In Thinking in Āsana, Matylda Ciołkosz compares three of the most popular systems of postural yoga—Viniyoga (founded by T. K. V. Desikachar), Iyengar Yoga (founded by B. K. S. Iyengar), and Ashtanga Yoga (founded by K. Pattabhi Jois). She demonstrates how the systems’ different “yoga philosophies”—learned within social environments consisting of physical spaces, other practitioners, and teachers rooted in each system—lead to different experiences, understandings, and meanings for each system’s practitioners. Despite their founders’ shared roots as students of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the three systems diverge from one another in practice, experience, and philosophy of yoga. Ciołkosz examines these divergences and their effects on the creation and understanding of yoga bodies and practice within each system.

The book is divided into two primary sections. In the first, Ciołkosz provides an overview of enactive cognition, the idea that cognition develops through interactions with one’s environment and, importantly for her argument, the impact of physical motion within and in response to one’s environment on cognition. She follows this with a discussion of the relationship between cognition and meaning and the role of language as a learned means of communicating meaning, for sorting and classifying experiences, and for developing an understanding of those experiences through idealized cognitive models. Ciołkosz argues that yoga practitioners’ idealized cognitive models are shaped by their experiences practicing yoga within social spaces and by the influence of specific metaphors used within those spaces to ascribe meaning to yoga practice. By virtue of their differing philosophies, metaphors, and interpretations of teachings, Viniyoga, Iyengar Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga influence their practitioners in different ways identifiable through comparing how each system approaches elements such as asanas, breathwork, and mindfulness within its practice of yoga. In addition to examining Desikachar, Iyengar, and Jois’ writings, Ciołkosz—herself a long-time practitioner of Iyengar Yoga—immersed herself in the practice of both Viniyoga and Ashtanga Yoga in order to experience each system’s practice and understanding of yoga.

In the second section of the book, Ciołkosz provides thorough, chapter-length descriptions of Viniyoga, Iyengar Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga as yoga systems, focusing on the philosophical understandings of each system’s founder and how those understandings become embodied in the system’s physical practice and understanding of yoga. She highlights common elements within each system—such as the role of breath, common asanas, or the relationship between particular asanas within yoga practice—and analyzes how they differ in practice and understanding from system to system due to differing yoga philosophies. This section of the book is the most substantial, and the level of detail in Ciołkosz’s discussion and analysis of each is impressive and insightful.

However, while her choice to cover each of the three systems in its own, lengthy chapter allows for detailed examination of each system, a weakness of this approach is that the comparative aspect of Ciołkosz’s analysis is often buried within those individual chapters as relatively brief statements of similarities or differences between the systems of yoga rather than more in-depth and comparative discussions. Aside from a brief summary chapter, the book does not contain a chapter with a fully comparative focus, leaving the reader to work harder to compare the systems than to get a detailed understanding of each system. Additionally, while Ciołkosz draws on her own participation within each yoga system to some degree, the majority of the book is based on her discussion of each founder’s teachings rather than her, or anyone else’s, direct experience. While her arguments make sense and are supported by her analysis of the founders’ teachings, Ciołkosz doesn’t address the degree to which participants in each system actually experience their own yoga practice in the manner she describes. Finally, while the book has the potential to be of value to both academic and more general, yoga-interested audiences, Ciołkosz’s exclusive use of Sanskrit names for asanas provides a potential barrier for readers. Those who are unfamiliar with yoga are likely to find the Sanskrit confusing while those readers who approach the book from a background in yoga may be more familiar with Sanskrit in spoken form and may struggle connecting the spoken and written terms.

Overall, Thinking in Āsana provides an impressive discussion of Viniyoga, Iyengar Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga and illustrates how yoga practice influenced by the specific philosophy and language of each produces different experiences with and understandings of the body and of yoga for practitioners. Matylda Ciołkosz’s book should appeal both to scholars of yoga as well as more advanced practitioners.

Travis Vande Berg, Tompkins Cortland Community College