The yogis of yore had several texts or "reference material" to guide them in their practices. Most of these are hundreds if not thousands of years old and have been passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.
These texts are relevant even today because they contain universal truths. They throw light on the true aims of yoga and give a strong theoretical background for the practical science of yoga.
Unless you are an expert in Vedic Sanskrit, you will have to rely on a translation and commentary of the texts. You would do better to avoid translations by a modernist, especially Westerners who translate after reading other translations. Some things about Indian culture have to be lived and imbibed and are very difficult to learn. These nuances are likely to be missed by non-Indians. Of course, there are exceptions- but generally you will do better if you go to a translation done by a traditional Indian yoga master who has been taught the Sanskrit version himself.
The Siva Samhita is the first work on yoga, said to originate from Lord Shiva, the founder of yoga. The first verse begins "Now the Lord Shiva, bestower of deliverance to all beings, expounds for the benefit of all his devotees, the Discipline of yoga."
Chapter 1 is the Path of Harmony and gives an introduction to yoga. Chapter 2 goes into the fundamentals of Yoga. Chapter 3 covers the system and its practices such as asana, nadi-shodhana and pranayama, while Chapter 4 goes into postures and preludes, especially Mudras and Bandhas. The last chapter is on Raja Yoga.
The Gherand Samhita is much more practical. It comprises of seven lessons - the first introducing the six-fold system. The second lesson covers asanas- thirty-two of them to be specific. Each asana is described - how to perform it and its effects. Mudras or mystic exercise are taken up next - twenty-five of them. Lesson four talks about the control of senses, and lesson five about pranayama or breath control. Lesson six introduces you to meditation, while lesson seven talks about the aim of yoga - super-consciousness.
The Hatha Yoga Pradeepika by Swami Swatmarama is a much later text (16th Century) which is a practical manual for yoga students. Chapter one deals with the pre-requisites of yoga and the asanas. Chapter two talks about Pranayam. Chapter three talks about mudras, bandhas and pranayam. Chapter four deals with Raj Yoga
The Patanjali Yoga Sutra is a Raj Yoga text. It is at a very high level and difficult to understand for beginners. Though at least two thousand years old, it deals with the subject matter at a psychological, psychosomatic and metaphysical level. It comprises of 196 verses divided over four chapters covering the types of yoga, practice of yoga, powers of yoga and samadhi or super-consciousness. To give you an idea of its terseness, the first verse reads "Atha Yoga Anu-shasanam" Now (is explained) the discipline of Yoga. Verse two defines yoga "Yoga Chitth Vritti Nirodhah" Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind. You would need an expert commentary to understand this text fully
The Bhagwad Gita is another classic yogic text. You can read details of this on the Beyond Hatha Yoga Page.
Other Yoga Books
There are thousands of books available on yoga and to choose the right one(s) amongst them is no easy task. After all there is no formal qualification required to write a book on yoga!
I have found these texts immensely useful, as they preach the holistic yoga we talk about. . No doubt there are many more books but these are the ones I have come across.
Do send us information of other books for inclusion in this list...
A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya
by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, pp834 (large size, available in both English & Hindi).
This is the most comprehensive text ever published on yoga. It contains a complete course of 36 structured lessons on all the practices of integral yoga. The lessons were compiled from the teachings given by Swami Satyananda and are useful as a practical and theoretical guide to all levels of yoga teachers and aspirants. The book presents a synthesis of yoga in a scientific and systematic manner. The different branches of hatha yoga, raja yoga, mantra yoga, karma yoga, bhakti yoga, jnana yoga and kriya yoga are progressively introduced with special emphasis on practice, theory and application in day to day life.
The books is large, heavy and expensive (Rs. 2000/$40 plus postage which also costs a lot) - but worth every penny for serious students of yoga. If you have only one book on yoga, this can be it.
Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha
by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, pp543 (English & Hindi).
Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha is recognised internationally as one of the most systematic yoga manuals available today. This enlarged and revised edition provides clear illustrations and step by step directions which smoothly guide the practitioner through the simplest to the most advanced practices. In addition, it includes the benefits and contra-indications of each technique along with focal points and breath awareness, to deepen the benefits and experience of the practices. A therapeutic index has been included for use by doctors and yoga therapists which incorporates the findings of yoga research. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha is a central textbook for all Bihar Yoga Bharati undergraduate and postgraduate courses.Suitable for all teachers and practitioners.
The Original Yoga
By Shyam Ghosh
An authentic translation and commentary on the three great ancient Sanskrit Yoga Classics the Shiva Samhita, Gheranda Samhita and Yoga Sutras of Patanjali