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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