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Get Real: Controversial Writer talks about “The Science of Yoga”

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.

YN: Were you surprised by the response to the NYTimes article?The Science of Yoga by William Broad

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.

Adding “Namaste” to Bachelorette Parties

As reported in the New York Times today, more young brides are adding fitness to their bachelorette parties. And that includes yoga.

Are you surprised?

What surprises me (constantly, sigh) is the endless creative ways that entrepreneurs organize yoga for busy brides-to-be. Writes the Times:

It’s not just New Yorkers: The Los Angeles-based company Yoga for Weddings (slogan: “Bringing the Deep Breath to the Big Day”) offers private 90-minute classes, with a focus on “heart-opening poses” like the Cobra, for brides-to-be and their pals in nine United States cities (cost: $500). Innerlight Center for Yoga and Meditation in Middletown, R.I., started offering $200-an-hour bachelorette parties last year; already demand this year has tripled, said Kim Chandler, the center’s director.

That’s a lot of cash for a little namaste with your girlfriends…. but it’s about priorities.

I’m guessing smart companies know that a few sweaty down dogs with your closest lady friends might work out better in the long run than a big drunken glitter-covered mess that you don’t remember well even the next morning.

Photo c/o the New York Times

Protest or Party? Yoga as Political Theater or Giant Concert, your choice

According to the New York Times today, agitators in India are using hunger strikes—and yoga—to protest corruption in their government. While some people, such as Mr Anna Hazare, of the DMK political party are fasting to affect change, others such as  yoga guru Swami Ramdev, are planning mass yoga sessions.

Swami Ramdev, a yoga guru with political aspirations and hundreds of thousands of followers, has created another front of protest. Tents have been prepared at a campsite in New Delhi for a mass yoga session on Saturday followed by a hunger strike. Mr. Sibal and other top ministers met Swami Ramdev at New Delhi’s airport on Wednesday and spent nearly two hours trying in vain to persuade him not to protest. –NYTimes

photo c/o New York Times/ B.Mathur/Reuters

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, where we have not a thing to protest, and only joy in our hearts, yogis and music lovers are preparing for the second attempt at a ginormous public yoga class in the city. As you might remember—maybe you were there—last year’s Flavorpill event was rained out. This year, the Wanderlust team has taken over, and will be offering instruction by Anusara’s golden child, Elena Brower, Breakti’s creator Anya Porter, and Kula Yoga/Wanderlust director, Schuyler Grant at Pier 63 near 24th Street and the Westside Highway on June 7th. Music will be provided by New York’s favorite in-class musician, Garth Stevenson, and Earthrise Soundsystem.

Wanderlust at the Standard in Miami, 2011

From political theater to giant concert, appropriate use of yoga has once again proven to be hard to establish. But a lot of people do seem to think it’s more fun when attached to another agenda, and when practiced with a lot of other people. Maybe.

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

2011 Yoga Journal Conference, NYC
Part Une

This weekend in is the second Yoga Journal conference in New York (the first was in 2009), and through a stroke of good fortune I was able to attend. Not wanting to waste a single drop of my precious pass, I chose to do the Friday all-day intensive with Rod Stryker, creator of Para Yoga.

In other words, I would spend the entire day with a Tantric teacher instead of at my day job. You can imagine that my choice was not difficult: reviewing manuscript for a remedial English textbook, or learning about how to overcome my limitations by becoming a living embodiment of the divine. Hmm. I put in for a personal day, rolled up my blue piling yoga mat, and packed off to the Hilton Hotel in mid-town.

I had another agenda, too. Stryker is a long-time student of Panditji Rajmani Tigunait, the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute where I’ve been doing the Living Tantra series since July 2010. I wanted to see how Stryker interpreted the teachings of Panditji—and Panditji’s teacher, Swami Rama—for American yoga people. Truth be told, I was having some trouble with the mysterious and magical stories of Tantra’s history and practices. How exactly was I supposed to conduct a fire ceremony, or the secret rituals? How did my urban Brooklyn life fit in with Tantra’s esoteric take on reality?

So here they all were again, Tantra’s basic ideas, but presented in the low-lit conference room of a corporate hotel, rather than in a vegetarian ashram in northeastern Pennsylvania. In Tantra, Styrker reminded us, we don’t make the self go away in order to have a spiritual practice. Rather, we alchemize ourselves so that the divine works through us. How do we attract divinity? Not by giving up worldly things, but by becoming more like the divine in our daily lives. Tantric asana practice is a discipline to refine your energy so that the alchemy can happen.

What about sex and death, you ask? Well, in the left-handed path, which is all about enjoyment, no desire is denied because all desires are expressions of the divine. In the left-handed path, you can have all the sex you want, but you might also meditate in a cremation ground by sitting on a corpse. Ewww.

Since many people are not always comfortable with corpses—and truthfully probably not so much with hedonistic sex either—they have to practice asana, pranayama, mantra and ritual to clear out their misconceptions of the Source and limitated conceptions of the Self. In other words, on the right-handed path, which emphasizes liberation, people have to work to align their desires with the divine, to know that there IS a source behind everything. And this source is beyond what we can conceive of with the rational mind. In the right-handed path, no ecstatic copulation—and no visits to graveyards—is required.

Stryker talked for most of the morning session, introducing the subject of “god” and all its forms at about the half an hour mark. “We have all these choices but they are not related, not integrated. It’s like going to several specialists and getting several opinions–it almost paralyzes you. In Tantra we integrate them.”

Then we practiced. Gentle asana—that reminded me very much of ViniYoga asana practices—with the emphasis on the breathing pattern. On the inhale bring the breath down the spine and relax the bandhas, on the exhale bring the breath up the spine and contract the lower two locks. We were trying to build fire in the belly, the fire of manipura chakra, where our issues get burned up and purified, and where our sense of agency originates.

We did this in standing poses, back bends, and forward extensions, even adding in the mantra, Om Agni Namaha—the mantra to stimulate and propitiate the fire at our navel center.

Then we sat for meditation.

By the time we broke for lunch—and again after the afternoon session—I was high as a kite, floating on a pulsing current that eliminated every thought and even the need to breathe. When I asked Stryker a question in person afterward, my eyes felt dilated like I’d become a wide-eyed alien who had just visited the optometrist. It seemed like light and energy were pouring through them, but Rod answered my question without seeming to notice. No matter, I will bathe everyone I meet with my Tantric-generated fire, I thought, walking unsteadily out into the glaring hallway of the enormous hotel.

Clearly that wasn’t going to last long. In the evening I was signed up for David Romanelli’s “Yoga & Chocolate” class. While “yoga & chocolate” might seem to qualify for the left-handed path, it wasn’t hedonistic at all. In fact, going from Stryker to Romanelli was like falling from the breathless heights of Kilimanjaro and landing with a thump in a Starbucks.

Not that the chocolates weren’t good—the Vosges chocolates were complex and intriguing, especially the vegan one with Oaxaca chilis. It was the yoga that was prosaic. Your basic sun salutation, your basic back bend, your basic forward fold. And the sprinkling of interesting factoids throughout the class felt calculated to deliver a message to a demographic to which Romanelli, a self-proclaimed “major Gemini,” assumed we belonged—the too busy, too distracted crowd who was out of touch with our emotions and our five senses.

Romanelli was a clever marketer, but his delivery was flat—and in fact, he read from his factoids from a script. He seemed happiest when he was embracing beautiful women—of whom he seemed to know a great many (I saw him embracing them all over the Hilton).

Still, the 100 or so women—and 8 or so men—in attendance thought that “Yoga & Chocolate” was the way to go, and who am I to question how people approach meaning in their lives? I’d just dropped in from Mars, after all.

Anti-Gravity Yoga

On a hot July day last summer, my adventurous friend Michele, who normally cooks at a research station in Antarctica, took me to Om Factory’s Anti-Gravity Yoga class.

I thought, no problem, I’ve done a lot of yoga, and even a lot of weird yoga. In fact, it would be a good addition to my repertoire, since I’ve never done yoga suspended in a large swath of orange silk.

Watch a video of it here: Anti Gravity Yoga at Om Factory

It was a lot of fun tumbling around in the hammock of fabric, twirling upside down, and swinging my body back and forth in some very creative interpretation of yoga poses (could you really call “that” triangle?).

It also stimulated a lot of abdominal and leg muscles I never knew I had since I was sore the next day. And sometimes it was scary. Falling backwards into the silk required a huge amount of trust—like standing on the high diving board as a little kid and praying that the water really would be there after I jumped.

In April, the NYTimes launched “Gym Class” as part of their Well column and video series, and Anti-Gravity Yoga was the first subject in their “interesting class that you were too intimidated to try” roster. According to the article,

AntiGravity Yoga was developed by Christopher Harrison, a former aerial acrobat and gymnast who found traditional yoga too hard on his injured wrists. The weightless poses can be used to strengthen the core as well as relieve aching joints and stretch tight muscles.

Or, as one commentator on the Gym Class blog said, “Wow! So this is what life is like when one has excessive disposable income….”

Yoga + Infertility = Baby?

Women battling infertility is a familiar (though harrowing) story these days. Women using yoga to reduce stress and love themselves better is another familiar story. So it comes as no surprise that yoga is helping women to cope with the physical and emotional stress of infertility and its treatments…

It’s also not a new idea. My ob/gyn, Dr. Eden Fromberg, opened Lila Wellness Center in New York several years ago to meet women’s pre-and post- (and pre- pre-) natal needs. And there have been programs such as Receptive Nest, and studios such as Brooklyn’s Bend & Bloom, helping women to reach full “bloom” in their childbearing years. Other renegade yoga specialists have been helping women for years to make the all-important mind-body connection necessary.

But the NYTime’s article this weekend, “Yoga as Stress Relief: An Aid for Infertility?” raises this issue with a new twist: once-skeptical fertility professionals (doctors) are giving yoga the green light. The tide is turning in how acceptable yoga is to support women in their quest to become pregnant.

Medical acceptance of yoga as a stress reliever for infertility patients is slowly growing. In 1990, when Dr. Domar first published research advocating a role for stress reduction in infertility treatment, “I wasn’t just laughed at by physicians,” she said. “I was laughed at by Resolve, the national infertility organization. They all said I was perpetuating a myth of ‘Just relax, and you’ll get pregnant.’ ” At the last meeting for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Dr. Domar, now on the national board of Resolve, gave multiple talks, including one about how to help the mind and body work together in infertile couples.

And this is a national phenomenon, not just a jag in New York or San Francisco where there are always a handful of people pushing the envelope.


Still, even with yoga’s help, infertility doesn’t sound like too much fun.

“A lot of people want to boil it down to ‘If you relax, it will happen,’ ” Ms. Petigara, a former in vitro fertilization patient who adopted a son, wrote in an e-mail. “I absolutely feel that yoga can have a very positive impact on infertility, but infertility is a lot more than ‘just relaxing.’ ”

Oh!!! As in, lie back and think of England? Well, yoga never was really about passivity.

If you happen to be dealing with infertility right now, you can attend the March 17th tele-seminar on “Yoga for Fertility” led by Jill Petigara, who teaches in the Philadelphia area. But you’ll have to Google the details.

Food for thought

Big Success in Albany! But pressure still on

This just in! From Yoga for New York action committee:

“Success! Terrific Success! The vote in the NYS Senate Higher Education Committee was a unanimous “YES” in support of S5701A – protecting yoga teacher training from burdensome and unnecessary government regulation and licensing.

Now what? More Committees to get through (remember in school learning about how a bill becomes a law – were are in it!!)  — yup democracy requires a lot of work – we will keep you posted, of course, as working collaboratively on this is how we protect yoga!

What must we do now to keep the heat on?

* Please Call Senator Carl Kruger, the Chair of the NYS Senate Finance Committee, the next Committee the bill is before @  (518) 455-2460

* You will be connected to a representative of Senator Kruger who will take your message for the Senator. Here’s the message script:

“My name is  _________________ I am calling Senator Kruger because he is the Chair of the Finance Committee. I urge his support for S.5701A which will protect yoga teacher training from burdensome government regulations, unfunded expenses on local government and ensure that yoga studios stay in business. Thank you”

What else do we need?

Very important: funding and donations to make sure the hard work in the State’s capital continues.  Want to know how to donate or ideas for raising funds? Email action@yogaforny.org

Save the Date: Yoga Benefit & Silent Auction, Jan 21

This is no ordinary benefit. If you are going to donate to any cause this winter, this is the one. Protect yoga from state mandates! January 21—cocktails, hor d’ouevres, and silent auction at Chibo (info below). Save the date.

Yoga for New York, a non-profit formed last summer to prevent state government regulation of yoga, needs to raise $25,000. That’s a lot of cash. YFNY needs to hire a lobbyist to help pass legislation early this year that will help protect yoga from being defined by government officials who don’t know anything about the practice. Protect your practice! Protect your local studio.

Read more—and get the latest scoop on the issue—at Yoga City NYC.

Most of all, save the date: Thursday, January 21st

Where:    Cibo Restaurant
Location:  767 2nd Ave. at 41st Street
When:     January 21, 2010
TIme:       6:30PM-8:30PM
Tickets:   $100 in advance, $125 at the door. *Teachers will receive a special entry rate of $75 if paid before January 18th, 2010.

Silent Auction items include

  • a weeklong stay at a Villa in Southern Italy
  • a yoga retreat weekend at The Ananda Ashram
  • dinner for two in the Theater District with actor/singer Dominic Chianese
  • and much more!

Register at www.yogaforny.org/events

Download invitation: Invite YFNY Jan Benefit

Miami–What Kind of Yoga?

Miami.

In this town, even the mannequins have boob jobs.

What kind of yoga can you expect where opulence is mistaken for elegance? A mile of bronzed thigh atop a 5” stiletto; lots of mascara and highlights; tight, tight jeans. Little goatees. Flash and glitter. Reflecting pools, royal palms, sequestered cloth cabanas.

Here where beach culture and night life vie for dominance, are sun salutations a variant on sun worship? Is it all spray-on tans and tiny spandex shorts?

Yoga in some ways is the same wherever you go: the same poses, the same instructions—sometimes down to the exact metaphors (“open your feet like a book”).

But the flavor changes from city to city, and certainly from instructor to instructor. In Miami, where new money, hot bodies, and Latin beats pulse up and down Ocean Drive, what did I discover?

Ashtanga.

Ashtanga, the austere, physically rigorous, 6-day a week practice, imported from Mysore, India. This is the bedrock. And then, sprinkled on top, a few variations: a little vinyasa, a little power yoga, a few hot yoga classes, some Jivamukti (which, by the way, is an ashtanga variant).

When I was in Miami last week, I practiced at Miami Yoga Shala, Miami Life Center, The Standard hotel, and Synergy Center for Yoga and Healing Arts.

Coming up: a mini review of yoga in Miami. From a guided ashtanga class to a surprise didgeridoo chakra cleansing—stay tuned!

ATTEND THIS MEETING TODAY (if you’re a new york yoga teacher)

Yo, New York yoga teachers! This meeting today is for you. I’m in Miami, but YOU need to be there!

“We need yoga teachers to help determine the future of yoga in NY. We are at risk of having our future decided for us, without our voice,” say the organizers, the lovely Liz and Mel of Yoga High.

“Whether you are for or against licensing, it is important we hear your thoughts and ideas on how we can all be involved in the process.  This will ensure that when regulation happens, it does so with intelligence, compassion and a deep respect for the yogic traditions.”

They mean the issue of New York State passing legislation requiring yoga studios to obtain costly licenses to run teacher training programs.

“So please come to a meeting specifically for NY yoga teachers to discuss licensing, health insurance, pay transparency and any other issues you feel passionate about. As a yoga teacher, dealing with these issues can sometimes be a very isolating experience. This is our chance to come together to talk about something that we love and how we can all continue to enjoy a yogic lifestyle.

“IT’S CRUCIAL THAT WE COME TOGETHER NOW. YOGA IS AT RISK. EVERY SMALL STUDIO IS AT RISK OF CLOSING IF LICENSING PASSES WITHOUT US GETTING INVOLVED.

“This is our last chance to meet and discuss these issues before the vote goes to the state senate. We can use our collective voice to buy us time to have input into how, where, and when regulation happens. If not, yoga in NY will become very limited and there will be fewer choices and a bottom line corporate approach.

“The meeting for just teachers will be Wed. January 6th 2010. 12 – 1pm.”

“We encourage you to stay for the Yoga For NY meeting that will be held immediately following from 1-3pm.”

“The meetings will be held at YOGA HIGH 19 Clinton St. between Houston and Stanton. (Ave B turns into Clinton Street South of Houston) 212-792-5776

F, V to 2nd Ave or F, J, M, Z to Delancey

***If you’re a yoga teacher, please forward this on to other teachers you know and to studio owners where you teach.”

THANKS everyone. (Non-yogis welcome to volunteer for Yoga for New York, too, you know.)