For a long time, I was convinced that yoga was the secret to a perfect life. Of course, I could never motivate myself to practice regularly, and I sometimes felt light-headed, queasy and anxious in class (especially after rounds of group hyperventiliation meant to induce feelings of floaty happiness), but I chalked all that up to me being a wuss with an aversion to anything that reminds me of gym class. (As previously noted on this website, I suck at exercise).
I got bored during seemingly endless rounds of Sun Salutations in Vinyasa class, and Restorative (or Yin) class just felt boring. I took one Bikram class and left early, seized by nausea, with tears and an impending bout of diarrhea looming (I love to give you gals all the really good details.) I enjoyed some classes, like the technically-minded Iyengar ones, in which teachers coached you to make precise adjustments in order to achieve ideal alignment (plus, blocks are fun!) Still, aside from that weirdly competitive, disgustingly steamy Bikram class, yoga never felt like much of a workout.
It never occurred to me that maybe part of the problem was inherent to yoga itself.
If you only listen to the Lululemon-clad devotees of the yoga industrial complex, you may come to believe that yoga is a cure-all for anything that ails you. But like any man-made belief system, yoga has its own creation myth, recommended lifestyle choices and even a variety of sects with their own rules about how to do it all right. But does yoga actually do what its proponents say it does? Or is yoga a bunch of bullshit?
Let us go to Science for the answers! More specifically, let's go to "The Science of Yoga: The Myths and the Rewards," an enjoyable and highly informative book by New Yawk Times science writer William J. Broad. His bio says that he's practiced yoga since 1970, so I expected the book to tell me that yoga is the solution to all of life's ailments. But au contraire, Mr. Broad actually shattered some of my beliefs about yoga!
Belief #1: Ancient yogis were respected, enlightened holy men who eschewed the pleasures of the flesh in favor of a life of contemplation.
Many old-school yogis looked and smelled not unlike the modern wandering crusty punk kid. Some of them were total sex cult weirdos. Here's Broad:
Yogis were often vagabonds who engaged in ritual sex or showmen who contorted their bodies to win alms -- even while dedicating their lives to high spirituality...Yogis were as much gypsies as circus performers. They read palms, interpreted dreams, and sold charms...The Kanphata yogis, a large sect, had reputations as child snatchers...At times, bands of yogis would prey on trade caravans and descend on merchants to extort food and money.
I'm not even going to get into the cannibal yogis and the super-popular Tantric sex cult yogis, except to say that the latter really pissed off the Hindu and Buddhist traditionalists in India. (I mean, I assume the former did, too.)
Basically, it seems like ancient yogis were seen as really flexible, scary weirdos who could do magic tricks. The guy who really started the movement that transformed yoga into the more sterile version we know today was a fellow named Jagannath G. Gune, who sought to demystify yoga and establish it as a form of mainstream, culturally based exercise that would aid the Hindu nationalist movement. He scrupulously avoided talking about yoga's potential sexytime-enhancing effects, and his ashram was, as Broad puts it, "squeaky clean." Gune gave yoga the makeover it needed to break out of its niche, and he paved the way for the existence of that sweet yoga studio around the corner from your house, the one that has Mommy and Me classes.
Belief #2: Yoga increases cardiovascular fitness.
Broad's got a whole chapter devoted to why yoga can't make anyone super-fit (except, perhaps, for instructors who do several hours of yoga each day, most days of the week). He cites a number of studies, but perhaps the best piece of science is a 2010 review paper from researchers at the University of Maryland. The U of M folks combed through more than 80 studies comparing yoga to regular exercise, and guess what they found? Yoga has a whole host of wonderful benefits -- except increasing one's cardiovascular fitness.
Belief #3: The Sun Salutation is an ancient practice developed by yogis thousands of years ago.
Actually, Broad discovered, Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) doesn't show up in how-to literature written by such major early modern yoga teachers as Jagannath G. Gune in 1931 or Swami Sivananda in 1939. He theorizes that it was first created sometime in that decade, perhaps by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who taught yoga at the palace in Mysore.
For many years, members of the royal family engaged in a style of yoga that incorporated Western gymnastics and fitness techniques as well as Indian wrestling and martial arts. In 1933, the family hired Krishnamacharya to run its yoga program, and he drew on ancient techniques as well as the family's more modern fitness program. (Fun fact: Krishnamacharya was the brother-in-law of B.K.S. Iyengar, the originator of the very precise Iyengar style I mentioned earlier.)
Belief #4: Yoga can make you happier and healthier.
Remember that University of Maryland paper I cited earlier, the one that said yoga doesn't promote cardiovascular fitness? Well check this out: It does as well as or even better than exercise when it comes to "improving balance, reducing fatigue, decreasing anxiety, cutting stress, lifting moods, improving sleep, reducing pain, lowering cholesterol, and more generally in raising the quality of life for yogis, both socially and on the job." I mean, that's awesome! Like, really really awesome!
So yoga isn't some perfect rainbow unicorn that fell out of the sky to grant us all the power of immortality. And yeah, it's got some disreputable origins (I will also not go into the numerous examples of guru sex scandals, some rather recent). But in considering the above information and more from Broad's book, I've come to the conclusion that yoga is not, in fact, bullshit. It's not a magic bullet, and its effects are more likely internal than external; you're still going to have to sweat your ass off in spinning or swimming or some other heart-pounding pursuit if you want to really lose weight and gain cardiovascular health. But it seems to me that yoga is a worthy addition to a diverse overall health plan, which ideally should include 30-minute cardio sessions at least three times a week, plus healthful food choices and lots of water and all that other shit we never seem to find time to do.
Aaaaanyhoo, let's keep the yoga convo going in the comments below. What have your yoga experiences been like? Is it too slow for you? Too fast? Just right? Do you want to say, "Hey lady, I only do yoga, and I'm in amazing shape, so obviously you and this science writer dude are fucking wrong?" You can put that in the comments! Hooray!