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Maureen Dowd's Take on Yoga

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The subject line on the e-mail read "Killer Yoga?" It turned out that someone sent me an essay by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. The title was "How Garbo Learned to Stand on Her Head," and some headline writer probably added that "killer" phrase to attract eyeballs. I usually like Dowd's work. Her edgy wit and reliable insight give her columns an appealing mix of entertainment and information. Now she was taking on something about which I know more than she does, so I couldn't wait to dig in.

Well, entertaining it was. Informative? Kind of, but not in a reliable way. Dowd, who practices yoga for stress-reduction, was reporting on a forthcoming book by New York Times science writer William Broad called, "The Science of Yoga: The Myths and the Rewards." I haven't seen the book, which won't be out until February, so I can only hope that Dowd did not do it justice. I'm afraid she perpetuates the superficial coverage of yoga so common in the mainstream press.

First, that "killer" business. It seems that one of the "dirty little secrets" Broad exposes is that "yoga has produced waves of injuries." What injuries? Pulled muscles? Joint pain? Sure, it happens. Students get careless and some teachers are lax in their oversight. But what percentage of yoga students actually gets injured? Dowd doesn't say, and I don't know if Broad does. I'm guessing the number is very very low.

On a more serious note, Dowd quotes Broad as saying, "Doctors have found that certain poses can result in brain damage that turns practitioners into cripples with drooping eyelids and flailing limbs." Question: How many people have suffered brain injury from yoga? My guess is it's infinitesimal in light of the tens of millions who take yoga classes. I'm also guessing that any such injuries are associated with headstands. Not everyone should do them. In fact, many yoga teachers recommend that no one do them, or at least not beginners, and not without very careful supervision.

Dowd then cites a passage in Broad's book that really upset her: "Darker still, some authorities warn of madness. As Carl Jung put it, advanced yoga can 'let loose a flood of sufferings of which no sane person ever dreamed.'" I'm a huge fan of Carl Jung, but he died in 1961, long before the postural yoga boom, and he probably knew fewer practitioners than live on my street in Los Angeles. Jung was actually an admirer of yoga -- the philosophical and spiritual tradition, not the stretches and bends now associated with the term -- but he mistakenly concluded that it wasn't compatible with life in the West. I don't know what other evidence Broad cites for this chilling assertion, or which "authorities" he has in mind, but by singling out that passage Dowd does a disservice to both yoga and Jung.

Dowd also discusses Broad's assertion that yoga might not aid in weight loss, as some proponents claim, but can have the opposite effect since the practices lower metabolism. Again, we don't know whether this is a theoretical statement of if Broad cites data showing that yogis are prone to weight gain. My response is a resounding au contraire, as a glance at random yoga students would affirm. I suggest there is at least one mitigating factor: people who do yoga regularly are likely to be more in tune with their bodies and therefore eat healthier diets.

Dowd does a rapid U-turn midway through her column, relieved that Broad's book goes on to present scientific evidence of yoga's benefits. I too, was relieved, but I ended up more annoyed than I was before. By emphasizing yoga's sexual rewards, and by dropping in celebrity names like Sting and Garbo (okay, she also gets classy with Leopold Stokowski and Yehudi Menuhin), Dowd reinforces the trivialization that threatens to turn a profound spiritual tradition into just another form of physical fitness.

Nowhere in her column is there any indication that there is more to yoga than the asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing) that dominate most classes. Meditation, the centerpiece of classical yoga, is not mentioned, and one can only hope that Broad's book does not ignore the hundreds of studies on meditation in peer-reviewed publications. Given her own interests and the limitations of column length, Dowd can be excused for not explaining that yoga, as a philosophical and spiritual tradition, far outdates the development of hatha yoga (the physically oriented system), or for not mentioning that yoga means union -- and not the union of head to knee, or even of mind and body, but union with the divine, or, in secular terms, of the individual and the universal. One cannot expect Dowd to note that the Bhagavad Gita describes three yogic pathways, jnana (knowledge), bhakti (devotion) and karma (action), or that the Yoga Sutras -- the text most modern yogis consider authoritative -- is almost entirely about consciousness, with barely a mention of asana (and that in the context of sitting posture). But one certainly hopes that Broad's book does not commit such egregious oversights.

For that, we will have to wait. In the meantime, I hope that Maureen Dowd and her legion of fans discover that there is more to yoga than flexible limbs and "relief from the ravages of stress." Anyone who thinks that yoga is merely "a kinder version of alcohol" might want to do a reverse pose and get some more blood flowing to her brain. With proper supervision, of course.