The good, the bad and the future of yoga

The Virginian-Pilot/March 6, 2012

Yoga studios may be as ubiquitous as Starbucks in our country, and worldwide, yoga is getting as popular as Coca-Cola. The Yoga Health Foundation estimates that more than 20 million people practice yoga in the United States. Around the globe, yoga is big business, with all the cultural accoutrements and products - and superheroes.

The word "yoga" means unity and implies a joining of body and spirit. At its best, perhaps, it is what my yoga instructor calls "moving meditation." But many make more exorbitant claims - it helps you shed pounds, be joyful, stay physically fit, or sleep better. In his new book, William J. Broad, a senior science writer for The New York Times, examines the medical veracity of such claims. For anyone interested in yoga, he offers an objective, scientifically based study of the pros and cons of the ancient practice.

A yoga practitioner for 40 years, Broad is not exactly delivering an expose. Instead, he offers a carefully researched discussion of what yoga does and doesn't do.

Yoga does little for aerobic conditioning. It will not speed up the metabolism or keep a practitioner slim. The dirty little secret is that it has caused nerve damage, torn ligaments, even strokes. As Broad says, "The good reputation of yoga rests in no small part on the public silence of the gurus.... Facts can be stubborn things, and they now suggested that yoga had long involved not only celebrated benefits but a number of hidden dangers."

However, the benefits are real and can be scientifically documented as well, and Broad does exactly that. The science suggests that it can lift moods, increase flexibility, and (Viagra salesmen beware) raise testosterone levels in men and women.

In the balance (yes, a yoga pun), Broad makes it clear that despite its dangers (be careful doing headstand and cobra), the practice offers a host of benefits. What it needs, he says, is a set of consistent guidelines to standardize it as a discipline and some reasonable public funding to continue answering important questions about its efficacy.

Namaste - the bow of respect - may not be enough. Perhaps, as Broad argues, some regulation of its teachers and common sense for its practitioners would be the right pose for the future.

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