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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Robert Hoyle Jun 8, 2012 7:38pm

Per Eric's review (above):

"He (Broad) 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."

Eric, I liked some parts of your review. They seemed truthful. Yet the above quote of yours seems to be a bit biased. Would I call it "cherry picking"? Maybe.

The "warnings by a 1940's doctor" (W. Ritchie Russell) that you mentioned above was made in 1972, concerning the dangers of vertebral (ver-TEE-bral) artery damage from extreme neck bending during yoga [“Yoga and the Vertebral Arteries,” British Medical Journal , vol. 1, no.5801 (March 11, 1972), p. 685.]

Russell has so many credentials behind his name it make my head swim: M.D. (Medical Doctor),C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire), F.R.C.P.(Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians), and D.Sc.(Doctor of Science). A neuro-physiologist, he had distinguished himself in a long career at Oxford University. I dare say not many of us could compare with this guy.

And part of his concerns on all this related to what Broad calls "a small epidemic of strokes" from something widely known (and well-documented) as "beauty-parlor syndrome": Women who had their hair washed and rinsed (etc) in a beauty parlor, with their head tilted far back in the sink, had sometimes suffered stroke-like damage to their brain — probably b/c the vertebral arteries were occluded/damaged from the extreme, prolonged neck back-bending.

Russell saw the same kind of neck bending risk in yoga — not just Shoulder Stand (SS), but anything that puts extreme strain on these delicate vertebral arteries in the neck. Russell did specifically mention SS and Cobra in his '72 article, but the same type of extreme strain occurs in Plow, Tripod, Wheel (what you are calling "Upward Bow") — and maybe several other poses ("extreme" forms of Camel, (backward) Bow, Cobra, Upward Facing Dog, and Pigeon).

Headstand (HS) is another matter. Not bending of the neck, but compressive stress on the neck vertebrae that inflicts similar damage to these arteries.

So, the cases Broad cites on strokes involving Wheel and HS are quite appropriate.

The one you reference involving SS (that you seem to imply was not a stroke but rather a bruised neck that damaged some nerves) sure sounds like a stroke to me — at least the way Broad describes it: [concerning the injured subject] "…he felt dizzy and his vision blurred. Soon, he was unable to walk without assistance and had trouble controlling the left side of his body. The man also found it difficult to swallow… The doctors saw many indications of stroke…"

I'm not one to quibble over "details" like this though. Maybe it wasn't a "stroke," but it sure screwed-up this guy's life for quite some time: "Two months after his attack, and after much physical therapy, the man was able to walk with a cane. But the team reported that he continued to have pronounced difficulty in performing fine movements with his left hand.”

That wraps up my comment on your quoted text (above).

However my main issue here is with the "yoga business community" — those people that make money off yoga (in the vast majority of cases, rightfully so). I've read Broad's book (which has its faults, but "truth" is probably not one of them). And I've read a lot of "reviews" of Broad's book. The one's offered by the yoga business community seem quite biased to me. Yours was much less so than others I've seen. I commend you on that.

But, the overall impression I have gotten is that this yoga-business side may not tell you the "whole truth" — if that whole truth is not in their favor. It goes by the old adage, "Business is business." We protect our livelihood, even if it means "shading the truth," or "looking the other way" sometimes. Cherry picking is what you called it. I'd call it "misrepresentation."

Well anyway, thanks for letting me get this off my chest. I have a great admiration for yoga and yogis, but… I wish they'd not act so much like the corporate business world that I've seen *way* too much of. Time will tell where this is all going I guess. I'm ever hopeful.


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