Book Review: The Science of Yoga

The Science of Yoga Book ReviewAuthor: William J. Broad
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Book Publication: 2012

Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, William J. Broad, believes yoga has the ability to heal and harm, soothe and stimulate. In his fascinating, if somewhat rambling, book The Science of Yoga, Broad’s intent is to clear the confusion surrounding modern yoga by laying out what science has revealed about its real risks and rewards.

His investigation included yoga’s proclaimed effects on health, fitness, mood, creativity, and sexuality, as well as its safety. It turns out that in a number of areas the claims did not measure up under scientific scrutiny.

According to Broad’s research, one of yoga’s central tenets – “that deep yogic breathing flooded the lungs and bloodstream with oxygen” – is incorrect. Using a pioneering set of measurements, Jagannath G. Gune, the man who in the 1920s helped to give yoga a “bright new face that radiated with science and hygiene, health and fitness,” discovered that fast breathing did little to change the amount of oxygen that the bloodstream would absorb. His conclusion, “The idea that an individual absorbs larger quantities of oxygen during Pranayama is a myth.”

As an adjunct to the increased oxygen theory, many claims have been made over the years that yoga improves aerobic fitness and was sufficient on its own to help one become physically fit. Broad directs the reader to a review of more than 80 studies in 2010 (he makes particular note of one done at Duke University Medical Center) comparing yoga and regular exercise. The overall conclusion – “while yoga equaled or surpassed exercise in many areas, physical fitness was not one of them.”

Partly because he was injured himself while doing yoga, Broad also wanted to determine if yoga is as gentle and “as safe as mother’s milk.” (Yoga guru Swami Gitananda). He found some disturbing evidence that contradicted this timeless image.

He describes reports of a stroke created by Upward Bow Pose in 1973, a 1977 case of a man who damaged nerves with shoulder stands, and, in 1993, an incident involving a Hong Kong woman who suffered a stroke while doing a headstand. Broad also points to a survey in 2002 listing “46 injuries due to yoga, ranging from sprains and strains to dislocation and fractures.”

While injuries are a very real possibility, the chance of stroke seems remote. Nevertheless, shedding light on yoga injuries does demonstrate the importance of safe practices and qualified teachers, particularly for those who lack the necessary knowledge, strength, flexibility, and awareness to perform certain yoga poses.

While it is no surprise to anyone who practises yoga seriously, Broad’s research did ultimately lead him to conclude that the benefits unquestionably outweigh the risks.

The same 2010 study review that found yoga did not improve physical fitness did demonstrate how it excelled in “improving balance, reducing fatigue, decreasing anxiety, cutting stress, lifting moods, improving sleep, reducing pain, lowering cholesterol and more generally in raising the quality of life for yogis both socially and on the job.”

Despite the premise of the book being the science of yoga, this is no scientific treatise. Broad intertwines the research with yogic cultural history, interviews with people working in the yoga community, and sharp criticisms of the Yoga Journal (for inaccurate reporting), yoga stars like Bikram Choudhury (for blatant commercialism and making false promises), and yoga as big business (for having no controls for consumer protection). This does make The Science of Yoga more interesting; however, at times the details are excessive, meandering, and often confusing.

In the book’s epilogue, Broad suggests yoga is at a crossroads and that “the great hope of improvement centers on scientific research, with thoughtful individuals… combining yoga and science.” One would hope we can look forward to even more discoveries reaffirming medical doctor and yoga therapist Dr. Loren Fishman’s view of yoga as “the most interesting, least expensive and most helpful and versatile form of treatment that I have.”

Editor’s note: There are many different types of yoga – from hot yoga with its sweaty workout, to kundalini yoga with its intensely cathartic breathwork, to kripalu yoga with its meditative focus on the body-mind connection. Each has its own unique flavour, so it’s unfair to paint them all with the same brush stroke. If the teacher is tuned into their students, and appropriate precautions are taken according to the fitness level of each participant, all styles of yoga can be used as powerful catalysts for healing and transformation.

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Susannah Kent is a Toronto area Fitness and Healthy Lifestyle Instructor.

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