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June 8, 2012

While there are many powerful and well-circulated ‘yoga books’ that get used and reused for teacher trainings and programs, as well as self-knowledge, the following ten books are important, eye-opening resources that have deepened my knowledge and appreciation of the yoga discipline. They span the range from historical non-fiction to experiential philosophy to neuroscience. As yoga is being redefined in 21st century America, the important questions we must grapple with are:

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  • Where did yoga really come from? Not the romanticized history, but grounded, knowledgeable facts about the culture(s) (traditional and contemporary) that have given birth to what we practice today? How does this inform where we must take it?
  • Instead of focusing on what to ‘have faith in,’ we can now use yogic understanding to investigate what we are learning from neuroscience. The question we need to address is: Why do our brains create faith in the first place? Fortunately there are some very interesting answers being put forward, and they may just help us to evolve our yoga, as well as ourselves.

1. Still the Mind: An Introduction to Meditation - Alan Watts

This short gem teaches you more about how and why to meditate, and what/what not to expect from it, than being a step-by-step guide. As Watts writes, ‘Has it occurred to you that there may be really nowhere to go, because you take yourself with you if you go somewhere else? And if you have a problem here, you will have a problem somewhere else, because you are the problem.’ Thus begins your meditation.

2. The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions - Karen Armstrong

Armstrong is one of today’s finest religion writers. This former Roman Catholic nun felt confined by the narrow lens of her faith and has become one of the most lucid voices of global religious traditions. The Great Transformation looks at the tremendous philosophical thoughts and cultural movements that arose during the Axial Age (500 BCE - 500 CE), which is right when yoga was beginning to get its legs—and offers rarely seen insight into how it developed.

3. The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest For What Makes Us Human - V.S. Ramachandran

One of the most influential neuroscientists of our day, Ramachandran’s groundbreaking work in phantom limbs, human vision, mirror neurons, synesthesia and conceptual metaphors has taught humanity more about that organ in our heads than anyone else. Using a world of research in his easy-to-read text, he clues us in, as I mentioned, as to why we think we need faith and religion in the first place.

4. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Yoga Practice - Mark Singleton

Mark Singleton is my kind of yogi. Completely destroying the idealized background of yoga, he assembles a clearer picture of how yoga has evolved through the ages, from its meditative/philosophical origins to the nationalistic Indian pride that helped piece together the asanas we practice today.

5. The Brain That Changes Itself - Norman Doidge

Diving deep into the realm of neuroplasticity, poet and psychiatrist Norman Doidge’s riveting anecdotal journey through the brain’s adaptability makes this incredible text a must-have on any inquisitive mind’s shelf. Think you can’t change something in your life? Think again.

6. Artistic Form and Yoga in the Sacred Images of India - Heinrich Zimmer

While you might have to haggle with a used book buyer to score this out-of-print classic, Indologist Heinrich Zimmer’s passionate treatise on what those sinister and joyous deities are doing will enlighten and dazzle. As with all Zimmer’s work, who died before publishing a book himself, this collection of his writings was assembled and edited by his friend, Joseph Campbell.

7. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values - Sam Harris

Every generation needs a thinker that not only understands history, but that pushes thought forward. Sam Harris, known for his excellent The End of Faith, here helps us to understand why morals and ethics not only fall in the realm of science, but how knowing this to be the case, we can let go of unnecessary religious thinking that only serves to hold us back.

8. The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga - Carl Jung

Using the chakras as a basis for his work in individuation, Jung’s work on yoga sheds new light on the psychological basis of those seven invisible metaphors so common in the yoga world. While this book is at times dated—research in yoga was very new when he was exploring it—it holds up as a fascinating example of what inner struggles humans deal with while attempting to move into higher states of consciousness.

9. The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination - William K. Mahony

“Vedic thought holds that a true vision of a divine universe must necessarily include the brokenness of the world, and that in fact it is precisely the imagination that is able to see the way the whole fits together despite the often disjointed nature of the parts.” And that’s just the beginning. Don’t miss this masterpiece.

10. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom - Mircea Eliade

While Arthur Avalon’s The Serpent Power is usually cited as the first Western book on yoga, Eliade’s important work took those studies to another level. The man responsible for introducing the term and concept of ‘comparative religion’ to the world is at his finest in this illuminating read.

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Derek Beres
Derek Beres

Derek Beres is a multi-faceted author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor based in Los Angeles. He is the creator of Mosaic Method and Flow Play, an innovative Vinyasa-based class that fuses yoga, music, and neuroscience, offered nationally at Equinox Fitness. He has published eight books, including The Warrior’s Path: Living Yoga’s Ten Codes, Global Beat Fusion: The History of the Future of Music, and his latest novel, Shadowstone. Derek is one half of global music producers EarthRise SoundSystem. He is on the teacher training faculty at Yogis Anonymous in Santa Monica, Strala Yoga in New York City, and Buddhi Yoga in La Jolla, where he teaches modules on yoga philosophy and music and neuroscience. He also served as the Creative Director of the Tadasana Festival of Yoga & Music. Derek is ACE and AFAA certified.