New York Times senior science writer, William J. Broad came under fire in early January for his article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”. In it, he recounted shocking stories and studies of yoga-related injuries. The article enraged parts of the yoga community who felt it scared newcomers and discredited yoga.
As provocative as the article was, Broad’s book, The Science of Yoga, is solidly researched—and fascinating. He reviews 150 years of studies, giving readers a very good idea of the scientifically measured benefits (healing, inspiration, sexual power) and the dangers (physical injury, group thinking) of yoga asana practice.
I had the chance to interview WJB about the whole experience.
WJB: I was surprised by lots of things. On the one hand there was lots of email about, “if you think that’s bad, let me tell you my horror story.” Spinal infarcts, vertigo, that kind of thing. But I also got extremely un-yogic responses like the bitter invective from a 30-year veteran yoga teacher who said, “Go fuck yourself,” and a yogini in L.A. who said, “You are a jerk, you don’t know anything about yoga.”
YN: Do you attribute this to the growing pains of what you call Yoga 2.0, “the modern variety” of yoga, especially in the West?
WJB: I hope that’s what it is! That’s part of my naive optimism. Science demonstrates lots of benefits of yoga—neuro-transmitters that help your mood, help your sex life and so on. The science also clearly demonstrates that yoga as we know it contains alluring myths such as, that yoga helps you lose weight, or it’s the only exercise you need, etc. This just isn’t true.
I hope the outcry is part of the process of starting a conversation. And I’m hopeful that there’s a growing realization that yoga can be better. Which for some people is a contradiction. They think, yoga is ancient and what can be better than that? But the science says that there are issues and it can be better.
Another surprising aspect of the feedback has been the depth of the reform movement. I had no idea. People using props, Iyengar teachers tailoring poses to people rather than the other way around. There are dozens of groups, schools, and styles that are working hard to provide this evolutionary agenda. That delighted me.
YN: So the reform movement would be more in the direction of Yoga 3.0 or 4.0.
WJB: Of course, those are arbitrary numbers. Yoga is this thing that’s being born all around us.
YN: What were some of your favorite “me too” stories from the letters you received?
WJB: Some of them moved me almost to tears. Two people who stand out are former studio owners, who say, ”Woah, you ain’t kidding. Do we have things to tell you,” such as a lifetime of surgery and therapy on their own spines. In one case, one of them had been working with celebrity yogis, creating curriculums. She was forming very visible programs and was very much in the mainstream.
YN: Speaking of reform, have you heard of International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT)?
WJB: I talk about IAYT in the chapter on healing. For 3 years I was a member. I’d send them my membership fee and they’d send me a credential with gold fancy lettering. I’ve seen them hanging in yoga studios—I hope they stop that practice because it’s just about the $75, not about having an actual diploma.
To their credit—because what I want is for yoga to become more professional—they are trying to create standards and schools with standardized curriculum. That’s great! I’m hoping for yoga doctors, myself. I think it’s an outrage that we spend 10s of billion dollars on fix-this, fix-that pills when anyone who does yoga seriously knows it’s a better way. Yoga done right is grown up. It says, “I take responsibility for myself and I have control over what I do” in a way that popping pills doesn’t.
So, I applaud them but on the other hand they did send me three fake diplomas
YN: So you think they don’t go far enough.
WJB: There’s a lot of guru worship out there and cultish schools finely dividing themselves into factions and sticking to what they think is the truth. That’s why science is so powerful because it looks at what is real and what is not real. It can be more objective.
The Science of Yoga is the first book to look at the century and a half of science on yoga. The science can illuminate a lot of what are bogus claims and what are understated truths.
YN: It seems like you’re saying that yoga is both much better and also worse than we thought. It’s much more extreme—handle with care!
WJB: Exactly. In my own practice, I did it for stress management. But fundamentally, yoga is much more extreme than a stress management system. As a science journalist I was blown away by the mysteries of the practice.
YN: Can you give an example?
WJB: How low can the human metabolism go while maintaining a level of consciousness? Is suspended animation possible? We can actually go into a deeper hibernation that a turtle or a bear—that’s quite amazing.
How possible is continuous bliss—sexual, or whatever you want? Some people can so stir their inner fire that they enter these states of continuous ecstasy that is allied with sexual ecstasy. Possibly these are states of enlightenment.
YN: You say that you started to research in 2006—did the subject matter require more research than you expected?
WJB: I thought I was going to do it in 9 months but it took 5 years. In many cases, the science was more difficult than I thought.
The sexual chapter alone took 3 years. There was some evidence to wrestle with. Some research said that yoga makes sex hormones decline. That wasn’t intuitively right to me and had not been my experience. I put that away for a while. When I’d go back to it, I’d still think that it didn’t add up. Then some advanced yogis talked to me about continuous bliss and all kinds of stuff, and then things started falling into place. But it took time.
YN: Speaking of sexual bliss, I noticed that you refer to Tantra only as a sex cult. The Himalayan Institute, where I’ve been studying, takes pains to separate left and right-handed Tantra. You don’t do that. Was this a conscious choice?
WJB: It’s very much in their interest to separate left and right handed, isn’t it? Tantra is a muddy subject. There’s layer after layer of symbolic misrepresentation. It’s gets so convoluted and strange—it’s a deep well.
YN: It strays into the magical, for sure.
WJB: Tantra gets into magic and trickery, frauds and pretexts for having fun. And they call it spirituality. Then there are serial philanderers such as Muktananda and Swami Rama, their 60-yr old bodies humming with vitality and they’re going down on any woman who’s willing—it’s bizarre.
How can they rationalize that appalling behavior? There’s lots of literature about the hard effects of betraying that doctor-patient relationship. There are women traumatized by these swamis: he was their God and their God kept going down on them and doing these weird things!
YN: It’s hard to understand—puzzling and disappointing.
WJB: And yet it’s worth meditating on in the sense that it’s real so we don’t want to hide from it.
YN: Your parameters for “yoga” didn’t include much meditation and pranayama. I’m sure you know of the research studies done by Jon Kabat-Zinn (on mindfulness meditation) and Richard Miller (on yoga nidra/iRest). What was your thinking there?
WJB: Initially, I wanted to have the research to be physically-based, but then my research went over into neurological areas such as in the muse and sex chapter. There’s a hugely overlooked area in what yoga does as a powerful stimulus to creativity, for example.
It’s also because it’s the way the industry goes right now—so much of the yoga we do is physical and doesn’t tolerate any meditation or pranayama. This is not Patanjali’s 8-fold path. It may be a misrepresentative slice of what got shipped out from India.in Culture, Research and Trends.