August 15, 2012

Yoga, Science, Sex Cults & Sensationalism



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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