The literature on Yoga is almost endless today. New books and commentaries on texts are released all the time. There are books on anatomy, Āsana practice, Yogic principles, and so much more. Although this can be wonderful, it can also make things very confusing when you want to go into in-depth scriptural studies to move forward in your Yogic journey. Which are the main Yogic texts to consider?
What is Yoga scripture?
When I say Yoga scripture, I mainly refer to ancient texts written by sages and scholars hundreds, may thousands, of years ago. This is not to say newer books and writings are not important, absolutely not! These scriptures help us understand the roots of Yoga, taking us back to ancient knowledge, some of which may have been corrupted over the centuries as is the case with all knowledge.
Scriptures can help us understand physical practices better, understand the reason for the physical practices. Studying the philosophy can make the physical practice so much more rewarding and build a deep mindfulness in our Yogic practices and daily life.
Which scriptures should I study?
Before starting off on scriptures, though, it might help to look at the broader picture and understand the timelines of various scriptures. It would also be a good idea to have a general idea of which scriptures derive from which others, as this would add another layer of information to understand what you’re studying better.
This is NOT an exhaustive list of texts you can study as part of your Yoga education. However, these would be a good place to get started and go from there. Look for commentaries on these texts in a language you’re comfortable with (I will be suggesting a few here that I refer), as Sanskrit can be extremely difficult to understand otherwise.
Alright, let’s get to it!
- Yoga Sūtra by Sage Patanjali – Known as the father of Yoga as we know it today, Maharishi Patanjali was the first to compile all the knowledge about yoga into a single short scripture. The text is made up of 195 aphorisms, short statements that are rich with meaning. This is where we get the eight-fold path, or Classical Ashtānga Yoga, that I follow and speak about in my writings, along with many other concepts intrinsic to Yogic practice even today.
- Bhagavad Gita by Sage Vyāsa – Part of the great epic Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita is a 700-verse text that enunciates on the principles, tools, and concepts of Karma Yoga (Yoga of action), Jnana Yoga (Yoga of knowledge), and Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of devotion). Before you start on this text, it would make sense to read a summary of the Mahabharata to put the entire setting of the Gita in context and to understand the characters and their words better.
- Sāmkhya Kārika by Īshwara Krishna – Samkhya philosophy is a sister philosophy to Yoga, and this is where some core concepts that Yoga builds on are introduced. It is unfortunate that all original Samkhya scripture was lost to time and only a few original writings have been recovered over the years. This text is one such writing that has been almost completely recovered. Studying this text helps understand a lot of important Yogic terms and concepts.
- Hatha Yoga Pradīpika by Swāmi Swātmārāma – One of the most popular and exhaustive texts on Hatha Yoga and the practices followed by Nath Yogis, this book gives a step-by-step explanation of the various rituals, concepts, and practices of Hatha Yoga. It is an extremely important text to understand the origins and philosophy of Hatha Yoga.
- Ghéranda Samhita by Rishi Ghéranda – Another extremely important text on Hatha Yoga, it outlines steps and practices used by Hatha Yogis to progress I their spiritual journeys. It enunciates various concepts and ideas of the Hatha Yoga philosophy and gives us various tools to further our Yoga practice.
Both the Hatha Yoga texts do not go into the details of the actual practices as they are only supposed to be learnt from a Guru and are to be kept secretive by practitioners of Hatha Yoga.
- Bhagavad Gita translation by Swāmi Dayānanda Saraswati – This is a great book to start with, I believe. It is not a commentary but a simple transliteration and translation of the entire Bhagavad Gita. Each shloka or verse is given in Devnagri, the Sanskrit alphabet, then transliterated into English. This is followed by a simple literal translation of the shloka into English in one or two sentences.
- Yoga Sūtra Bhashya by Vyāsa – This was the very first commentary written on the Yoga Sūtra and is written in Sanskrit as well. It is not an easy commentary to understand and should be read after maybe a few other easier commentaries are studied and understood. This commentary is important in that it explains a lot of the terms that are only mentioned in the Yoga Sūtra and helps us contextualise these terms for better application in our lives.
- Yoga Sūtra commentary by Swāmi Hariharānanda Āranya – This is a text that I personally have started studying recently. It is a good book in that it gives each Sūtra followed by the Vyāsa Bhashya (commentary) of that Sūtra in Sanskrit and explains his commentary in English. this is followed by a detailed commentary by Swāmi Aranya on the Sūtra, his interpretation and understanding. I feel this gives a lot more information and context to the various terms and concepts.
Along with these, you could look at commentaries on the Yoga Sūtra by B.K.S Iyengar, Shri Yogendra, K. Pattabhi Jois, and other well-known Yoga teachers who have written their own commentaries on the Sūtra in English.
Hope this article helps give an idea of where to start if you’re planning to delve into the philosophy of Yoga. If there are other texts and books that I should check out, please do recommend them in the comments and I’ll definitely give them a read!