Reading the world bestseller written by science journalist, Olga SIPLIVAYA cannot help thinking that modern yoga is not what it seems.
It is over 250 000 000 people all over the world who does yoga. I’ll take the risk and say that the majority of those people has no idea what they are dealing with. Today yoga is more fitness trend and antistress therapy, and not what it was hundreds of years ago—spiritual practice for outsiders.
William Broad took a trip to India, visited historical places, spoked with everyone related to the topic, came back to USA and created, maybe, the biggest database of scientific studies about yoga. Starting the book, I was worried that Broad would expose modern practice which I, personally, really like. But he refers to the facts carefully and respects the tradition. Like a juggler, he balances on a tightrope, separating the science and misticism, and never falls down. I like the aftertaste the book leaves—it is similar to the special feeling that comes after a conversation with a wise man.
It is a myth that first yogists were holy people or society elite
The quote: Yogis were as much gypsies as circus performers. They read palms, interpreted dreams, and sold charms. The more pious often sat naked—their beards uncut and hair matted—and smeared themselves with ashes from funeral pyres to emphasize the body’s temporality… At times, bands of yogis would prey on trade caravans and descend on merchants to extort food and money. When hired as guards, violent orders formed what we would now call protection rackets… A few were surely saints. But British officialdom as well as educated Indians came to resent the holy men as not only potentially dangerous but as economic drains on society. A British census summed up the condescension tartly by putting yogis under the heading “miscellaneous and disreputable vagrants.”
The fact: Relatively few women did yoga. That was understandable given the chauvinistic leanings of old societies. The most radical difference centered on the lifestyles of the men.
Sun salutation a.k.a Surya Namaskar was only invented in XXth century
The quote: In 1933—a decade after Gune had turned to the scientific study of yoga—the palace hired a teacher to run its yoga hall. This short man of quick temper and considerable erudition, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya… He now developed a style that drew on the palace’s gymnastic ethos. Krishnamacharya refined postures, sequenced them with logical rigor, and combined them with deep breathing to create a fluid experience. None of this would matter very much except that Krishnamacharya produced a number of gifted students who eventually made him history’s most influential figure in Hatha’s modern rise. His passion and ideas about pose development led to the emergence of the Sun Salutation and eventually other flowing poses and styles, including Ashtanga and Vinyasa, Power and Viniyoga.
The fact: B. K. S. Iyengar was Krishnamacharya’s brother-in-law. Iyengar, a young man of eighteen, at this point began to draw on the insights of medicine. Intimate knowledge of the human body—such as how its more than two hundred bones fit together and fall into conflict—let Iyengar refine the poses. The beginner’s pose, known formally as Trikonasana, began in a standing position as the student spread arms and legs far apart and bent the torso to one side, reaching up with one arm and down with the other. The potential conflict centered on the thigh bone and a large knob at its upper end known as the greater trochanter, a spot where muscles attached. As the student bent over, the pelvis could easily strike the knobby protrusion, which stopped all downward movement. The solution was simple. It called for the student to turn the foot ninety degrees so it pointed outward. That rotated the overall leg and turned the greater trochanter backward so that the pelvis and torso were free to sweep downward.
Yoga does heal, but does not build your body
The quote: In 2010, a review paper documented the new accord. In the halls of science, the review article is a hallowed tradition because of its pithy generalizations. It gives a critical evaluation of the published work in a particular area of research and then draws conclusions about what is legitimate progress and what is not, what is good and what is bad. By definition, it weighs all the evidence. Given the rapid advance of science around the globe, as well as the soaring numbers of reports, such analyses are seen as increasingly important to upholding the standard of wide comprehension. Whole journals do nothing but publish review articles. The 2010 paper examined more than eighty studies that compared yoga and regular exercise. The analysis, by health specialists at the University of Maryland, found that yoga equaled or surpassed exercise in such things as improving balance, reducing fatigue, decreasing anxiety, improving sleep, reducing pain, lowering cholesterol, and more generally in raising the quality of life for yogis, both socially and on the job. The benefits were similar to those that had surprised the Duke team. In summary, the specialists reported that yoga excelled in dozens of examined areas. But the scientists also spoke of a conspicuous limitation for an activity that had long billed itself as a path to physical superiority. The authors noted that the benefits ran through all the categories—“except those involving physical fitness.”
The fact: The analysis found that yoga cuts stress and lifts moods.
Yoga is not smart way to train your heart
The quote: What determined the maximum oxygen uptake? Amazingly, peak oxygenation of the body was found to have little or nothing to do with lung size, lung elasticity, the depth of breathing, eating habits, vitamins, the amount of sleep, good posture, body weight, or whether an individual possessed an unusually potent form of hemoglobin or some other energizing factor in the bloodstream. No. The scientists concluded that it rested on one main factor—the size of an individual’s heart and its ability to send blood rushing through the lungs and blood vessels to the muscles. In short, the secret of athletes who drove themselves to heights of physical performance centered on a big heart.
A central myth of Hatha yoga held that deep breathing increased the blood’s oxygenation despite the relative stillness of the body and the modest use of the muscles during yogic practice. Hill’s discovery centered on the quantity of blood oxygenation rather than mythic attributes of quality. Peak oxygen consumption was typically expressed in liters of oxygen—with top athletes each minute drawing in six, seven, or even eight liters—in other words, up to two gallons. Two gallons. It was a flood compared to a phantom trickle… Despite the added zing, the scientists concluded that the yoga session failed to meet the minimal aerobic recommendations of the world’s health bodies. Its oxygen demands, they reported, “represent low levels of physical activity” similar to walking on the treadmill at a slow pace or taking a leisurely stroll. The only glimmer of cardiovascular hope centered, once again, on Sun Salutations. The New Yorkers found the oxygen challenge of the pose “significantly higher” than for the slow treadmill. A practice incorporating Sun Salutations for at least ten minutes, they wrote, may “improve cardio-respiratory fitness in unfit or sedentary individuals.” But the flip side, the scientists added, was that the posture offered few heart benefits for seasoned practitioners.
The fact: In recent years, many people have learned to ignore the exaggerated claims and the unabashed gurus. They lift weights to build muscles and run to challenge their hearts, even while pursuing yoga for flexibility and its other rewards. They are known as cross trainers. Their diverse workouts complement one another to produce a balance of benefits.
Enjoy yoga’s side effects—orgasm and inspiration
The quote: In 1970, when I attempted my first Headstand, the topic of sex was typically relegated to the back room. My yoga books and those of my friends made few if any references to sexual aspects of the discipline… My first teacher made some passing remarks about sex. But I could never figure out exactly what he was talking about and left it at that for what turned out to be decades… I began this book on the same note. Sex seemed sort of irrelevant. Oh, I figured it was out there somewhere and might produce a good chapter. But for the longest time I had no idea what would materialize and kept getting annoyed every time I dug into the scientific literature… With new resolve, I dug deep and uncovered a small trove of illuminating reports and investigations. They showed that yoga can in fact result in surges of sex hormones and brain waves, among other signs of sexual arousal. The newest studies add the weight of clinical evidence. Medical scans indicate that advanced yogis can shut their eyes and light up their brains in states of ecstasy indistinguishable from those of sexual climax. Meanwhile, new practitioners report that yoga improves their sex lives. The men and women say the benefits include better arousal, satisfaction, and emotional closeness with partners.
… Then, in 1952, while visiting India, he [Yehudi Menuhin, a prominent violinist] met Iyengar. The yogi taught him how to relax in Savasana, the Corpse pose. The musician immediately fell into a deep sleep. The ensuing yoga lessons gave Menuhin feelings of deep refreshment, as well as better control of his violin. Menuhin became a huge fan. In 1954, he gave Iyengar an Omega watch engraved on the back: “To my best violin teacher.” Soon, the musician was introducing Iyengar to audiences in Britain, France, and Switzerland. It was Menuhin who put the unknown yogi on the world stage… Despite the durability of the question, a fair body of evidence—much of it anecdotal, some of it middling, parts of it robust—has emerged over the decades to suggest that yoga can play a role in stirring the wellsprings.
The fact: The show Sex and the City invented a term to describe the union of yoga and orgasm—yogasm. The word entered the zeitgeist. In 2009, The New Yorker ran a cartoon showing a woman reading in bed next to her husband. “Not tonight, hon,” the woman said. “I had a yogasm in class.”
As an epilogue
What I know with certainty is that science cannot address, much less answer, many of the most interesting questions in life. It’s one finger of a hand, as a wise man once said. I treasure the scientific method for its insights and discoveries, as well as for the wealth of comforts and social advances it has given us. But I question the value of scientism—the belief that science has authority over all other interpretations of life, including the philosophic and spiritual, moral and humanistic… Many of yoga’s truths surely go beyond the truths of science… Yoga may see further, and its advanced practitioners, for all I know, may frolic in fields of consciousness and spirituality of which science knows nothing. Or maybe it’s all delusional nonsense. I have no idea.