Since yoga classes are a staple of destination spas and often attended by people who don't have much yoga experience, the article caused alarm and outrage in the spa world, not to mention the even larger world of yoga studios.
"I Can Twist Further Than You"
Sure, it was one-sided. But something in the title rung true for me. Most spas have excellent teachers who ask about injuries and emphasize listening to your body and realizing your limits. Classes tend to be small. Teachers watch participants closely, offer options for beginners, intermediate and advanced, and make corrections. When classes are large, spas have assistants who keep an eye out.
But I remember a yoga class at a NYC gym where the competitive vibe was palpable. I've been in classes that went so quickly it would be easy to be hurt yourself. I've seen teachers who are more into their own workout than the class. I know people who were hurt doing "Power Yoga." I think Broad is right to warn people of the risk of bringing a competitive attitude to yoga.
It turns out that Broad is a long-time yoga practitioner himself who hurt his back in 2007 doing yoga. He also still practices, but has given up certain postures.
If you have a yoga practice, I highly recommend reading The Science of Yoga (Simon & Schuster, 2012). The risks of yoga are just part of the book, and center around overuse (injured yoga teachers), a competitive attitude ("I can twist further than you"), and certain poses like an unsupported headstand and the plow, which put pressure on vertebral arteries and in very rare cases, cause brain trauma.
Knowing these things can lead to a more informed yoga practice, and hopefully less of the competitive attitude that can lead to injuries. It can make teachers more aware of their responsibility to keep their students safety, something that is almost universal in yoga classes at spas. And that's a good thing.
Yoga's History: Sorting Fact From Fiction
There's lots of fascinating information in the book, including yoga's origins as a tantric practice to achieve bliss through sexual ecstasy. Some people still use it that way, as he details in the chapter on "Divine Sex." Master yogis were sometimes more like magicians who made a living doing things like slowing their breath and being buried in caves.
Yoga in its modern form is a 20th century development that owes its rise to Hindu nationalists. "They saw Indian antiquity as a time of cultural, religious and social greatness," according to Broad. "Yoga, with its ancient roots and mystic aspirations, was seen as a potential star. But it had problems." The long-time association with sex and magic was embarrassing. In the 1920s yoga was transformed into a practice that promoted health and spirituality, with innovations such as sun salutations, that we think of as ancient.
If you're going to do a practice, it's good to know where it really comes from.
The Science of Yoga also debunks some of the physical misconceptions about yoga. It's not a "fat-burner" that will "rev up your metabolism." In fact, according to Broad, yoga slows your metabolism down. So don't believe the claims that yoga is the only exercise you need to maintain fitness.
Yoga has many benefits, but get your cardiovascular training in some other way. Even the most vigorous styles, like Ashtanga, don't meet the minimal aerobic recommendations of the world's health organizations, Broad says.
The Benefits of Yoga
So what about those benefits? Health specialists at the University of Maryland examined more than 80 studies comparing yoga and other forms of exercise. They found that yoga equals or surpasses other types of exercise in terms of improving balance, reducing fatigue, decreasing anxiety, cutting stress, lifting moods, improving sleep, reducing pain, lowering cholesterol and raising practitioners' quality of life.
Significantly, yoga can lift moods, perhaps even to the point of saving lives. Amy Weintrub, author of "Yoga For Depression" (buy now) says she wouldn't be here without yoga. "The mood benefits are very real, unlike some of the aerobic claims," writes Broad.
Ultimately, Broad has done the yoga community a great service with The Science of Yoga. He clarifies the fascinating history of yoga. He shows us how we can hurt ourselves doing yoga, and how to keep that from happening. And he details the very real benefits of yoga from the myths, so we know what it can and can't do for us. This book belongs in the library of any serious yoga practitioner.
Finally, despite the alarmist magazine article, I don't think anyone who reads this book will be scared away from yoga. In fact, you may want to take it up.