Yoga and Alignment: From the Upanishads to B.K.S. Iyengar, a beautifully written book, brings the ancient wisdom of classical yoga and meditation into a contemporary psychological perspective. Combining teachings from ancient Eastern texts (Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) with Western psychologists C.G. Jung, William James, and others, as well as contemporary research in psychology and mental health, this book provides a concise yet comprehensive overview of the eight-limbed path of what could be called Patanjali Yoga. Aiming to convey the meaning of the ancient concept of alignment in modern language, the authors lead the reader on a journey from the foundational aspects of the yamas (moral duties or restraints) and niyamas (personal practices for self-discipline), to the physical (āsana) and breath (pranāyāma) practices, making the journey away from the senses (pratyāhāra) and inward to focused mental states of concentration (dhāraṇā) and eventually meditation (dhyāna) and absorption (samādhi). Along the way—with a chapter devoted to each of the first five of the eight limbs and another delving into the three last and most inward limbs—one learns about key yogic concepts and how they are related to both physical and mental health today, including the five sheaths of the body and mind (koshas), the importance of alignment (physically, mentally, and spiritually), what helps us achieve greater alignment, what takes us out of alignment (afflictions, or kleshas), as well as the concepts of energy flow in the subtle body (nadis and chakras).
In the worldwide popular style of yoga named after him, B.K.S. Iyengar (1918–2014) was well known for illustrating Patanjali yoga through his own life, writing, and teachings. What has become known as Iyengar yoga, has alignment itself as a primary focus, and uses concise and pointed instructions, sequencing and timing to help the practitioner develop concentration through practice of physical postures (asanas) and rhythmic control of the breath, or life-force (prana). Like Iyengar himself, whose extensive writings convey Patanjali’s classic yoga in various practical as well as profound ways, Gitte Bechsgaard and Gillian McCann artfully weave several important concepts from this ancient contemplative practice into modern terms in a digestible way that can be appreciated by modern students of both yoga and psychology.
For example, they discuss how various modern problems can be understood through the various koshas, and how clinical research is now “bearing out the intricately connected relationship between all aspects of the self: mind, body, spirit and the larger environment (61).”The emotional body (manomaya kosha) can be closely tied with psychological factors such as security, relational attachment, and instinctive reactions when in danger. In the final chapter on models of development and transformation, the book provides an explanation of the chakras as a map of spiritual development and as a way to conceptualize purification of the energy system and the mind.
In addition to the popularity of Iyengar yoga and other forms of meditation today, university courses on yoga, meditation, and mindfulness have found their way into academic settings in various ways. Often used to promote stress reduction amongst students, faculty, and staff, academic courses on yoga and meditation can be found in departments of religious studies, psychology, sociology, physical education and dance, among others, and are often included as part of a general education curriculum. In the last two decades, there has also been a proliferation of scientific studies on the effects of yoga and meditation on physical and mental health, and how the brain and nervous system are involved in these practices. This book would be a useful addition to reading lists in many of these courses, providing a highly accessible introduction to yoga philosophy as well as the wide-ranging benefits of its practice. Both Bechsgaard and McCann have the gifts of education in both Western and Eastern thought, and have skillfully made these ancient Eastern concepts accessible to the Western mind.
Thinking about mental health in terms of alignment in classical yoga helps shift the focus away from what has become a disease-oriented approach that has dominated Western psychology for many decades, towards a more positive approach of cultivating a healthy mind—something more than just the absence of disease. Learning to cultivate a “witnessing consciousness”—one of the vital practices taught in contemplative traditions—can indeed yield practical benefits of stress reduction and improved relationships, as shown by myriad studies.
Any student of yoga or contemplative studies will welcome the opportunity to see the larger system of yoga—what is essentially a concentration form of meditation—explained in this lovely book. Moreover, Yoga and Alignment would be a delightful and insightful read for clinical or health psychology students, or anyone interested in understanding how eight-limbed yoga can contribute to improved well-being, better interpersonal relationships, and a better society.
Laura Baker is professor of psychology at the University of Southern California.
Laura A. Baker
Date Of Review:
August 5, 2021
Gitte Bechsgaard is the founding director of Vidya Institute International and is a registered psychotherapist. Gitte has studied privately with her mentor Sri Krishan Mantriji in the areas of Sanskrit, Yoga philosophy, Jyotish and contemplative practice. She is a certified Senior Iyengar Yoga Instructor (CIYT), and teaches throughout North America and Europe. Her publications include The Gift of Consciousness (2013) and The Sacred in Exile: What It Really Means to Lose Our Religion (2017).
Gillian McCann is an associate professor in the Religions and Cultures Department at Nipissing University, Canada. Her publications include Vanguard of the New Age: The Toronto Theosophical Society 1891–1945 (2012) and The Sacred in Exile: What It Really Means to Lose Our Religion (2017).
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