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An old book on yogic breathing
on March 24, 2016
I got this book as a Kindle freebie. It’s made available for free because it’s in the public domain, not necessarily because it was so bad that the author couldn’t even get people to pay $0.99 for it. It was written by an American named William Walker Atkinson, who also went by the pseudonym of Yogi Ramacharaka. Atkinson was an American who lived in the latter 19th and early 20th century, and authored more than 100 books. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of an author this prolific, it’s in part owing to his love of nom de plumes and the fact that he dodged the spotlight.
This book is short—less than 100 pages—and is organized into 16 chapters. The early chapters provide background for an audience that would’ve been fairly unaware of yogic practices, and the latter chapters are more along of a how-to book—giving instructions on various yogic breathing techniques. The first part of the book also tries to discuss the science of breath in terms of anatomy and physiology, but in layman’s terms. All in all, the book’s organization is logical.
This book’s readability is not bad, considering its era. However, it is 19th century writing, and so sentences can be long and tortuous by present-day standards. In the instructional parts, he uses bullet pointing to explain sequences.
The book runs into some problems, in my opinion, by trying to explain breath both in terms of modern science and yogic physiology. Imagine the story of the creation of the universe being told simultaneously in terms of the big bang and the Biblical account. These explanations are at odds, and any attempt to merge them into an integrated explanation will convolute the principles of one system or the other. Furthermore, explanations of respiratory and nervous system operations from Atkinson’s day are a bit out-of-date.
I would recommend this book for someone who has a scholarly interest in yoga and how it came to be introduced to the West. I can’t say that I would recommend it for its originally intended purposes of putting pranayama in the context of Western medical science or teaching the techniques of breathing. There are better books for the former (e.g. Coulter’s “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga”, chapter 2—though this is a much more technical account), and a teacher is needed for the latter. If one is an intermediate (or above) student of pranayama, then experimenting with Atkinson’s methods may prove interesting. However, from what I could read, it’s not clear where Atkinson learned pranayama. The fundamentals (e.g. abdominal, thoracic, and yogic breathing) seem sound, but there are other techniques that are unfamiliar to me and seem a bit unconventional. I can’t vouch for whether these are things I haven’t learned or whether Atkinson got them wrong. However, mostly there is just not enough information to communicate the fine points of the practices, and practicing pranayama is not without its risks.