Urging a New Revolution

You could not be faulted reaching the conclusion that William Broad is trying to sell books.  Just before publication of his The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, Broad unleashed a controversial article on the injuries suffered by yoga students which he soon followed with a provocative expose on the long history of sexual improprieties involving those at the sacred summit of yogadom.  Published in the pages of Broad’s longtime employer, The New York Times, these articles have shaken yoga’s foundation.  Some 737 people left comments on his first article before the NYT closed the spigot.  They did not allow comments on the second.

To his critics, the confluence of timing, subject matter and venue makes Broad the most self-serving, superficial, evil yogi on the planet.  Broad’s sensationalism does not help.  In “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” Broad features Glenn Black, a big-time yoga instructor, who makes brazen pronouncements such as “the vast majority of people,” including fervent instructors, should give up yoga, and that yoga should not be used for general classes, which, if followed, would stunt, if not reverse, the rapid rise of yoga.  In “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here”, Broad himself draws the over-the-top, problematic conclusions by tracing the roots of yoga’s many sexual scandals to the very nature of yoga, which, he shows, increases libido and sexual performance.  Yogis everywhere are understandably outraged.

No one can fault Broad for trying to sell copies of his book, particularly if relevant and first-rate.  Unfortunately, his articles are not written with the balance and caution shown in his book where he provides a methodical examination of the historical development of yoga, its substantial risks, and its proven and disproven benefits.  The articles fail to set his readers at ease as does his book which makes clear his fundamental support of yoga.  The articles give us only criticism and their somewhat outlandish statements, which have lead to unnecessary controversy and distraction.  This is a shame because the essential points Broad makes are important.  He is on a sincere, personal mission to change the way we think about and interact with yoga.  Broad seeks to disabuse us of any naïve trust placed in yoga and its instructors.

Broad’s primary point is that a significant and growing number of people have been seriously injured practicing yoga.  For the most part, they believe yoga to be purely and exclusively beneficial and had no idea of the risk.  This use to be Broad.  When he severely reinjured a back condition that had previously benefited from yoga, he writes, out “went my belief, naïve in retrospect, that yoga was a source only of healing and never harm.”

Several factors have caused a rising number injuries in yoga.  Licensing standards and testing are insufficient.  As the popularity of yoga has grown, so has an increasingly unqualified teaching corps.  Their only requirement is a mere 200 hours of prior instruction which would qualify many casual first year yoga students as instructors.  To this add that yoga’s grand masters not only failed to warn of the risk of injury (“real yoga is a safe as mother’s milk”) but promoted practices (e.g. shoulder stands) that can result in serious injuries.  Contrary to common perception, many yoga practices have not been tested over the centuries, and to the extent that some have been around that long, they are rooted in physical habits (e.g. squatting) much different than today’s lifestyles.  To this mix, we can add the ego of instructors, who ignorantly and selfishly push students beyond safe limits, and of students, who uncritically go along or push ahead, spurred by misplaced passion or competitiveness.

Broad also shows that physical injury is not the only risk possible from an uncritical trust in yoga masters.  Transferring belief in the purity of yoga to its rock star leaders has gotten a lot of people, well, screwed.  Yoga’s gods are not necessarily sincere and ethical.  They can abuse power too.  The current scandal involving John Friend, founder of popular Anusara yoga, is only the latest in a shameful and largely secret history of sexual and mental abuse practiced by yoga’s elite.

The upshot of Broad’s tour de force is that yoga instructors should undergo more stringent licensing and training.  Unlike other group exercise classes, Yoga’s twists, contortions and balancing create more risk.  And, for their part, those practicing yoga must do a better job of vetting their yoga studios and instructors, and must be on guard against being asked to do the unreasonable and unsafe.  Or to drop their tights.  Students can rely neither on a historical validation of yoga nor the knowledge, experience and benevolence of instructors to keep them safe.

Two general reactions to Broad’s articles have emerged.  The more visceral reaction comes from those physically and spiritually healed by yoga who are beside themselves with what they construe as an attack on the benefits of yoga.  They are concerned that people will be frightened away from exploring yoga.  Those criticizing Broad’s history of yoga’s sexual transgressions correctly point out that the leaders of many movements—and some religious institutions, I might add—have similarly abused their followers.  While sincere, these reactions generally miss the mark.  Broad means only to warn those who might have unreasonable and dangerous expectations about the unqualified benevolence of yoga and its instructors.

A more interesting reaction to Broad’s articles is from those attempting to advance their mission to take back yoga from its recent iteration.  This group decries the current “yoga” which has evolved away from its true roots of which the physical part of yoga (ashana) is only one branch of seven.  This corruption of yoga, they argue, has lead to all sorts of distortions, of which injury, competiveness and gross commercialization are only the most visible.  This criticism highlights a basic confusion at the heart of every argument concerning yoga today.  When we talk about yoga, we are not necessarily talking about the same thing.  There is not one yoga; there are at least two.

A more traditional yoga—Iyengar, for example—emphasizes form and gives meticulous attention to getting this right.  Time is spent in a pose, and getting into and out of a pose.  Teachers explain the position of the arms, hips, shoulders, knees, and they are there to lend a hand to help suggest where these should be.  Blocks, blankets and straps aid students in getting it right, and classes are slow and deliberate with fewer poses held for longer intervals.  Instructors are grounded and sober, and they stop students if they should not be doing something.  Traditional yoga focuses on breathing and meditative techniques—among the other branches of yoga—to varying degrees.  Students leave traditional classes a little sore sometimes but never exhausted.

Excel Yoga Dance & Fitness, Bronx, New York
Charles @ Excel Yoga Dance & Fitness

Then there is sports yoga.  Yoga’s most recent trend—Power Yoga, Yogahop and the like—involves rapid movements from one pose to another at an exhilarating pace.  Compared to traditional yoga’s slow marathon, sports yoga is a fifty yard dash—done twice consecutively.  Students are asked to do things in these classes that not even generally fit people can do, no yoga aids are relied upon, and no concern is given as to whether a student can or should be doing it.  Students are on their own.  Students leave these classes exhausted, even if exhilarated, and there can be little surprise that injuries will occur.  It is difficult to conceive of this exercise form in the same vein as traditional yoga; it is more of a sport rooted in selected yoga posses which for convenience and marketing purposes is categorized with the culturally-familiar “yoga.”

Yoga purists understandably reject this evolution of yoga from its original seven branches to today’s sports yoga and its yoga competitions, for them, the height of absurdity.  But rejection is not realistic.  Any transplanted institution—from pizza to churches—will be transformed by the surrounding culture, and yoga is no exception.  Indeed, as Broad points out, yoga has been in a constant state of evolution from its beginning as a sexual carnival act.  The reality is that a significant number of those now doing yoga do so only because it comes in the form of sports yoga (or a hybrid of both sports and traditional yoga), and this largely explains yoga’s rapid growth.  Nothing is going to change this evolution of yoga nor deter opportunists who have popped up to cater to it for profit.  Like it or not, yoga competitions are here to stay as are related efforts to make yoga an Olympic sport.

What can be done, though, is to make sure that there are no dangerous illusions or misunderstandings, and that there are appropriate standards.  Broad is speaking primarily to those who knowingly or unknowingly get caught up in sports yoga while still somehow maintaining that they are doing traditional yoga.  Without a full appreciation of the risks involved, and sufficient personal care, serious injury awaits.  To a lesser extent, Broad is also speaking to traditional yogis too.  They are as impacted by instructors without sufficient skill, training, or empathy, and by the ego.

©Copyright TW Matters™ 2012 (photo is Charles @ Excel Yoga Dance & Fitness)

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