pile of books

Books and conversations

I’m writing this on a train into London, on my way to join the SOAS School of Yoga Studies again, this time for the eagerly awaited launch of Suzanne Newcombe’s book, Yoga in Britain. More on that book, and launch, next time. This is a good week for books – I have completed the draft of my own monograph, Post-Lineage Yoga: From guru to #metoo. There’s still a lot to do: a skim read of the whole manuscript, organising the images, and formatting the pages. Then it’ll be submitted for peer review in classic scholarly fashion, and I’ll be lucky to see it published next year, by which point book number two (covering what this all means for yoga teachers) should be well underway.

Whether it’s an academic monograph, a popular guide to yoga, or a self-published volume of thoughts, producing a book is an odd and unusual endeavour, and when it’s done well, it takes a lot more work, and probably earns a lot less reward, than people realise.

Meanwhile, I’ve also had on my (digital) shelves a few books generously given to me in the hope that I’ll find time to review them. So let me tell you about just two of them in this post – both by yoga teachers who I respect immensely, but also count as friends.

First, one that’s been out a little while: Donna Farhi and Leila Stuart’s Pathways to a Centred Body.

front cover of Pathways to a Centred Body

This book is a real resource, and it rewards deeper contemplation and practice. Both Donna and Leila are rich in decades of experience, but their long careers also reflect a passion for ongoing investigation and inquiry into the practice of yoga, and the effects of diverse patterns of movement and posture on everyday health.

Many teachers of yoga and other movement forms have built careers on the relationship of movement and stillness to core bodily structures. Few have done so with as much accuracy and detail as shown here. This book takes the reader deep into an experiential understanding of some of the most mysterious parts of our skeleto-muscular anatomy. Centring on the psoas complex, it describes ways to understand core structures through the lenses of the koshas, biomechanics, experiential movement, and postural support. Whilst some teachers focus only on strengthening the core, the instructions here also seek to sensitise, hydrate, relax and balance. As a result, the reader is well served whatever their intention, their need, their area of curiosity, or their preferences in learning.

Along the way are a large number of practices to try, and while the instructions and photos for these are extremely clear, a second edition might benefit from a few more videos to help the reader along. This is, I think, not really a book that a beginner would easily enjoy without guidance. But the experienced practitioner, and teacher of yoga, will find a lot of treasure here to balance their own practice and enrich their teaching to others. All of it falls on a spectrum from challenging to nourishing, and the overall effect is both gentle and powerful. Teachers of other movement disciplines will also find much here to borrow and adapt.

As a practitioner and teacher, I tend more to emphasise the full diversity of the human form and its experiences, and so I am less comfortable with yoga instructions and explanations that try to be as universal as possible. On occasion, then, I took issue with the simpler explanations and connections that these authors make between discomfort and specific bodily habits. But that’s a personal preference. The fact that I barely noticed my personal niggles with the book is a mark of how much I liked it, and how much I got from it.

I continue to practice many of the techniques in this book, and after many years of teaching, it’s nice to still be learning at this level. I feel that I have a much better appreciation of how these deep physical structures appear in my own body. I am better able to understand and respond to discomfort and disease than before, and a number of insights have made their way into my teaching already. Some books on yoga can be read once, and their treasures dropped into your repertoire easily. This book, I feel, will keep on giving up its guidance for some time to come. My more centred body thanks the authors greatly.

Accessible Yoga is a very different book in some ways, similar in others.

Front cover of Accessible Yoga

It’s Jivana Heyman’s first, and while it is simple and easy to read, it doesn’t lack subtlety. Having spent time with Jivana, it resonates deeply with the way he teaches. Jivana is a bit of a paradox. His words and teaching are gentle, accessible, easy on the mind, and yet underpinning his work is a profound and radical commitment to every possible meaning of the word ‘accessibility’.

The book is constructed, first and foremost, as a guide for practitioners, and suitable for beginners. Again, there are a lot of practices included, divided practically into sections for ‘warming up’, ‘standing and balancing’ and so on. The subtler practices of relaxation, breath, and meditation are also carefully covered. Every element of practice is described with multiple variations, examples from diverse practitioners, and a clear discussion of possible intentions, allowing the reader to figure out where their needs, their capacities, and the practice might be brought into alignment. Where I had slight differences of opinion with the text, again, it didn’t seem to matter. I read Jivana’s description of yoga nidra, which is so very different from the perspective of the Yoga Nidra Network, and is based on a single lineage perspective, and I’m just excited to introduce him to other versions of the practice.

In the section on ‘building a home practice’ Jivana talks about other kinds of accessibility too – what it can be like trying to fit a practice into a busy life, or a small space, or a limited budget. And there’s a chapter aimed specifically at yoga teachers. Like the introductory chapters, this is where he sets out his philosophy in more detail, and without compromise. As Matthew Sandford says in the book’s prologue, “The principles of yoga and asana do not discriminate. Yoga poses do, that is, unless the poses are made accessible to all comers.” And as Jivana himself writes,

“Like I always say, yoga is not about having a flexible body. It’s about having a flexible mind, a mind that is clear enough for the truth to shine through.”

It’s a sentiment I hear often, but not everyone is so committed to the reality of making it happen. This is a book that does. There isn’t a teacher or practitioner that I can think of that wouldn’t benefit from this book. I also think it’s a sentiment that Donna and Leila would wholeheartedly agree with. Indeed, two of Donna’s previous books are listed as resources here. And that’s the other part of this story – that contemporary yoga is at its most gently revolutionary, when it embraces community values, recognises that each person has their own journey, their own wisdom, and above all, when it refuses competitiveness both on the mat and off it. Each book, each workshop, is part of a conversation between a trusted circle of peers, equals, even friends, and we all benefit from witnessing or being part of that.

So it’s fitting that Pathways to a Centred Body is a collaborative text, and that reading Accessible Yoga is like being introduced to a whole community network. I only wish that friends like these weren’t quite so far away. But then I am lucky to also have plenty of allies and colleagues closer to home, many of whom write wonderful books too.

Inside cover of Yoga in Britain with dedication by Suzanne

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