Book Review: The Jewel of Abundance by Ellen Grace O'Brian

Nothing — no circumstance; no person, event, or obstacle — can take our bliss from us.
Our bliss only ‘leaves’ us when we lose awareness of our true Self.
— Ellen Grace O'Brian
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Nothing frustrates a writer so much as the thing that defies description.

Reviewing books is usually pretty straightforward. You share a sprinkle of its contents, a dash of personal opinion, and presto! A shiny, new post. This time, though, despite the relatively linear procedure, there was nothing “uncomplicated” about it. 

Ellen Grace O’Brian is a long respected voice in the Yoga community. A student of Roy Eugene Davis, who was himself a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, she is also the creator of Carry the Vision, a community educational project bringing meditation instruction to staff and children in schools, the prison population, and other segments of society.

The Jewel of Abundance is a fantastic read. O’Brian’s voice is both entertaining and thought provoking, adding valuable dimension to some of Yoga’s more esoteric principles. From practical discussions about work-life balance to the oftentimes nebulous concept of surrender, the Vedic texts are retooled into chewable pieces of easily digested concepts. Despite having my copy for less than a month, its condition makes it appear otherwise. Dog-eared, highlighted, and peppered with barely legible chicken-scratch, this is a book that’s already seen some action. This is just how literature ends up around here. I use my books, and this is one worth using.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its issues. O’Brian often plays fast and loose with the Yoga Sutras, which leaves me feeling more than a little conflicted. On one hand, I applaud the author’s dragging of traditional writings out of theoretical obscurity. Pouring over Vedic tomes isn’t for everyone, and there’s enormous value in making them accessible. But while I feel that teachings should always be reframed though the lens of modern understanding, updated interpretations should never be passed off as faithful translations. Regrettably, this is sometimes exactly what happens.

While plenty of yogic concepts are approached with scholarly care, there are definitely some instances of rose-tinted revisionism. The conversation around Brahmacharya being a prime example. As inconvenient as it may be for us modern Yogis, the sutras could not be more clear: Ultimate self realization is not possible for one actively engaged in sex. Is this sutra outdated? Undeniably. The solution, however, is not to misrepresent the original precept as instructing us to “use our energy wisely”. Instead, why not use this opportunity to have a healthy discussion about discernment, critical thinking, and the ways in which a belief system can evolve? While I believe this “sprucing up” to be well intentioned, I see little value in presenting The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as enlightened scripture without flaw. Where then does that leave us, except with right-knowledge obscured?

All criticisms aside, the illumination to be gained from The Jewel of Abundance vastly outweighs its occasional blind spots. In the span of some 270 pages, I have gleaned new perspective on countless aspects of my personal practice. From inspired strategies for meditation to a conversation about Asteya that had me taking a long, sober look in the mirror, Ellen Grace O’Brian has captured my attention. It is, without doubt, a captivating book that belongs on every Yogi’s reading list; I encourage you to add it to yours.

After all, gifts are meant to be shared.

The Jewel of Abundance can be found on Goodreads as well as the author’s personal website, ellengraceobrian.com. I encourage you to purchase books from independent bookstores if at all possible. Your local library is another fantastic resource and I hope you give them your support.