Last week, I wrapped up the final assignments of my yoga teacher training program. I didn’t write about this much, if at all, here on STACKED, in part because yoga has been such an intensely personal part of my life and keeping it as something almost entirely offline has been really important to me. But after a year of giving up a weekend every month to learn how to deepen my practice, as well as how to teach, I wanted to not only talk a bit about it, but also highlight some of the books I read along the way I think might be valuable for those who practice yoga and those who are thinking about or beginning a teacher training program.
My 200-hour training program had three required books, all of which were read in part or in whole:
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali with commentary and translation from Sri Swami Satchidananda
Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar
The Key Muscles of Yoga by Ray Long
The sutras, I think, should be required reading for those with a long, dedicated yoga practice who want to go beyond the asana (pose) level. It’s the philosophy and system of beliefs underpinning yogic studies, and while it looks intimidating, it’s actually a good read. There are parts which are surprisingly funny, as some of the examples given about ideas are meant to encourage a little laughter for them to settle in. We spent a weekend reading this aloud and discussing it, and I found myself taking a lot from it for my own personal life, both on and off the mat.
The Iyengar book I didn’t really read. I browsed it and used it as a reference book, but one of the problems is that the plates and descriptions are useful from that sort of reference standpoint only. Iyengar is a tiny, muscular man, so there aren’t modifications offered for any of the asanas, and more, there are examples in there where he’s hyperextending which can be dangerous (especially for people like me who have are hypermobile and can hang out in the joints if we aren’t being conscious of engaging muscles — that can do some serious damage down the line).
Without question, Long’s reference on muscles was a necessary read. I didn’t quite “get” everything at first read, but I’ve read it a few times now, and each time, I gain a little bit more understanding of how the various muscle groups in the body work with one another. It’s really fascinating stuff once you have a baseline knowledge, and I know this is a book I’ll come back to again and again. Long has another book, The Key Poses of Yoga, which I’ve had sitting on my shelf for a while, and though I’ve heard it’s not as great as Muscles, I think I’ll spend some time with it to get a sense of how he approaches different asanas.
And that was it for program reading. I liked having a light reading list, in part because we had a nice, extensive manual from the teacher who’d provided a lot of information on asanas, on sequencing, and on other teacher-side things. Having little required reading meant that I had some time to explore other books, and more, that my teacher and fellow students in the program had an opportunity to explore what else was out there and share our hits and our misses.
Some of the books I found to be worthwhile reads:
This one was recommended by fellow classmates pretty early on into the training, and I picked it up immediately. I didn’t read it, though, until we were deep into talking about sequencing and how to build a coherent, logical, injury-free, and fun class. I read through it, cover to cover, and I made a lot of notes, but the most valuable part of the entire book is the reference guide in the back. There, Stevens has not only listed some of the most common asanas, but he talks about what muscles and joints need to be open and fired up in order to properly transition into the pose, and then he talks about appropriate counterposes for them.
We focused a lot of training on injury prevention, and having this guide has been so helpful. Why is it that it’s not necessarily great to transition from half moon to warrior 3? It has to do with the rotation of the hip joints — and the Stevens guide does a great job of offering what might make for better transitions instead.
This wouldn’t be a book I’d recommend to those looking to begin a yoga practice, but it might be one for those who have a regular practice looking to deepen it at home and/or for those planning to go through a teacher training.
Another Stevens book, but this one was one I didn’t buy. I borrowed it from my teacher and read through it one morning while working the desk at the yoga studio. This is a really basic overview of how to teach, how to give solid cues, and some of the dos and don’ts to prevent injury and ensure solid alignment in asanas. One of the things Stevens really harped on in this particular guide was something I really appreciated, which was why it’s not a good idea to pull the flesh out from beneath your sitz bones in poses like dandasana.
The biggest takeaway for me in this particular book, though, was something we ended up discussing a LOT, which was the precision of words we use while curing. Stevens talks specifically about words ending in “ing” and how they should be used as deepening cues, rather than as a means of communicating to students what they’re to do. So, if you’re going to cue something like baddha konasana (butterfly legs, as many know it), you would say “bring the soles of your feet together and let your knees drop out to the side,” as opposed to “bringing the soles of your feet together and letting your knees drop out to the side.” The “ing” cues are better served as means of deepening. In the same pose, an “ing” cue would work better if you added “bringing your feet closer to your perineum may bring a stronger stretch.” In other words, the “ing” of cues are options, rather than the cue itself.
As a language nerd, this has been something I know has been committed to memory.
This, like the sequencing book, isn’t one I’d pass along to a beginning yoga student, and it likely isn’t one I’d recommend unless teaching is something you plan on pursuing. It covers a lot of basic concepts any teacher would learn in training, but it was a nice refresher and offered those small bits of wisdom for me to think about as I begin my teaching.
If there were a yoga book I’d recommend to everyone interested in beginning a practice, deepening a practice, or teaching yoga, it would be this one. I talked at length with Stanley about her book when it released earlier this year and I’ve yet to stop thinking about it. It’s part memoir, part guide to beginning a practice, but what makes this book stand out is that Stanley doesn’t look like your stereotypical western yoga practitioner. She has a larger body, she’s black, and she’s proudly queer. These are all part of her story, of course, but the part which really makes it stand out is how, when offering poses and sequences for readers to try, there are a variety of bodies modeling the asanas, as well as plenty of options to make the practice your own. Meaning there are prop options, that there are modifications, and there’s a general sense of welcoming anyone into the practice.
Stanley’s story is one that isn’t atypical of those I’ve met through yoga. She was going through hard shit in her life, and she found yoga to be a way to connect with herself and manage her life better. This was what turned me onto the practice, and it’s been a tremendous means of my learning how to manage my mental health and love and honor what my body can do right here and right now. It’s a story I’ve heard from other teacher trainees and from those who walk through the door itching to learn and practice.
One reason I think this should be required reading is that it’s a reminder that any body is a yoga body. That it’s essential to know that part of the job of teaching is reminding people to honor where they are right now, and to listen to the cues their bodies and breath are giving them every single day. My experience in yoga at my studio hasn’t been what is so frequently seen in the media. There are very few willowy, young, blonde women with fancy clothes and equipment. It’s a wide range of ages, of fitness levels, of bodies, of experiences, and that’s part of what makes yoga what it is — anyone can do it and take something powerful away from it.
Ayurveda was another huge component of my teacher training. It’s the sister science to yoga and focuses on eating and lifestyle choices to help keep the body and mind health and well. Ayurveda, like yoga, is a set of practices and tools, some of which will work for you and some of which won’t. But for me, it’s been really valuable in better understanding why some people act the way they do when they are acting out of line with their normal character. There’s simply an imbalance somewhere. An easy example: people become a little weird and spacey sometimes at the beginning of fall, and that’s simply because there’s a higher concentration of vata in the air (vata is the principle of movement). So it simply needs to be decreased by focusing on things which are grounding and slower paced to help balance that out.
We didn’t have any required reading for Ayurveda, but I read a few books the weekend we did the unit on it because I wanted to learn as much as possible. And I’ve found integrating some of these things to be valuable in my diet and wellness. Both of the books below would be accessible for the general reader.
Written for Westerners, this was a really quick and clear guide to the basics of Ayurveda. It includes what to eat for your dosha, what to avoid, and how to find balance in any situation.
I ended up not reading the second half of the book on panchakarma, though it’s there for anyone who’s interested in the practice (which is, in basic terms, akin to doctors who practice western medicine but for doctors who practice ayurveda).
What I especially appreciated about this book was that it’s written by a practitioner in a way that explains how logical and intuitive ayurveda is. It makes sense of a lot of the new and emerging research that western science has found about the best ways, times, and foods for eating, except it’s based in a 5000 year old practice. I loved finding those connections and ah ha moments, and I’ve been able to implement a lot of ayurveda practices into my own diet.
I bought this one because it was inexpensive and looked really pretty. This is definitely a book that would work well for those new or interested in ayurveda but who might be skeptical about the reality of incorporating it into their lives. Ajmera has put together short ways to live in tune with ayurveda, along with the whys and hows, and a variety of recipes and gorgeous images. It’s a very pretty book, as well as one that’s practical.
What I appreciated is that because of the shortness of the tips and ideas, I could bypass what I knew what wouldn’t work for me. And rather than write it off as something weird or strange, I could literally see how Ajmera found the practices useful and powerful and accept that just because it doesn’t sound realistic for me, that doesn’t mean it’s not realistic for others (there are, I should mention, certain ideas about how tasks and activities should happen in the morning and in what order, which for me, are totally out of the question but for many others, might be perfectly workable and life-changing).
I would peruse this one at a library and then decide whether it’s worth the cash unless it’s on sale. I think I got it for under $10, which was worth it to me. And if this book piques your interests, the one above certainly will take you even further in depth.
On My To-Read
A few books that I’m itching to read post-training to help deepen my understanding and education include the following. I’ve pulled descriptions from Goodreads.
Have you wanted to try yoga but wondered if it was for you? Or perhaps you were uncertain whether you could carry out the poses? As the creator of a body-affirming yoga phenomenon that embraces people of all shapes and sizes, Anna Guest-Jelley has written an encouraging book that is about to become your go-to resource. In Curvy Yoga®, she shares stories about body shaming with poignancy and even sometimes with humor. Guest-Jelley also reveals how things started to change once she found yoga—the last thing the self-declared non-athlete ever thought was possible. In addition, Guest-Jelley shares how yoga can help you connect with your body and why accepting your body doesn’t mean giving up on it. Finally, in the appendix, she presents a series of pose instructions and options to make yoga work for your body—not the other way around.
I listened to Guest-Jelley on the Creative Super Powers podcast and not only did I love her story and background with yoga, she talked about how teachers might consider beginning their asana cues with the most supportive version before moving deeper. Though I learned a lot about modifications and prop use and believe in them, the idea of starting there never occurred to me, and it’s given me a lot to chew over, especially as I want to create a space welcoming to all bodies.
Artfully capturing yoga’s vibrant spirit, Yoga Bodies presents full-color yoga-pose portraits of more than 80 practitioners of all ages, shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and skill levels–real people with real stories to share about how yoga has changed their lives for the better. Some humorous, some heartfelt, others profound, the stories entertain as they enlighten, while the portraits–which joyously challenge the “yoga body” stereotype–celebrate the glorious diversity of the human form. Handsomely jacketed and richly visual inside and out, Yoga Bodies is a coffee table-worthy contemplation, a meaningful gift, and a source of endless inspiration for anyone seeking fresh perspectives on how to live well.
I’ve had this sitting on my shelf and really need to take an afternoon to peruse it because I know it’ll be a gorgeous reminder of how yoga is for every body.
Yoga is well known for its power to create a healthy body, but few realize the emotional and spiritual benefits. In The Secret Power of Yoga, world-renowned Yoga expert Nischala Joy Devi interprets Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the principles at the basis of Yoga practice, from a heart-centered, intuitive, feminine perspective, resulting in the first translation intended for women.
Devi’s simple, elegant, and deeply personal interpretations capture the spirit of each sutra, and her suggested practices offer numerous ways to embrace the spirituality of Yoga throughout your day.
This book was sitting in the waiting area at one of the studios I visited during my teacher training (because I did try out some other local studios to explore other teaching styles and methods) and it immediately caught my eye. I bought it but haven’t looked at it yet. As I itch to learn more about the power of the Sutras, this sounds like a perfect companion for doing just that.
Born into the minor aristocracy (as Eugenia Peterson), Devi grew up in the midst of one of the most turbulent times in human history. Forced to flee the Russian Revolution as a teenager, she joined a famous Berlin cabaret troupe, dove into the vibrant prewar spiritualist movement, and, at a time when it was nearly unthinkable for a young European woman to travel alone, followed the charismatic Theosophical leader Jiddu Krishnamurti to India.
Once on the subcontinent, she performed in Indian silent cinema and hobnobbed with the leaders of the independence movement. But her greatest coup was convincing a recalcitrant master yogi to train her in the secrets of his art.
Devi would go on to share what she learned with people around the world, teaching in Shanghai during World War II, then in Hollywood, where her students included Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo. She ran a yoga school in Mexico during the height of the counterculture, served as spiritual adviser to the colonel who tried to overthrow Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, and, in her eighties, moved to Buenos Aires at the invitation of a besotted rock star.
Everywhere she went, Indra Devi evangelized for yoga, ushering in a global craze that continues unabated. Written with vivid clarity, The Goddess Pose brings her remarkable story—as an actress, yogi, and globetrotting adventuress—to life.
I’ve checked this book out from the library approximately ten times but haven’t yet found the time to dig in. I am so curious about the woman who brought yoga west, in part because yoga was a practice by men for men at its roots, so any of the feminist history is something I will be enjoying.
While many Westerners still think of yoga as an invigorating series of postures and breathing exercises, these physical practices are only part of a vast and ancient spiritual science. For more than three millennia, yoga sages systematically explored the essential questions of our human existence: What are the root causes of suffering, and how can we achieve freedom and happiness? What would it be like to function at the maximum potential of our minds, bodies, and spirits? What is an optimal human life?
Nowhere have their discoveries been more brilliantly distilled than in a short–but famously difficult–treatise called the Yogasutra. This revered text lays out the entire path of inner development in remarkable detail–ranging from practices that build character and mental power to the highest reaches of spiritual realization.
Now Stephen Cope unlocks the teachings of the Yogasutra by showing them at work in the lives of a group of friends and fellow yoga students who are confronting the full modern catastrophe of careers, relationships, and dysfunctional family dynamics. Interweaving their daily dilemmas with insights from modern psychology, neuroscience, religion, and philosophy, he shows the astonishing relevance and practicality of this timeless psychology of awakening.
More info on the sutras and the philosophy behind yoga beyond the asanas is going to continue to be an interest of mine.