Gift Picks: Yoga Books & Music

Santa Yogini Margaret Burns VapDo you have a yogini on your holiday shopping list? Chances are, she doesn’t need another yoga mat, and you probably already got her an Athleta gift card. Help her deepen her practice with everyone’s favorite fallback gift — books and music. But wait! These aren’t just any yoga books and music. There’s a big selection out there, so I’ve narrowed it down to ones that I know work, because I’ve been on both the receiving and giving end.

They say you can’t learn yoga from a book. As a yoga teacher, I tend to agree. If you are a total newbie, the live teacher-student connection is valuable for addressing alignment and establishing a foundation for your practice. Once you do that, yoga books will provide plenty of opportunities to explore topics that interest you: what’s the meaning behind that Sanskrit chant in Ashtanga class? What’s another way to break down the poses you find challenging? What’s the full story of the Hindu myth your instructor was talking about?

I have shelves filled with yoga books. I’ve noticed that with many of them, I’ve dipped in and out over the years depending on what topics are calling me, instead of reading them cover to cover. I’ve also noticed that I’m more interested in asana technique and the holistic health care component vs. the philosophy; I’m drawn to books that make the ancient practice of yoga relevant, and connect it to a modern lifestyle. (I’m not going to tell you that my fave yoga book is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, or The Bhagavad Gita.) But the more I practice yoga, the more I want to know, and I feel that I’ve got a lifetime to explore the many sides of yoga. Different things speak to us at different times. I actually find it comforting that you’re never “finished” with your study of yoga, like you are with a degree. I like the concept of a lifetime of learning being available — like yoga’s always there for me. And there’s over 5,000 years of material to delve into.


Here are my top 5 yoga books that I return to over and over, and that inspire my teaching and practice.

Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and SoulIf I could only choose one yoga book, I would have to go with Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul. Jivamukti was my first yoga love; it’s the style I practiced when I first discovered yoga in NYC. This yoga has it all: history and philosophy, asana, chanting, pranayama, cool music. Every class is a well-rounded experience, and I always feel “full” after one (their audio CDs provide a similar experience, with clear and concise instruction set to great music — you may need to brush up on your Sanskrit pose names though). The book is a thorough overview of the many aspects of yoga without being overwhelming or hard to understand. Unlike with many of the more esoteric yoga volumes on bookstore shelves, you won’t be saying “huh?” This one I’ve read more than once, and refer to constantly if I have a burning yoga question.

Cool quote: Jivamukti Yoga incorporates traditional yoga practices into modern lifestyle without losing sight of the ancient, universal goal of liberation. We believe that liberation is possible even while living a modern urban lifestyle anywhere in the world.

The Art of YogaJivamukti also has a coffee-table yoga book, appropriately named The Art of Yoga. It’s filled with stunning photographs of Jiva founders Sharon Gannon and David Life demonstrating (mostly) advanced asanas. The photographs are accompanied by wonderful quotes. The combination is super inspiring, and I peruse this book often to breathe new life into my own practice, and refresh my dedication to the process of unfolding both body and mind. And on a lighter note, it’s fun to ooooo and aaaaahhh and say, I wish I could do that. This is a beautiful gift book for any yogini.

Cool quote: The Sanskrit word asana means seat. Seat means connection to the earth. Earth means all beings and things. The practice of asana is the practice of refining your connection to the earth.

Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice ManualThe other side of my yoga roots can be found in the Ashtanga practice, and one of my first yoga books was David Swenson’s Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. Even if you are fortunate to have a good Ashtanga teacher, this book is indispensable for learning the Primary Series (and Second Series too), the modifications, and breaking it all down in a practical, accessible way. It also includes “short form” practices, which shorten the series and keep it well-rounded. David Swenson is no-nonsense, and he addresses some of Ashtanga’s finer points with easy-to-understand language. (Finer points, I might add, that many students struggle with understanding for years, for example mulabandha.) I was lucky enough to take David’s teacher training; that experience plus having this book be there from the beginning of my yoga practice makes it one of my all-time favorites.

Cool quote: Practice and all is coming! Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga.

Yogini – The Power of Women in YogaYogini – The Power of Women in Yoga is a beautiful exploration of this shift in yoga history; it includes profiles of many popular and influential yoginis, including Jivamukti’s Sharon Gannon, Shiva Rea, and Indra Devi, perhaps the mother of the modern yogini. In 1937, Indra Devi convinced Krishnamacharya, whose students included Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, to teach her yoga. He then encouraged her to teach, and she spent the rest of her life doing so.

Cool quote (that I read on every retreat I lead): Yoga offers a path, a practice, and a way of life that honors the body, cultivates our vital life energy, and invites us to look closely at what binds us. The practice of yoga creates space for those outer voices to subside, so that we can tune in to what is true for us. Our lives don’t suddenly become a seamless fairy tale where everything fits perfectly into place, but we can learn to navigate our way with clear vision and deep inner knowing. We take time to turn our attention inward. We remember who we truly are, why we’re here, and how to discover our personal path. As we slow down and return to our natural cycles, we can once again feel the rhythm of the universe and our place in it. That deep river comes back to life, winding, curving, ebbing and flowing, raging and subsiding.

Myths of the Asanas – the Stories at the Heart of the Yoga TraditionFor years, I’ve been on the lookout for a good book on the myths behind the yoga asanas we often practice; behind each one is an ancient tale about a sage, god, natural element or sacred animal. Since I’m not a graduate student in Hindu mythology, many books lost me after the first few pages. Myths of the Asanas – the Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition was the book I was waiting for (it should be noted that its author is a senior Jivamukti instructor). Delving into the myths takes things a step further than poses like up dog and down dog, which simply mirror the movements of a dog; the intricate weaving of an ancient Indian myth becomes physically expressed through asana. It makes practice really interesting. Discover what story you’re telling when you do natarajasana (dancer), virabhadrasana (warrior), and bakasana (crow).

Cool quote: The myths behind the asanas have much to teach us. Meditating on the tolerance of trees can actually inspire us to become more tolerant. Hearing about how the disfigured Astavakra came to be the teacher of a king can diminish our concern with our external appearance and our self-imposed limitations. Marveling at the devotion of Hanuman can help us gain some of the spiritual strength and determination he represents. Through the myths, the asanas can become true vehicles for transformation.


And how about some yoga music to inspire home practice, or to set the mood while settling in with a good yoga book? Again, so much out there. While I love hearing fresh beats, as with my fave yoga books I have my tried-and-true standbys that remind me of many a yoga class and student. Most of these are blends of upbeat rhythms, Sanskrit chants, and Indian instruments like the tabla.

Asana: Soul Practice Asana: Soul Practice. This uplifting array of music is a collection of four compositions that were first played in the classes of Jivamukti Yoga Center. This music was thereafter soon to be played everywhere else as dance music. This is great party music, especially if you’re inviting yogis.
Sundari: A Jivamukti Yoga Class Sundari: A Jivamukti Yoga Class. Songs to create the perfect musical soundtrack for a yoga class. I can vouch for that, since I played this when I first started teaching, and it’s what I play for the first yoga class on every retreat I lead.
Sharanam Sharanam. This is a recent release, with ethereal vocals by Jivamukti’s Sharon Gannon. I love the different mixes of Lokah Samastah, my favorite Sanskrit blessing.
Pilgrim Heart Pilgrim Heart and Breath of the Heart. If you don’t recognize Krishna Das from yoga class, you’ve been doing too much Bikram.
Yoga Groove Yoga Groove. It’s hard to resist the title alone, and songs like Dancing Buddha, Nirvana and Bliss. Get ready to get your yoga groove on.

Photo of Margaret by Larry Stanley,

Jen Young

November 26, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I’ll have to check out the Myth of Asanas book myself. It would be wonderful to connect to asanas through their stories. I’ve had a personal experience of myth revealing itself during practice. One of my favorite yoga instructors embodies warrior pose so much that I sometimes see her transform into a warrior goddess drawing her bow. Thanks for the tips!


February 15, 2011 at 8:57 am

I’ll have to look into some of these! I would also add Happy Yoga by Steve Ross to that list.

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