In the 20+ years that I’ve been practising, I’ve accumulated a fairly hefty library of all kinds of books on yoga theory, practice, anatomy and philosophy. But none is of such sentimental value to me as this one. This is my beloved copy of David Swenson’s “Ashtanga Yoga, The Practice Manual”. As you can see, it’s not just dog-eared, but properly bruised, battered and torn – stuck back together with sellotape in some places. Its shabby look only makes me love it more, and I wouldn’t dream of replacing it for a newer model. Because when I look at this book, I remember the early days of struggling to get a practice together and feel incredibly grateful that I stuck with it, helped in no small part by David Swenson’s teaching and his book. I love to see how ragged it’s become over the years because it reminds me of all those times I pulled it off the shelf and put it on the floor beside me. First published in 1999, the book is still very much in demand and in print today, with good reason. It’s still the first book I recommend to any new student who wants to establish a self-practice.
The book is a very practically produced guide for anyone trying to practise at home on their own. The hardback, spiral-bound format makes it easy to place on the floor beside you and glance at when you check out a pose as you practise.
David offers options to make the asanas accessible to everyone. This is a refreshing change from some Ashtanga books which show the practitioner, say, with their leg easily fixed behind their head in Eka Pada Sirsana, and give you the somewhat unhelpful (to mere mortals, anyway!) instruction to “Place your leg behind your head”. Here, for every asana, the full expression is demonstrated alongside various alternative options designed to accommodate different levels and body types. The black and white photographs are very clear and easy to follow.
The book begins with a lovely introduction and a clear and concise explanation of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, the Primary Series, the Intermediate Series, the Finishing Sequence, and all of the foundations of the practice – Breath, Bandhas, Drishti and Vinyasa. There’s even a page on the use of props, which are encouraged if they help (this, you have to understand, was considered heresy at the time – no doubt it probably still is in some dogma-ridden quarters!).
As well as devoting two pages to every single Asana, the book presents the full Primary Series and the full Intermediate Series at the back in double-page spreads. So again, you can have it open on the floor beside you and glance at it if you lose your way when you’re trying to memorise the series.
These days, I’m in the very privileged position of having plenty of time to practise every day. But when I first started with Ashtanga, it was a constant struggle to find the time to fit practice in around kids, work and life in general. That’s why I loved the last few pages of David’s book, where he presents what he calls “Short Forms” (more heresy!), for those who might be time-challenged. There’s a 15- minute practice, a 30-minute practice and a 45-minute practice. He suggests that they are good to use as stepping-stones to the full series, or that they may indeed be enough on their own, depending on where you are in life, suggesting that you should “Create the most suitable routine for your lifestyle”. In the introduction, he says the book will have achieved its purpose “if it somehow encourages you to practise”. It certainly did me, and I still refer to the book today. (Although it’s an invaluable guide for a newcomer to the practice, it’s not just for beginners.)
Many more beautiful books on Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga have been published since this one first appeared. But if you’ve kicked off 2021 promising yourself that you’ll start to practise, or that you’ll practise more regularly, then this is the book for you.