By Andy Park
Science has been described as organized skepticism. By contrast, my dictionary defines belief as “a principle, proposition, or idea accepted as true, esp. without positive proof”. In the protracted conflict between science and belief that began in the 17th Century, science, when done well, has trumped belief in every area of human endeavour. It does not matter what you believe; if a well designed, replicated experiment says you are wrong, then so much the worse for belief.
Given the supremacy of scientific thinking in our age, you would think that people would welcome the guiding light that scientific study could bring to the practice of yoga. Yet the controversy – frequently spilling over into hostility - that met a preview of William Broad’s “the Science of Yoga” was quite astonishing. Perhaps because the preview article (in the New York Times) focused on the touchy subject of yoga injuries, it seemed to strike at the core of some strongly held beliefs about the safety of yoga. Some responses to the article retreated into denial, while others suggested that there were too few data on injuries, and therefore, yoga is safe.
But you can not prove a negative, and the absence of data on something doesn’t show that it is not happening. I know from bitter experience that improper alignment can hurt you. And respected teachers, such as Mark Stephens (author of “Teaching Yoga”) have noted the rising incidence of injuries, especially in hot yoga. Broad notes two types of injury: the sudden “ouch” of a strained Achilles or shoulder muscle, typical of sports injuries, and the more insidious damage that can accumulate over decades of practice in challenging poses like headstands. Data or no data, Broad records that leading teachers have been quietly modifying some of these poses to improve safety.
If “The Science of Yoga” was just about injuries, it would be a very boring and negative book indeed. Fortunately, it is about a lot more than that. In Broad’s words, he seeks to cut through the “frothy hodgepodge of public claims and assurances, sales pitches and new Age promises” to “discern what’s real and what’s not, what helps and what hurts – and nearly as important, why”. And to a great extent, I believe he has succeeded in his aims. As we are led through the scientific story of yoga, we learn, among other things, that the history of yoga is not quite what we might have thought it to be, and that some of the benefits are surprising.
The origins of yoga turn out to be a sometimes seedy, sometimes criminal carnival of wondering showmen, with a side order of ritualized tantric sex. The Twentieth Century saw yoga being both sanitized and investigated scientifically by a remarkable cadre of Indian yogis and physicians who trained the “gurus” who brought yoga to the west. One of these men, Jagganeth G Gune, established both an ashram and a laboratory, where he did pioneering studies of the effects of yoga on blood pressure and of Pranayama on oxygenation of the bloodstream. In the latter investigation, contrary to obstinate myth, Gune found that Pranayama did nothing to enrich oxygen supply. Yet the oxygen myth has persisted, being repeated down the decades in the face of repeated experiments that confirmed Gune’s findings, demonstrating the pernicious power of belief in the face of facts.
The truth about oxygen, as in many scientific stories, is both more elegant and more complex than the myth. Fast yogic breathing, it turns out depletes carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood, often producing feelings of exhilaration. But it also reduces oxygen supply to the brain, and reduces mental acuity as a result. Slow breathing, on the other hand, has the opposite effect, increasing CO2 in the blood, which in turn dilates the cerebral blood vessels, improving oxygen supply to the brain. Voila; mental acuity improves.
I’ll take my practice with some Ujjayi breath and a state of calm alertness!
William Broad reports many other interesting benefits of practicing yoga. We’ve all seen those seemingly ageless yogis or yoginis who are still kicking yogic ass in their sixties and seventies. We’ve got some science for that. It turns out that an hour of yoga per day can increase their stocks of telomerase, a crucial enzyme for the maintenance and repair of DNA, by up to 30 percent. The researchers concluded that their findings had important implications for “cellular longevity, tissue renewal…and ‘increases in life span’ ”. And yoga will not make you lose weight – some styles actually slow metabolism. But the feeling of wellbeing that yoga engenders may stop you gong to the fridge for that midnight snack.
The list of benefits goes on, but Broad finishes up pretty much where he started – that is, with sex. Some yoga poses (you’ll have to read the book to find out which ones!) produce marked increases in testosterone, especially among females, which might partly explain yoga’s popularity with the girls! Scientific investigations of couples learning yoga together have confirmed that it can improve both emotional and physical facets of relationships.
The bottom line: science reveals yoga to be more interesting than all the hyperbole and New Age drivel with which modern society has burdened it. And the science of yoga is only just beginning. As Broad points out, yoga currently makes little contribution to formal health care because the science behind the benefits is not yet fully developed. And some phenomena, like the creative spinoffs of Kundalini arousal, are still only poorly understood by science.
Broad concludes that yoga is at a crossroads. One path leads further into the foggy slough of New Age bafflegab and increasingly corporate yogis vying for “market share among the bewildered”. The other path sees certified yoga teachers with a solid background in science and anatomy, playing an important role in societal well-being. I know which path I’d like to follow.
Andy is a member of the Yoga Centre Winnipeg 200hr teacher training program