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YOGA The Path to Holistic Health By B.K.S. Iyengar; Dorling Kindersley: 416 pp., $40

LIGHT ON YOGA By B.K.S. Iyengar; Schocken: 544 pp., $18 paper

THE YOGA SUTRAS OF PATANJALI Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda; Integral Yoga Publications: 264 pp., $14.95

August 05, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

People who do yoga tend not to read about yoga. The practice requires such presence of mind, such immediacy, that reading about it seems peripheral. Squinting at fuzzy diagrams on a page is rarely helpful. There are no shortcuts, even for the most acute intellectuals. You just have to do it.

B.K.S. Iyengar is 83 years old. He has been teaching yoga since he was 17. Today, 180 institutes around the world bear his name. His books on yoga are the rare classics in a confusing array of translations and schools and interpretations of the original text on yoga, written 2,000 years ago by Patanjali.

In "Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health," publisher Dorling Kindersley has created a unique look, marrying very clear photos, bright colors and a lot of white space with Iyengar's clear-minded descriptions of the asanas or positions of yoga. In some of the photos, Iyengar himself performs the asanas, in his signature white diaper and gold wristwatch.

Like Iyengar's 1966 classic, "Light on Yoga," "Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health" contains a section on yoga for the relief of various ailments, for which Iyengar is famous. There's a brief chapter on the philosophy of yoga, a chapter on asanas for stress and a 20-week yoga course.

It is, essentially, a coffee table book, and it is selling at such a clip that someone on the street actually offered to pay me $10 extra for my copy. It's that kind of book, completely unintimidating, very Western-looking, very non-mysterious.

This has pros and cons. For the pure beginner, the clear photos are interesting to contemplate. But the pure beginner is also drawn to yoga by something mysterious. The beginner hopes that participating in this 2,000-year-old practice will illuminate his life, will increase its depth and meaning, will help him to concentrate and feel more comfortable in his body. Yoga is not a sport. It is not pure exercise, like aerobics. There is more to it. That "more" is revealed only by doing it.

I have been practicing yoga for almost 10 years, and I am a sorry beginner. Opening this book reminded me that it is time I added another dimension to my practice: understanding the history of yoga not avoiding its philosophical origins. That is not what this book is good for, however.

I went back to "Light on Yoga." It is not as beautiful as the Dorling Kindersley: The photos are dark and grainy, and the type is dense. But there is no doubt that yoga is about more than the body.

The introduction to "Light on Yoga" explains the eight limbs of Astanga Yoga as outlined by Patanjali in his 196 sutras (or threads) in 200 BC. Asanas are only one of these eight limbs, which include Yamas (moral commandments); Niyama (self-purification by discipline), Pranayama (rhythmic control of the breath) and on to concentration, meditation and finally oneness with the universal spirit.

This is one of many instances in reading "Light on Yoga" in which the student feels part of an ocean of information. With so many things, it is possible to touch bottom. Yoga is a bottomless art. Often, doing a single pose, after having done the same pose for years, one feels how profound it is, how deep, how long it would take to perfect it. After a little while, this feeling is not overwhelming but comforting: One has invested one's efforts in something true; like children, gardening, cooking or prayer.

Full of arrogance, I went back even further to the original sutras by Patanjali, translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda. These are often called terse, and indeed, they are not even sentences but words strung togther in a kind of proverb. Studying, Satchidananda reminds a lazy reader, "does not mean just passing over the pages. It means trying to understand every word--studying with the heart."

Here, I realized, was a kind of asana for the mind as well as the body. It required stretching, shifting, breathing and concentrating. Reading Patanjali, in fact, created the vital link in my practice between reading and doing. No longer did the two seem antithetical. Both required the same pure intention.

Reading Patanjali, I could imagine, if only for a second, what it might mean to control the mind the way we can learn to control the breath. "First we learn to control the physical body," he writes, "then the movement of the breath, then the senses, and finally the mind. It is very scientific, gradual and easy." It is this ease that Iyengar and Dorling Kindersley hoped to invoke in "Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health." Unfortunately, ease is only achieved through effort.

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