Should yoga come with a statutory warning? Practicing yoga can be injurious to health.
The New York Times seems to think so. "Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It's controversial to say, but it really shouldn't be used for a general class," says yoga guru Glenn Black in a five-page magazine story "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" by its science writer William Broad. It has unleashed such a storm of protests, the site had to stop accepting comments on the story.
The main critique is that the story states the obvious. Headstands are not for everyone.
Duh, says a blog on Spaweekly.
Why not publish "How Running Can Wreck Your Knees?" or "How Moving A Refrigerator Can Crush Your Toes, Break Your Back, and Rip Your Rotator Cuff?"... The truth is, there's no fail-safe sport, activity or product on the planet. However, in this 5 page article, William J. Broad decided to collect every example of negative yoga experiences (fishing back to random incidents from nearly half a century) and jolt the 20 million Americans who have turned to yoga for fitness, mind/body renewal, and inner peace.
Perhaps Broad's book (from which the NY Times article is excerpted) is more balanced. According to an earlier column by Maureen Dowd, the book also says yoga can result in surges of sex hormones or what one yogini calls the "best sex she never had". Phew. Thank god for the yogasm.
But the excerpt, as it stands, is a bunch of anecdotes dressed up to sound like a contorted expose -- The Dirty Picture of Yoga. But it has also made one thing crystal clear. Yoga might be India's biggest export to the West but this is now an American story about something that has become a Western form of exercise. There's nothing very Indian about it.
No Indians were harmed in the course of researching this story. No desis were interviewed for the New York Times article. No Indians show up in the Guardian's follow up story about the "ferocious backlash" either. The few Indian names in there are of the yoga brand masters -- BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois or Bikram Choudhury. They only show up as brands.
Anyone can sell yoga and it seems everyone does. About 20 million Americans are doing yoga according to the Times. It's a 5 plus billion dollar industry. Once you might have needed the Indian seal of authenticity to sell yoga to the West. Now you don't even need that.
I admit I am one of those Indians who don't do yoga. Not because I was scared of strokes, yoga foot drop, hurting cerebral arteries, retinal tears or degenerative arthritis of the cervical spine or any of the yoga horrors the Times throws at the reader. I just would not know a downward dog if it bit me. So it is hard for me to read the New York Times "attack" on yoga as any kind of attack on India or the Hindu way of life.
Obviously the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which had started the Take Back Yoga campaign, thinks otherwise. It has launched its own broadside against the Times accusing its writer William Broad of using "prime journalistic real estate to grind his axe with yoga". It is a "silly, one-sided piece that highlights a handful of people who have suffered injuries due to their yoga practice," writes Sheetal Shah, the foundation's senior director on Belief.net.
In fact, argues the HAF, Broad inadvertently proves HAF's main point. The West has reduced yoga to asanas. Asanas are really just one of the eight limbs of yoga. Delinking yoga from its spiritual framework, its Hindu roots, is the crux of the problem.
"Analyzing yoga as only exercise and then labeling it as hazardous to one's health is a false equation because yoga doesn't equal asana," writes the HAF.
Perhaps the New York Times should have titled its story How Asanas Can Wreck Your Body. I am not sure the HAF would have been particularly happy with that either.
The fact is no one is ready to give yoga "back" to the Hindu American Foundation. This is now big business. That is why this article has pissed off so many people. Could it hurt brand Yoga? In the free market of yoga -- Bikram, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power, Kundalini -- everyone wants to sell their brand as the Number One brand. There's even a hot and sexy yoga video -- the Equinox fitness chain's yoga video, where a woman in a black bra and panties contorts herself while a man sleeps on a mussed up bed next to her. That's got yogis' leotards in a twist.
The video is "just emblematic of the Western commercialization of yoga," says Suhag Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation to the Washington Post. "You know, the whole purpose of the physical asanas [poses] is to prepare your body to sit still and focus. It's not about having a cute ass."
But when something becomes as big business as yoga has become, the cute ass is part of the bottomline.
As the Ashtanga New York group writes in its own pushback story (How the New York Times Can Wreck Yoga):
When there is a great potential for making money, quality is usually the first thing to be sacrificed. Fast food, anyone? It is unfortunate that this is exactly what we are facing now -- yoga has been McDona-fied. It has been reduced from a practice that traditionally demanded dedication, discipline, sacrifice, humility, surrender, love, devotion, and self-investigation -- and yes, suffering through rigorous practice -- to something that one can now learn to teach in a weekend.
That sums up the problem. Yoga has been McDona-fied but it comes with none of the stringent health standards and food safety rules that govern McDonalds burgers and fries.
"In a mere 200 hours, you can become a bonafide, registered yoga instructor. 200 hours is spit," scoffs Ashtanga New York.
The HAF might want to take yoga back. But the bird has long flown its nest. Even in India, a friend who has been doing yoga for 20 years, says she has met yoga instructors who come to her parents' apartment building to teach yoga at home. They are in great demand because they claim they learned the "real" stuff from American DVDs. It's time to accept that there is the eight-limbed yoga the HAF talks about and then there are the asanas on a mat that millions practice. The latter might need to have a more rigorous form of certification. This is no longer about putting the Aum back in yoga.
The Hindu American Foundation's campaign has not made any of the classes run by blonde rockstar yogis less crowded.
The New York Times exposé will not dissuade any of the 20 million Americans who do yoga from rushing to the next yoga class with a rolled-up mat under their arms.
But it's certainly created a buzz about Broad's upcoming book. It's really much ado about nothing. If you ask me, the whole controversy is a bunch of Kundalooney.
The original version of this blog appeared on Firstpost.com.