Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Review: Yoga - The Path to Holistic Health

My sibling is a big fan, and practitioner of, Iyengar yoga. Since it showed impressive results in a family member I decided to check out a book by the creator of this form.

By B.K.S. Iyengar
Published in 2001
416 pages

Yoga is a mammoth book aimed at explaining, demonstrating, and cataloging Iyengar yoga. It's written by the creator of this form of yoga so you're not getting a diluted version of anything here, just the form as intended. The audience seems to be beginners unfamiliar with yoga at all, but it's complete enough to serve as a desk reference for advanced yogis.

The book opens with an introduction to yoga, and branches from there into the spiritual and diet aspects. The diet section is very light - just pictures and discussions of the three groupings of food. If you eat vegetarian/vegan Indian food, you'll love this section; if you pack down eggs and meat, well, don't look for a lot of support here. The book spends 38 ages on these topics.

The book's main core are the postures. Practically all of the remaining pages are dedicated to the various asanas. Each one is lavishly illustrated with a circle of pictures from start to finish. Each picture is from a different angle that best shows where you want to be and has bullet-point technique cues embedded into it. A small box of text identifies the key benefits ascribed to the posture, which range from muscular benefits to health benefits.

Iyengar yoga can be described in an elevator pitch as "yoga that uses props." Basically the idea is that yoga postures have value, physically and otherwise (remember, in the West yoga is exercise; originally it was spiritual and physical). Not everyone can get into the postures. So, you use props to allow you to achieve the posture from day one and slowly work into doing the postures without them. Anyone who thinks this is cheating should be reminded about barbell pushups, band-assisted pullups, and that dumbbells come in different weights.

Therefore the book dedicates a small chapter to the various props - mats, blocks, ropes, and so on, as well as substitutions (chairs, etc.) you can use instead of custom designed materials. The props are also given in sufficient detail, such as measurements and thicknesses, so you can easily identify what will function effectively as a substitute.

Instead of just showing the postures and then boxing-out some text and a picture of a prop-aided exercise, the book arranges prop-based postures into their own chapter! This makes it very, very easy to break out the "beginner" and "advanced" versions of a posture without any overlap. It's costly in page count but it pays off in clarity.

I have to admit to a few minor disappointments. One is that the notes on the exercises occasionally repeat two big myths. One is "toning" muscles, which is usually code for "not getting bulky." Yeah, yoga isn't going to give you a lot of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy but then again neither will low-rep high-weight lifts, either. Since tone is just how much tension the muscles hold at rest, it's something that isn't developed more or less by using external resistance or your own body's weight and/or posture. The other is spot reduction. Spot reduction is the idea that specific areas can be targeted for fat loss. Sadly it doesn't work that way, or at least not to any significant degree, so poses that claim to clear up fat in certain areas just won't do that. That B.K.S. Iyengar has a round belly isn't very inspiring, either, and makes me want to immediately ignore the section on food. Abdominal fat is basically lethal in the long run, so it's disappointing to see that yoga and yogic eating isn't going to prevent that.

Unlike most fitness books, I don't think this book is terribly useful stand-alone. Think of this book more like a martial arts book than an exercise book. You could learn this form of yoga from this book, but it'll be extremely hard to do the postures and check your form. More so than doing any form of weight training. This book would make a great companio to a class, so you can get a deeper understanding of what you are doing and reinforce your lessons with reading and/or self practice.

Contents: 4 out of 5. Comprehensive and detailed on yoga. Loses a point for propagating the spot reduction and toning myths.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. This is how you should show exercises - step by step with pictures, from all angles, with notes on form embedded into the pictures to ensure clarity. Also well written.

Overall: A very comprehensive book on yoga, but not even remotely cheap. Worth reading (support your local library) if you have any interest at all in Iyengar yoga in specific or yoga in general. It covers Iyengar very well, however, and it's worth the price if you're a practitioner who wants a complete text on the subject.

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  1. Although I love the comprehensiveness of this book, I'd recommend the much thinner book by the same authors (it's $16 on Amazon, and basically covers just the asanas but in the same ).

    I'd recommend taking a class and using the book as a reference (just like with martial arts, as you mentioned).
    Licensed Iyengar instructors are listed on the Iyengar website. Keep in mind that Iyengar instructors are extremely well-trained, and go through a long and rigorous training program.

    I'm unsure about B.K.S.Iyengar's belly issue...[agreeing that he looks squishy]:
    1. He had many childhood illnesses, including malaria, TB, typhoid, malnutrion.

    2. Other yogis have mentioned that his giant chest (not his squishiness) is from his lung capacity, due to his practice of pranayama breathing.

    3. He is 91 years old and still teaching and practicing. Here's a video from when he was in his 70s (squishy):
    There are others you can search for on YouTube.

  2. Thanks for the comments and book recommendation.

    On the squishiness, it's not a deal-breaker. He's clearly very strong and flexible, and teaching and training at 91 is impressive. But it's one of my areas of concern - if the master is squishy, then I'm not sure I want to follow the master's diet. Jack Lalanne was still hard as a rock and trim as a 20-year old athlete in his 90s, so I'm more inclined to eat the way he ate, even if I did yoga like B.K.S. Iyengar!


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