The best books on the philosophy behind yoga

Courtney Seiberling Author Of YOGA's YAMAS and NIYAMAS: 10 Principles for Peace & Purpose
By Courtney Seiberling

Who am I?

The physical practice of yoga transformed my relationship to my body, but the philosophy of yoga changed my life. When I began to study the Sutras, my mind became calmer; I had a greater capacity to listen and be patient in my relationships, and my quality of life improved. As I studied philosophy more, my perspective shifted from lack and blame to abundance and self-awareness. Knowing there is more to yoga than just the physical practice, I find it important to honor the tradition the way it was intended: as a whole system for the mind, body, and spirit to reduce the suffering of all beings.

I wrote...

YOGA's YAMAS and NIYAMAS: 10 Principles for Peace & Purpose

By Courtney Seiberling,

Book cover of YOGA's YAMAS and NIYAMAS: 10 Principles for Peace & Purpose

What is my book about?

The Yamas and Niyamas are yoga's ethical principles about how to treat others and how to take care of ourselves. In the West, yoga is known as a form of exercise, but the Yoga Sutras explain it as a system to manage the mind using the Yamas and Niyamas, breathwork, postures, and various stages of meditation. My book explains each Yama and Niyama in a relatable way and then offers a physical practice, consideration, mantra, journal prompt, and personal account of how I applied each one to real life.

The books I picked & why

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The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

By Sri Swami Satchidananda,

Book cover of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Why this book?

We cannot understand what yoga is without studying The Yoga Sutras. The Sutras are the first documented text of yoga that describes how the mind works and how it gets in our way of seeing clearly. The Sutras tell us how to alter our thought patterns so we connect to the moment, see what’s really happening, and suffer less. They are the manual for the study and practice of yoga — ancient but still useful, concentrated, and meditative. They are a resource I come back to again and again and feel like an advice column from somewhere celestial. I’m partial to this translation because it was used in my teacher training, and after reading others, I find it the most down-to-earth while still honoring the tradition.

Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā

By Swami Dayananda Saraswati,

Book cover of Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā

Why this book?

The Bhagavad Gītā is the main teaching of The Mahābhārata, an early epic of Indian thought. It’s about a warrior going into battle and not wanting to fight. His charioteer Krishna becomes his spiritual advisor, and the conversation shifts from the physical battlefield to the battle each of us fights within to figure out how to live a worthwhile life. Krishna answers the fundamental questions of existence and explains why we resist, what it means to be spiritual, and how to use karma (right action) and dharma (duty) as our armaments. The text is about acting and not retreating, about doing what is in front of us to do with awareness and heart.

Many other philosophy texts can be contemplative, quiet, and heady, but The Bhagavad Gītā is exciting, dynamic, and resourceful. This translation is the one my philosophy teacher recommends, and it is true to the Sanskrit and not an individual’s beliefs. The verses are little prayers of knowledge.

The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker's Guide to Extraordinary Living

By Stephen Cope,

Book cover of The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker's Guide to Extraordinary Living

Why this book?

Stephen Cope is a master at using real-life examples to show how yoga can be embodied. The Wisdom of Yoga follows five friends facing struggles with work and relationships and how they use yoga philosophy to change their perspectives and approaches. Cope is magnificent at explaining Eastern thought to Westerners. His book is easy to read and allows us to look at our own lives as we witness the journeys of others.  

Embrace Yoga's Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice

By Susanna Barkataki,

Book cover of Embrace Yoga's Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice

Why this book?

Susanna Barkataki is a teacher, inclusivity promoter, and yoga culture advocate with an active social media presence who compassionately and playfully nudges the West to honor the original tradition of yoga. Her book takes many of her teachings and presents them in one place. Her wisdom is essential for anyone who wants to understand what yoga is beyond the physical practice. For Westerners, her book is a generous offering and necessary to ensure we are being reverent with the practice of yoga and not appropriating it.

Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World

By Michelle Cassandra Johnson,

Book cover of Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World

Why this book?

Michelle Cassandra Johnson knows yoga is both a personal practice to ease suffering and one that calls on us to lessen the suffering of others. She connects the philosophy to social justice so well, it’s as though she sat alongside the original scholars of the Sutras. Her book is packed with quiet wisdom, prompts, meditations, reflection, and so much heart. It’s both a workbook and a philosophy text, a resource, and an awakening. If you can study the book with her, do. She has many online offerings. Her presence is comforting, affirming, bold, and her book reflects these qualities.

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