While the teachings of yoga and meditation are most potently learnt through experience and practice, it is also important and useful to deepen your understanding through reading and study.
In the Niyamas (the 2nd limb of the 8 limb yogic path of Patanjali) one of the values that yogis abide by is Svadhyaya. This can be translated as study of the self, but also self-study and the study of sacred texts.
My love of books!
My own journey in yoga and meditation has included wide ranging influences, mainly within the traditions of Hatha yoga and Buddhist philosophy but also including Taoism, poetry, mythology and Shamanism.
I grew up in a house filled with books. There were many books about spirituality and I found myself taking in the influences of Taoism, through watching my parents practice the forms of Tai Chi; Yoga, through flipping through the pages of BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga; Hindu mythology, through the epic story of the Bhagavad Gita; Kinesiology and Energy healing, through learning the techniques in Touch for Health; Buddhism and meditation through His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness and many others!
I also loved (and still love) to read fantasy fiction and I know this also influences my world views too. Let’s face it the themes in the great fantasy stories draw many similarities to the great mythologies of ancient spiritual traditions. The gods and goddesses / heroes and villains are archetypes for the characters we see in these epic heroes’ journeys. More on this in a future article I think!
A balance between reading and practice
I have learnt much from my own teachers and from the 500+ hours of teacher training I have undertaken. I have also learnt much from the variety of books I have read along the way. I have then learnt even more by embodying those teachings within my own practice.
Therefore I preclude this article about my favourite books on yoga and meditation with a plea to not only read but also to bring these tools and insights into your practice on the mat or the cushion or… in life!
In this article I’d like to share with you some of the more practical books that I have found to be really informative and insightful throughout my personal practice and journey as a teacher. Ranging from deep philosophical texts to easy to follow guide books these ten are in no particular order.
I hope you find something to deepen your knowledge and inspire your practice here!
MY TOP TEN BOOKS (plus some honourable mentions)
- Insight Yoga – Sarah Powers
Sarah Powers has been a big influence on my yoga practice since before I became a teacher. I got this book after my first teacher training and then went on to do Sarah Powers Level 1 Insight Yoga training. Sarah is well known for her unique approach to teaching yoga, combined with Buddhist meditation techniques and also integrating Chinese medicine meridian theory. She pioneered training in Yin yoga and Sarah has trained with some of the most prominent Insight and Tibetan Buddhist meditation teachers around the world as well as studying Transpersonal Psychology.
In Insight Yoga, Sarah provides information and techniques relating to both Yin (passive poses) and slow but strong Yang (dynamic poses) Yoga. She interweaves Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, mindfulness techniques, breath work and inquiry into her teachings. The book goes into the detail about why certain poses are chosen to stimulate meridian lines, and dives into Buddhist psychology for those that want to learn more about these ancient practices. It also includes detailed information about how to practice each of the postures safely. Plus, there are also many sample sequences combining both Yin and Yang yoga to practice at home targeting different states of mind or energy.
I pick up this book all the time for my class planning, and my own practice, and never lose inspiration from it. It is such a wholistic practice guide to integrate the physical, energetic and mental layers of the body. It’s great book for anyone wanting to learn more about integrating different traditions and cultivating a complete yoga practice.
2. Light on Life – BKS Iyengar
Much of modern yoga has been influenced by Mr Iyengar (or Guruji as his students call him). Possibly the most iconic yoga text is Iyengar’s Light on Yoga published in 1966, a reference manual of yoga asanas (postures) complete with photographs of Iyengar practicing each one.
Rather than present the yoga postures as he did in Light on Yoga, Mr. Iyengar reveals in Light on Life the “heart of yoga” that he personally discovered through more than 70 years of disciplined, daily practice. He explores the yogic goal of integrating the different aspects of our existence (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual) and the role that yoga postures and breathing techniques play in our search for wholeness.
I feel this book is a must read for anyone wanting to gain a full view of the philosophy of yoga as a wholistic practice, not just a set of physical postures. Using the Koshas (or layers of the body from gross to subtle) as a map, Iyengar takes us on a yogic journey of the self and outlines the ways that yoga can transform our lives and help us live in harmony with the world around us.
3. Yoga for a World out of Balance – Michael Stone
Michael Stone was a dedicated yoga and meditation teacher. He taught training and retreats around the world. He was also a committed activist on issues of social justice and environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, he tragically passed away a few years ago. This book is a wonderful legacy.
I’ve read widely on yoga, Buddhism and meditation as well as studying two degrees in politics and international development but Michael Stone’s Yoga for a World Out of Balance: Teachings on ethics and social action was the first book that really tied the two areas together for me in a powerful way.
In his book, Stone firstly talks about how we can bring a wider world view to our yoga practice, rather than using yoga and meditation to ‘retreat’ from the world. Secondly, and very effectively, Stone uses the five Yamas (outlined in the Yoga Sutras) to form a basis for taking ethical social action and making a difference in the world.
This book is recommended to anyone that loves yoga and feels inspired to take action and make a difference in the world, as it provides wonderful guidelines on how to integrate the two. The values of kindness, truth, generosity and non-attachment are key to creating a balance in the way we live in the world. This is also a great introduction to the yoga philosophy of the Sutras of Patanjali (a key yogic text which I will also mention later in the article).
4. The Classic Yoga Bible – Christina Brown
The definitive guide to yoga postures, this little simple book is a bestseller and on so many yogi’s book shelves that I know! It’s a perfect book to give you a comprehensive guide to practicing yoga.
The first part has an introduction to yoga, the philosophy of the 8 limbs of yoga and how to practice. Part two includes instructions for over 170 different Asanas (postures) split into posture type sections (ie. Backbends, Inversions, Standing Poses) and includes colour photos and tips to modify or challenge yourself in each pose. Note – the photos are often of the most challenging version of the pose so don’t be put off by this. Amazing yogi, and one of my teachers, Simon Borg Olivier models a lot of the photos and he has an incredible practice! Something to inspire you at least!
The much smaller Part 2 also includes a small bit of information on relaxation, pranayama, mudra, bandha and kriya practices. Part 3 includes information on restorative and therapeutic practices as well as meditation techniques. The book finishes with information about the main traditions of yoga and finding your own path.
This is such a great reference book for the different asanas and other practices but it doesn’t give a lot of information about sample sequences (apart from make sure that you choose postures from each section) so a little confidence and knowledge about creating your own practice would be beneficial. It also only touches on the breath, meditation and philosophy aspects of yoga so is good an introduction to those but not a depth of knowledge. This is much more a reference of yoga asana but a great one!
5. Eastern Body, Western Mind – Judith Anodea
This is a groundbreaking book which interweaves ancient Eastern spiritual tradition with Western psychology and science, through the study of the Chakras. The Chakras are energy centres of the physical and subtle body. Judith Anodea provides an interpretation of this map of the self, adapting it to the Western framework of Jungian psychology, somatic therapy, childhood developmental theory, and metaphysics.
The book is laid out with each chapter focusing on one of the seven Chakras, overlaying Western ideas about development onto this ancient map, and outlining ways to heal and balance each area through both Western and Eastern tools.
This is a highly recommended book for anyone interested in the energetic body, healing emotional wounds (and how many of us are free of those?) and learning how science and psychology interrelate with ancient spiritual philosophy.
6. Relax and Renew – Judith Hanson Lasater
This is a wonderful reference book for the practice of Restorative yoga. Restorative yoga is described as an antidote to our anxious and weary world. Even our modern yoga practice can be so dynamic and strong that we fail to find balance in our busy lives. This style of yoga is a way of resetting the system, of slowing down and practicing in a completely supportive and relaxing way. The use of props provide support for the body, the postures are held for long periods to allow the system to slow down, the spine is moved gently in different directions to encourage health and inverted postures are practices to reverse the effects of gravity.
In Relax and Renew Lasater provides an introduction to the concepts of the practice and how to use the props first. Then she outlines some sequences to practice including a general relaxation sequence, a sequence for jet lag for menstruation, for insomnia, for pregnancy, for headaches and for lower back pain. The sequences include detailed information about how to get in and out of the poses, how to modify the practice and mental or breath practices while in the shapes. There are also short or long versions of each sequence depending on how much time you have ranging from 10 to 80 minutes!
The final chapter includes ways to incorporate some of the poses and techniques in every day life when sitting and standing, and taking regular breaks to slow down throughout your day. This is such a wonderful book and really practical as a guide to bring in the qualities of a slow, restorative practice into your life.
7. The Wise Heart: A guide to the universal teachings of Buddhist psychology – Jack Kornfield
I could recommend any and all of Jack’s books! Jack Kornfield is one of the key teachers to bring Buddhist mindfulness meditation to the West having studied with some of the best teachers throughout Asia and trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, India and Burma. He is also an author and psychologist and he co-founded the Insight Meditation Society and then Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in the USA and he is my main meditation teacher.
In The Wise Heart Jack provides an in-depth guide to the psychology of Buddhist philosophy. The overarching understanding is that we each have within us unlimited capacities for love, joy and freedom and the challenge is in awaking them. Jack argues that in the current situation of the world we don’t necessarily need more technological advancements, what we need is a greater understanding and experience of the capacity of the human mind & heart to be open and inclusive.
The book starts with quite a deep discussion into the nature of consciousness before moving into the second section on the practice of mindfulness as the great medicine for our time. Jack then goes on to outline the nature of suffering and how we transform it and find freedom through our practice, before finishing the book with inspiration to tend the world with a wise heart. The book is made up of personal stories of Jack’s and his students, philosophical discussion and practical tools. Each chapter includes a practice at the end to learn and embody the teachings. This is a wonderful book for anyone wanting to explore Buddhist meditation principles to awaken their own heart for the benefit of the world.
8. Radical Acceptance – Tara Brach
Tara Brach is another well-renowned Buddhist meditation and yoga teacher, and psychotherapist, based in the USA. Radical Acceptance is her best known book and a must-read for anyone that feels self-critical or unworthy of success and happiness. Tara argues that, particularly in the West, there is an epidemic of ‘believing that something is wrong with us’. This suffering shows itself as self-judgment, conflicts in relationships, addictions and perfectionism, in loneliness and overwork.
Tara addresses what she calls the ‘trance of unworthiness’ within the framework of Buddhist psychology and offers both teachings and practical strategies to live a life with radical acceptance. This isn’t self-indulgence or passivity but a letting go of the constrictions and blockages we place on ourselves and trusting in our innate goodness.
The book includes case studies, interpretations of Buddhist stories and guided meditations on presence, kindness and compassion, to offer a practical guide to awakening our true nature. I found this book to be a real wake-up to some of the habits and limiting beliefs that I had placed on myself over time. Tara has a wonderful, alive and warm way of bringing you into your body and normalising what you experience, so that you can relax into the presence and acceptance of each moment in order to transform it.
9. Mindfulness in Plain English – Bhante Gunaratna
This book has been on the reading list for a number of yoga and meditation trainings I have undertaken and for good reason! I’ve read this book a few times and it is really is a classic text as an explanation for what mindfulness is. It is a key text in mindfulness study in schools in Asia.
Mindfulness in Plain English is a perfect book for anyone starting out on a mindfulness meditation journey. Gunaratana, though both clarity and wit, outlines the myths, realities, and benefits of meditation and the practice of mindfulness. This is also an essential handbook for experienced meditation students too and can be re read over and over.
I love that the first chapter is titled: “Meditation: Why bother?” And the book continues in that vein to be simple and clear stepping out how to meditate in practical ways, including what to do with your body, your attitude, setting up your practice, dealing with problems and distractions (and all before he even goes on to talk about how to practice mindfulness itself!)
Gunaratna is a meditation master in the tradition of Theravada Buddhism (Insight / Vipassana meditation) but he manages to make this book so down to earth. I love it.
10. Waking Up – Sam Harris
Sam Harris’s new book is a guide to meditation as a rational spiritual practice informed by neuroscience and psychology. This is a great book for anyone that really gets interested in the science of meditation and how it changes your brain. This book is deeply spiritual but without religion. Harris is a scientist and philosopher and long-time meditator in a number of traditions.
He combines science and ancient contemplative wisdom in a way that not many other books on mindfulness and meditation have been able to. The book includes chapters on the nature of consciousness and different types of meditation and how they work. Harris also addresses the role of gurus, drugs and near death experiences!
If you like Harris’ way of teaching he also has a Waking Up podcast and a meditation app which are well worth checking out.
Well those are my ten recommended books. The following below are worth a mention as I have absolutely loved reading them and think they are integral to those on a yogic pathos awakening!
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
I don’t necessarily have a specific recommended translation of this book (the ‘bible’ of modern hatha / raja yoga). This is the source of the 8 limb path of yoga that underpins many modern yogis philosophy and practice.
The Bhagavad Gita
The epic story of Khrishna and Arjuna and the great battle covering the concepts of Dharma, Karma. Connection to our truth and non-attachment to the results of our action.
Loving Kindness – Sharon Salzberg
A beautiful guide to the practice of Metta or Loving Kindness meditation.
The Art of Happiness – HH The Dalai Lama
The classic book with practical wisdom and advice on how we can overcome everyday human problems and achieve lasting happiness.
I hope you find something here to inspire you on your journey! Let me know what you decide to read in the comments or share your own favourite texts!