„Yogāvatāraṇam – The translation of Yoga” by Zoë Slatoff (book review)

„Yogāvatāraṇam – The translation of Yoga” by Zoë Slatoff (book review)

by | 11. Mar. 2022 | -English Blog-Post, Book reviews, Buchbesprechung

Usually, when I take a picture of a book that I am reviewing, I try to use a pristine version of the book whenever possible. But, as you can see, in this case, it is different.

The book came to my attention through an advertisement on http://www.ashtanga.com/ immediately after publication in 2015. It then came to rest on one of my bookshelves, close to many other books that I had purchased without getting around to reading them.

In 2018, I had a small question concerning a Sanskrit word in a mantra, and Dr. Google could not help me out. So I wrote an email to the author of this book,  Zoë Slatoff, who was then totally unknown to me. She answered in a clear and friendly way on the same day. She also pointed out that she would start level one of an online class based on her book in the summer of that year via the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS). What shall I say? Last August, I completed level 11 of her course. So, within three years, we have gone through the book once – and it shows.

I am now going through the book a second time, much slower, almost weekly, with a small group of students adventurous enough to take that journey with me.

This extensive anecdote shall explain that I am not at all objective when reviewing this book. It has definitely been THE book I have been the most involved in during these past three years. I love it.

If you hold a particular interest in yoga or Indian philosophy in general and if you would like to read some of the old texts in their original language, then this book is exactly right for you. This claim is especially valid if you are yourself practicing yoga.

Zoë Slatoff

Why is this book a unique learning tool for Sanskrit?

The reason is that Zoë uniquely combines the analytical academic approach to teaching Sanskrit with the more intuitive traditional Indian method to become acquainted with the beautiful language of Sanskrit through the reading and the chanting of the text.

Zoë is perfectly qualified for this combined approach. She has studied Sanskrit at Columbia University (New York). She is also currently writing her doctoral thesis on translating a text from the Middle Ages of particular relevance to yoga practitioners. In addition, she is a yoga practitioner and yoga teacher herself – which is the main difference to most other authors of books for teaching Sanskrit. She has been doing yoga daily since she was 15 and taught Ashtanga Yoga in her shala in New York from 2009 until the end of 2021. She now lives in Los Angeles and teaches Sanskrit at Loyola Marymount University. Here is the link to her website.

This is the book’s cover.

All of the 21 chapters start with a short verse from the yogasūtra. Then some new grammatical concepts are explained, followed by examples and exercises. Should you use the book for self-study, you can look up the answers to the exercises towards the end of the book. Translation already begins in chapter 2, almost always a mantra or a concrete verse from traditional texts. Of course, the opening and the closing mantra of Ashtanga Yoga are also part of the teaching (chapters 3 and 17, respectively).

Zoë is also offering audio files for all the texts and exercises via her website free of charge.

The path of self-study requires enormous self-discipline. For me, it was easier to go through the book with the help of Zoë’s online courses at OCHS. Each module lasts for eight weeks, and there is weekly homework that Zoë corrects in a very timely manner. Zoë also offers private classes.

For those who have at least reached the end of the first two sections of her book (e.g., chapter 14), Zoë has started a reading club. There, she is repeating things and offering more advanced knowledge, for instance, how to work with commentaries. Currently, we are translating Aparokṣānubhūti, the text on which Zoë is also writing her Ph.D. thesis.

Why would one learn Sanskrit?

As this blog is about the book, I assume you already have a reason or a specific interest in Sanskrit. Otherwise, why would you have read this blog? Still, you can find reasons from Zoë’s point of view here and my point of view here.

And if one would want to learn Sanskrit, how to go on about it?

Zoë’s online course at OCHS starts again on July 17th. You can find the link here.

I have also started to offer introductory workshops (in German and English, via Zoom or onsite). The next one (in German) is scheduled for March 26th and 27th. You can find details here. First of all, you will learn to read and write. Should you then be interested in following up, you can do so also with me in weekly classes. Teaching is based on Zoë’s excellent book. I am also offering private courses (in German and English). Should you be interested, get in touch.

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