October 13, 2012

Add Science, Subtract Bullsh*t, Do Yoga. ~ Molly McCollum

My career as a yoga skeptic and overall thorn in the side of the yoga scene began a few years ago.

I was figuratively smacked on the wrist with a ruler and literally kicked out of an advanced yoga class in Greenwich Village. That’s correct. I am a bad yoga student with a negative attitude and definitely don’t understand what yoga is all about.

Those are semi-direct quotes.

The reason for my dismissal from class was my obnoxious and insulting refusal to contort my body into a position that is dangerous, and my appalling insistence that, no, Plough Pose does not “invert the biochemistry of the body as well as the mind, causing fuller oxygenation of the cells and increased mindfulness and immune system stimulation.”

That’s not a direct quote; that’s my impression of a clueless yogi spewing the pseudoscience the holistic community is so famous for.

That’s right. This is an article about secular yoga.

Raise your hand if you’ve been encouraged to bend yourself into a pose you don’t feel quite comfortable with, but were convinced by the firm and commanding yet gentle intonation of your instructor, who, you assumed, surely would not advise you to do something that was actually dangerous or harmful to your body.

Everyone? Yes, everyone.

Let’s skip forward to the meat of this argument: yoga culture is bizarrely lacking in science.

For an activity that is so often categorized as “health and fitness,” and often praised for its beneficial and “healing” effects, it sure does hold science and medicine at an arm’s length. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised at this—after all, our best estimation is that yoga began somewhere around 3000 BC—not an era known for its scientific acumen.

The earliest evidence of yoga appears in artifacts of ancient Shamanism, a religion practiced by the Turks and Mongols and encompassing the premise that shamans can heal and moderate the physical world by interacting with the spiritual and supernatural worlds.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who “invented” the asanas (poses) we practice today as there are many competing claims. We know that they existed well before Patanjali, so no clinging to that old chestnut.

Wherever they came from—be it Shiva or Gorashka or the Flying Spaghetti Monster—they’re not informed by the contemporary fields of anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology. No one who has ever poked and prodded a cadaver while learning about the muscular and skeletal systems would ever encourage something like Plough Pose.

It follows, then, that your instructor’s gentle babble about healing and stimulation and ionization and whatever other yogaspeak he or she chooses to pepper in is inherently flawed. If your “science” is based on the inane, 5,000-year-old ramblings and superstitions of an upper Paleolithic era religion, perhaps you should not be preaching that “science” as medical advice to the 30 Lululemon-clad 20-year-olds in your Tuesday evening yoga class.

I attended Yoga Teacher Training just as you did. I learned all the same rubbish as you. I politely participated in the journaling, the chanting, the meditating and all the rest. Upon graduation, I chose science and logic over religion and utter silliness and have been conducting my classes in an “Om-free,” yoga buzzword-free, and pro-safety manner. I know for a fact that I’ve never hurt a student. I’ve never given medical advice that I’m not qualified to give.

Can you say the same?

Yoga students: if something doesn’t feel right, or hurts, or sounds like something your instructor made up on the spot, don’t do it. Speak up. Walk out. Remove yourself from the situation.

Yoga instructors: educate yourselves. Dig up your high school copy of Campbell’s Biology or, even better, enroll in a real anatomy class—not an “Anatomy for Yogis” class. Consult a sports medicine physician. Stop positioning yourselves as healthcare providers when you have no medical training or licensing and are likely to cause more harm than good.

And for Shiva’s sake, enough with the Plough Pose.


Molly is a medical researcher, enormous science geek, and habitual know-it-all residing and teaching yoga in Brooklyn, New York. Information about her “yoga for atheists” classes can be found at www.yogaBKLYN.com.



Editor: Elysha Anderson

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