The Yoga Book That Changed My Life
Omega yoga teachers talk about the book that changed their practice—and their life.
Chosen by Cyndi Lee
When I read The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope I had just closed my yoga studio, left my marriage, and moved out of New York City. The book is Cope’s version of the Bhagavad Gita, and it came at exactly the right time. He talks about how when you’re confused or going through a big change and you feel paralyzed, do you just go, “ahhhh!” and pull the covers over your head, or do you step forward and take action? What would be the right action and when?
The Great Work of Your Life is about how you live from your gut with integrity. And it's been really helpful for me, because I haven't always had the confidence to trust my own instincts. And I think there are a lot of people who are like that.
I loved Cope’s ideas of Deliberate Practice and Unity of Action. First, you make a plan to practice and then you do it deliberately. Once you sense which direction you want to go in, you do everything that you can to create the causes and conditions to support moving in the right direction.
When I read the book, I didn’t have a clear sense of direction yet. So I just started doing a lot more yoga by myself, meditating, and reading. Eventually, things came into focus for me and I was able to move forward with a sense of oomph. If you're going through a change in your life—and who isn't?—this book will probably speak to you. Cope tells the entire tale of the Bhagavad Gita, and in between he has different points and different ways that you can find the great work of your life. He tells stories of Beethoven and Harriet Tubman and some of his own personal friends who have gotten stuck and who feel unfulfilled, and then engage in a real practice and push through.
Chosen by Rodney Yee
Think on These Thingsis a compilation of transcribed talks that Krishnamurti gave in India. It gave me a completely different way of looking asana, pranayama, and meditation—and a new perspective on the way I was looking at everything. Krishnamurti talks about the conditions you need to create in order to have an empty mind—to see with open eyes and as he put it, “To see directly.” It gave me a way to formulate my practices and understand if they were working.
He gave me a sense of what it means to see and observe without bias. The best way I can describe it is direct perception, and he explains it in a way that allows the reader to uncover a way of seeing that is really profound.
It’s like a scientific experiment. If you go into your practice with a specific goal in mind, a lot of times you’ll truncate your ability to see with clear, innocent, and direct eyes. And that can cloud your ability to be skillful in your actions. One of Krishnamurti’s great quotes is, “Observation is action.” What I got out of that is if my action is not skillful, my observation isn’t deep enough.
This applies to everything. When you do a triangle pose, the inability to see or feel how the energy is running or the way the muscles are supporting the architecture of the skeleton can keep you from skillfully adapting a pose. If you cannot see or feel the way prana is formed while you're doing pranayama, you are going to be doing a lot of work that doesn't necessarily move you in the direction you want to go, which is toward liberation. All of these practices are tools. When you begin to hone your skill of observation, and learn how to use the tools to become more directly observant—and experience interconnectedness—your practice will lead to real clarity.
Chosen by Snatam Kaur
The Master's Touch is a series of lectures that my teacher, Yogi Bhajan, gave a few years before his passing. He shares personal stories and experiences of what it meant to him to be a teacher. And he explained that our call of duty, as spiritual seekers, is to pass on the teachings that we’ve received and give something of value to our students. Yogi Bhajan used to say, “Leave a legacy. If you were to die tomorrow, what would people say they received from you?”
This book changed my whole perspective on my life and my purpose. I've been sharing a lot of sacred music over the years, but I realized that I am prepared to teach in my own way, too. But I want to do more than just run a good workshop or do some really great music with people one day, and hear them say, “Oh my gosh, when is she coming back in town? Because I won't be able to have that experience without her.” I want to give them something that will last beyond today. I was given something deeper by my teacher—a sense of empowerment that I can carry on even after his passing.
So I decided to give the students in my next workshop a 40 day meditation practice. Then I realized, if they are going to be meditating on their own, they are going to need to know how to set up a sacred space in their home, how to prioritize spiritual practice in their lives and what that means. Then all these incredible teachings came through me because I had a desire to serve a higher purpose. The Master’s Touch has become my go-to book. Every time I open it up, I'm getting guidance from Yogi Bhajan about how to be a teacher.
Chosen by Seane Corn
When I was in India for the first time in 1996, I bought an amazing book for a quarter on the side of the road. It was called The Dynamics of Yoga by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, from the Bihar School of Yoga. At the time, I was an Ashtanga practitioner and I had been doing yoga for almost a decade—and teaching for over a year. My practice was athletic, but it was just starting to shift into something slightly more emotional. I was beginning to understand the mind-body connection in a very different way.
No yoga book had impacted me like The Dynamics of Yoga did. Because it was written in such an interesting, easy-to-read way, I was able to assimilate the teachings in a way I’d never been able to before. The book talked about bhakti yoga, and I realized that I was a lot more devotional in my yoga practice than I’d previously noticed. It also talked about karma yoga, and I began to understand the idea around karma, and about right action, in a different way. Karma yoga soon became the focal point of my life, and it still is today. The book informed a lot of the way my practice was going to unfold from that point forward.
It’s like when you’re trying to learn Spanish for years and years. You’re trying to grasp the language but you’re not quite getting it. Suddenly, you’re in a conversation and someone says a sentence in Spanish and you realize you understood every word she said. That’s what I felt like when I read The Dynamics of Yoga. For the first time, while studying this foreign “yoga” language I was learning how to speak, I could actually put together a sentence and understand it. So I went on a quest to find as many books from the Bihar School as possible. I have 64 now, and they’ve really influenced my languaging and my interpretation of yoga practice and philosophy.
Chosen by Beryl Bender Birch
When I read The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1971, it was mind-blowing. I was in California at the time, at the epicenter of the human potential movement, and I had just started taking yoga classes. The book was written to talk people who were dying through the transition between death and rebirth. But it was couched in symbology, so it was also about the death of the ego.
The Lama who translated The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Padma-Sambhava, said that we’ve all died many deaths before we came into our present incarnation. What we call birth is just the other side of death. The idea that we have lived many lifetimes was life-changing for me.
The book made me realize that the reality we see is a very small snippet of what’s really going on. We think the world is solid and we think we’re separate. We tend to identify with whatever we’re thinking about or who we’re with. I learned about this idea that God was spirit, that God was consciousness—of which we are all a part. And suddenly, it was as if I remembered being a part of this oneness before I was born, but had forgotten about it. I said to myself, “I think I remember this.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead took my awareness up a few notches and inspired me to work on my personal evolution.
Chosen by Jennifer Cohen Harper
The Secret Power of Yoga changed my relationship to yoga and the way that I think about practice. But it also helped me find a new way to frame the challenging aspects of my life. I’d read other translations of the Yoga Sutra before, but they were sort of dry. The first sutra is “Yoga chitta vritti nirodhah,” which is often translated as, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” But Nischala Joy Devi’s translation of that sutra is, “Yoga is uniting the consciousness and the heart.” Just thinking about that idea changed the trajectory of my practice.
When I sit for meditation, I imagine that my reactive, thinking mind is dropping down into my heart. It helps me create a framework for my life where my heart and mind are working in unison. Then I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing in this world.
If things are messy or confusing, or I’m struggling to make a decision, this practice is my mental reset button. I often ask myself, “Am I acting out of union of my mind and heart?” And if I realize that I’m not, I sit in meditation and I visually imagine my mind dropping into my heart. And I say to them, “We are just going to sit here until we are all on the same page.” The Secret Power of Yoga is about living your life in a more heart-centered way—and about making the teachings of the Yoga Sutra more tangible and applicable to your everyday life.
Chosen by Ali Smith
When I read The Science of Breath by Yogi Ramacharaka in 2001, it opened up my eyes to a whole new aspect of yoga practice: pranayama. The book described the physiological and the esoteric science behind the breath as well as different pranayama practices. I never realized there were so many things going on when you take a deep breath. And that made me think, “What else is going on inside of me?”
I started studying different types of yoga practices, like the kriyas, and paying attention to energy. I started paying attention to my thoughts and asking myself, “Am I staying in the light throughout the day or is my subconscious in the darkness?” I realized there was more going on inside than I knew, and I wanted to know what it was.
It all started with this book, and seeing that there was more to the breath than a shallow inhale and exhale. I'd spend a month or two on one type of pranayama to see if the benefits were exactly what were described in the book. The book also made me conscious of how I was breathing during the day. I started switching from shallow mouth-breathing to deep belly nostril-breathing. The Science of Breath was one of the books that jump-started me on the path.
Chosen by Roxanne "Nikki" Myers
When I read The Heart of Yoga in the early 1990s, I had just come out of my first relapse of crack and cocaine addiction after being clean for eight years. At one point, T.K.V. Desikachar describes the function of addiction and the causes of it, based on a concept in yoga philosophy called the kleshas, or afflictions. I thought, “Wow, this sounds like the 12-Step program.” The book said that when we have a craving for something that makes us feel good, we keep trying to get it, over and over again. We run toward things that give us pleasure and avoid things that cause us pain. I realized that I didn’t want to face my addiction, because it was painful, so I was running away by using again (which gave me temporary pleasure).
The Heart of Yoga also describes the nine obstacles, including instability, cravings, misperceptions, and illness. I learned that when these things show up in my life, it’s a clue that I’m off-balance, and I need to apply some of the tools of yoga to get back into balance—whether that’s getting on the mat, doing some breathing practices, going to a 12-step meeting, or calling a sponsor. That’s called relapse prevention.
I ended up studying in Desikachar’s lineage, becoming a yoga therapist, and teaching The Yoga of 12 Step Recovery, which came out of the realizations I had while I was reading The Heart of Yoga.
Chosen by Baron Baptiste
I read B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga when I was 16, and it had a profound impact on me. It made me realize that the landscape of yoga is vast, and the possibilities of a practice are infinite. It also gave me a concrete place to begin with my body and breath, by learning the different asanas and sequences. It inspired me to think about yoga as a discipline, a science, and an art form—and to start a physical practice. I noticed I could experience a pretty immediate result in my body and breath on a daily basis.
At first when I saw the pictures of Mr. Iyengar doing different poses in the book, yoga seemed like just a physical practice. But with some years of experience I realized that yoga goes beyond the physical surface. It gives you access to the breath, the energetic realm, and the realm of your being. Many doors open up through the physical. Light on Yoga explains how total transformation of the human being—body, mind, and spirit—is possible through yoga practice.
Chosen by Biff Mithoefer
The book that most influences my practice is the Tao Te Ching, because it so clearly expresses what it means to be a human being and what it means to practice yoga. When I read it, I realized that both the Taoist tradition and the yoga tradition state that everything exists in a state of interconnectedness. All we have to do is open our eyes. Joy doesn’t exist without sadness. Up doesn’t exist without down. Life doesn’t exist without death. And I don’t exist without you. These are essential truths expressed by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching.
The book helped me to see the interconnectedness within the cosmos, and to bring that understanding of interconnectedness into my Yin Yoga practice. The Taoist tradition says that our “yin” nature is more accepting and feminine, while our “yang” nature is more aggressive and masculine. Yin Yoga helps me to understand that I hold both yin and yang, the accepting and the striving. I’ve let go of the ideas that one is better than the other or that I should be different than I am. So the Tao Te Ching helps me understand the possibility of bringing balance into my life and my yin practice helps me manifest that balance.
Chosen by Glenn Black
In the 42 years I’ve been practicing yoga, this book by Swami Satyananda Saraswati is the most complete. It is a three-year course that covers every yoga technique that exists—different kinds of meditation, pranayama techniques, bandhas, kriyas. There are dissertations on the chakras. It’s just an encyclopedia, with a series of practice curriculums that are designed to guide you in a very systematic practice.
When I was a young man in Lansing, Michigan in the late 1970s, a swami from the Bihar school of yoga just happened to come to my town. He had studied directly with Swami Satyananda in India, and I took every course he gave for three years. But he never mentioned this book. I ended up going to the Iyengar school and I got away from the more esoteric yoga practices. I got stuck in the asana world. And no asana has the opportunity to bring you to the higher states of consciousness: dhyana, dharana, and samadhi (or nirvana).
Seven years ago, one of my students at Omega came up to me after class and said, you teach so much like this book I’ve had for years. She showed me her copy of A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya and I just started crying. It was like being reunited with the swami I’d studied with in the 1970s. The book helped me escape from asanas and start doing practices that could take me elsewhere than the body. The kriyas made me able to concentrate, to be able to go into what I call yogic meditation, which leads to the ability to reach conditions where suffering can be alleviated. Once you get a glimpse of that, you can bring it back into this world, and life becomes so beautiful.
Chosen by Atman Smith
When I read Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East, it was so action-packed I couldn’t put it down. In 1894, Baird T. Spalding and a group of other scientists began a journey to India, Tibet, China, and Persia because they wanted to meet spiritual masters of the East. Spalding wrote a series of six volumes describing these guys’ experience hanging out with the masters high up in the mountains, witnessing miracles, and learning the secrets of truth.
The stories that Spalding told illustrated the potential that can come from all types of internal disciplines like yoga, pranayama, and mindfulness. It made me realize that human potential is limitless. And that practicing yoga and developing a certain level of consciousness can change everything about you—mentally, physically, spiritually. The masters in these books were performing miracles, and it made sense because they were operating at such a high vibration, they weren't like regular people.
The book totally transformed the way that I approached my life, because it broke down the ideas that I had of what was possible. It made me realize that as long as my energies and my heart are in the right place, I can do anything I put my mind to.
Chosen by Erich Schiffmann
Graduation: The End of Illusion is essentially yoga philosophy, even though it’s not technically a yoga book. The author, Paul Norman Tuttle, channeled a guy named Raj, and the book is a pretty radical conversation between them. It's totally influenced my teaching and my understanding of life.
One of my favorite quotes is, “When you feel inclined to think, stop. And then desire to Know.” That word is always spelled with a capital "K." He also says: “The process of thinking, reasoning, and coming to conclusions—which is another way of saying 'making judgments'—will be replaced by Knowing." The message is: think less, listen more. And then dare to do as your deepest feelings are guiding you to do—whether you’re doing yoga poses or driving your kids to school. That’s the essence of how you do yoga in your everyday life, in every new “now” you find yourself in. When you’re connecting to your intuition system, you’re connecting to God-consciousness.
So instead of seeing life through a pea-brain perspective, you see it from a bigger, wider perspective. You’re using your mind to connect to "big mind"—and then gradually realizing, “Wow. There’s only 'big mind.'” Then it feels like you're walking around, wirelessly connected to "big mind." The wisdom of the universe becomes your common sense. When I started to actually do this—to think less and listen more—it me feel more optimistic about life. And more alive.
Note: It's hard to find a copy of this book, but it’s available as a PDF on Tuttle’s website.
Chosen by Michael Hayes
I listen to audiobooks because I'm dyslexic, and my favorite book is Illusions by Richard Bach. I read it at a time where I had to make a lot of choices in my life. In the story, this healer comes down from the mountain and starts healing people left and right. But after a while, people start coming up to him saying “Heal me, heal me, heal me.” And he says, “I quit.”
He says, “If God told you do something, would you do it?” The crowd says, “Yes!” He says, “If God came to you and said, ‘Be happy for the rest of your life,' would you do it?”
They were dumbfounded, and so was I. That question really changed something in me. I started feeling grateful for the things that I had, instead of focusing on the things that I wanted. I started getting happier, and then I noticed that people around me started getting happier, too. You know how sometimes people get into a negative loop, and then people around them get pulled in? Someone’s happiness can loop you in, too.
I just started enjoying the things I was doing with people. I started enjoying just being able to walk down a street and enjoy every step and smile at people. Illusions may not be a traditional yoga book, but it has some great yogic teachings in it. “Be happy” is one of them.
© 2013 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies