Yoga, Science, Sex Cults & Sensationalism

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There is no subject which is so much wrapped up in mystery and on which one can write whatever one likes without any risk of being proved wrong.

I. K. Taimni, Indian scholar and chemist, on the obscurity of Yoga (taken from William J. Broad, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards)

Don’t believe the hype!
Chuck D., Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

As ancient spiritual disciplines of yoga make increasing inroads into the modern, scientific western world, the relationship between the two can be uneasy. While yoga practitioners, in America at least, tend to come from the most highly educated societal strata, yoga, for many, seems to be part of large-scale new age retreat from the intellectual and scientific. One hears again and again about the importance of putting the heart before the head, of overcoming the pernicious influence of mind over body, of the purity and innocence of more “spiritual” pre-modern societies, as if modern science were the snake in the mythical garden. Ancient dictums mix with the latest greeting card sentiments and the bogus pseudoscience of The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know? in a feel-good landscape where the critical thinking inherent in scientific inquiry is passed over in favor of “believe whatever makes you feel good.”

At the same time, for all the endless idealizing of traditional Indian village life, I’ve met few western yogis who don’t rush out to buy the latest technological gadgets (the lap-top on which I’m writing this, along with my flip-phone and, of course, the actual hardback book I’m about to discuss, making me feel archaic in the cutting-edge yoga blog world, where most people have i-pads, i-phones, and Kindles). And, as quickly becomes clear to anyone taking part in any kind of serious asana practice, solid practical knowledge of such less esoteric areas of physical science as anatomy and physiology is not only important but essential if we don’t want our healthy, life-affirming practices to put us in the hospital.

Last winter, when William Broad’s now-infamous New York Times article came out, causing waves of hysteria across yoga blogs, Facebook, twitter, and other areas of the—let’s face it—hysteria-loving virtual world of social media, along with those cute little coffee shops where yogis like to congregate for organic chai and vegan, gluten-free kale muffins after class, I didn’t read it. The big message I was hearing—you can get hurt doing yoga!!! Who’d ’a thunk pushing your body into all kinds of strange shapes its never experienced before with an unmindful, competitive attitude could have detrimental effects???!!!—was one I knew all too well, having learned it the hard way, early on—like most doe-eyed beginning yoga students, romanticizing this magical practice that was going to turn me into a perfect, fully realized human being through stretching muscles and watching breath for an hour and a half, two or three times a week, and wanting to speed things up, pushing until the slightest forward bend or twist caused shooting pains (which, fortunately, went away after I quit for a few weeks). You don’t get disillusioned unless you’re illusioned in the first place, and, as far as I’m concerned, the sooner that happens, the better.

And, certainly, if there’s one thing William J. Broad sets out to do in The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards,  it’s to diss as many illusions as possible in the space of one heavily footnoted, yet accessible enough for the bestseller lists, tome (which I have read, if months later than most reviewers). In doing so, he takes part in a kind of disillusionment trend within the yoga world—as exemplified by books like Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body and the increasingly pissy tone of yoga blogs. (Seriously, when I started Yoga for Cynics, I thought I was adding a well needed dose of snark and healthy skepticism to a culture that seemed to take its tonal cues from some strange mixture of Swami Satchidinanda and Barney the Dinosaur; nowadays, I feel increasingly like Rodney King on a yoga mat, crying “can’t we all just get along?” Anyway…).

To his credit, Broad marshals an impressive amount of empirical evidence, noting a wide variety of respected studies, without ever once falling back on popular yogic modes of argument like “it’s timeless universal wisdom/really, really old/from India, so you can’t disagree with it (unless it’s sexist or homophobic, in which case it can be placed in historical and cultural context)” or “I feel this very, very deeply.”  And, as such, the book provides a wealth of useful information, shattering countless popular and well-publicized myths, including a number of things taught in my yoga teacher training, providing badly needed doses of hard science in a cultural context dominated by fake Einstein quotes.

Clearly, Broad shows, yoga gurus and aficionados have made unfounded claims and spread medical pseudoscience far and wide in order to bring more people to yoga (with, needless to say, great success). It’s truly sobering (even to those of us who, just a couple of paragraphs back, implied that we’re past that whole disillusionment thing) to see how much misinformation has been spread so freely by even the most prominent figures in the yoga world—yogalebrities, respected scholars, and saint-like gurus, from Tara Stiles to Georg Feuerstein to Krishnamacharya, included. Beyond that, he shows that the kind of yoga charlatanism that first caught the attention of the west is alive and well in America, but, perhaps, with far more detrimental affects, with colorful fakirs performing outlandish tricks replaced by “yoga therapists” with fake degrees. For that reason Broad deserves much of the attention he’s gotten, and the evidence he provides, particularly in the first three chapters, should be spread far and wide.

However, Broad doesn’t always come across as the purest seeker of truth, either. In order, apparently, to gain a wider audience than that enjoyed by the medical studies he cites, he sensationalizes to an extent that doesn’t, to this reader, seem much different from swamis making obviously false and flagrantly irresponsible claims about yoga being “safe as mother’s milk.” His summing up the foundations of Hatha Yoga as a “sex-cult” seems all-too neatly designed to titillate popular attention. And, of course, it can be counted on to raise the hackles of the yoga traditionalists. In this, however, he’s essentially playing the same game as those whose stories of pure, spiritual origins he’s debunking—taking one of the countless historical traditions that fall under the historical rubric of yoga and labeling it the real thing.

Of course, the physical aspects of yoga are Broad’s major focus in the book, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing—he’s applying science to the aspects of yoga that it can most naturally be applied to, rather than getting into the more vague areas of the spiritual and philosophical. However, this makes his recommendations, in the book’s final chapter for the licensing and regulation of yoga seem a lot less problematic than they are. Certainly, if one dismisses the origins of Hatha Yoga as a long-defunct “sex cult,” one can feel free to ignore a lot.

Finally, there’s the infamous Risk of Injury chapter, from which the aforementioned New York Times article was excerpted. Here, though some studies are mentioned, Broad largely relies on one horrifying piece of anecdotal evidence after another. As such, he does show that, yes, you can get hurt practicing yoga. And, certainly, this is a message that needs to be spread far and wide, as so many come into the practice as clueless as I was, sometimes with far more detrimental effects (as Broad amply illustrates). It would be far more effective, and fair, however, to get this message across with an approach closer to that used for the benefits of yoga—lots of solid empirical evidence giving a sense of the effects of asana practice on the average person, with contraindications and typical dangers noted. The sensationalist piling on of horror stories, on the other hand, is more likely to frighten people away from practices that, more than likely, will be good for them.

Toward the end of the chapter, Broad tries to pre-emptively address such concerns, noting that, with so many people practicing yoga, even such admittedly rare results such as catastrophic strokes resulting from shoulder-stand, will affect hundreds and thousands of people. This, no doubt, is true, but it’s still needlessly alarming if the slightest attention is given to comparing yoga to other activities, making it seem particularly dangerous, as opposed to a practice in which there is potential for injury, like every other activity. (To give a bit of horrifying anecdotal evidence of my own: Like most of my friends who regularly bike to yoga class through the streets of Philadelphia, I’ve been hit by cars. From this tiny pool of cycling yogis, I could compile a frightening list of biking injuries, and, notably, few, if any significant yoga injuries. Bicycling is, of course, something many people my age turn to because it’s far less likely than running to leave them crippled. Such considerations are almost enough to make you want to stay home on the couch where it’s safe—but, alas, a sedentary lifestyle is likely to lead to more health complications than most forms of exercise).

In the end, I’m glad I read The Science of Yoga. It’s rare to find a book that’s marshals so much solid data while remaining a pleasant and interesting read. And it’s about time that a popular author has brought so much solid science into a discussion sadly dominated by falls claims and magical thinking. As such, however, it’s particularly unfortunate that, in places, he further muddies the waters.

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About Jay Winston

Jay S. Winston, founder and proprietor of Yoga for Cynics (http://yogaforcynics.blogspot.com), has a PhD in English, making him the kind of doctor who, in case of life-threatening emergency, can explain Faulkner while you die, is currently (semi-)(un-)employed as a freelance writer and editor, teaches creative writing to homeless men, tutors recovering addicts in reading, was recently certified as a Kripalu yoga teacher, gets around mostly by bicycle, is trying to find an agent for his novel, resides in the bucolic Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, State of Mildly Inebriated Samadhi, U.S.A. and, like most people who bike and practice yoga, used to live in Boulder.


16 Responses to “Yoga, Science, Sex Cults & Sensationalism”

  1. Edward Staskus says:

    Thanks for the review, very-well-written, I thought. I have been meaning to read Broad's book, especially after reading Singleton's 'Yoga Body'. You mention the claims yoga makes about turning people into "perfect, fully-realized human beings." I have been practicing at a Bikram Yoga studio for more than a year, and on the Bikram web site it claims that it will cure everything from asthma to xenophobia, or words to that effect. I can say first-hand that it will definitely cure this one thing: while I was on a service job trying to secure flanges into a molded plastic piece, I had to use large amounts of Gorilla Glue. When I returned home some hours later I got most of the gobs of dried glue off my hands with a sponge and mineral spirits. But, I could not get all of it off. The next day I went to the Bikram studio, put in my 90 minutes in the torture chamber, lost an enormous amount of perspiration, and after slouching my way into the locker room, took a shower. While I was showering I noticed to my amazement that there was not a shred of the dried glue left anywhere under my nails or stuck to the edges of my cuticles. It was all gone. Bikram Yoga had dissolved the Gorilla Glue, the "Toughest Glue on Planet Earth."

    • Yesterday, I biked to vigorous class right after a big rain, ending up covered with mud, all of which was sweated off during the class. Dissolving "gorilla glue," though–that's what I call a sweaty class!

  2. I appreciated your honest assessment of 'The Science of Yoga' as well as the controversy that its publication sparked in some yoga circles. I had a strong reaction to Broad's sensationalism myself–I've yet to read the book, but his NYT articles and NPR appearances gave me a taste of it–but I share your belief that more empirical validation would be a boon for yoga (especially when it comes to promoting its integration into more public health interventions–my particular area of interest).

    The issue that interests me, however, is this: it can be tricky to pin down exactly what "yoga" means for the purposes of empirical research, the standards of which require that the condition, therapeutic exposure, and outcome of interest all be discretely specified. This is comparably easy when considering a study of a new drug for lowering hypertension; we have a clinical definition for hypertension, a chemical formula for the drug even if we don't understand its exact mechanisms, and a predetermined reduction in hypertension that we have decided is the standard for efficacy. But when it comes to studying yoga, it is far from clear that "yoga" means the same thing from one study to the next. Is it asana (which poses, in particular?), pranayama, meditation, instruction in yoga philosophy, or some combination of these elements? In fact, many scientific studies fail to offer much detailed information about how yoga was defined or operationalized (implemented) in the study. This is likely due to severe length restrictions for paper submissions, but it makes for poor construct validity, which limits the interpretability and applicability of any results. What can we really say about the benefits or risks of "yoga" writ large when everyone is using a slightly different definition yet so little information is provided about what that definition is, how it was arrived upon, and how it was actually operationalized?

    We see more and more that yoga (especially in the West) is subject to competing claims of ownership and privileged knowledge (e.g., Bikram's IP lawsuits, the many appeals to its mythic and mystic origins to which you allude, or the controversy surrounding Broad's book). Some in the yoga community respond that yoga is big enough to hold all this, but I think the simultaneous openness/contestedness of yoga fundamentally shapes and constrains its empirical study. I am by no means suggesting that yoga can't be studied empirically, but there are definite methodological issues with which to contend.

    • I agree–though, at his best, Broad does clearly delineate the specific styles/poses which are being studied (though, in my opinion, not enough attention was paid to the attitude with which these styles/poses are undertaken). As such, though, it ends up pretty much impossible to say "yoga is good for this" or "yoga is bad for that," or, fpr that matter, to say much about "yoga" at all, without a lot of qualifiers.

      • Exactly. Which is fine except that such nuanced understanding and qualification is often lost in the course of article revisions and publication, and the biomedical establishment (and the funding infrastructure attached to it) has little time or patience for anything but clear evidence of benefit.

        Thanks for your reply!

  3. johndavidwilson says:

    The review of the rantings of a yoga cynic fails to point out that the cynic lacks an understanding of yoga's history, uses and intentions. To merely view yoga as its commercialized Western manifestations is to miss the point of yoga. Hatha yoga exists merely to enable the yogi to attain a stable asana, for instance, to be able to sit in a chair without constantly manipulating and readjusting portions of the body. One learns to sit/stand/etc. in order to learn to do pretty much the same thing with the mind as one has learned to do with the body, so that neither mind nor body are demanding the attention of the yogi. Thus, one becomes able to explore aspects of one's being which are subtler/deeper than body and mind. The main portion of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali deals with this internal exploration – not with the external manifestations of yoga which have become commercialized.

  4. Excellent review, as usual, Jay–intelligent, perceptive, nuanced, innovative, and well-written. I always look forward to your articles.

    My personal solution to the history of modern yoga is to base my practice on the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, as I personally interpret them (like ultimately anyone does with any ancient text). Then I don't have to worry about all the modern developments, like anything past the Yoga Sutra. (See First It Was Yobo, Now There is Ratra (Radical Traditional) Yoga)

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
    facebook, twitter, linkedIn
    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  5. The other thing that cries out to be said is that these new books like Broad's and Singleton's admittedly, but not very clearly, only deal with "Modern Postural Yoga", which at best, is only half of the true impact of Yoga in America.

    For the whole picture, one essentially must also consider Phil Goldberg's startling but utterly convincing account of the influence of ancient yoga philosophy on all of American spirituality and culture in general, irrespective of any asana:

    True or False? Physical Yoga Has Influenced America More than Spiritual Yoga.

    How Yoga Has Transformed American Spirituality: An Interview with Phil Goldberg, “American Veda”.

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
    facebook, twitter, linkedIn
    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  6. Dr. Jay, it never fails that I read a piece from you and I have a connection ~ the increased pissy tone of yoga blogs was it this time. I find myself reading fewer blogs and reverting back to my trusted yoga books, which is a good thing. And some of those books are residing in my Kindle but my most beloved are in paper on my desk so I can grab them whenever I need a friend.

    I haven't read this book yet, but plan to. One of my students read it and said that a lot of what he has written I include in my classes. Interesting.

  7. […] Yoga, Science, Sex Cults & Sensationalism […]

  8. Robyn says:

    I have been practicing yoga for many years now. I will have to pick this book up. Thanks for the review. I just finished an amazing book called, "A Country Where All Colors Are Sacred and Alive" by author Geoffrey Oelsner. This a non-fiction memoir and anecdotes about how a person can influence the natural world through "attunement, meditation, prayer, intention, loving presence, mindful ritual, celebration, song, dance, and other expressions of joyful creativity."

    This book has really helped me with my meditation. http://geoffoelsner.com/

  9. […] it means to fly, when he sees an airplane with chopped off wings, he will cry. Today, when I see the way yoga is being used especially in the West, I feel like crying. What is a tremendous possibility, what could be a ladder to the divine is […]

  10. Thanks for sharing 😀

    I really like!

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