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Book Review: ‘The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards’ by William J. Broad

in YD News

First reviews have already trickled in. Here Roseanne Harvey of Its All Yoga, Baby takes on the daunting task of reviewing one of the most controversial yoga books in recent history before it’s even been released.

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

by Roseanne Harvey

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 the 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

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 term: “yoga industrial complex” (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 Loren 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.

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8 comments… add one

  • Samantha

    As an overweight yoga practioner, I do like that he’s confronting claims that if you do yoga you will magically transform into a size 0. I don’t like that people may see a larger practitioner and imagine that there is something wrong with their practice, or that they can’t be doing “real” yoga if they are not skinny. However, I’ve lost over 40 lbs with diet and yoga. In yoga, you’re lifting your body weight, doing lunges, warriors, and chatturanga, and may even raise your heart rate during sun salutations. I don’t know what the affect of yoga on my metabolism has been, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have slowed down.

  • Monica

    Samantha, thank you for your opinion and experience “from the trenches,” b/c I imagine that the possibility of yoga slowing down one’s metabolism would scare off a lot of people. “What?! You can gain weight by doing yoga??!!” I imagine metabolism varies immensely from person to person and is affected not only by one’s yoga practice, but by many other variable in one’s life.
    Aside from that, I’m interested in the alignment of yoga and science myself. My husband is a neuroscientist; I am a yoga student and instructor; and we have had many discussions in which we realize how much our subject matters overlap. In fact, you could even say those discussions have been “enlightening!” Looking forward to reading the book.

  • This is (and will be for some time) a profoundly important book.

    As a former student of biochemistry, the son of a hatha yoga teaching mom (she has been teaching for 35 years), Co-Founder and President of a yoga brand (Broga), and a practitioner with an ever-growing appreciation for yoga’s capacity for catalyzing personal growth, the recent conversation sparked by Broad’s work has initiated some serious self-evaluation and values clarification. It’s clear that I’m not the only one to be looking for my comfortable resolution amidst the din… and that is good.

    Broad’s work may turn out to be one of the best things that’s happened to Yoga in a long time. It’s encouraging us all to take an honest, hard look at the truth. It’s elevated the conversation. It’s refreshing.

    I’m working toward this outcome (though I’m not sure about ‘yoga doctors,’ yet):
    2. Yoga goes mainstream and plays an important role in society. He envisions scientific study and “yoga doctors.”

    I haven’t read the book yet, but this is what I’ve learned so far:
    I have A LOT more work to do. I will need to openly embrace change and hold myself and Broga to ever higher standards. We may have full classes, but we haven’t “arrived” yet. We need to proactively, objectively, and continually seek deeper scientific understanding. If we have it, we need to put it out there in a useful, digestible format that our students can value. If we don’t have the information, we need to admit it and initiate research. If we’re teachers, especially if we make great claims about yoga’s many benefits to the public, we should know our material and be able to back it up with evidence.

  • JeffreyD

    I’ve read a study that yoga practitioners tend to be more mindful of what they eat, and lose weight that way…agreed that the actual practice doesn’t do much in terms of burning calories, though. And come on, metabolisms changing? Even if it’s true it’s going to be insignificant. http://www.eatingwell.com/nutrition_health/weight_loss_diet_plans/diet_reports_information/yoga_for_weight_loss

  • As commented on It’s All Yoga Baby:

    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…:)

  • David

    For me, my ground zero for yoga is the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. Yoga is so vast that I find it difficult to embrace any of the sound bite characterizations that I hear. But I have no doubt that it is potentially revolutionary. Even set in the ground of our commercializing and sensationalizing society, yoga could influence us away from our self-centeredness. It may sound odd, but I’m concerned about the promotion of yoga’s “benefits.” It’s a dicey situation. We could “benefit” yoga into just another commodity for the masses, while the rest of us remain forever on the edge of the mainstream. Not that I need to be in a mainstream practice. But there is such possibility in yoga. I just pray that we can avoid hyping it into some kind of air-brushed mush.

  • The “two possible outcomes” of predatory commercialism versus socially useful science and medicine strikes me as odd and ultimately unconvincing. The first is a classic straw man, painted in such negative terms that no one could be in favor of it. Yet even the most sincere yoga teachers is necessarily an entrepreneur who must do some marketing – it’s not so black-and-white.

    Conversely, science and medicine have their own problems. I know one doctor who’s a medical researcher at a top hospital and he can tell stories about slipshod practices that would make you never want to set foot in a mainstream medical establishment again. Plus, conceptually, the mainstream scientific paradigm is way too narrow to encompass as lot of the most important things that yoga has to offer. For example, yoga can help develop your intuitive capacities, which is really important – but could we currently validate that through science? No.

  • David D

    Spot on. (I often disagree with you, so it’s nice to see we agree here.) The attempted “two possible outcomes” is really a false choice with a straw man thrown in to make an even greater false choice. Not only is that poor journalism, it is poor reasoning.

    As you note, science does indeed have its own problems. The grant and publishing pressures create distortion effects and pressures to manufacture results that warp what we can expect from the enterprise.

    However, even when it works as it is supposed to, it is often mis-understood by people who purport to know better. Between not understanding exactly what scientific knowledge is (not the “truth,” but merely an, at the time, not-yet-falsified hypothesis) and getting wrapped around the axle on statistics, more often than not even good science is grossly misunderstood and misrepresented. And don’t get me started about how much of what passes for medical knowledge (and thereby is assumed to be scientific) is not scientific. Science requires a healthy realization that there is a lot you don’t know and a healthy scepticism toward things that are supposedly settled or understood. This requires a lot of hard thinking and humility, which is a lot of hard work.

    There’s a lot of interesting work to be done on the yoga-science edge. But if it’s done by people that think that yoga causes strokes because headstands or inversions increase blood pressue in the brain, I’m afraid it may do more harm than good.

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