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I’ve just finished an eye-opening book, “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards”, by William J. Broad. Like the author, I’ve been a long-time yoga devotee. I first discovered it when I was 18 and I was instantly hooked. Even today, when I am more focused on gym-style workouts, bootcamps and running, I still turn to yoga at least once a week to balance it all out. I’ve always believed in its great powers. And now I know the scientific basis behind many of my beliefs, which proved correct. But I have also learnt about yoga’s risks, and misinformation.
First the good. We all know yoga improves flexibility, no rewards for discovery there. But did you know yoga can also treat many illnesses such as depression (extremely effective, in fact), arthritis, insomnia, diabetes, fatigue and chronic pain, just to name a few. Practitioners have made many wild claims about illness that have been cured by this seemingly passive exercise. And even better news, it’s clear, yoga improves sex. Yes. The book almost constantly goes back to yoga’s sexual roots (postural yoga grew out of the Tantrics and their sexual rites) and its continuing influence over modern sex lives. Aside from enhancing the act (by harder erections, better orgasms and more pliant bodies) people who practiced yoga also reported feeling emotionally closer to their partners. Further, there is lots of evidence that yoga inspires and leads to creativity, which – going back to sex–, leads us to mention Freud’s theories about sexual energy being a stimulus to art creation.
Now the bad. And the dangerous. And the down-right wrong. Yoga is an ancient art, steep in tradition, and to a certain degree religion. It has experienced massive commercialization and popularity in the past decade or two. The claims and advice of leading gurus, teachers and marketers has largely gone unchecked. Their supposed knowledge was widely believe to be part of venerated, ancient eastern wisdom, which was not to be questioned. But science has proved them wrong in couple of their claims. Most worryingly, some of the most drastic poses which also claim the most benefits might be extremely dangerous. King and Queen of all poses, Headstand and Shoulderstand place your full weight on your cervical spine and has been linked to reduced or blocked blood flow to the brain which has in some cases resulted in strokes in young, fit, healthy people. It is somewhat rare, but it does happen, and it is easy to see why. On a personal note, I have always loved doing shoulderstand and its more intense cousin Plough and have always eneded any workout session with it — we are talking at least three times a week for the past 11 years. I can’t help but believe it has resulted in my neck losing it’s natural curve. My neck it now dead straight and it makes sense that this pose which forces a deeply neck flexion so that the chin pushes into the chest has aided the unbending of my cervical spine. Further, serious long-time yogis with a history of daily deep spinal twist and bends often find themselves needing spinal surgery by their middle age. This is something that is completely ignored in most yoga circles.
There are a few other little nagging things about yoga: It’s often claimed to be a good to manage your weight as it boost your metabolism. Wrong. In fact, it does completely the opposite, it lowers your metabolism. That is why you feel so zen after a good yoga session. But the contraction is that yogis are generally slim people. It is thought that is because yogis are generally a more health-conscious bunch, are more discerning of what they put into their bodies, and are more likely to lead active lives. Rapid yoga breathing does not increase your oxygen intake, as they say. That light-headed feeling you get is you hyperventilating. True. Also, yoga does not improve your cardiovascular fitness by any significant degree, also as popularly claimed. Even the most cardio intense sun-salutations do little to aid your ability to run up a hill. You actually need to run up a hill. So this debunks the claim that yoga is all you ever have to do to achieve optinmal health and fitness.
All said and done, I still love yoga. I believe the benefits greatly outweigh the risks, especially for those now armed with correct scientific evidence. I will continue to encourage everyone I talk to about it to do some yoga, to try it a couple times, to try a couple different styles because they vary greatly. I believe there is a yoga out there for everyone. This book has shown shown me how to look objectively at the practice and I in turn have modified my own, and what I teach my clients.
The Human ConditionLack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it. ~Plato