The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards (Simon & Schuster, 2012)
Reviewed by Kirsten Johnstone
William J Broad had the worldwide yoga community all bent out of shape earlier this year when The New York Times – where he is a senior science writer – published his article ‘How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body’. The article detailed cases of ostensibly healthy people becoming partially paralysed, lungs collapsing, and strokes occurring during yoga classes. It also highlighted the huge increase in other yoga related injuries – sprains, torn cartilages, and muscle damage – in the western world in the past decade. One yoga teacher tells Broad “One of the biggest teachers in America had zero movement in her hip joints. The sockets had become so degenerated that she had to have hip replacements. There are other yoga teachers that have such bad backs they have to lie down to teach. I’d be so embarrassed.”
The article forms part of a chapter in the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist’s book ‘The Science Of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards’. Broad has been a devotee of yoga since the 70s, and for all the warnings about the perils of yoga in this book, he applauds the benefits of the practise: for strength building, clarity of mind, creativity, stress-busting, staving off depression, building one’s immune system, life-lengthening, and improving one’s sex-life.
Broad’s research is sound – he has interviewed teachers all around the world, read and analysed hundreds of scientific studies and assessed their merits, and investigated some of the oft-repeated claims made by famous gurus – including B.K.S. Iyengar, Bikram Choudhury (who Broad is especially scathing of) and Larry Payne, who wrote ‘Yoga For Dummies’ armed with a ‘Doctorate’ from a sham university.
The book also serves as a history of modern yoga. Broad picks up the story in the late 1800s, a time when Yogi were despised by most Indians. They were characterised as sex-obsessed, feral, wandering con-artists – with the Aghori sect having the added distinctions of cannibalism and heavy alcohol consumption. It wasn’t until India’s independence movement in the 1940s that yoga was re-developed – without the sexual elements so fundamental to the ancient practise – and presented as a source of pride by Hindu nationalists.
It is those roots as a Tantric sex cult that Broad attributes Yoga’s many ‘sex scandals’ to – he further aggravated the yoga community in March with another article – ‘Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here’. This article was published after Anusara Yoga founder John Friend was accused of sexual misconduct with students. And while ‘The Science Of Yoga’ provides evidence of testosterone levels rising during yoga, and of sexual bliss through simple breathing techniques – such as the Kundalini Yogi use – Broad seems to excuse the behaviour of the various Gurus’.
Broad has succeeded, in writing a much needed analysis of a practice which is plagued by misinformation and blind faith. It is a good reminder that yoga is not a competitive sport, and that – to avoid injury and get the most from it – ego should be left at the door when practising yoga. ‘The Science Of Yoga’ is a well written, entertaining, balanced and informative read, essential for anyone who has ever wondered why you feel so good after a yoga class.
Here’s an interview with William J Broad which aired recently on Radio NZ National’s This Way Up: http://podcast.radionz.co.nz/