March 18, 2012

Book Review: The Science of Yoga. ~ Eric Shaw


Three years ago, I smelled something bad upwind.

Yoga’s devil-side was farting somewhere near—like a malodorous, motorcycle-gang cousin who takes whatever pose he likes in yoga class.

The first hints of it came in scholarship. David White, a professor of South Asian Religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara published Sinister Yogis in 2009, then Mark Singleton published his reworked doctoral dissertation, Yoga Body in January 2010.

Both deeply exhumed yoga’s troubled past.

Not much long after, John Friend fell from grace and William Broad published the Science of Yoga.

Yoga’s smelly butt was now standing naked for all to view.

But since this is a review of Broad’s new book, The Science of Yoga, let’s say the story isn’t all bad, it’s just eponymously broad.

How scientific discoveries function in yoga culture is The Science of Yoga’s meta-story.  All of us know that yogis cherry-pick facts from science that serve their aims, and Broad paints the picture in embarrassing detail.

He cherry-picks facts, too. He draws unsupportable conclusions, and over-dramatizes the conflict of viewpoints in the yoga world.

I bought the book to read on my way to Texas last month. My 14-year old contrarian id wanted stimulus (even though I’m 50!). Since I like the dark side as well as the light and the messy as well as the well-ordered stories from the yoga world, I opened Broad’s book with gusto, and I yawned.

He goes on and on.

Giving him his due, one chapter I’d consider good is called Fit Perfection. In this chapter, he deals with claims that yoga is all you need for cardiovascular fitness.

He does a great job of tracking down scientific tests that resolved the question, and notes how Yoga Journal, YogaFit and The Huffington Post made only partially supportable claims that cardio was one of yoga’s benefits.

At the same time, the writing—as it is throughout the whole book—is overwrought. He wrings a controversy out of questions that common sense settles easily. I sweat, but don’t breathe hard in even the toughest yoga classes, ergo, yoga builds muscle but has little effect on cardio!

Um, William! I already knew this! Yo, bro! Is that alright?!

Despite these pratfalls, there are new tales. There’s a history of yogic science and most intriguingly, he tells the story of the Bengali doctor N.C. Paul who published the first scientific study of yoga called A Treatise on the Yoga Philosophy in 1851. Though Broad doesn’t mention it, Paul was part of an even more intriguing role exchange: He the Indian of Western Medicine used as the object of his study an English captain who had  “gone native” and became a yogi in Bengal in those days.


Paul’s study revealed why yogis practice in caves, why they slow the breath and hinted at the possibilities for human hibernation. I won’t ruin the tale, but know that it violates the popular wisdom about how breath functions in a yoga class.

This chapter also tells about the far more widely-known tale of the adept historians know as Haridas (though, strangely, Broad doesn’t name him). In a story Singleton tells too,[1] the 1840’s yogi brags to Lahore’s King of his catatonic powers. King Singh then buries him alive with wax-stuffed orifices as armed guards and British Administrators kept watch.

After 40 days, he’s unburied.

Blinking his eyes open and taking fresh breaths, the yogi chides the king. “Do you believe me now?[2] The story stirs us, but Broad launches from it to heap up evidence against yogic hibernation.

He delves appreciatively into the heart-control exhibitions by Krishnamcharya, Swami Rama and others, but settles on the failed attempts by the scientist Swami Kuvalayananda (strangely referenced only by his birth name, Jagannath Gune) to get any yogi to repeat Haridas’s feat. In a fit of bad logic, Broad concludes that such a lack of new evidence on human hibernation sweeps away the possibility that it was ever true.[3]

This is not proven. Let’s just say he falls out of the pose often.

In the chapter, Risk of Injury Broad leaps toward logical voids.

He gives five pages to warnings by a 1940’s doctor that shoulder-stand might cause a stroke[4] but produces no actual evidence that it has ever happened! He details a 1973 stroke created by Upward Bow Pose and a 1977 case of a man who did too much shoulder-stand and bruised his neck, then damaged his nerves. He then tells about a 1993 Hong Kong woman who got a stroke from headstand.

Based on just these tales and the dramatic diagnoses their doctors gave, he recklessly concludes, “The spike in clinical reports made yoga strokes a common feature of medical concern.”[5]

Broad! Hardly!

Later, he talks of yoga injuries “soaring” nationwide from 13 in 2000 to 46 in 2002-at a time when yoga added millions of new practitioners.

He misses the fact that, if just 46 got injured it might have been an intervention by Shiva!!!

(That’s a joke folks, but you get my point).

He complains that a 2001 Yoga Journal article on strokes didn’t rightly extrapolate the rate of neck injury to the wider population of yogis, and therefore underplayed the risk. But his argument against the conclusion merely cites the general tendency of U.S. citizens to get strokes, not strokes from yoga. He then claims Yoga Journal got its statistics wrong.[6]

Good facts. Odd logic.

Other chapters on the effects of yoga on mood and on sex are more useful and promising.

In all, Broad takes you into the pits, but hits high points, too. The Science of Yoga is not the devil in red satin or even jackboots, but it’s a useful reminder that yogis say silly, scientifically-contrary things and that we should keep our house in order when offering up hard and dangerous poses. The book provides the first (albeit, brief) history of yogic science, and it’s a useful primer on yogic culture for insiders as well as outsiders.

If it was written better, The Science of Yoga might have been a strong devil’s advocate to the good book, Yoga as Medicine, published in 2007 by Dr. Timothy McCall. In meticulousness of scholarship, entertaining writing and usefulness, Yoga as Medicine is a far better guide to what ails you. Here, as is so often the case, good is so much more interesting than evil.

[1] Singleton, Yoga Body, 47-49, 52

[2] Broad, 13-14

[3] Broad 37, 45.

[4] Broad, 111-116

[5] 116-121

[6] 127

Eric Shaw is the creator of both Prasana Yoga—a form that reveals alignment in movement—and Yoga Education through Imagery—lecture programing that teaches Yoga’s History, Philosophy and Science through pictures and new scholarship. He is an E-RYT 500 with two degrees in Art, and Masters Degrees in Education, Religious Studies and Asian Studies.  His essays appear in Yoga Journal, Common Ground, Elephant Journal and other publications, and he is writing a book on yoga history for Anusara Press. To find out more, visit his website!




Prepared by: Aminda R. Courtwright/Editor: Tanya L. Markul

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