William J. Broad tackles the proliferation of yoga systems and claims in his review and analysis of research and marketing in The Science of Yoga. Yoga, in its ancient simplicity, captivates the imagination. It turns out that it can also enhance imagination—and serenity, stress-reduction, longevity, sexuality and a host of desirable qualities. Yoga can also cripple and come close to killing you so a guided tour through its potential and pitfalls is a useful thing for initiate and adept alike.
At first I was intrigued by the science and Broad’s extensive research into trials and teachers. He pokes some serious holes in claims that have been accepted at face value for generations. He examines hot and sweaty Bikram with its 105-degree studios, meticulous Iyengar with its blocks, straps and other props designed to produce perfect alignment, vinyasa—a flowing series of moves sometimes referred to as “yoga ballet.” He holds up famous experiments and “miracles” to the light and it is not always kind to them.
I began to get irritated with the relentlessly scientific filter through which he reported on a practice which is not entirely quantifiable. It is a problem to have unsupported claims duping thousands of people. It is also a problem to reduce yoga to a lab result, a jogger’s measure of oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide release, an aerobic non-starter of an exercise. Science pushes the frontiers of our knowledge farther out and it is often behind the curve in understanding both physical and etheric realms. Once the most learned scientists of their age taught that the sun revolved around the earth—that earth that was devoutly believed to be flat, until it was not. We can’t know what we don’t yet know but it is surely an immensity.
Eventually and mercifully, the scientific studies published in peer reviewed journals give way to the search for how yoga generates the good feelings, relaxation and bursts of insight practitioners recount. Neuroscience is beginning to confirm the influence of asanas and a regular practice on stage fright and solo performance, creative thinking, the making of art, intensified sexual experience, and the extreme lowering of stress that contributes to vigorous health and longevity.
So, yoga is more than the latest celebrity guru or gimmicky class. Maybe you should rethink your devotion to plow pose, shoulder stand and definitely head stand. Do some homework before you embrace yoga as therapy for your ills—it can be but most yoga therapists are freelancers as there is no professional regulatory body for the field. Do, however, unroll the mat and perfect your Salute to the Sun. The benefits of yoga, scientifically vetted in a lab or gained in an expert class or daily solitude, are many. Feeling good is no small thing, neither is a better life. Broad leaves room for both, even as he debunks common misconceptions and challenges a few iterations that function more like magical gym sessions for buff wannabes than the serious practice of an exacting–and rewarding–discipline.
The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards William J. Broad | Simon and Schuster 2012