Sunday, 1 February 2015

Book recommendation: Light on Life

Light on Life: The Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace and Ultimate Freedom
B.K.S. Iyengar
(With John J. Evans & Douglas Abrams)
Rodale Books, 2005

This is meant to be a book on Yoga, but it might as well be taken as a book on life itself.  Rather, it is the way one should live life, from the yogic viewpoint.  Iyengar, with commendable help from his Western friends - Evans and Abrams, draws from him immense reserve of yogic sadhana to help us understand the real purpose of doing yoga.  

For most of us, yoga has been reduced to a 'new age' fad, a necessity that has come back to us vicariously because the West has taken a fancy to it.  'Whatever they do, it must be good for us too' seems to be the thought process in the revival of yoga in our society.  But neither the West nor us seem to have understood the true purpose of yoga; neither has gone beyond its usage as a physical exercise at the superficial level, and as a mind calming exercise at the deeper level.  Iyengar shows that it is much more than that.  It is a way to your - and our - Inner Self itself.  It is, among several other spiritual means of reaching the indivisible One, a simple, practical and accessible method of reaching Kaivalya - the ultimate goal of emancipation.  

For the ease of understanding, Iyengar divides the book into chapters corresponding to the five sheaths of being: the annamaya kosa (physical body), pranamaya kosa (breath or vital energy), manomaya kosa (mind), vijnanamaya kosa (intellect) and anandamaya kosa (bliss).  As one can glean from this, it progresses from the gross to the subtle; from the body to the soul, with the mind and intellect in between.  

He enlightens us on the eight constituent limbs of the ashtanga yoga: yama (ethical disciplines - not to be confused with the Lord of Death), niyama (internal ethical observances), asana (bodily yogic postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), pratyahara (sensory control and withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (blissful union), in that order.  

Of these, yama comprises of ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), brahmacharya (controlling senses and celibacy), asteya (non-stealing) and aparigraha (non-covetousness).  Niyama is further divided into soucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity/heat), swadhyaya (self-study) and ishvara pranidhana (devotional surrender to God).  

Iyengar says he is a hatha yogi (ha = sun, tha = moon); the sun referring to the soul that one aspires to find on the yogic journey.  He was also a guru to many (gu = darkness, ru = light); or a person who leads from darkness to light.  He also was a married man, which he reiterates throughout the book to drive home the point that one does not have to become a sanyasin to become a yogi.  Further, as Iyengar points out, you do not need to be religious, or even a Hindu to start practising yoga; it is a truly universal spiritual practice.   

There is a beautiful metaphor of the river used in the book to highlight the meaning of the purusarthas of human life: dharma (rightful duty) and moksa (ultimate emancipation, or as Iyengar puts it, freedom from desires) that form the two banks of the river.  The flow of the river is formed by the other two purusarthas; artha (money/work) and kama (love/sensuous pleasure).  Iyengar points out that artha, which may lead to greed, and kama, which may lead to lust, should never overflow the two banks.  Lyrical, and illustrates the point brilliantly.

My only critique of the book is to do with the fact that sometimes the reading can be dry and esoteric.  You do need a lot of dharana to read and understand the concepts of yogic practice.  Illustrations are confined to the last pages, and comprise of yogic postures to relieve mental agony.  More anecdotes from Iyengar's rich life, more stories, and more examples of students benefiting from the practice  of yoga might have enlivened the narrative.  Nevertheless, if you can put yourself through the tapas of reading the book itself, you will reach the goal of realising the true potential of yoga, which can then be used to redirect your yogic practice more meaningfully.

Highly recommended reading for aspirants, yogis, non-yogis and human beings in general.     

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