the science of yoga by william j. broad: the IAYB book review

At the beginning of January, the New York Times published an article called “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” which set the online yoga world on fire. Well, that was an excerpt from a book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, by William J. Broad. The rest of the book is now ready for the world.

I’ve seen this book referred to as “a book about yoga injuries,” but that’s hardly the case. The topic of injuries only amounts to one chapter (obviously, falling under the category of “risk”). Rather, the book is a meticulous look at a century and a half of scientific research on how yoga affects general health and healing, moods, sex and creativity. Much of this research has been ignored; Broad’s task was to bring it to light.

In the introduction, Broad states his research process and his initial surprise at what he discovered about yoga. “Overall, the risks and benefits turned out to be far greater than anything I ever imagined. Yoga can kill and maim – or save your life and make you feel like a god.”

Judging by initial responses to the NYT article excerpt, many people are perceiving this book as a threat to yoga. However, the book actually addresses a very real threat that yoga practitioners face right now – the lack of reliable information about the benefits and risks of the practice.

William J. Broad: do you think this guy hates yoga?

Broad takes on some of yoga’s undisputed claims (weight loss, eternal youth, enlightenment) and examines what science reveals. He’s not a scientist – he’s a journalist who writes about science. He has read through a huge amount of published peer-reviewed scientific studies and distilled the information to create a narrative on the science of yoga.

And not only science: while researching the book, Broad immersed himself in yoga culture, citing experiences at the Omega Institute and the Kripalu Centre. He traveled to India and hung out in dusty old libraries. He scoured Yoga Journal and popular news sources for reportage on the practice.

Broad also interviewed figures in the yoga community who are perhaps not household names but who have been quietly working for decades. People like Amy Weintraub (author of Yoga for Depression), Loren Fishman (who has done extensive research on yoga therapy), Paul Pond (founder of the Institute for Consciousness Research) and Glenn Black (whom we all know now because of the NYT article).

Among the claims of yoga that Broad disputes is a common selling point: yoga increases the metabolism and aids weight loss. But according to Broad, research proves that yoga actually slows down the metabolism. He’s also quick to point out that this common myth serves a commercial purpose. He singles out Tara Stiles’ book, Slim Calm Sexy Yoga as one of many products that tell us yoga will help us lose weight – a claim which is purely inaccurate.

Broad criticizes “new age fiction” and coins a new steals the term “yoga industrial complex” from YogaDawg (exemplified by John Friend and Anusara Inc, of course). He notes that “yoga seems to be moving toward [a] kind of predatory behavior as it grows into a bustling industry.” In doing so, he articulates why the commercialization of yoga should concern anybody who cares about the practice.

While he comes down hard on the commercialization of yoga, Broad seems to have a soft spot for the relationship between yoga and creativity, even as it burgeons as a “cottage industry.” There is not as much scientific research on how yoga affects the creative process, as most research has focused on the health and fitness benefits (which are also easier to qualify). But Broad sees much potential to be explored here.

There are places in the book where Broad lapses into hyperbole. But it appears that his intention is to awaken and provoke readers, rather than antagonize. Yoga is at a tipping point, as Loren Fishman says: “Yoga is in danger. It can tip either way – toward science or religion, toward people who are seeking to know truth or toward people who like hierarchies.”

In his epilogue, Broad looks at the future of yoga and his observations echo Fishman’s. “[Yoga] has reached not only a critical mass of practitioners but a critical juncture in its development.”

He outlines two possible outcomes:
1. a yoga market dominated by chains and brands, with no morals or accountability. “The general public sees yoga mainly as a cult that corporations seek to exploit,” he predicts.
2. yoga goes mainstream and plays an important role in society. He envisions scientific study and “yoga doctors.”

It’s no secret which outcome Broad would like to see. “Yoga must come into closer alignment with science,” he writes. “Yoga could become a major force. Or it could stay on the sidelines.”

Of course, we know there are plenty more possible outcomes. We, the yoga community, will be co-creating the future of yoga. We take a part in directing its course: towards a commercialized wasteland or a productive cultural force. What kind of future do we want to see?

As a community, we are also given choices about how to perceive this book. We can choose to write it off as anti-yoga hype and get defensive. Or we can choose to listen to what Broad has to say about the potential of yoga, and then act on it.

  1. Excellent review of the book – I look forward to reading it for myself! I appreciate your willingness to share your feelings after reading it.

  2. Ha, ha…Yoga Industrial Complex is hardly a new term since I have been using it in my writing since before 2007 in various contexts. An example

    http://yogadawg.blogspot.com/2007/07/yoga-news-yogadawg-does-la.html

    Google: “yogadawg Yoga Industrial Complex” and you will see my extensive use of that term. Tell that author dude that YogaDawg’s lawyers will be contacting him for proper attribution of the term in the next edition…:)

  3. Great review, Roseanne. I am interested in reading this book, as I also have my own opinions (don’t we all?) on how yoga is playing out in 21st-century America.

    I agree that there’s a whole lot of misinformation out there designed to get people to come to classes and to sell books and DVDs. Weight loss, as you point out, is a good example. Weight loss, raising your heart rate—all the fitness points we’ve come to covet in the West—are not what asana practice was designed to do. Practiced with mindfulness, asana can give us the sensitivity to make wise choices for our bodies, but I agree that it’s not the best thing to do if we’re looking to raise metabolism.

    And, as you know, I also have opinions about the yoga injuries issue. I’m grateful for the conversation Broad’s work has sparked and hope it continues.

  4. Thank you so much for posting a review of this book. I’ve had it on my to-read list for over a month & now I am 100% sure that I do want to read it 🙂

  5. Excellent.. Cant wait to read it! As a Yoga therapist I am a fan of showing the true benifets of Yoga, not just for sport, but as therapy.
    Yay!

  6. I am looking forward to reading this book if only to find out more about the false claims of yoga vs. scientific reality and also to find out more about these more grounded teachers.

    This “trending” and McDonaldsization of yoga fads (Chocolate yoga, anyone?) is creating lots of negative publicity and stereotypes. I think it’s healthy to get a reality check once in a while, even if that does deflate a few balloons.

    Part of the problem of living in a balloon is that everyone pretty much agrees with you and that there isn’t enough questioning and everyone becomes a yes-man. Yoga is getting too big too fast and there needs to be more serious scrutiny of the science, the industry, the instructors, all of it.

  7. Excellent review.

  8. I always liked the idea of choice. After 40 years of practicing and teaching yoga I have seen lots of new yoga forms develop out there and choice is wonderful. The problem arises when people claim they have “the real yoga” goods. We like yoga when it “heals” us: bring in the scientists and prove it! But yoga may just be healing you on many levels – like healing your ego by destroying it. Ouch.

    Yoga is also about a strict student-teacher relationship. We don’t like that part either – we want to do it our way, teacher be damned! – so we do what we like and blame yoga when we get injured. The core of yoga: be a student. There are yoga classes everywhere so show up and do it THEIR way, and see what yoga has to offer you.

  9. I am heading for the bookshop. William is right. It happened to me, unfortunately. Yoga is a science, I am in full agreement with his comments regarding the risks. It does not matter how long a person has been teaching or how well qualified they are, if the teacher does not know enough about the risks, the medical conditions and the effect of medications, the class members are still at risk. We should not be afraid of comments that have been made, we need to take a good look at how we teach. I have been teaching for over 35 years and am still learning. Yoga is something special and should not be belittled.

  10. I have glaucoma, so I came up against the lack of detailed research with regard to inversions in a dramatic way! When I inverted, my intraocular pressure doubled (measured by my optometrist). Nevertheless, this doesn’t prove that spending relatively short periods in inversions will damage the optical nerve, especially since I am on pressure-lowering medications. I don’t think the research on this has been done, so, as with so many things, we have to take personal responsibility for the risks we take without full knowledge, and that’s fine
    with me!

  11. True yogis/yoginis would listen to Broad, meditate on his message and find a way to translate it into a lesson of good.

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