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.
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.