Archive for December 2012

Book Review: The Science of Yoga

“The Science of Yoga: The Risk and Rewards” by William J. Broad

At around 220 pages, The Science of Yoga is not a very long book, but it is a very demanding one—if only because it contradicts so many mistaken beliefs. William J. Broad attempts to bring perspective to this ancient practice, not to disprove it, but to make it better.

Broad takes Yoga seriously. He's benefited personally from it (having practiced for thirty years), but has also been injured while practicing. He is not so naïve to ignore the inherent dangers: that some poses can cause chronic damage to nerves and tissue, and even cause fatal blood clots.

Yoga can save, but it can also destroy. It can kill.

Due to Broad's past injury, I question his objectivity at times, as he appears to have an ax to grind with the Yoga community, which flaunts Yoga's benefits while hiding its dangers; but to any reader who can read objectively, there's enough of the good and bad to see both sides. And Broad doesn't blame as much as he explains why modern Yoga is the way it is today—for better or for worse.

In The Science of Yoga William J. Broad discusses “yoga myths,” statements about Yoga's ability to increase metabolism and oxygen. He finds these myths to be false when science explores Yoga through its rigorous analysis. In fact, science has found that Yogic breathing decreases metabolism significantly, and though Yoga has been found to be uplifting and relaxing, this is due to increased carbon dioxide, not oxygen.

Broad attacks the myth that Yoga is sufficient for exercise. Though Yoga fails to meet cardiovascular standards, he asserts that Yoga's ability to increase flexibility and boost mood should not be ignored. But, he warns, Yoga is for cross-trainers, for those already in shape, and not for the weekend warrior who only exercises once or twice a week.

He discusses the history of Yoga (my favorite part). I learned that much of what we practice today as Yoga is not necessarily thousands of years old, but was perfected in the twentieth century by Indians, and brought to America where it has undergone even further evolution.

The Science of Yoga won't explain poses or breathing, but it'll give the reader a deeper understanding of Yoga's origins and not only its risks and rewards, but why the risks and rewards are what they are, and Broad sources most of what he has to say.

Unfortunately, the first half of the book was more interesting than the second half. Chapter five, on healing, seemed to unravel as he went back to the topic of the previous chapter, “The Risk of Injury,” attacking the Yoga community (and rightly so) for attempting to act as physical therapists without the required education. The final two chapters, on sexuality (with more warnings) and creativity, were anticlimactic compared to the book's eventful and knowledgeable beginning.

I didn't like at all his images of “Yoga in a century or two” in his epilogue. In the first he sees a Yoga that is even more splintered and disorganized than it is now, with more hucksters and misguided information. In the second he dreams of Yoga being accepted as medicine, with Yoga teachers as rigorously educated and qualified as doctors are today. I found both extreme, but especially his idea of “colleges of yoga medicine.”

Should Yoga, a spiritual practice, be put into the hands of government or other powerful institutions? Would that even be legal? It would, seemingly overnight, remove the upstarts and hucksters from the Yoga community, but at the cost of Yoga being open to everyone. Yoga would become as expensive as medicine, if teachers had to be trained as if they were practicing medicine. Though Yoga is in its Wild West stage now, it is inexpensive and overwhelmingly beneficial, even if some yogis do get hurt—while athletes get hurt in every sport, no one is rushing out to regulate weight lifting or running.

As Broad states earlier in his book, the general Yoga community is in no hurry to change its practices or its image. Yoga, for now, will be up to each individual practitioner to manage for him- or herself.

So buyer beware.

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Book Review: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

A very short preface: This is book review #1. Since I'm now living in a larger city, the public library has much more to offer. I was there a week ago and checked out several books, and in the course of reading I decided that for any book that I enjoyed (any book that I actually finished), I would review it. As if the subject of my first review is a foreshadowing of my goals for this series, I want to state now that I have no goal, no intention. I'm simply going to write these for the experience itself. It may turn out to be a bit like homework, it may help me hone my critiquing skills, it may draw a larger audience to my blog, as my anxiety series did, or it may simply give me something to do while I give most of my creative attention to my novel. I'm fine with all of these, more, and nothing at all.

And at the risk of contradicting myself, I hope you enjoy what follows.


“Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki

I was thankful for having the opportunity to read Shunryu Suzuki's famous book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. It's almost silly to write a book review on it. It's just 133 pages long, and it is quite repetitive in his simple, yet effective style. And perhaps because it is simple, it is difficult for me to explain in words the text itself. It's much easier explaining what it is is often the case with Eastern philosophy.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is not your typical self-help book, or even your typical religious/philosophy book. It doesn't explain to you what you need to do to achieve a goal, but tells the Zen practitioner that he must have faith that he has already reached the goal—just by practicing.

It is not, as is Alan Watts' book “The Way of Zen,” an explanation of Zen Buddhism. It gives very little history, and that is anecdotal. It doesn't explain terminology, and in fact, Suzuki emphasizes that the philosophy behind Buddhism, though helpful, is far from the point of actually practicing Zen. In the end it can be helpful, but is not necessary. The most important thing is to sit, and to breathe.

It is one of the best books I've read on the topic of Buddhism. I have in the past shied away from Buddhism because articles and books I read tend to be very concept-heavy, and so rather dogmatic. The Buddha himself wrote nothing of his enlightenment, and what little he gave to his students would have been given by a notable silence, or a simple analogy. Yet volumes have been written on the nature and practice of Buddhism in the last 2,000 years. Suzuki cuts immediately back to the original idea behind Buddhism, ignoring the “truths” and the logic and the philosophy in order to emphasize the practice.

The book is repetitive, but this is no disadvantage to the reader. Suzuki repeats only a few concepts, or themes, but from different angles of inquiry. He is not explaining a broad subject which requires many ideas, but a very narrow one, and if he uses many ideas it is only to help the simplicity of it sink in. It's clear that his purpose isn't to give an outline of Zen, as so many others have done, but to give instead a very detailed exposition of its heart. He very nearly puts the heart of Zen Buddhism in the reader's hands.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is not a book that you will be satisfied reading just once, then put on a shelf or return to the library. I read it in two sittings and knew by the time I was done I was missing a great deal of what Suzuki was saying. I came out of that first reading with only a couple favorite chapters, words that spoke to me on a deep level. In recent days I've gone back to cherry pick various chapters, taking the time to study them, and have found that with fresh eyes passages that I had initially thought nothing of now seem profound.

There is a wealth of information in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, and because it is presented the way it is, different people, at different stages of their practice, or of life, will likely find different chapters enlightening. That is the advantage of Suzuki's repetition, offering a variety of flavors of the same fruit. There is even a chapter on repetition, where he asks the reader not to lose the spirit of repetition. This theme is a perfect analogy for what Zen actually is.

All Zen is really is a practice of everyday living. It's a practice of finding joy in the ordinary and very repetitious (and often mundane) activities of our lives. It's doing the dishes for the sake of doing the dishes, with a smile, and with no mind for anything else.

“The most important things in our practice are our physical posture and our way of breathing. Instead of having a deep understanding of the teaching, we need a strong confidence in our teaching, which says originally we have Buddha nature. Our practice is based on this faith.” - Shunryu Suzuki

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