Reading List: Hindu & Buddhist Yogas

Contemplative study of wisdom teachings is a core yoga practice, part of svādhyāya in Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtra and jñāna yoga in the Bhagavad Gītā. Buddhist and Hindu traditions are the primary sources of postmodern yoga, along with many other streams of culture, Indian and globalized. Here are original and modern texts I suggest starting, and deepening, with. The list is primarily for yoga students, so emphasizes Hindu yogas, though I’m including a good amount of Buddhist material as well, because of its strong role in the development of Yoga and its importance to many contemporary practitioners.

Original texts in translation can be deeply inspiring but also deeply problematic and challenging. We are reading these teachings far outside their initial contexts, where all of them were part of cultures of dynamic exploration and intellectual and spiritual development. To come closer to them, each text should ideally be read alongside its primary commentaries, where the views of different lineages are argued, and in a few different translations, since some are more poetic, some more literal, and all colored by the translator’s own practice and wisdom. One ideal setting for study is with a guru teaching in an intact interpretive lineage, in the context of faith and personal seeking. Another is to learn the original language. Most of us do not have access to that kind of traditional study, so we must compensate through deep respect and humility when approaching these ancient and precious systems of human knowledge.

Start here: good first books on each tradition

Buddhism (contemporary)

A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield

  • Gentle & accessible presentation of contemplative life.
    Emphasizes a Buddhist orientation, but brings in materials from many traditions.
Modern Yoga

Awakening the Spine, Vanda Scaravelli

  • Poetic, spiritual approach to yoga from one of the elders of yoga in the West.
Haṭha Yoga

Original Yoga, Richard Rosen

  • An exploration of the practices of early Haṭha Yoga: āsana, prānāyāma, and bandha.
Tantra

Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, Georg Feuerstein

  • Solid overview of Indian tantric teachings, primarily from a Śaiva perspective.
Classical Yoga

The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, Chip Hartranft

  • My favorite translation & modern commentary on the venerable meditation manual.
Buddhism (early)

In the Buddha’s Words, an Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi

  • Systematic collection of original Buddhist texts.
    Bodhi’s introduction describes the Theravāda Buddhist path beautifully.

Originals: English translations of important Buddhist & Hindu texts (in rough historical order)

The Rig Veda, Wendy Doniger

  • Beautiful collection from the most ancient teachings of the Indian traditions.

The Upanishads, Juan Mascaro

  • The culminating books of the Vedic collections, rich & complex. The deep roots of our practice.
    Start with the Kaṭha – the story of Nachiketas & the Lord of Death.
    Patrick Olivelle’s version is also good (more literal), and Eknath Easwaran’s (poetic excerpts).

Teachings of the Buddha, Jack Kornfield

  • Short teachings & excerpts spanning all the Buddhist traditions. A good intro collection.

In the Buddha’s Words, an Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi

  • Systematic collection of original Buddhist texts.
    Bodhi’s introduction describes the Theravāda Buddhist path beautifully.
    Wisdom Publications has elegant (extremely dense) volumes of almost the entire body of Pāli suttas.

The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, Chip Hartranft

  • A warm & practical translation for practitioners. My favorite by far.
    Barbara Stoller Miller’s version is also good.
    David Gordon White’s historical “biography” of the text is fascinating & important if you teach the YS.

Bhagavad Gītā, Stephen Mitchell

  • Mitchell’s translation is an accessible & beautiful poetic version without commentary.
    Read Georg Feuerstein’s for a more literal version and commentary.

Ramayana, Valmiki (Arshia Sattar, Penguin)

  • The ancient epic of Rāma, Sītā, and the monkey god Hanuman.

Mahabharata, Vyasa (abridged, John D. Smith, Penguin)

  • The second of India’s two great epics, on the great war between the Pandavas and Kauravas.
    Source of the Bhagavad Gītā and many myths & sacred stories.

The Puranas

  • The sources of the vast Indian and Hindu sacred myths.
    2 good versions: Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas, ed. Dimmitt & Buitenen
    and Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook Translated from the Sanskrit, Wendy Doniger

Yoga Vāsiṣṭha, Venkateṣānanda (published as “Vasistha’s Yoga”)

  • One of the most important classical texts on Yoga, through the Vedānta lens.

Śiva Sutra, Swami Laksmanjoo

  • Subtle and stunning root text for Śaiva Tantra traditions.
    The text is quite difficult, traditionally only understandable through a guru.
    Compare Mark Dyzkowski’s version for fuller study.
    Paul Muller-Ortega has been teaching on the ŚS & has amazing talks on it for purchase.

Pratyabhijña-hrdayam [The Heart of Recognition], Ksemarāja

  • Partial translation: The Splendor of Recognition, Shantananda, through Siddha Yoga.
    More accessible than the Śiva Sutras, this is a good Tantra text to begin study.

Vijñana-bhairava Tantra, Swami Lakshmanjoo

  • Another root text of Śaiva Tantra. 112 tantric practices for Concentration (dhāraṇā) and liberation.
    Lorin Roche has released a poetic but non-literal version titled The Radiance Sutras.
    I teach from Christopher Wallis’s beautiful, accurate (& unpublished) translation.

Yoga Yajñavalkya, A. G. Mohan

  • Early Haṭha Yoga practice manual venerated by Śri T. Krishnamacharya.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Brian Dana Akers

  • The most well-known medieval Haṭha Yoga practice manual, from the 15th c.
    Śatkarma, āsana, prāṇāyāma & meditations to purify energetic channels & awaken kuṇḍalinī.

Gheranda Samhita, James Mallinson

  • A late Haṭha Yoga manual, similar in content to the HYP, but with less tantric and sexual material.
    See also the Goraksha Paddhati/Samhita.

Modern writers & teachers

History & scholarship

The Yoga Tradition, Georg Feuerstein

  • Chunky & hard to read, but a full & clear layout of the vast history of Indian Yoga. Well worth the effort. 

The Hindus: An alternative history, Wendy Doniger

  • Super engaging history, focusing on subaltern voices: women, outcastes, animals.
    Doniger is not universally liked, and this book was withdrawn in India following criticism.

Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Mircea Eliade

  • Classic study of Yoga from the great ethnologist.
    Dense and challenging, but rewarding if you can stay with it.

David Gordon White’s “trilogy” of yoga history: The Alchemical Body, Kiss of the Yogini, and Sinister Yogis.

  • Difficult and controversial, White’s books will change everything you think about Indian yoga.

Indestructible Truth, Reginald Ray

  • Overview of Tibetan Buddhist history & practice. A good intro to a vast, beautiful tradition.

Buddhist Thought, Paul Williams

  • Overview of Buddhist history & the teachings of the various schools.

What the Buddha Thought, Richard Gombrich

  • Academic study of the sources of early Buddhist concepts in Brahmanic/Upaniṣadic tradition.

Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen Batchelor

  • Batchelor’s meditation on the Buddha stripped of mythology & metaphysics.
    One of the most profound thinkers in the Buddhist world today.
Teachings: Yoga

Yoga Makaranda, T. Krishnamacharya

  • Practice manual by the founder of modern yoga.

Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar

  • The classic yoga manual of the 20th century.

Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar

  • Yoga in the Krishnamacharya tradition, by his son.

Yoga of Heart, Mark Whitwell

  • Poetic meditations on intimacy & yoga, by Desikachar’s prominent Western student.

Awakening the Spine, Vanda Scaravelli

  • Poetic, spiritual approach to yoga from one of the elders of yoga in the West.

Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness, Erich Schiffman

  • Solid presentation of contemporary yoga as a spiritual path.

Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times, Judith Lasater

  • The primer on restorative yoga from its Western founder.

Great Swan: Meetings with Ramakrishna, Lex Hixon

  • Poetic and inspiring stories about the great 19th c. Kali ecstatic, Vivekananda’s teacher.
Teachings: Buddhism

A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield

  • Gentle & accessible presentation of contemplative life.
    Emphasizes a Buddhist orientation, but brings in materials from many traditions.

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom, Chögyam Trungpa

  • Fierce and beautiful teachings on Tibetan Buddhist basics from the brilliant and creative teacher.

Luminous Mind, Kalu Rinpoche

  • Graceful traditional overview of Tibetan Buddhist practice.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki

  • Classic intro to Sōto Zen Buddhist practice from the great San Francisco teacher.

Focused and Fearless, Shaila Catherine

  • Systematic instruction in Jhāna/Dhyāna/Samādhi (meditative absorption) practice.
Teachings: Tantra

Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, Georg Feuerstein

  • Solid overview of Indian tantric teachings, primarily from a Śaiva perspective.

Tantra Illuminated, Christopher Wallis

  • Beautiful, comprehensive overview of Śaiva Tantra history & teachings, oriented toward practitioners.

Kashmir Shaivism: The Secret Supreme and Self Realization in Kashmir Shaivism, Swami Lakshmanjoo

  • Considered the last lineage holder of Śaiva Tantra. Beautiful, affecting teachings.

Play of Consciousness, Swami Muktananda

  • Dramatic spiritual autobiography of the founder of Siddha Yoga.

Tantric Quest, Daniel Odier

  • Dramatic spiritual autobiography of the French Daoist and Tantra teacher.

Aghora: At the Left Hand of God, Robert Svoboda

  • Dramatic stories & teachings from an unconventional Tantric sadhu, Vimalananda.
Teachings: Advaita Vedānta

I Am That, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

  • Incredible collection of conversations with renowned Advaita Vedanta master.

Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, ed. David Godman

  • The preeminent sage of the 20th century. Clearly an extraordinary being.

The Way of Liberation: A Practical Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Adyashanti

  • Our local sage. Practical teachings from one of the most awake people around right now.

Poetry

This is a ridiculously short & selective list of poetry books, really just a few I find useful on the path and popular among contemporary yogis.

Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems, Robert Bly & Jane Hirshfield

  • The great ecstatic Kṛṣṇa devotee. Poems of longing, heartbreak, and return: the bhakti path.

The Kabir Book, Robert Bly

  • Bly’s classic versions of the Hindu/Sufi ecstatic poet.

Grace and Mercy in her Wild Hair, Rāmprasad Sen (tr. Nathan & Seely)

  • Poems to the Mother Goddess from one of the greatest Indian poets.

Lalla: Naked Song, Coleman Barks

  • Versions of short poems from the ascetic female Śiva devotee.

The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door:  Thirty Poems of Hafez, Robert Bly & Leonard Lewisohn

  • I strongly prefer these translations of Hafiz to the much more loose ones by Daniel Ladinsky.

Songs of the Saints of India, John Stratton Hawley & Mark Juergensmeyer

  • Awesome anthology of Indian devotional poetry.

The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks

  • Barks made Rumi the most popular poet in the U.S.
    Stunning Sufi inspiration from a wildly successful cross-cultural collaboration.

The Rumi Collection, Kabir Helminski

  • If you do Rumi, be sure to check out more literal translations than Barks’. Helminski’s are great.

One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan, trans. John Stevens, Weatherhill.

  • Reading these pristine Zen poems, the wind just blows through you.

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Red Pine

  • These too. Deep Chinese Zen nature wisdom.

Women in Praise of the Sacred:  43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, ed. Jane Hirshfield

  • A great anthology. You’ll discover so many wonderful women sages & poets.

Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore

  • The devotional poems that got Tagore a Nobel Prize. Stunning.

The Lives of the Heart, Jane Hirshfield

  • Any of her many books will become dogeared if you like smart, earthy, wisdom poetry.

Mountains and Rivers Without End, Gary Snyder

  • Likewise.

Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot, Harcourt.

  • Profound wisdom from the dour English sage. This text could be a scripture. Maybe it is.

In Praise of Mortality, Selections from R. M. Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy

  • Barrow’s and Macy’s translations of Rilke sing with wisdom & years of contemplative practice.

There could be so much more, but that’s a start. Happy reading.