All around the globe, people roll out mats to practice yoga. Some are motivated to become more flexible, others want to improve their concentration, or reduce stress. Recent research shows that yoga may even help those with more severe mental problems, such as depression, schizophrenia and ADHD. Other studies, however, demonstrate that yoga doesn’t always lead to superior levels of fitness and well-being, as it can cause severe damage to the human body.
In the book ‘The Science of Yoga,’ William J. Broad discusses more than a century of research on the risks and rewards of yoga, confirming what we may already know about the ancient practice, but also revealing its dirty little secrets.
Why should we all do yoga, according to science?
A century and a half of research shows that the rewards are many and commonplace while the serious dangers tend to be few and comparatively rare. In seven chapters, the book details yoga’s advantages for health and healing, sex and longevity, moods and creativity. What is getting old? You get stiff and have difficulties with balance. Yoga is the perfect antidote. Yoga should be taught in every nursing home and retirement village. Group classes also address the social isolation that often comes with old age.
You studied the roots of yoga in India. What are its origins?
History shows that Hatha yoga – the precursor to the countless styles now practiced around the globe – began as a branch of Tantra. In ancient times, Tantra instructed devotees in the mystic art of fusing the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness. But Tantric cults also engaged in group and individual sex. One text advised the male devotee to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. Suggested women included sisters, actresses, and prostitutes. As I show in the book, Hatha was developed as way to speed the Tantric agenda. It used poses, deep breathing, and physical techniques – including intercourse – to initiate extended states of rapturous bliss.
How did yoga find its way to the Western world?
In time, Tantra and Hatha developed bad reputations. The main charge was that Tantrics indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality. As a result – as the book shows – the founders of modern yoga, early in the twentieth century, worked hard to eliminate the Tantric associations. They devised a sanitized discipline that downplayed the old eroticism for a new emphasis on health and fitness. That development led to the global export of countless gurus and styles that we see around us today.
Indeed, there are a variety of yoga styles people can choose from nowadays. Does it matter what style is practiced, or are the essence and the effects pretty similar?
The physical differences are great. My book has a foreword that discusses a dozen of yoga’s main styles. Some are better for beginners and others for more advanced students. The science discussed in the book tends to go to the commonalities, including the common benefits. For instance, the science shows that yoga in general slows the metabolism, helping individuals cut stress and enjoy a deep sense of inner peace. Science has yet to devote much attention to the likelihood that the different styles produce different physiological effects on the body and mind, but will surely do so in the decades ahead.
To what extent are the physical effects of practicing yoga comparable to aerobic exercise?
The miracle claims often bear no relation to the rather grim reality. My second chapter, Fit Perfection, shows how scientists addressed the claim that yoga alone is sufficient to achieve cardiovascular health. In a series of clinical studies at top institutions, they found that yoga failed to meet even the minimal aerobic recommendations of the world’s health bodies. Its oxygen demands, they reported, “represent low levels of physical activity” similar to walking on a treadmill or taking a leisurely stroll. Yoga did much for the body and mind, they discovered, but little or nothing for aerobic conditioning.
So practicing yoga isn’t a good way to loose weight?
No. For decades, yoga teachers have hailed the discipline as a fabulous way to shed pounds, almost like magic. But science reveals that yoga works so well at reducing the body’s metabolic rate that – all things being equal – people who take up the practice burn fewer calories, prompting them to gain weight and deposit new layers of fat. Of course, other aspects of yoga do fight pounds successfully. The discipline builds body awareness and its calming influence can help reduce stress eating. But when yoga succeeds at weight control, the scientific evidence suggests that it does so in spite of – not because of – its fundamental impact on the human metabolism. That’s one of yoga’s dirty little secrets. It turns out there are plenty of others.
I assume another “dirty secret” is the fact that yoga can cause severe damage to the human body, including nerve damage, back injuries and even stroke. Why is this “dark side” largely overlooked?
The cultish roots of yoga envelop the discipline in a myth of perfection. You put your foot on a yoga mat and you are somehow instantly on a path to enlightenment. Plus, the giant industry that has grown up around this mythology has a vested interest in selling a product that is perfectly safe. Billions of dollars are at stake, not to mention fame and celebrity. Many yoga teachers have told me about how they were pressured never to mention the topic of injuries – even their own.
William J. Broad is a best-selling author and a senior writer at The New York Times. In more than thirty years as a science journalist, he has written hundreds of front-page articles and won every major journalistic award in print and film. His reporting shows unusual depth and breadth – everything from exploding stars and the secret life of marine mammals to the spread of nuclear arms and why the Titanic sank so fast. The Best American Science Writing, a yearly anthology, has twice featured his work.
Reference: Balasubramaniam M, Telles S, & Doraiswamy PM (2012). Yoga on our minds: a systematic review of yoga for neuropsychiatric disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry / Frontiers Research Foundation, 3 PMID: 23355825
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