In today’s American media and pop culture—the term “Yoga” carries lots of baggage and as many connotations as there are people.
With all due respect to yogic authors from India, for us gringos, it can also be helpful to ingest the words of North American yoga teachers and scholars. Their writings reach the modern American mind, body and spirit by filtering yoga through the lens of our ever evolving pop yoga culture.
Here is a list of five indispensable, accessible, well-written American Yoga guidebooks and memoirs that I highly recommend for mindful yogis and yoginis of all ages.
1. Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life by Judith Hanson Lasater
After taking a workshop from the amazingly intelligent, eloquent, funny Judith Lasater herself, I read this delicious, thin volume several years ago. At the time, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and fully immersed in my burgeoning yoga career. The author’s practical, non-preachy voice offers a wonderful, accessible introduction to yoga philosophy within the context of this daily American life.
2. May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing My Mind by Cyndi Lee
Written by the founder of OM Yoga in NYC, this memoir is a down-to-earth account of Ms. Lee’s personal yoga and meditation practices, with special emphasis on her self-hate due to her imperfect physical body. Although at times it feels a little whiny-–woe is me, I have gray hair and flabby thighs and I have to fly all over the world teaching at expensive yoga conferences—I do appreciate the author’s openness and candor.
Her focus on body dysmorphia makes me cringe at times, but it’s also a poignant reminder that of my own former battles with my belly as a yoga practitioner and teacher. Lee is more than willing to dispel the myth that yoga teachers are some special breed of perfect, calm, centered bodhisattvas all the time.
I have long hated Bikram Yoga. Admittedly, I’ve only taken about a dozen classes in the hot room, most of which occured a decade ago in Austin. The most memorable, of course, was the time I took a class from Mr. Choudhury himself, at his Yoga Expo in L.A. in September of 2003. Bikram wanted to be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for teaching the biggest yoga class ever.
I’m not sure how many people attended, but we practiced his 26 posture series in a not-so-hot room at the L.A. Convention Center with the “guru” himself ranting and raving on a platform, wearing only a mic and a black loin cloth. It was a terrible class and I was shocked an appalled that there was no savasana (final relaxation) at the end. I laid down anyway, despite the stampede of sweaty yogis leaving the huge, flourescently-lit room.
That said, I adored Benjamin Lorr’s book on Bikram-the yoga, the man, the community. I was absolutely fascinated by the tales of Bikrma’s youth and his initial encounters with Beverly Hills. Over thirty years later, his hot yoga empire is mammoth and controversial and evidently crumbling due to a slew of recent harassment claims and lawsuits. Lorr’s talent for writing smooth prose made me willing to embrace his many detours in the story, including his investigations of pain, heat, asana competitions and narcissitic personality disorder.
4. 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey
This collection of essays was published in 2012 and is a unique offering in that it includes the voices of 12 different men and women from across the North American yoga community, many of whom are bloggers here on elephant journal.
It includes memorable personal narratives on how yoga helped the authors overcome drug addiction, body dysmorphia and anorexia, as well as more philosophical pieces on yoga’s role in modern day spiritual practice.
My personal favorite title was, “Modern Yoga Will Not Form a Real Culture Until Every Studio Can Also Double as a Soup Kitchen and other observations from the threshold between yoga and activism” by Matthew Remski.
You’ll want to read this quick, intriguing book at least twice.
I met Jeffrey Davis when he came to Austin in early 2006 and led a weekend workshop at my neighborhood yoga space, Dharma Yoga. His technique is called Yoga as Muse, or YAM for short. “In addition to suggesting specific yoga exercises for various writing roadblocks . . . this is a substantial writing guide, with lessons in voice, symbol, syntax and dialogue,” reported the Dallas Morning News.
For novice and experienced writers alike, this is a must-read guide from a humble, compassionate, wise teacher. The techniques given can also be applied to other types of creation, like music and visual art.
Bonus: Richard Hittleman’s 28-Day Yoga Exercise Program by Richard Hittleman
I had included this title on the list because its presence on a dusty bookshelf in the game room of my parents’ house initiated and propelled my hatha yoga practice.
The book’s copyright is from 1969. It found me in 1993. The back cover announced “the opportunity to look lovelier, feel better and remain younger—in just 28 of the most important days of your life.” Every evening, I’d consult the book’s step-by-step photographs and instructions, which led me through twenty-eight increasingly challenging routines. Right away, I could feel a shift within myself. It was motivating and exciting to teach myself to balance in headstand and to witness my spine and hamstrings gain elasticity.
I felt the thrill of pride at having the discipline to practice every day. My perseverance in yoga helped me tackle undesirable tasks, like Texas history homework. Many thanks, Mr. Hittleman!
Obviously, this list is only the beginning, as it only includes books I have personally read. I just purchased American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West by Philip Goldberg, which I’m pretty excited about, but I can’t exactly recommend it since I haven’t read a page yet.
What other American Yoga books would you include? Feel free to leave a comment below and share your favorite title(s).
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Ed: Bryonie Wise