Yoga can wreck your body and make you fat -- at least according to New York Times science writer William Broad. Between Maureen Dowd's column back in October, "How Garbo Learned to Stand on Her Head," on Broad's upcoming book, "The Science of Yoga: The Myths and the Rewards," and Broad's own piece last week, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body," Broad has taken up prime journalistic real estate to grind his axe with yoga. His conclusions about yoga, however, are premised on anecdotes about asana, not yoga, and the only thing really getting fat is the gap between the popular understanding of yoga and what yoga really is.
Yoga is a combination of both physical and spiritual exercises, the key word being "combination" with an emphasis on the spiritual. Yoga is the practice of preparing oneself to yoke, unite or experience the Divine within (i.e. the individual self with the Cosmic Self). Yoga is about attaining moksha, or liberation, from worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and rebirth. Yoga is a holistic and spiritual system of living that is essential to the understanding and practice of Hinduism. What yoga is not is asana alone.
There are eight limbs of yoga:
- Yama (restraints)
- Niyama (observances)
- Asana (posture)
- Pranayama (mastery of breath)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (higher levels of meditation)
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. And therein lies the crux of the problem of not only Broad's theses, but the secular and physical fixation in which the West -- and sometimes the East in mimicking the West -- has cloaked this ancient spiritual tradition. As a result, we are now bombarded with Naked Yoga, Hip Hop Yoga, Hot Yoga, Antigravity Yoga, Christian Yoga ... the list is long and just as ludicrous. The truth is that none of these are yoga simply because they incorporate some form of asana and say they are. What's the saying? "You can put lipstick on a pig..."
Almost three years ago, the Hindu American Foundation launched its Take Back Yoga Project (TBY). The initial aim was simple: to bring about acknowledgement of yoga's Hindu roots by highlighting not only the delinking of yoga from its spiritual framework by the yoga industry, but also the erroneous idea that yoga is primarily a physical practice based on asana. But as more than 20 million Americans dabble in "yoga" and the $6 billion yoga industry continues to bloat, the importance and scope of TBY has evolved from one of identity to that of filling in the public knowledge gap.
Just as equating yoga with only asana is a half-truth (more like a 1/8th-truth), so too is ignoring the spiritual, metaphysical Truths upon which yoga rests. Ever been to a studio which displays an Aum (Om) on its walls or a class which begins with the chanting of it? Aum, according to the Vedas (Hinduism's most sacred texts), is the primordial sound that resonated at the creation of our Universe and continues to resonate in each of us and all of existence. Ever close a session with hands at your heart and the utterance of "Namaste -- the Divine/Light in me bows to the Divine/Light in you"? Namaste encompasses the essential teachings of Hinduism that God is both immanent and transcendent and we all are inherently Divine. How about a class focused on sun salutations or Surya namaskar? Prostration to the sun was central to ancient Hindu worship and continues to be relevant. Chakras out of sync? Chakras are first mentioned in the Vedas and detailed throughout the Upanishads.
It is also problematic to approach the path of raja yoga, of which hatha and kriya yoga are a part, as a stand-alone practice. The full benefits of yoga cannot be experienced without also treading the sister paths of jnana yoga (path of knowledge), bhakti yoga (path of devotion to God) and karma yoga (path of selfess action) or the sister tradition of Ayurveda.
TBY's quest to educate the public requires being truthful about all of the aspects of yoga, even if it means that many people might steer clear of yoga or miss out on its universal physical, mental and spiritual benefits because it is rooted in "religion." But as HAF states in the position paper that formed the basis of TBY, "Hinduism, as a non-proselytizing religion, never compels practitioners of yoga to profess allegiance to the faith or convert. Yoga is a means of spiritual attainment for any and all seekers."
Ironically, while much of the yoga industry and mainstream media perpetuate the yoga is asana formula with an occasional nod to pranayama, the leadership of a number of the world's religions, such as the Vatican, warn their flock that yoga may lead one into exploring and experiencing Hindu belief and practice. I have to say, I concur. True yoga will not wreck your body or make you fat, but it may just open your heart, increase your capacity to see and be divine, and lead you towards a more pluralistic, Hindu view of life.