The best books on yoga philosophy and psychology

Stephen H. Phillips Author Of Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy
By Stephen H. Phillips

Who am I?

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.

The books I picked & why

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Yoga: Immortality and Freedom

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

Book cover of Yoga: Immortality and Freedom

Why 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.

The Bhagavad Gītā

By Winthrop Sargeant (translator),

Book cover of The Bhagavad Gītā

Why 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.

Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

By Patanjali,

Book cover of Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

Why 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.”

Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha

By Swami Satyananda Saraswati,

Book cover of Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha

Why 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.

Thoughts and Aphorisms

By Sri Aurobindo,

Book cover of Thoughts and Aphorisms

Why 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).

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Interested in yoga, psychology, and Hinduism?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker's Guide to Extraordinary Living, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: Translation, and Commentary if you like this list.