Add Science, Subtract Bullsh*t, Do Yoga. ~ Molly McCollum

Via on Oct 13, 2012

My career as a yoga skeptic and overall thorn in the side of the yoga scene began a few years ago.

I was figuratively smacked on the wrist with a ruler and literally kicked out of an advanced yoga class in Greenwich Village. That’s correct. I am a bad yoga student with a negative attitude and definitely don’t understand what yoga is all about.

Those are semi-direct quotes.

The reason for my dismissal from class was my obnoxious and insulting refusal to contort my body into a position that is dangerous, and my appalling insistence that, no, Plough Pose does not “invert the biochemistry of the body as well as the mind, causing fuller oxygenation of the cells and increased mindfulness and immune system stimulation.”

That’s not a direct quote; that’s my impression of a clueless yogi spewing the pseudoscience the holistic community is so famous for.

That’s right. This is an article about secular yoga.

Raise your hand if you’ve been encouraged to bend yourself into a pose you don’t feel quite comfortable with, but were convinced by the firm and commanding yet gentle intonation of your instructor, who, you assumed, surely would not advise you to do something that was actually dangerous or harmful to your body.

Everyone? Yes, everyone.

Let’s skip forward to the meat of this argument: yoga culture is bizarrely lacking in science.

For an activity that is so often categorized as “health and fitness,” and often praised for its beneficial and “healing” effects, it sure does hold science and medicine at an arm’s length. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised at this—after all, our best estimation is that yoga began somewhere around 3000 BC—not an era known for its scientific acumen.

The earliest evidence of yoga appears in artifacts of ancient Shamanism, a religion practiced by the Turks and Mongols and encompassing the premise that shamans can heal and moderate the physical world by interacting with the spiritual and supernatural worlds.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who “invented” the asanas (poses) we practice today as there are many competing claims. We know that they existed well before Patanjali, so no clinging to that old chestnut.

Wherever they came from—be it Shiva or Gorashka or the Flying Spaghetti Monster—they’re not informed by the contemporary fields of anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology. No one who has ever poked and prodded a cadaver while learning about the muscular and skeletal systems would ever encourage something like Plough Pose.

It follows, then, that your instructor’s gentle babble about healing and stimulation and ionization and whatever other yogaspeak he or she chooses to pepper in is inherently flawed. If your “science” is based on the inane, 5,000-year-old ramblings and superstitions of an upper Paleolithic era religion, perhaps you should not be preaching that “science” as medical advice to the 30 Lululemon-clad 20-year-olds in your Tuesday evening yoga class.

I attended Yoga Teacher Training just as you did. I learned all the same rubbish as you. I politely participated in the journaling, the chanting, the meditating and all the rest. Upon graduation, I chose science and logic over religion and utter silliness and have been conducting my classes in an “Om-free,” yoga buzzword-free, and pro-safety manner. I know for a fact that I’ve never hurt a student. I’ve never given medical advice that I’m not qualified to give.

Can you say the same?

Yoga students: if something doesn’t feel right, or hurts, or sounds like something your instructor made up on the spot, don’t do it. Speak up. Walk out. Remove yourself from the situation.

Yoga instructors: educate yourselves. Dig up your high school copy of Campbell’s Biology or, even better, enroll in a real anatomy class—not an “Anatomy for Yogis” class. Consult a sports medicine physician. Stop positioning yourselves as healthcare providers when you have no medical training or licensing and are likely to cause more harm than good.

And for Shiva’s sake, enough with the Plough Pose.

 

Molly is a medical researcher, enormous science geek, and habitual know-it-all residing and teaching yoga in Brooklyn, New York. Information about her “yoga for atheists” classes can be found at www.yogaBKLYN.com.

 

~

Editor: Elysha Anderson

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25 Responses to “Add Science, Subtract Bullsh*t, Do Yoga. ~ Molly McCollum”

  1. Vanita says:

    Well. Thank the God of my understanding that when it comes to yoga, there is a little something for everyone – OM(s) and all.

    I'm against being pushed beyond my edge and there are poses I don't do, so I get the point about physical injury, but I don't think the deeper spiritual connections I get from my practice are "utter silliness".

  2. Renee says:

    I have been doing yoga for 20 years and teaching for 10 years. No one ever forced me to do a pose and I certainly have never forced a student to do a pose. I know first hand the benefits of yoga. You do not need to have a phd. to tell someone backbends can strengthen your back or boat pose can strengthen your core. You had a bad experience it seems. I have taken classes all over the world and never had your experience. I tell my students no matter what I teach its your body and you are the master. And I love the Sankrit language Om shanti Om

    • Molly says:

      Glad to hear it, Renee. I certainly had a terrible experience, and I think it’s more of a common one than we realize. My vitriol is really not directed towards Sanskrit– it’s the scientific nonsense that always seems to trail it. I’m thrilled that you’re considering safety when you teach; keep it going!

  3. greateacher says:

    I am worried about some of your broad generalizations.

    I used to, but no longer bother to cringe at some yoga babblespeak.. It can be scary to have a scientific background and hear that certain poses stimulate one organ or another or 'rinse' them.

    However as I choose my yoga teachers with care I hear this stuff less and less. I have written a few of my own articles about the lack of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and more in yoga teacher trainings. I urge you to begin writing to Yoga Alliance and other venues wiht these concerns. it's up to those with more experience and education in some fields to help bring our 'professional peers' along and further the great value of yoga for many.

    • Molly says:

      I find it interesting that you cringe at yoga babble considering the subject matter of your impassioned flaming of my last post.

      Nevertheless, you’re right, we should all be writing a few strongly-worded letters to YA.

  4. sarakimm says:

    I love yoga,and have benefited immensely from it, but as a medical professional I have to say I have heard teachers make the most ridiculous claims and have heard many statements made with the ring of authority that were not only not true, but impossible. I think we have to remember that many of these medical claims were dreamed up hundreds (thousands?) of years ago. We know a little more about how the body works now. I feel that the many wonderful benefits of yoga can be discussed without making medical claims (or diagnoses!). A 200 hour yoga teachers training does not really qualify anyone to make medical proclamations.

    • Molly says:

      It’s a little scary, right?

    • sarakimm says:

      But, having said that, I have to add when hearing such, I sit quietly, enjoy the class, and allow my body to receive the amazing gifts of yoga. I have never been figuratively smacked with anything, nor pressured to do a pose I was uncomfortable with. On the contrary, most teachers emphasize to go to your edge, not to try to emulate your neighbors on the floor. We are all responsible for our own health and wellness — if you do something you are not comfortable with, whose fault is that? I have also absolutely NEVER seen anyone kicked out of a class. I feel there's a little more to that part of the story.

    • greateacher says:

      I agree sarakimm. I write now and only take classes from teachers whose backgrounds have a strong education and foundation not only in anatomy, phisology, fitness, yoga, teaching and open mins and hearts.
      Many of my yoga teachers, friends and dance friends have had opportunities to learn and practice many types of health maintenance, illness prevention as well as illness healing through medical docs, accupuncturists, ayurvedic principles, organic foods, yoga, chiropractic work, physical therapy and natural healing. It is indeed a wonderful world. Educating oneself and making good choices about practitioners and beliefs gives one freedom and helath.

  5. Rogelio says:

    Hi Molly. It’s too bad you had a bad experience w a yoga teacher.
    Like in all professions there are a few bad apples.
    But most of the health benefits that I know and have experienced
    From practicing yoga has been from Iyengar yoga.
    Bks Iyengar has outlined the benefits of asanas from
    80 plus years of practice and teaching. He himself healed his health problems
    With yoga. So how do you explain these benefits? There have been studies
    In India n in other countries. And in the USA. Have you not seen the studies
    On carpal tunnel? Just to mention one.

  6. Micaela says:

    "Wherever they came from—be it Shiva or Gorashka or the Flying Spaghetti Monster—they’re not informed by the contemporary fields of anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology."

    Why does the injection of science into anything "spiritual" always call for the complete obliteration and mockery of what is sacred to others?

    I've been to countless yoga classes that teach with care for proper alignment and attentiveness to the limits of one's own body (i.e. a more scientific approach) and it was also a class that was beautifully balanced with the more spiritual "stuff" that some are clearly allergic to. Should you attend or remain in a yoga class that "forces" you to do anything? No, of course not. But if it's a science-infused yoga class that we're looking for, then "Secular yoga" or "yoga for atheists" would probably be better off being called something other than "yoga"…

    • Thaddeus1 says:

      "Why does the injection of science into anything "spiritual" always call for the complete obliteration and mockery of what is sacred to others?"

      Because there is a breed of adherents to the western empirical scientific mindset who operate on the Highlander credo that "There can be only one." You know, if you walk around believing that you've found the one, True source of knowledge, then all the others has got to go. In this regard, I've found that atheists are so very close to their brothers-in-arms the Fundamentalists. But, don't ever tell them that.

  7. Steve Clark says:

    The cornerstone of science is observation. Your habit of jumping to rash conclusions is unscientific, and I'll give you a perfect example of how rash your conclusions are:
    "I know for a fact that I have never hurt a student."
    Really? A fact? Then you must have magical discernment powers. That must be kind of embarrassing for an atheist. Your powers allow you to know for a fact that no student of yours has been hurt but decided to keep it quiet because he or she didn't want you to feel bad? Or didn't know at the time. Hmm.
    But my sarcasm, negativity, and know-it-all-ness there doesn't prove anything. It doesn't mean I'm intelligent. It may somehow separate me from the people you don't respect–the ones who perhaps aren't very intelligent. They are out there.
    You don't make yourself more intelligent by pointing out their shortcomings. They aren't good scientists, but either are you, Molly. So maybe you should stick to yoga.
    Good scientists love science.

  8. Thaddeus1 says:

    I'm glad that you had the nerve to stand up for yourself in this class. There are many people who I feel do not have the confidence, nor the intuitive sense about themselves, to do such a thing. This is a compliment to your knowledge and respect for your body.

    However, with that said, I'm wonder if it is your contention that all knowledge about the body derives solely from the western empirical science model?

    It seems when you write, "Wherever they came from—be it Shiva or Gorashka or the Flying Spaghetti Monster—they’re not informed by the contemporary fields of anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology. No one who has ever poked and prodded a cadaver while learning about the muscular and skeletal systems would ever encourage something like Plough Pose," that you believe these ancient investigators of the body (subtle and gross) didn't know anything. Setting aside your historical account, which is perfunctory at best, I can't help but think that since modern science is approximately 500 years old, that people might have learned something in the previous 2500-5500 years before that. And so, if it is the case, that you allow for the possibility of knowledge to exist outside the limited empirical confines of modern science, then perhaps one need not examine a cadaver to realize the benefits and risks associated with plough pose? If there is no knowledge outside modern science, then how praytell did we ever manage to arrive at the "Truth" supplied by science when we've apparently been bumbling around in the dark (and yet still doing things like plough pose) for the untold previous millennia?

  9. greateacher says:

    Nicely said.

  10. timful says:

    I think science offers the best path to achieve rational aims, such as greater fitness, flexibility, longer life, etc., much of what we do yoga for. But, I am afraid, our conscious rational mind is not always the best driver toward what truly makes us happy and content. We often do better to stop thinking and just "be." At a biological level, I suppose we are allowing more basic components of our nervous system to take over. This is how the mystical element in yoga works for me… to get me to stop thinking about how I am going to achieve some rational goals. I can see those people pumping the stair steppers, and that is not what I am after. That doesn't mean I shut down the science that warns me something is dangerous. But, neither do I ask for scientific justification for everything.

  11. JoeC2K says:

    I believe that the American 200/500 hour yoga teacher qualification is the root of harmful yoga instruction. Too much ego and not enough solid foundation in science. Thanks for sharing your experience :-)

  12. paul says:

    As I understand it, the line is that the asana of yore wasn't for physical anatomy, but subtle anatomy (either to assist concentration, or open nadis and chakras), or for the sake of the austerity itself (for suffering or tapas). Also, I have never been told to put myself in harms way in a yoga context; I was told the first time I learned plow pose that I could break my neck, and more generally to be cautious in all poses; to prefer awareness to performance (and imo it is because I was taught to practice for the sake of the woowoo stuff, rather than the physical, I received this advice). I like the plow pose, and once I became comfortable in it found it very relaxing and instructive, but it's not for everyone.

    It is always sad and disappointing to hear of people not considering care and practice to be one and the same.

  13. Sybil says:

    I’m still trying to figure out how to ‘breath through my side ribs’ and how to ‘heal the broken energy channel in my middle back’. It was at that point – after months and months of asking for clarification on these two issues that I ‘spit the dummy’ which started a tense conversation IN CLASS with the instructor (her initiation – not mine). I basically was kicked out (guided out?) of that class also.

    Give me a good ol’ fashion yoga class without all the made-up mumbo jumbo and I’m happy as can be.

  14. Parvati says:

    how about the saying the proof is in the pudding? sounds corny but generally tell classes don't believe me try it when something something is experiential rather than theory then it is a whole new world isn't it? for the most part yogis Ive seen ARE more balanced and healthier than the general population
    this being said… most tru to the heart yogis could care less what you think :) or rather we could care less what ANYONE thinks we know what is up within:) why am i posting? l LOVE gossip blogs & still have karmas so this is fun:)
    & my husband (shiva says ssssshhhh just DO it!:)

  15. Timmy_Robins says:

    Two in a row Molly?? How refreshing !
    This kind of posts are so not common here on EJ.

    I find it funny how most people here get super offended when someone questions all the ignorance and fluffy bunny trash that is the yoga world today.

    I couldnt agree more with you , leaving aside all that stuff , yoga is great exercise if you can find a good , responsible teacher that is .. but like with all the other alternative living stuff the lack of regulation will forever keep it submerged in the puddle of mediocrity .

    Secular yoga, brilliant.

    • greateacher says:

      same could be said about medical doctors, gym instructors, chess teachers.. in all areas of our lives we have touse sense, research and knowledge to evaluate who will be good, bad, mediocre

  16. greateacher says:

    People get more upset with the pompousness, one-sided slamming and churlish attitude than the questioning.

  17. Really good (and timely) topic. As a long time yoga practitioner and teacher, I too am often frustrated by the lack of scientific basis for health claims made by yoga teachers. I wish I knew of some comprehensive resource of peer-reviewed, published scientific research demonstrating the benefits and contraindications of various yoga practices. One issue is the huge variance in methodology, intensity, and quality of instruction from class to class. Still, we need to know more. There is clearly tremendous health and wellness value in yoga practice, and also potential for injury. I'm currently planning the curriculum for my first TT, and these issues weigh heavily on my mind. I realized a long time ago that there was a serious lack of critical thinking and common sense in many yoga circles—not only at the physical level, with teachers demonstrating a real lack of understanding about anatomy and physiology, but also at the spiritual level, where teachers tend to blend new age positivity and, dare I say, fantasizing, into their classes. I think they do this because the actual philosophies of the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and other "yogic" scriptures are a) difficult to understand, b) sometimes contradictory, and c) impossible to speak about with any sense of authority without having experienced the principles personally. The Gita and the Sutras are not even remotely similar to New Age pop spirituality, and I personally feel that most TT's are just as unequipped to teach spirituality as they are anatomy and alignment.

    It's also, in my opinion, a serious issue that we keep reinforcing very specific aesthetics in yoga. The constant emphasis on achieving an outward ideal is a huge distraction for students who are not taught in a group setting how to discover their own joint range of motion, bone proportions, and flexibility capacity, and then how to tailor asanas to their own unique bodies and FEEL what is happening in their joints and tissues.

    In my own 17 years of practice and 10 years of teaching I am still constantly researching, learning, and adapting my teaching AND my practice. I've done three 200 hr TT's and although they were wonderful in their own way, I've honestly learned much, much more through my own independent study.

    I drove by Whole Foods in my neighborhood yesterday and saw that they've opened up a "Whole Body" separate store to house the enormous stock of natural remedies and natural beauty products people are so enamored with. There are overwhelming numbers of peer-reviewed, published, scientific research papers debunking the outrageous claims of so many of these "natural" health supplements and beauty products, and yet people continue to buy them, sometimes eschewing proven medical and cosmetic chemistry wisdom. Are all natural remedies bogus? No, certainly not. Are they all good for you and not harmful? Nope. Is "yoga" healthy and healing and spiritual? Depends so, so very much on who is teaching and what they're teaching. And freak accidents happen even under the watch of the best teachers. I think we need to really value critical thinking, logic and a healthy sense of inquiry when it comes to yoga and spirituality. It's been a good year for yoga to evolve. The John Friend thing and the William Broad thing, and the Mark Singleton thing before them, have definitely opened up the conversation and I think we should keep it going, so thanks for your piece, Molly.

  18. [...] Add Science, Subtract Bullsh*t, Do Yoga. ~ Molly McCollum [...]

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