The Science Of Yoga


I recently read William Broad’s new book ‘The Science Of Yoga – The Risks and the Rewards‘. William Broad has practised yoga since 1970. He works as a science journalist and is a 2-time winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. It took him 5 years to write this book. It covers the history, the origins of the different schools, the gurus that contributed to yoga’s growth, the physical and mental health benefits, the effects on fitness, injuries, therapy, sex and creativity. The book draws heavily on over a century of research and successfully puts across an unbiased view of yoga…the good, the bad and all the rest…

Some of the benefits of yoga that are substantiated by research are:

  • increased telomere length (telomeres cap chromosomes and prevent gene degradation) which may help to increase longevity
  • decreased inflammation
  • increased production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which acts as a feel-good neurotransmitter
  • increased testosterone secretion (increases sex drive, improves mood, increases attention and sense of well-being)
  • stimulation of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system and inhibition of the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system . This means that the metabolism will be decreased not increased and so the potential for weight gain. This may seem contrary to some of the propaganda released by yoga schools. For those that want to lose weight, engage in cardio-vascular exercise and not yoga.

Now for some of the bad…this is important to mention as it is a subject that is not often talked about. Biased yoga gurus have done such a good job of branding and marketing yoga that most of us naïvely believe that only good can come of it! Most of the injuries that occur during yoga are muscle strains and joint sprains that primarily affect the low back, shoulders, knees and neck. There are however several cases of more serious injuries such as fractures, nerve injuries and even strokes! Some of the most dangerous positions are the Head Stand, Shoulder Stand and the Plough. Extreme caution should be used when attempting these positions as they place a tremendous amount of strain on the neck. They should be modified if practised at all. It is also interesting to know that injuries don’t just happen to beginners, several prominent yoga teachers are now speaking more openly about the damage they have suffered over the years.

See my earlier post ‘Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?‘ if you would like some advice before taking up yoga.

What William Broad has managed to do is give a more informed and honest view of yoga. He has redressed the partiality that existed. Some may react by questioning whether to take up yoga…those that have practised for years may find denial easier and simply ignore the information. Personally, I think anything that educates us and gives us a clearer and fuller picture of reality is beneficial. His book has confirmed the doubts I had about certain poses.

By no means do I think we should avoid yoga, on the contrary, I think an intelligent and cautious attitude towards practice can limit any potential harm and will be far outweighed by the plenitude of physical and mental benefits.

Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?

Can yoga wreck your body? According to a recent article in The New York Times it definitely can! The article mentions a number of serious injuries that are thought to have resulted from yoga. Although it’s slightly dramatic and perhaps a little biased, it may contain a valid lesson…

Surprisingly, it’s a stark contrast to a previous article I posted about the benefits of yoga for back pain. How can yoga be both good for health and hazardous at the same time? By the way, this doesn’t just apply to yoga but can be extended to almost anything in life…and the answer is summed up in one word…moderation! The overwhelming majority of injuries that were cited resulted from forcing the body past its anatomical limits i.e. extreme postures…

If you practice yoga or are thinking about starting…how can you make sure this doesn’t happen to you? There are two parts to this…your teacher…and…you…

Your instructor should:

  • be properly qualified and experienced
  • have relatively small class sizes to allow for more personalised tuition (particularly for beginners)
  • ask students about any existing injuries
  • focus on technique and alignment during instruction
  • offer a variety of exercise options to allow for differing skill levels
  • correct students that are doing movements incorrectly
  • not try to push students past their limitations

You should:

  • wear clothing to allow free and easy movement
  • ask questions if unsure of any posture or movement
  • know your limitations…we’re all built differently and have our own strengths and weaknesses
  • be cautious with any existing injuries and perhaps even consult your doctor or therapist before starting yoga
  • avoid competition with others and with yourself
  • take the time to progress from beginner moves to more advanced moves
  • listen to your bodies…particularly when it comes to more vulnerable areas like the neck, low back and knees

Lastly, remember to have fun!