The Science Of Yoga is the controversial new book by noted NY Times writer William Broad. In it, he examines some of yoga’s health claims as a wellness and fitness activity. The book has polarized the yoga community, and because of that I wanted to check it out. It debates, among other topics: should doctors prescribe yoga as a therapeutic solution? What is yoga’s exact relationship to diet and exercise? How does it affect our creativity, sex lives, healing and physiology? These are just a few of the interesting questions Broad raises in his efforts to illuminate, and provoke, his audience on the subject of yoga.
Broad begins his story by looking at yoga’s origins in India. Historically speaking, some of the first yogi’s were actually charlatans who would use their ability to slow their breathing and metabolism to trick the wealthy Maharajas into thinking they were dead for money! These tall tales, and negative perceptions of yogis, are, according to Broad, crucial to the beginnings of the scientific study of yoga around the turn of the 20th century. Broad profiles a handful of seminal figures, most notably a researcher named Gune, who first put yoga under a serious microscope in the 1920’s. Their work was what helped shift the concept of yoga away from these early stereotypes. In the 1930’s and 40’s, the scientific benefits of yoga evolved and eventually were used to promote a stronger sense of nationalism. Yoga helped India to gain a cultural foothold in its struggle to win its independence from Britain. Yoga studies have grown with technology, and the work continues today, evolving to help create our modern perceptions of yoga. Over the course of the last four decades, a new generation of experts are leading this research, and Broad breaks down their findings into six chapters: health, mood, risk to injury, healing, divine sex and muse. First, the bad news.
According to several recent studies, yoga did little in the lab to promote weight loss and aerobic fitness. Duke University and Texas State, among others, observed a handful of yogi’s moving through different poses, like the sun salutations, and found that yoga could not equal the exertions of a more conventional activity like jogging. Another of the more negative findings was that excessive yoga practice can lead to injury. Broad’s analysis pays particularly close attention to the neck, spine and back, and cautions his audience to be vigilant of these areas during practice. Headstand and wheel were found to be the most dangerous poses. There is also some evidence that yoga can contribute to strokes. His third most relevant finding is yoga’s lack of regulation in medicine. Clearly, yoga has grown exponentially over the last few years, but its infrastructure is still too broadly diffuse to have constituted any type of central governing body. Without an official credentialing entity, yoga therapy should be looked upon as an unsubstantiated healing practice.
For all these negatives, Broad is still a huge proponent of yoga. His final chapter lays out an ambitious vision that calls for increased scientific research, the growth of yoga as an overall institution and greater mindfulness among its many practitioners. Several of the same studies that discount its benefits in fitness and aerobic exercise, scored it off the charts in terms of its ability to promote overall wellness in the yogis studied. These people came away from yoga feeling exceptional in their mood and outlook. There is proof, according to Broad, that some yogic breathing patterns slow the metabolism, and lead to a calmness and peace, which few other activities were able to match. In terms of hormonal activity, certain poses were found to increase the amount of testosterone released by the body. Although these findings are not conclusive, there is some evidence to suggest that yoga can lead to a healthier sex life.
On balance, Broad probably raises more issues than he solves. It’s interesting to note that he himself suffered a serious back injury while practicing and perhaps this contributes to his messages of caution. Within the last two decades, yoga has received an incredible amount of amazing press and positive word of mouth: so much so that it’s developed something of a miraculous aura around it. Broad argues that our perceptions of yoga need to be properly examined. That it can’t be broadly adopted without considering the science that’s being conducted around it. It’s a good point to make, but one that often feels like basic common sense; the same responsible approach that any exercise regime demands. While The Science Of Yoga offers an interesting perspective, it doesn’t possess enough depth to merit the controversy it’s caused. Too many of its findings are narrow in scope and inconclusive. It represents a start to the discussion, not the final word. Broad, for instance, spends nearly two entire chapters out of six analyzing kundilini, yet nothing on hot yoga or ashtanga, two of the more aggressive forms of yoga. In many ways, yoga has simply become too big, and its scientific study needs to be conducted with a focus on all of its different styles. There are so many forms, and it’s such a personal experience, right now, Broad’s new book only proves the idea that it’s immeasurable.