I read The Science of Yoga by William Broad.
After the excerpt that appeared in the New York Times, and the firestorm it created, including my own reaction, I felt it was only fair to read it myself and see what the book is really all about. Mr. Broad says that a synonym of science is organized skepticism. I am skeptical.
The book, subtitled The Risks and Rewards, compiles information about scientific studies that have been done on the practice of yoga, defined for the purposes of this book as asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing practices). There are awful stories of injury and pain and wonderful stories of healing and joy.
There is a call for yoga as an alternative healing modality and more training for teachers. But the book teeters between useful and educational and gossip and innuendo.
The book opens with a list of thirteen Styles of Yoga, mixing and matching brand names, lineages, and class descriptions that you might find on a schedule at a local studio. The brands and lineages listed are Anusara, Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Kripalu, Kundalini, Sivananda, Viniyoga and YogaFit. The classes listed are flow, power and vinyasa. Hatha Yoga is listed too but, as Mr. Broad himself says, it is the forerunner of all postural yoga, so really all yoga is Hatha yoga. So, shouldn’t the list be called Styles of Hatha Yoga?
If Mr. Broad was going to name styles of yoga, why didn’t Yoga make the list?
It is arguably one of the most influential styles of yoga in the world today. What about the rest of the so-called styles or brand names out there such as Yin Yoga, Forrest Yoga, hot power yoga and restorative yoga? I emailed the author and asked him how this list came to be with some of the examples above. His answer: “Sorry. Only so much that one sixty year old journalist can do!”
I was not asking for an apology, but I expected a more detailed, perhaps scientific answer, from an award-winning journalist who practices yoga.
There are only seven chapters in this book.
While every chapter cites scientific studies of one kind or another, the most interesting ones to me were about health, moods and healing. Throughout, Mr. Broad refers to studies, albeit some very old and some with few subjects, that offer glimpses into why the practices of yoga asana and pranayama are so powerful, revealing the physiological effects of yoga practices on mood, the nervous system and the brain. This is cool stuff. I wish I could cut and paste the parts I highlighted on my Kindle into a book of its own because the rest of the book pales in comparison.
The controversial and provocative chapter on injuries details mostly one-off accounts of injuries sustained by students in various poses such as wheel and shoulder stand. The stories are anecdotal and situation specific. There are no long-term studies on these poses and no scientific evidence that prove anything about any pose being injurious across the board. The book concludes with chapters on divine sex and the muse. Both are tangential and just not that interesting.
Mr. Broad does make a point that I would like to emphasize because it speaks to where we are in the yoga world today. There is a great deal of myth associated with asana and pranayama practice that has no basis in any science but is spoken about matter-of-factly. By way of example, when I was pregnant I wanted to continue my practice as I had been doing for the prior ten years. On days when I was extremely nauseous or tired, I did not practice. But on days I practiced, I did so for about ninety minutes, in the style of “flow-power-vinyasa-Hatha-Jivamukti” yoga.
I wanted to do what I always did and that included poses, like headstand, that are said to be off limits to pregnant practitioners. My instinct was to keep practicing until something did not feel right. I also did my research and I found little that was satisfactory in terms of good yogic or scientific reasons to back up claims that certain poses and practices were inappropriate. The definition of science in my dictionary is “a process of gaining systematic knowledge through observation.” I did that for myself, and I urge any one unrolling a mat anywhere in the world, to do the same.
It is important to remember that the practices of asana and pranayama are embedded within a larger system called Yoga, a philosophy that codifies ways and means that can lead to pure happiness. Can happiness be analyzed and measured scientifically? As a Westerner, I am thrilled by the scientific studies that explain why I feel so good when I do my physical practice. But as someone who embraces the Yoga philosophy as a way of life, I know that there are some things that may never be explained by science. And I think that is just fine.
Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul
Lisa Dawn Angerame is an Advanced Certified Jivamukti Yoga Teacher, a Senior Certified Baptiste Power Vinyasa Teacher, has trained with Jonny Kest and Paul Grilley, and is certified to teach pre- and postnatal yoga. In 2010, she co-founded NavaNYC, a company dedicated to bringing yoga and meditation into the workplace. Lisa Dawn is currently studying yoga philosophy with A.G. Mohan. She lives in New York City and Northport with her yogi husband and yogi baby. She publishes her vegan food blog Lisa’s Project Vegan and is currently at work on her first book about practicing yoga while pregnant.