The best books on yoga philosophy and psychology

Why am I passionate about this?

As a professional sanskritist and academic, I have travelled to India well more than twenty times, for fellowships, conferences, and (fortunately) months of study with a traditional Sanskrit pundit, the great N.S. Ramanuja Tatacharya. But my first trip was when I was twenty, dropping out of college and travelling from a kibbutz in Israel to India (overland no less, after a flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul in 1971) where I was graciously admitted into a yoga-ashram school. There I began learning Sanskrit as well as various yoga techniques. I stayed that time for two years. “All life is yoga,” says Sri Aurobindo, and I have long wished my life to be that since “yoga” is for me practically a synonym for “right living.”


I wrote...

Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy

By Stephen H. Phillips,

Book cover of Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy

What is my book about?

In discussing yoga's fundamental commitments, Phillips explores traditional teachings of hatha yoga, karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and tantra, and shows how such core concepts as self-monitoring consciousness, karma, non-harmfulness (ahimsa), reincarnation, and the powers of consciousness relate to modern practice. He outlines values implicit in bhakti yoga and the tantric yoga of beauty and art and explains the occult psychologies of koshas, skandhas, and chakras. His book incorporates original translations from the early Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra (the entire text), the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and seminal tantric writings of the tenth-century Kashmiri Shaivite, Abhinava Gupta.

A remarkable exploration of yoga's conceptual legacy, Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth crystallizes ideas about self and reality that unite the many incarnations of yoga.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Yoga: Immortality and Freedom

Stephen H. Phillips Why did I love this book?

This book provides a historical overview of yoga philosophy and psychology and is a great introduction to the study of yoga. It was originally written in French by Mircea Eliade, who became the dean of Religious Studies all over the world, for decades training graduate students at the University of Chicago. The book is now a little dated on certain topics such as tantra and the yogic practices of Buddhism. Nevertheless, it stands as the preëminent classic in the field of yoga studies. It has a bouncy but elegant style and has been a favorite in the courses I have taught on yoga at the University of Texas at Austin.

While a student in India in his early twenties, Eliade had an affair with the daughter of his Sanskrit teacher, the renowned and august scholar, Surendranath Dasgupta. There is apparently a novel by Eliade in Romanian about this and another by the young Maitreyi Devi in Bengali.

By Mircea Eliade, Willard R. Trask (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Yoga as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this landmark book, first published in English in 1958, renowned scholar of religion Mircea Eliade lays the groundwork for a Western understanding of Yoga. Drawing on years of study and experience in India, Eliade provides a comprehensive survey of Yoga in theory and practice from its earliest antecedents in the Vedas through the twentieth century. A new introduction by David Gordon White provides invaluable insight into Eliade's life and work, highlighting the key moments in Eliade's academic and spiritual education, as well as the personal experiences that shaped his worldview. Yoga is not only one of Eliade's most important…


Book cover of The Bhagavad Gītā

Stephen H. Phillips Why did I love this book?

Bhagavad Gītā. This is an indispensable primary source for yoga philosophy and practice, and there are many translations: by Edgerton, Easwaran Eknath, Van Buitenen, Sargeant, A. Mahadeva Sastri, H. Maheshwari, Mascaro, and others.

Unfortunately, the Gītā has been used for political ends, but I daresay it transcends politics. It continues the traditions of meditation of older Upanishads—jñāna-yoga, the “yoga of knowledge”—and introduces karma-yoga, the “yoga of action,” with principles that can be applied in practically every endeavor of life. No longer does practice require seclusion. Although the context is a battle, Krishna, the yoga teacher, urges ahiṃsā, “non-injury,” and other yogic values that can be put into play in practically anything that you do. Bhakti-yoga, the “yoga of devotion and love,” is a third broad type of practice laid out in the Gītā. Eliade disparages bhakti as yoga for the masses but surely it makes practice sweet among other desirable qualities.

By Winthrop Sargeant (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Bhagavad Gītā as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An interlinear edition of the spiritual classic that provides devanagari, transliterated Sanskrit, and English versions of the Gītā.


Book cover of Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

Stephen H. Phillips Why did I love this book?

There are many translations by Feuerstein, Satyananda Saraswati (Four Chapters on Freedom, my favorite, a free, tantric rendering), Woods, Iyengar, Bryant, myself (as an appendix in Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth). The most scholarly: Michel Angot, Le Yoga-Sūtra de Patañjali, le Yoga-Bhāṣya de Vyāsa (about 800 pages with footnotes citing tons of contemporary and classical literature—the references in the footnotes are mainly to works in English though the translation is in French). Some say the classical commentary by Vyāsa is essential; others disagree.

The Yoga-sūtra, which borrows much from the Gītā practice-wise but endorses a different view of reality, is the second great classic of yoga philosophy and psychology. In large part, it is a “how-to” book, but there is also much philosophy and psychology. It outlines presumed results called “siddhis” for specific practices such as an “Eight-limbed Yoga” it popularizes: (1) yama, “ethical restraints” (there are five: non-injury, truth-telling, refraining from stealing, sexual restraint, non-possessiveness, (2) niyama, “personal restraints” (also five: cleanliness, contentment, austerity/heat, study of a yogic text, devotion), (3) āsana, “postures,” (4) prāṇāyāma, “breath-control,” (5) pratyāhāra, “phenomenological withdrawal” (paying attention to sensory presentations instead of the objects presented) (6) dhāraṇā, “fixed attention while moving,” (7) dhyāna, “meditation,” and (8) samādhi, “enlightenment,” “mystic trance.”


By Patanjali,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Yoga Sutra of Patanjali as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are in themselves exceedingly brief, less than ten pages of large type in the original. Yet they contain the essence of practical wisdom, set forth in admirable order and detail. The theme, if the present interpreter be right, is the great regeneration, the birth of the spiritual from the psychical man: the same theme which Paul so wisely and eloquently set forth in writing to his disciples in Corinth, the theme of all mystics in all lands.


Book cover of Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha

Stephen H. Phillips Why did I love this book?

This is a premier practice manual, compiled from lectures given for a seven-month course of yoga-teacher training by the great swami who is an excellent writer as well as a beautiful person. In the US, the rival manual, Light on Yoga, by B.K.S. Iyengar may be more popular, and both authors have several more wide-ranging books, Swami Satyananda with the large and long A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya and the autobiographical Taming the Kundalini among other books mainly in Hindi, Iyengar with The Tree of Yoga, Light on Pranayama, Light on Life, and others.

By Swami Satyananda Saraswati,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Asana Prana Yama Mudra Bandha is recognised internationally as one of the most systematic yoga manuals today. Since it's first publication by the Bihar School of yoga in 1969 it has been reprinted seventeen times and translated into many languages. It is the main reference text used by Yoga teachers and students of Bihar Yoga/Satyananda Yoga within the International Yoga Movement, and many other traditions as well. This comprehensive text provides clear illustrations. step by step directions and details of chakra awareness. It guides the practitioner or teacher from the simplest to the most advanced practices of hatha yoga system.…


Book cover of Thoughts and Aphorisms

Stephen H. Phillips Why did I love this book?

This is a tiny book but chock full of yoga wisdom in pithy statements by Sri Aurobindo. It was first published in 1914-1920 in a journal of “yoga and speculative philosophy.” Along with Swami Vivekananda (who brought Vedānta to the West, according to a prominent statue and inscription at India Gate at the port of Mumbai), Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who was president of India in the nineteen-fifties, and the revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi, the master yogi Sri Aurobindo is a leading philosopher of “neo-Vedānta” in the modern era and beyond a doubt the most original. Neo-Vedānta draws on ideas of the Upanishads and the Gītā to attempt a modern spiritual worldview.

Aurobindo’s philosophic magnum opus, The Life Divine, is long and complex, a difficult read. But Thoughts and Aphorisms, about a hundred small pages, is easy, the brief statements delightful, little yoga wisdom poems in prose. The aphorisms are arranged in three parts, jñana yoga, karma yoga, and bhakti-yoga. Aurobindo’s insights are avowedly records of his own yogic experiences and discoveries. My brother-in-law loved Thoughts and Aphorisms so much he became a yoga teacher and tackled a much more demanding book by Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga (about a thousand pages).

By Sri Aurobindo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thoughts and Aphorisms as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Profound Thoughts and Aphorisms on the paths of Knowledge, Works and Devotion. Truths expressed in succinct sentences for contemplation and meditation.


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Book cover of Free Your Joy: The Twelve Keys to Sustainable Happiness

Lisa McCourt Author Of Free Your Joy: The Twelve Keys to Sustainable Happiness

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

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