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LIGHT ON LIFE by B.K.S. Iyengar, John J. Evans, and Douglas Abrams. Rodale Books, 2005. Hardcover, 282 pages. $24.95.
I gratefully began reading about the Indian tradition and discipline of yoga in B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Life on Thanksgiving Day. Over the week leading up to Thanksgiving, I hadn’t been feeling particularly grateful. I had experienced immobilizing back spasms that ostensibly had their origin in my awkward lifting of furniture—“ostensibly” because as Iyengar’s inspirational book illuminates, life is a whole journey, not a series of disconnected events. My back wasn’t just responding to the isolated awkward lift. The spasms were part of a life pattern replete with stretch goals but bereft of reflective stretching—too much go-go-go and not enough yo-ga.
While the modern world is itself the definition of go-go-go, yoga’s integrative definition comes from Sanskrit for “yoke.” Iyengar’s memoir can be read to redefine what yoga can mean in our postmodern lives—lives that encourage us to create our own integrated realities. However, this self-construction of reality doesn’t come from a single yogic pose, or a botox treatment, or a dip in sacred waters, or a spa promising life-changing benefits, or even from a kindly doctor prescribing Vicodin and Valium to re-vitalize a painful back. Iyengar is quite firm on the need for understanding the theory of yoga, as developed by Patanjali in the 2nd century B.C., and to practice this theory on a daily, if not moment-by-moment, basis. The alignment of theory and practice is necessary to sustain the change required for the spiritual transformation that is at the heart of yoga:
Many approach spiritual growth as if it were a lottery. They hope that some new book or new method, some new insight or teacher will be the lottery ticket that allows them to experience enlightenment. Yoga says no, the knowledge and the effort are all within you. It is as simple and as difficult as learning to discipline our own minds and hearts, our bodies and breath.
Simple and difficult; minds and hearts; bodies and breath: taken apart, each pair is fragmented. Taken as a whole, they suggest integration, an “integrity of oneness” as Iyengar calls it. Light on Life is organized into seven chapters that cover these three pairs; it deftly bookends discourses on bodies (asana), breath (prana), minds (manas and vijnana) and hearts (ananda) between the opening chapter on the simple and difficult “inward journey” and the closing chapter on the difficult and simple goal of “living in freedom.” Iyengar uses anecdotal experiences from his own life to personalize the challenging yogic philosophy.
This is not a technique book, not a “how-to-do-yoga-in-30-days” guide. At first this is a bit disappointing, especially if one is looking for relief from physical ailments. But then, one takes vicarious inspiration from Iyengar’s 86 years. For readers who have not yet begun even the fundamental asana stretching or pranayama breathing, it is perhaps helpful to first read Iyengar’s posture guidebook, Light on Yoga, or read Light on Life while taking an introductory yoga class. Ideally, enhance the reading of Light on Life with supplementary dialogue and practice with a guru. Either way, yoking the theory and practice of yoga in the new year is sure to make active readers most grateful next Thanksgiving.
—Rajesh C. Oza