Whether you're searching for a good read to take along with you on your yoga retreat or just looking for a meaningful escape from the day-to-day grind, you’ll find that books about yoga are not scarce. An amazon.com book search uncovers more than 42,000 titles, a mix of instructional guides, self-help handbooks, hard-core spiritual treatises, and a handful of novels.
Books that interweave different aspects of yoga into an enticing piece of fiction are less easy to come by, though these can be the best complements and companions for your yoga travels, be it on your subway ride to yoga class, your overnight flight to Rishikesh, or your road trip to teacher training. No matter what, great novels that depict spiritual awakenings, overcoming life’s challenges, and encounters with yoga in its many forms can change your yoga journey, and your life, for the better.
So what makes a great yoga novel? A peek into the life of authors tells us that if a writer has faced suffering head-on, and has the added gift of creativity to express that suffering, the product is sure to inspire our inner-yogi. According to the twentieth-century monk, teacher, and writer Swami Dayananda Saraswati, creative people, in particular fiction writers, embody the suffering-joy equilibrium. It is often said that the greatest artists have suffered the greatest blows. When it comes to living a yogic lifestyle, embracing suffering for the purpose of creating art is directly related to the core value of equalizing pain and joy. Swami Dayananda Saraswati writes:
“Some people are not afraid of pain and suffering. Instead of complaining or escaping, they prefer to dive deep into their suffering. They don't mind it, or rather they feel that without suffering their life is meaningless. Amongst this group of people, we find the creative geniuses, the artists, musicians, poets, writers, and philosophers, and we also find the social reformers and saints. For these people, suffering became an inspiration and it motivated them to express themselves uniquely.”
If we look into the lives of some of the great Western writers of modern times, the connection between a writer’s suffering and the popularity of that writer’s work for meaning-seeking readers becomes clear. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Virginia Wolf, Sylvia Plath, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Hermann Hesse: all were writers who faced a great deal of psychological and emotional anguish in their lives, some of the details of which appear in their works, other details of which come through their unique characters and settings. It is the beauty they create out of their suffering that draws us in.
Our top 7 recommendations of yoga-related novels
Some are classics, others recent, but all make great yoga travel reads and are certain to inspire.
Yoga School Dropout (2005)
By Lucy Edge
While most of the recommended reads listed here are of the older, more hippy-ish variety, here’s an example of a recent book that’s a little lighter on the philosophical rants, and a little heavier on the quirk.
London-based blogger Lucy from The Unlikely Bookworm offers a great summary of this contemporary and relatable tale:
“Lucy Edge’s Yoga School Dropout is no doubt a familiar tale for many converted yogis: a high-flying advertising executive, she grew tired of creating campaigns for margarine brands and took herself to India to find a deeper sense of purpose. Away from London’s all-consuming rat race, Edge travels across India, trying different yoga and meditation ashrams in the hope that she will both develop her practice and discover a sense of inner peace and enlightenment. Through a series of sharp observations, Edge brings India – a land of contradictions – to life. Its mix of ancient traditions and culture mingled with western influence offers her spiritual quest an intriguing backdrop and an element of humor as she navigates her way from one yoga retreat to the next.” (source)
Amazon.com rating: 3.6/5
Goodreads rating: 3.2/5
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)
By Robert Persig
The author of this 1974 classic wore many hats, all of which direct this excellent novel. He held college degrees in chemistry, philosophy, and journalism. He studied Oriental philosophy at Benares Hindu University in India. His deep knowledge of Hinduism and his honest approach to mindfulness come through in this highly accessible novel about a man on a journey across America, from the Dakotas to Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and California. He is initially out to escape from mental illness, but his approach to the life of his mind changes as his trip goes on. On the road trip with his young son, Chris, and a couple named John and Sylvia, the dialogues and narrations in the book are museful and spiritual, full of the kind of philosophical inquiries that we are often faced with in our yoga practices and meditations. A great read for anyone interested in discovering the spiritual workings at play in our everyday thoughts and acts.
Amazon.com rating: 4.1/5
Goodreads rating: 3.7/5
Franny and Zoey (1961)
By JD Salinger
Another 1960s classic, Franny and Zoey is written by the famously elusive J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye. The novel, written in two parts (originally separate short stories in the New Yorker magazine), tells separate but interweaving tales of a brother and sister. The sister, Franny Glass, is the novel’s opening heroine. She’s sensitive, easily disturbed, and on the verge of a mental breakdown. Her thoughts have turned to spirituality but she cannot seem to get a real grasp on life. The second part of the book, titled “Zooey,” is narrated by Franny and Zooey’s older brother, Buddy. The setting is the Glass’s home, where Franny attempts to recover and Zooey engages her in a deep discussion about spirituality, theology, and philosophy. It is this highly reflective discussion which is the crux of what makes Franny and Zooey a great yoga novel and one that is not only relatable but also beneficial to anyone in the midst of a personal struggle with self and spirituality.
Writer Phil Goldberg discusses Salinger’s yoga-inspired writings, including Franny and Zooey, on layoga.com:
“Eastern mysticism – and to some extent the Western variety – become more explicit and more sophisticated with each subsequent Salinger work, beginning with Franny and Zooey… A smart, precariously sensitive college student sinks into an existential crisis, tries to unlock the secrets of an esoteric text and climbs out of her dark night of the soul with the help of Eastern wisdom delivered by a representative of a guru lineage. In this case, the “ashram” is the Manhattan apartment where Franny grew up, and the spiritual guide is her older brother Zooey, who imparts the teachings of the next oldest sibling, Buddy, who in turn is the chief “disciple” of their late brother Seymour, the family sadhguru. Along the way, readers learn about karma, Atman, chakras and various yogic imperatives, such as acting without attachment to the outcome and seeing everything, even the remedial chicken soup of a fussbudget mother, as consecrated.”
If you’re looking for an East-meets-West situational narrative that is relatable, mindful, and inspirational, Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is a great choice.
Amazon.com rating: 4.2/5
Goodreads rating: 4/5
Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (2007)
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Gilbert’s novel is a famous example of a story that speaks to our Western inclinations and sensibilities while at the same time enticing our Eastern, spiritual sides. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author, and narrator of Eat, Pray, Love had it all: an American education, a husband, a home in the country, and a great job. But something big was missing, and her unhappiness gave way to anxiety and confusion. She suffered from depression, carried herself through a divorce, attempted love again but failed, and was stuck at the bottom of a well of unanswered questions and deep fears about her life’s path.
While not all of us are brave enough to drop everything we know and go on a journey with the hope of finding ourselves, Gilbert does just that. She gets rid of her material belongings, quits her job, leaves her family, and travels the world for a year, completely alone. She travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia, gaining experiences in each place that would satisfy different parts of herself that she thought might be forever lost. The culmination of her travels teaches her how to construct and maintain a balance between desire and devotion, pleasure and pain, herself and the outside world.
If you’ve ever been struck with the urgent need for change in your life, this is the story for you.
Amazon.com rating: 3.4/5
Goodreads rating: 3.7/5
The Dharma Bums
By Jack Kerouac
A classic of bohemian fiction, this adventure story takes you on a journey with Ray Smith, an average guy out to find his spiritual truth, from the inside of San Francisco’s crowded Bohemian scene, to the open air of the high Sierras, to the peaks of Washington state, to Japan and back again. Always out for more, seeking the limits of an ultimately limitless experience of living, Ray travels thousands of miles through all different terrains, meeting all kinds of interesting characters along the way.
According to one goodreads.com reviewer, “The Dharma Bums has wonderful evocations of meditative states that instructive guides rarely contain: they answer the question 'why do this?'… And that idea of 'enlightenment' attached to meditative experiences can lead to more inner struggles with elitist attitudes than just finding the experience enjoyable or interesting. I figured, whilst reading these books recently, that I'm heretically in favor of meditation as an interesting sensory experience which can have useful side effects.”
A second goodreads.com reviewer wrote: “The fractured narrative reminded me of an unusually zen-enlightened kid who wants to try everything and does so by barreling ahead with an innocent desire to get swept up in the art of living life to its fullest. The passing epiphanies get as much attention as they deserve -- simply experiencing such truths rather than committing them to memory seems to be the point here.
The baby boom generation will find much nostalgia in this late sixties adventure tale, while millennials will enjoy the brief escape from high-tech culture into the natural settings and self-seeking tones of this classic.
Amazon.com rating: 4.3/5
Goodreads rating: 3.9/5
The Forty Rules of Love (2010)
By Elif Shafak
In this follow-up to Shafak’s novel,The Bastard of Istanbul, acclaimed Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, presents two parallel plots—one modern and the other set in the thirteenth century, when Persian poet and mystic Rumi first met his spiritual mentor, the Shams of Tabriz. The first plot revolves around Ella Rubenstein, an unhappily married forty-year-old who works in the publishing industry. She is swept away by her first work assignment, to read and review a book about Shams Tabrizi, Rumi’s spiritual mentor who helped Rumi transform himself from an unhappy cleric into a devoted mystic and poet. Her life begins to parallel that of Rumi, with her instructional guide not Shams of Tabriz, but rather the author of the book she’s assigned to review.
Whether you’re familiar with Rumi, curious about him, or simply desiring to be swept away, The Forty Rules of Love is for you.
Amazon.com rating: 4.5/5
Goodreads rating: 4.1/5
By Hermann Hesse
Perhaps it’s enough to quote the Indian mystic, guru, and spiritual teacher Osho, whose words about Hermann Hesse capture the very essence of what makes this book perfect for a yoga journey:
“[Hesse] was not an enlightened one, what to say about those who have gone beyond enlightenment. He was a human being, but in a poetic flight, he has written one of the greatest books in the world, Siddartha… It is unbelievable that Hermann Hesse could write it but could not become a Siddha himself. He remained a poor writer.”
The story of Siddartha is by now well-known, not only because of its author but because its message speaks to all yoga-inclined people who wish to break through the mental, emotional, and psychological barriers in order to discover the deeper spiritual center within themselves. The character of Siddartha is each of us, and his travels are full of yogic messages, some of which seem to come straight from the Buddha himself.
Amazon.com rating: 4/5
Goodreads rating: 4.4/5
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