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Publications Book Reviews
The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom
Reviewed by Vesela Simic on Dec. 1, 2005
“The popularity of yoga and my part in spreading its teachings are a great source of satisfaction to me,” writes B. K. S. Iyengar in his new book, Light on Life. “But I do not want yoga’s widespread popularity to eclipse the depth of what it has to give to the practitioner.” This book is timely, as yoga risks being misperceived by the popular culture as merely a health-and-fitness option. Light on Life explores the ancient yogis’ understanding of the relationship between Nature and Soul, which led to the practices that define the yogic path, and describes the yogic inner journey to the “abiding reality” at the core of being. Although there are thousands of books about yoga being sold today, Iyengar is one of yoga’s preeminent disciples, teachers, and innovators. In 2004 Time magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
The book’s first chapter explains yoga’s understanding of the body as being comprised of five kosas, or sheaths. The first is our physical, anatomical body—the annamaya kosa, the outermost sheath. The physical body encompasses four subtler bodies: the energetic, the mental, the intellectual, and the soul bodies. The energetic body holds the breath and emotions; the mental, our thoughts and obsessions; the intellectual, our wisdom; and the soul body, our individual soul and potential to realize the Universal Soul. Yogic practices are a means toward aligning these sheaths. When they are fully integrated and in harmony with one another, we experience ourselves as whole—the celebrated union of body, mind, and spirit. To this map of the human being as a continuum of intermeshing layers, Iyengar adds an explanation of the yogic view of Nature—that which is observable, knowable, and constantly changing—and Soul—that which is not physical, not limited nor defined by location, and so eternal. The human being’s predicament is to be living between these two realities, and the practice of yoga is about learning how to live between them, how to cultivate and experience the connection between Nature and Soul.
Subsequent chapters define and explore the yogic manual for self-understanding and Self-realization. Beginning with the physical body, a chapter on each sheath explores its relationship to one or more of “the eight petals of yoga”: the ethical observances (the yamas and niyamas), the poses (asanas), breathwork (pranayama), sensory control (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and the crowning absorption in divine consciousness (samadhi). Throughout this discursive journey inward, Iyengar shares an immense and intricate view of the way in which the body is used to discipline the mind and reach the soul. “To a yogi, the body is a laboratory for life, a field of experimentation and perpetual research,” he writes. “How do we find such profound transformation in what from the outside may look simply like stretching or twisting the body into unusual positions? It begins with awareness.” Iyengar’s insights into self-awareness as it evolves in the practices reflects the same precision and process of refinement that characterize the experience of practicing poses in an Iyengar Yoga class, where one continually refines the body’s alignment and deepens into newfound space.
Yogis and nonyogis alike will find much to learn here—from discourses on the architecture of mind and higher states of consciousness (“the heart of yoga”) to reflections on power, freedom, and the illusion of time. Although chapter titles in the middle of the book flag the beginning of Iyengar’s discussion of the study of mind and consciousness, the previous chapters on the physical practice are infused with the same investigations, demonstrating just how interwoven the fabric of the various sheaths are. He draws an interesting connection between the yogi’s endeavor to access and experience space in the body and the discovery in quantum physics that matter is largely space, and also compares the transformative power of exploring outer and inner space: “The view that astronauts gained from outer space often left them with a unified, nonpartisan, borderless perception of the planet Earth that changed their lives and led them to try to impart their experience through the pursuit of shared human goals to be achieved by peaceful cooperation . . . we cannot all go into orbit, but we do have access to space, our inner space. Paradoxically, looking within has a comparable unifying effect as visiting space does for astronauts.”
The book ends with a useful illustrated sequence of “asanas for emotional stability,” although Iyengar recommends that they be learned under the guidance of a qualified teacher. The first three poses calm the mind and cool the brain; the following seven poses balance the intelligence of the head and heart. The last five poses “stimulate the brain for positive thinking” and quiet the body in preparation for a final state of inner silence.
Renaissance Audio has released a four-CD audiobook of excerpts from Light on Life read by Senior Iyengar Teacher Patricia Walden. Whether one chooses to read or listen to the book to gain a conceptual understanding of yoga, in the end, as Iyengar reminds us, “theory is no substitute for practice.” Yoga is an experience.