This last Sunday I went to church, and right there in the middle of the sanctuary during the passing of the peace, a nice lady came up and asked me if the yoga I teach was really just a sanitized version of some ancient tantric sex cult. Yes, this really happened in the middle of the Methodist church. I responded quickly with a big NO, and I explained that the tantric sex stuff was a small splinter cult and has nothing to do with the hatha yoga we practice today. It seems this nice lady is an avid reader of the New York Times, along with many of the academics here in Norman, and has been following their yoga coverage. William Broad, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for the Times has been tapping out some salacious and poorly researched articles in order to sell his new book, The Science of Yoga. It all started in January with an article called “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” Then in late February it became even more disrespectful and sensational with a new article entitled, “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here.” Mr. Broad’s flamboyant headlines about yoga have brought me and many other local yoga teachers around the country a lot of grief.
It is no surprise that the articles have brought a lot of negative attention to yoga, and they have probably sold many books. For me this whole episode is a lesson in setting our intentions, and remembering that our actions and decisions affect many people, even if we are not a famous science writer. I do not know William Broad, so there is no way to know what his true intentions were in writing this book or the articles that followed. What I do know is that the book and articles produced unnecessary fear, anger, judgment, and upset in many people without adding anything of substance to our knowledge base. I’ve come to three conclusions after reading this book: 1) Mr. Broad may have done yoga for a long time, but he still does not appear to understand the subtleties of the practice, or even write about it well. 2) Contrary to the title, the book is not scientific at all, and 3) At Yogalife, along with many other hatha yoga studios around the country, we teach the asanas Mr. Broad presents very differently from the examples provided in his book.
The first article on “How Yoga Can Wreck your Body” got a lot of attention in the media. I received many emails with copies of the article and questions about various poses; some students were frightened by his writing. However, when I got a hold of a copy of the book for myself, all I found was anecdotal evidence, with very few citations of modern and truly scientific research. The entire 4th chapter, entitled “Risk of Injury,” is all anecdotal accounts of students injuring themselves in rare and freakish ways. The examples range from people sitting on their legs so long they can’t walk, to people having a stroke after doing a back bend. This is not science.
One of the more sensational claims Mr. Broad makes is that certain yoga poses cause strokes. Again, the citations of actual research papers are lacking. To support this claim he only includes two papers from the early 1970s that explore specific cases where a person had a stroke after doing yoga. The pages about strokes had to do with extreme range of motion in the neck, like hyperextension. An example would be dropping the head far back in a posture and looking at the ceiling. Although intuitively it doesn’t seem like a good idea to put your neck in full extension all the time, there is no specific research to prove that this would actually put someone at great risk for having a stroke.
These anecdotal examples remind us that yoga asana is exercise and students should listen to their bodies, but it does not prove that people have strokes more often in yoga than any other form of exercise. Even if we were to accept this unsubstantiated claim that yoga asanas sometimes cause strokes, we have to ask whether that risk is higher in yoga than in other forms of physical exercise. We could come up with many examples of people having cardiovascular problems or seriously injuring themselves just climbing the stairs in their own homes. This has been covered over the last month by many yoga bloggers, one of them being Eva Norlyk Smith, a writer at the Huffington Post. She called Mr. Broad out on this topic by looking at injuries in other popular exercise programs. She asked, “Does golf wreck your body?” Obviously, there are injuries in any physical activity and probably no more in yoga than anything else.
Even if we accepted Mr. Broad’s claim that certain specific asanas are dangerous and can cause strokes and other injuries more so than golf or racketball, we cannot accept the way in which is he describes how they are taught. His criticisms of poses like shoulderstand, headstand, and backbend include descriptions of teaching now very out of date. Mr. Broad makes frequent reference to Iyengar’s famous 1966 book, Light on Yoga, and the way Iyengar taught poses at that time. Although the book is greatly respected, yoga teachers who have been around for awhile know that the way we teach asana has changed immensely since 1966. Referencing this older book shows Broad’s lack of understanding about the yoga world and its evolution. These poses can be taught safely by a well educated teacher when the student is ready, and I see nothing scientific in his book to prove otherwise.
Another disappointment for me was all the attention given to a physician, Dr. Loren Fishman, while no mention is made of many other great senior teachers working for a safer practice. Fishman is well respected and does great work. I have no problem there. However, by focusing on Dr. Fishman Mr. Broad reveals the fact that he doesn’t know much about the yoga world and the players that are evolving the practice. As I said before, what was the “in” thing to teach in the ‘60s or the ‘80s often changes as senior teachers learn what is best for students. Many of these senior teachers have had articles in Yoga Journal over the past few years or other industry rags with specifics about good alignment and sequencing while teaching asana. Some examples would be Judith Lasater, a physical therapist herself, Gary Kraftsow, Doug Keller, and Leslie Kaminoff. Even some of the classical teachers steeped in anatomy, like Tias Little, are teaching modifications to make poses more accessible and safer. Mr. Broad failed to do his research or simply failed to accurately portray the numerous teachers working for the safest asana possible.
This is not to say that he isn’t right about the ugly side of yoga. He is indeed right. There are people calling themselves “yoga therapists” with very little training. Others are teaching dangerous poses to beginners and also doing extreme adjustments that they should not be doing. Some are making grandiose and unsubstantiated health claims. These teachers are not keeping up with current teaching, they are just cashing in. Mr. Broad is correct that there is no equivalent government oversight to people calling themselves yoga teachers or yoga therapists as there is for massage therapists, chiropractors, and physical therapists. However, I think we need to be careful not to medicalize the practice of yoga. Yoga can be therapeutic in many ways, if taught well, without becoming medical “therapy”.
I have friends involved in publishing who’ve told me that often times an author loses control of their book once it’s been submitted and accepted. The publishing houses take over the name of the book and how it is marketed. So I wanted to give Mr. Broad the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t his decision to print the most salacious and extreme sections out of his book. But any thought of blaming the publisher left my mind when in late February he came out with another article to sell his book entitled, “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here.” In the article he erroneously claims that modern yoga started with tantric sex cults. We have so much information and scholarship to show that this is not the case. He clearly did not do his research.
Here is a brief summary of the history for those who are interested. Modern yoga, the yoga we do today in class, was mostly created in the 1920s and ‘30s in India during the rise in physical culture throughout the new industrial world. The British and the YMCA were in India at the time and brought with them the influence of group exercise classes. The Indians wanted to make the own exercise routine and drew from many sources, including some of the indigenous asanas. Often times people point to ancient seals depicting yoga postures, but for the most part these seals show people sitting in meditation. The yoga of meditation in the Bhagavad Gita is most certainly ancient. Hatha Yoga as a system emerged around the 6th century CE and was about cleansing or purifying the body and keeping it healthy and strong. It became closely intertwined with the indigenous Indian medicine called Ayurveda. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 15th century source, lists the cleansing rituals they used, including things like the Neti Pot which we still use today, along with other less popular techniques. The Pradipika does mention a small number of postures claiming they would heal different illnesses and keep the body young. But they were not formed into a “class” like we have today. Sun Salutations were adding to the practice in the 1920s. For more on the history of modern yoga see the book, Yoga Body, by Mark Singleton that came out last year. Singleton’s book is a serious and scholarly look at the history of modern yoga — which is fact Mr. Broad includes in his bibliography, but it seems failed to actually read.
So why was Mr. Broad excited about tantric sex cults? He was just capitalizing on a recent sex scandal in yoga involving a yoga teacher who seems to have slept with many in his following along with some alleged financial fraud, and maybe some pot smoking too. What does this have to do with the science of yoga? Not much. In chapter six of Mr. Broad’s book entitled, “Divine Sex,” he carries on for quite a few pages about how yoga increases your libido. Although there are certainly studies that he cites suggesting that yoga improves your sex life, again I think the claim has also been made for many other forms of exercise. If we exercise and feel good about our bodies, then generally we can assume many might have a better sex life. It appears to me that the second article was a poorly researched fluff piece he wrote to get attention and sell his book.
I find it particularly poor form that Mr. Broad was insulting yoga teacher Larry Payne for all the unscientific claims in his popular “Yoga for Dummies” book, while he then proceeded to make many unscientific and anecdotal arguments in his book. He clearly didn’t bother to do his homework on the world of yoga or its real history. I’m trying to make sense of why a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer would stoop to a rather silly rambling yoga book, and I can only come up with fame and money. It says on the back cover that he has been practicing yoga since the 1970s, yet his writing about yoga lacks a passion and respect I would except from someone who truly understands the practice as a sacred endeavor.
Although I study anatomy and movement, I don’t consider my practice or teaching to have much to do with science. I understand that some people feel the need to prove scientifically the benefits of yoga, as a means to convince the medical community and the general culture of its healing properties. The best way to convince the medical community that yoga is therapeutic is to get the doctors, chiropractors, psychologists, and physical therapist to just do yoga. Then they’ll know.
The yoga I teach is about finding your breath, and then finding the spaces between your breath, and relaxing there in that place of silence. I teach asana as safely as I possibly can with alignment and instructions. In the end though, it’s just a lot of movement to get students to find their breath, their center, and maybe something sacred and divine inside themselves. This is the fruit of the practice that Mr. Broad never mentions.
Becca Hewes:Â A Road From Douglas County
Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, by Mark Singleton. Oxford Press, 2010.
The Yoga Tradition: It’s History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, by Georg Feurerstein. Hohm Press, 1998.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika