Yoga is notoriously difficult to pin down. There are numerous schools and sects of Yogis crossing multiple religious bounds, and though there are major points of agreement between them there are also significant disparities in doctrine. I have a lot of trouble, therefore, when people ask me for book recommendations on the topic. Ultimately, however, Yoga is Yoga — the techniques matter more than other details, and the Goal is the Goal however we formulate it. No amount of books can ever encompass the depth and breadth of Yoga. Only practice can do that. But hopefully the annotated reading list below can give those interested a practical beginning. I note in advance that I have tried to hold myself to including books which are more or less easy to come by in the US book market. I know that a few of these books are in and out of print, so sometimes will go for a high price but seem always to return to print in an affordable form within a couple of years.
Making a Beginning, Revisiting Basics
“Where to start?” is perhaps the hardest question to answer. Yoga is not the sort of topic which can be broken down into chunks digestible by anyone and everyone; really all you can do is point out a particular trail of breadcrumbs and leave it up to the individual to follow them or not. Or, perhaps, you can dump out a pile of jigsaw pieces in front of them, letting them know in advance that this is only one corner of the puzzle and that some of the pieces in the pile won’t even be useful until they dig more pieces out of the box later but which they’ll be glad they have on-hand when they get there. I hope that these similes get the point across and give some perspective on why I chose the books I did.
- Be Here Now by Ram Dass (many editions). The more hard-nosed may object to this book’s inclusion given its popularity in the New Age crowd, but it’s a really valuable exploration of the wherefores of Yoga practice. I would not call it a book of practice, per se, though it does include some useful tips.
- The Dhammapada (many editions, though I like the translation of Ananda Maitreya published by Parallax Press). While I do not identify as a Buddhist, the Buddha was obviously quite the accomplished Yogi! In a sense, this book is also not a manual of meditation techniques but it does include valuable insights into how we may live in order to maximize our meditation. As the Buddha himself advised, each individual will need to figure out for themselves what helps and what doesn’t, but having someone who’s been there ahead of you sending back field notes can’t hurt.
- The Chan Handbook by Venerable Master Hua (2004, Buddhist Text Translation Society). I re-read this little book every so often; it’s a quick read, but also good to just open up now and again and read through a topic or two at random. I stumbled upon my copy at a used book store and bought it on a whim. I was not sorry at all, and find it to be an eminently useful companion in meditation. Every Yogi should have a copy.
- In Days of Great Peace by Mouni Sadhu (various editions). This is the most important book which has ever entered my life. Everyone has theirs, the book which propelled them on their course. This is a simple memoir of another man’s spiritual journey, though there are instructions on meditation within.
Intermediate reading is a little more straightforward because you can assume a bit of experience at this point. I think that initial experience needs to come before what academics might think of as “background knowledge” because this is a field in which you can fill your mind with any number of different, even contradictory, ideas which are only made useful by the context of practical application. I therefore save not only more details of practice but also things like historical connections and metaphysics for here.
- Am I A Hindu? by Ed Vishvanathan (2012, Rupa Publications India) & The Essentials of Hinduism by Swami Bhaskarananda (2002, Viveka Press). I put both of these together because they are useful in the same way and they’re both equally worth reading. I place them here not because the prospective Yogi needs to actively convert to or identify as a Hindu, but because exploring and to some degree participating in the broader cultural context which preserved and developed Yoga over millennia is essential to understanding those ideas and practices which have come to us in the modern West. While the techniques are very adaptable, they arose from a place and time among people. We have to respect that; lack of awareness of it not only causes confusion and offense, it also causes severe misinterpretations of the source texts and subsequent misapplications of the methods! (Along these lines, I also suggest visiting Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temples, shrines, or ashrams in your area, if possible.) Developing Yoga knowledge must be far deeper than exoticism and tourism.
- Kapila’s Samkhya Patanjali’s Yoga by Brahmrishi Vishvatma Bawra (Revised Edition 2012, CreateSpace). Combining translations of and commentaries on Kapila’s Samkhya teachings as well as Patanjali’s famous Yoga Sutras, this volume provides a point of entry to these linked traditions which is accessible without being shallow. Samkhya is taken for granted in a lot of Yoga and Tantra literature, even if metaphysical interpretations may differ among them, so having some grounding in it as well as how it ties in with Patanjali is very valuable.
- The Yoga Vidya of Immortality and The Pathless Path to Immortality by Shri Gurudev Mahendranath (available online from the International Nath Order). While specific to a particular Natha tradition, many of the writings of Shri Gurudev Mahendranath are composed of the sorts of breadcrumb trails I mentioned before. While avoiding many overt metaphysical statements, Mahendranath focuses instead on the barest concepts necessary to bring meditation and ritual practices to life while emphasizing that every Yogi needs to deconstruct and reconstruct their own intellectual edifice out of the their own experiences rather than relying on the architecture given them prefabricated.
- Yoga Vidya Samhita by Vidyanath (available as a free PDF directly from Vidyanath). More breadcrumbs! Yet Vidyanath presents with good humor a trail of his own crazy gnosis. The most fascinating thing about this work is how much is transmitted in the art.
- Maha Yoga by K. Laskhmana Sarma (2002, Sri Ramanasramam). In contradistinction to the Samkhya Yoga of Kapila and Patanjali, that of Sri Ramana Maharshi is based in a radical non-dual interpretation incorporating South Indian Saivism and Vedanta by way of the personal experience of a modern sage. K. Lakshmana Sarma, under the pen name ‘WHO?’, efficiently expresses the teachings of the Maharshi in both theoretical and practical terms. It’s a book worthy of reading, re-reading, and much contemplation.
- Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg (1995, Shambhala Publications, Inc.). There are numerous forms of meditation in the many Yoga traditions extant. Mettā is one which receives relatively little attention outside of Theravada Buddhist circles, but which has a great deal of value. Each practitioner must find the correct balance of practices for themselves, a dynamic balance which will change greatly over time; the practices needful will depend upon the individual’s personal makeup and the challenges which arise from it. For many of us, perhaps especially today, major challenges growing out of the interaction between individuals and the world include fear and anxiety and the anger and hatred which are their natural and inevitable fruits. Mettā is a meditation practice which leverages our innate capacity for compassion to quell our anxieties and cradle our fears by honestly opening ourselves to a greater experience of our basic similarities with others. The value in such a practice in living more effectively in the world for the practitioner of Yoga cannot be underestimated; as Yogis tend to become increasingly sensitive as our practice intensifies, all such aids should be kept close at hand.
There can’t really be any such thing as “advanced reading” in Yoga, as advancement in Yoga by nature takes one well beyond anything which can be written about. As we deepen our cultivation, however, it can be very helpful to look further afield to different models and methods from a variety of schools and traditions. As, ultimately, Yoga is Yoga, we can learn from everywhere and incorporate any number of useful ideas and techniques. The following is a sampling only, a list to get started; it is not intended to be exhausted, only representative.
- The Yoga of Siddha Tirumular: Essays on the Tirumandiram by T. N. Ganapathy and KR Arumugam (2004, Kirya Yoga Publications). Tirumandiram is a classic of Tamil Saivism with an especial focus on Yoga, covering theology, metaphysics, and practice. There are English translations and commentaries available, but this volume of essays unpacking its major themes makes for an excellent introduction to the Saiva Siddhanta school of South India.
- Shiva’s Trident: The Consciousness of Freedom and the Means to Liberation by Swami Khecaranatha (2013, CreateSpace). An accessible and practical point of entry into Trika (Kashmiri) Saivism. Swami Khecaranatha gives a helpful overview of Trika metaphysics — similar in broad strokes to Saiva Siddhanta, but quite different in interpretive lens — while encouraging real engagement with its methods. Trika can seem pointlessly complex from the outside, so having someone peel back the layers and reveal the spotless simplicity at its center is extremely valuable.
- Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali by Samkhya-yogacharya Swami Hariharananda Aranya (1983, State University of New York Press). Among the deepest, most technical, and most genuinely useful commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, this should be in the library of nearly every Yogi. This is a very dense book which rewards slow study and repeated visitation; it isn’t a book you’ll fly through in a week and expect to take anything useful away from it. Grounded in the aforementioned dualistic Samkhya metaphysics, Hariharananda’s approach is detailed and rigorous, including an incredible number of esoteric exercises tucked into its many corners.
- Avadhoota Gita translated by Shree Purohit Swami (1988, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers). This is one of the few books on this list that you may need to hunt down, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an affordable copy and it will be well worth it. This is the best English translation of Avadhoota Gita of which I am familiar (and I have a few), including a wonderful editorial introduction which contextualizes the book. This particular Gita is central to the Natha school of Yoga and bridges the gap between Hindu and Buddhist yogas. It is a short book, but worthy of meditation.
- The Original Yoga translated and edited by Shyam Gosh (1999, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers). Secondary sources often make teachings usable for the modern reader, but primary sources often have far more packed into a much smaller space and in purer form. This volume contains translations of and commentaries on the Yoga Sutras, Siva Samhita, and Gheranda Samhita. It’s always nice to have different versions of Yoga Sutras around, but the real gems here are complete (which is to say, not puritanically censored) translations of two important Hatha Yoga classics. Siva Samhita and Gheranda Samhita are perhaps two of the most important primary sources on Hatha Yoga practice, including both physical and meditative instructions.
- Philosophy of Gorakhnath by Akshaya Kumar Banerjea (1999, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers). An extended unpacking of another book of historical importance to Nathas, namely Siddhasiddhantapadhatih. While SSP is constituted in part by an extended exploration of certain Hatha Yoga mainstays such as the subtle energy system, cakras, and so forth (all of which interesting in its similarities to and differences from what many people are used to), it is ultimately founded in the Natha realization that all of these things, however useful they may be to any given individual or community, are ultimately sidelines to the main course of Yoga: the realization of the nature of the Self and of absolute freedom.Though this volume does not contain a complete translation of or commentary on SSP, the depth with which it explores the key themes of that work make it an excellent Yoga text in its own right, as well as a valuable extended introduction to SSP for those who wish to hunt down such a translation at a later date.
I reiterate once again that the suggestions above are hardly exhaustive, nor could such a list ever be. I very much hope that it proves helpful for those who are looking for some new avenues of exploration. Ultimately, even the largest library on the topic of Yoga cannot bring one Awakening. Beyond that, the Yogi must eventually coat themselves in the ashes of every book they’ve ever read, every idea they’ve ever had clogging up their mind; in the meantime, take every notion and method as a provisional tool and don’t get hung up on any one of them.
Actually there isn’t a thing / much less any dust to wipe away / who can master this / doesn’t need to sit there stiff (Big Stick poem 4, translated by Red Pine)