Monday, April 2, 2012

The Science of Yoga by William J. Broad Part I: Health

I had a different post lined up for today, but then this book came available at the library on Friday.  I figured I would review it chapter by chapter.  Please join in if you've read it already. 

Quick background:  January 5, 2012, William J Broad wrote an article for the New York Times called  How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.   I'm sure most of you have read it, it hit the yoga community like a midsummer thunderstorm leaving people feeling shocked, dismayed, threatened, and, in some instances, relieved that someone was finally speaking up about the "darker" side of yoga. Yup, apparently it's not all incense and bliss. 

Stretch forward three months and I got my hands on a copy of the book the article accompanies -  The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards.

I have finished part I: Health.  So far this has been a fascinating read.  The author explains articulately why he has chosen to focus on asana and not on the philosophy of yoga and how he went about doing his research.  I appreciate that Mr. Broad went past what we in the west understand to be the 'beginning' of yoga with Krishnamachara.  Mr. Broad dug into the sordid past and put it right down there in black and white.  As a western practitioner, raised in a traditional Christian religion that I walked away from as soon as I could, who came to yoga mid-life, I always found the discussions and dialog of "traditional" yogic philosophy a little too clean and pure sounding for my tastes.  I tend to be an automatic skeptic anytime someone says "we do this because tradition says so". 

Mr. Broad doesn't hold back.  Immediately in Part I: Health, he brings in the science and the research that has been conducted over the last century.   I work in a field that deals with a lot of statistics, number crunching, data analysis as well as speculation so I can appreciate the efforts behind good (and even mediocre) research.  My field has it's pariahs as well, those so-called researchers where I automatically sneeze bullshit! so I understand it's not all clean and clear cut.  I thought the authors methodology was reasonable and insightful and established a solid foundation for his hypothesis.

I do have a couple of criticisms:  one, it was either in the prologue or early in part I where the author states he wants to move away from those studies that use too few bodies (as in people) for their sample, citing research where perhaps only one individual was used or maybe less than twenty.  Yet as I read on, I found him talking about studies where they used, oh twenty eight people, or maybe forty.  I questioned the statistical validity of those samples in light of the former statement (assuming I read that first statement correctly) and wondered if the experiments had been repeated.  That's where you'll find the good science - can those studies and the results be repeated. 

My other criticism was he seemed to focus on debunking some of the more outlandish claims of yoga, using one example, that established yogis can stop or re-start their hearts (emulating savasana, or corpse pose).  Now this is just my opinion but even for as much as yoga can claim to do, that one I just never quite believed.  Perhaps it needed debunking because it's rooted in yogas deep "traditions", but I had my doubts. 

So far this book is very easy to read, it doesn't become bogged down in technical details and he interjects enough stories to keep the pacing satisfactory. 

Please stay tuned for Part II: Fit Perfection. 

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