of Modern Yoga,” in this case–is truer than true.  If you own only one book on yoga, let this be the one.

It begins with an introduction “from the inside,” so to speak.  As has been made plain by some of my previous reviews, the background of the writer is as important as the extent of the writer’s knowledge.  Iyengar has it all.  He is Hindu born and a lifelong yoga devotee.  He studied with Krishnamacharya, widely acknowledged as the twentieth century’s greatest yoga teacher.  The view of yoga Iyengar offers in his 34 page introduction is a traditional and decidedly idealized view–that is, of yoga as a path to self-mastery and liberation.  He quotes frequently from the Hindu scriptures and freely tosses Sanskrit terminology around.  If you’re one of those who wouldn’t know adho mukha svanasana from a rare tropical disease, this may be off-putting, but if you’re serious about your yoga, you’d better get used to it.

Part II, “Yogasanas, Bandha and Kriya,” constitutes the majority of the book and is the reason why most will buy it.  Iyengar covers several hundred asanas, supplying general advice for practice as well as detailed instructions for each pose.  Every asana is accompanied by clear photos of Iyengar demonstrating the asana under discussion.  The sheer quantity of asanas is unparalleled–if there is another yoga book with this many or more asanas, I’ve yet to find it.  But it’s not just that: Iyengar’s explanations, his advice, and his illuminating notes on what the asanas actually do to the body and mind–advice obviously born from extensive experience and teaching–is also without equal.  All yoga books have some of what Light on Yoga has; none have such a complete package of quantity and quality.

Iyengar also includes a brief but illuminating section on pranayama.  However, those who wish to understand breath control in-depth are advised to consult his other masterpiece, Light on Pranayama.  I’ve not yet explored that one, but it is on my list.

If the book ended there, it would still be an unprecedented contribution to the literature of yoga.  But Iyengar goes the extra mile with two further sections: one, a complete five-year course in asanas and pranayama, graduated from rank beginner to expert level; two, a section discussing exercises for the treatment of specific ailments.  Again, most yoga books worth their salt include courses at the end; one I’ve reviewed already (Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann) is quite excellent in this regard.  But I’ve never seen anything close to what Iyengar does here.  This is why I came to the conclusion that at least for the time being, Light on Yoga is the only yoga book I need.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


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