Book Review: Yoga Beyond the Mat by Alanna Kaivalya, PhD

510EvEJ6n7L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgAlanna Kaivalya is a yoga, spiritual, intellectual, and mythologically-oriented force to be reckoned with. I first knew Alanna as my yoga teacher – the first one that turned me onto the spiritual side of yoga. I stumbled into her class by accident; I was 15 minutes late for the hot yoga class I had planned on attending. The studio suggested I go to Alanna’s instead, and I don’t think I missed her Tuesday Jivamukti class for the rest of my senior year of high school. Then, when I was doing my yoga teacher training, I sent out a mass email asking for some pay-by-the-hour work to help finance it. Alanna responded immediately and I went on to work for her for three years. The last project I worked with her on was the chakra sections of Yoga Beyond the Mat: How to Make Yoga Your Spiritual PracticeI could not be prouder to hold the hard copy in my hands today.

Alanna is the author of two other “yoga books” (I put that term in quotes because her work extends well beyond that niche category). Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition (co-authored by Arjuna van der Kooij) is her physically larger book that tells the beautiful stories behind the yoga poses, complete with illustrations of both the mythology and the asanas. Sacred Sound: Discovering the Myth & Meaning of Mantra & Kirtan is her reference book for the yoga of sound that transforms a Western interpretation of Eastern mythology.

When I worked for Alanna I bore witness to something that I think many yoga teachers have in common: competing interests that define their lives and careers. As you likely know from this blog, those competing interests manifest for me personally in the forms of K-12 education, grassroots activism, and my love of teaching yoga. At the age of 25 I found that I have to put these various interests into stages in my life rather than attempt to do them all at once. When I worked for Alanna she constantly challenged me to move toward integration of these various interests and parts of me. In reading this book I now know why. She herself – a world renowned yoga teacher, mythology PhD, and and lover of the pleasures that this earthly life has to offer, has found integration. The integration of those various interests and parts of her are incarnate in Yoga Beyond the Mat: How to Make Yoga Your Spiritual Practice.

The crux and deep power of Alanna’s argument which she presents gently, but firmly throughout this book, comes from Chapter 4:

Each of us has our place in the world, and each of us must stand in our place firmly and without hesitation.

However, some people begin yoga and then jettison their life. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen it go through a yoga teacher training and get a divorce, move out of their house, change their careers, and make all manner of radical life changes in order to stop everything and teach yoga. In reality there are countless yoga teachers nowadays, but where does yoga actually have the most benefit? In places such as the hospital ER, The accountant’s office, and at the local middle school. No, I don’t mean rush to your local fire department and organize group classes. I mean that if you are a firefighter, be a yogi firefighter and save more lives. If you are a lawyer, be a yogi lawyer and seek greater justice…. Whatever you are, be that. Be no one else, they’re already taken.

The practices in this book are not only incredibly useful; they are extremely creative. Knowing Alanna, a next step for this book would be a supplementary material – an audiobook recording of only the practices, so that I and other readers can hear these samples of meditation, asana, dharana (Sanskrit for “intense concentration”) in Alanna’s own luminous voice.

Reading this book has made me desperately want to teach yoga again. I want to sit in class and read about the chakras in the targeted, reality-based, and utterly relateable way that Alanna lays out so clearly in this text. Then, I want to riff on the practices she offers with such abundant clarity. I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who has started to get the feeling that there’s something more to this whole yoga thing. I recommend this book to people who have known that for years and have devoured the ancient texts, but are a tad unsure as to how they relate to our lives today. In an Instagram chat, I confided to Alanna that I think this is her best book yet (and I know her other books), and I mean that with all my heart.

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