Can yoga wreck your body?


First aired on Q (8/02/12)

Yoga has long been associated with good health, flexibility, and comfortable pants. But science writer (and longtime yoga practitioner) William J. Broad stirred up some controversy among the yoga-loving community after an excerpt from his new book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and The Rewards, was published in the New York Times magazine last month. He believes that some champions of the ancient Indian forms of exercise have been stretching the truth when it comes how good it is for our bodies.

"There are so many myths tied up with yoga," Broad said. "It's been cooking for centuries, there are spiritual claims, there are miraculous claims, there are health claims, fitness, y'know, 'it's going to revolutionize your sex life,' it's safe, there's new age fodder out there for a whole team of investigators. What's real? What's not? What's baloney? What's really going to help?"

He's looked at the science of yoga, poured through all the clinical literature he could get his hands on, and interviewed experts at ashrams and medical centres in India, Canada, and other parts of the world. His aim was to produce the first true evaluation of yoga's health claims. What he found was that while yoga is extremely beneficial, it can come with serious risks, and can lead to dislocated joints, ruptured lungs, and incidents of stroke and brain damage in extreme cases.

"Some of these poses, like shoulder stand or plow, you crank your neck around about 90 degrees to your body. Through the sides of your necks, through the vertebrae, go some arteries called the vertebral arteries. The linings of those can tear. They're kind of fragile. You can start getting clots, and those clots go to your brain. When that happens, you have a stroke, brain damage [and] some small fraction of people who undergo those strokes die. That's much more extreme than sports injuries, right?"

Broad said its "impossible" to truly tell how prevalent serious yoga injuries are because there's never been interest or the financial support to fund a major study looking into the effects of yoga. But empirically, through his conversations and research with yoga teachers, emergency room workers and emails from people who read about him from the New York Times magazine, he says it's become a "serious problem."

Broad is no stranger to the risks of doing yoga. He's been studying it since the 1970s, but sustained an injury in 2007 during the early stages of research for his book.

"I was in a yoga studio, it was in an advanced class, there are a lot of beautiful ladies around stretching and bending themselves into all kinds of great shapes," he said. "I had a gorgeous partner with me and I was feeling pretty good, I was struttin', I was talking to her, I was bending way over and -- ouch! -- my lower back went out. It was an extraordinarily painful thing. My knees gave way, my eyes teared up, I couldn't see the room, I collapsed, I hit a wall, everything gave way ... and it took a couple months to recuperate."

Still, Broad believes that yoga's benefits outweigh its risks. He says his book isn't meant to discourage people from doing yoga, only to inform them what the science suggests, positive and negative.

"The science is astonishing in the depth that it's revealing this stuff: yoga lifts moods, it enhances health, it zips up your sex life, it fosters creativity, it cuts stress, it counteracts aging, it fights disease, it improves balance," he said. "Just think of that alone for older people, how many older people hurt themselves in bad falls, right? What if they had been practicing just a little bit of yoga and could avoid those broken hips and broken ribs and all of the horrors that come with old age?"


The Science of Yoga

by William J. Broad

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From the publisher:

"IN THIS REMARKABLE BOOK ABOUT YOGA, William Broad, a lifelong practitioner, shows us that uncommon states are integral to a hidden world of risk and reward that lies beneath clouds of myth, superstition, and hype.Five years in the making, The Science of Yoga draws on more than a century of painstaking research to present the first impartial evaluation of a practice thousands of years old. It celebrates what's real and shows what's illusory, describes what's uplifting and beneficial and what's flaky and dangerous-and why. Broad illuminates how yoga can lift moods and inspire creativity. He exposes moves that can cripple and kill. As science often does, this groundbreaking book also reveals mysteries. It presents a fascinating body of evidence that raises questions about whether humans have latent capabilities for entering states of suspended animation and unremitting sexual bliss.The Science of Yoga takes us on a riveting tour of unknown yoga that goes from old archivesin Calcutta to the world capitals of medical research, from storied ashrams to spotless laboratories, from sweaty yoga studios with master teachers to the cozy offices of yoga healers. Broad unveils a burgeoning global industry that attracts not only curious scientists but true believers and charismatic hustlers. In the end, he shatters myths, lays out unexpected benefits, and offers a compelling vision of how the ancient practice can be improved."

Simon & Schuster.