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I am a yoga booster, not basher
Pulitzer winning science journalist William Broad is at the centre of a raging debate for suggesting that yoga today is doing Americans more harm than good and that there is a conspiracy of silence that gags all criticism of the industry that is worth over $6 billion. He maintained that yoga in the US is being wrecked by untrained, pushy teachers and aggressive emphasis on cultivating the perfect asanic body. More provocatively, he pointed out that sex scams in the industry, most recently in the Anusara school, were explainable because yoga itself connected in its mystical past to the tantric cult. Talking to TOI-Crest, Broad says that his intention is to get people to debate the direction yoga is taking in the West
Your New York Times article 'How Yoga can Wreck Your Body' excerpted from your book 'The Science of Yoga' has set off a storm of protests. What prompted your stance that the booming yoga industry in the US is doing much harm?
I have been both a science journalist as well as a yoga practitioner for decades. Early on, I saw that science contradicted many current yoga beliefs. For instance, in 1975 I was doing research at the University of Wisconsin on respiratory physiology when I learned that no matter how fast or slowly you breathe, your intake of oxygen does not change significantly. That went against yogic precepts. I started wondering: Just how much of what yoga says is true? It hit me around 2005 to do a book on yoga that drew on my skills as a science journalist. The news for yoga is good and bad. The bad news is that there are many myths and falsehoods that people want to believe - which is one reason the reactions to my articles and book have been so strong. People like the mystique that surrounds yoga and hate it when that is questioned. The good news is that yoga has a great future if it is practised with greater caution.
What is the problem with the system as it is being taught in the US?
Yoga is being wrecked by poorly trained teachers who fit the person to the pose and not the other way round - which is a basic tenet of the system. Yoga is an intensely individual subject in which the teacher has to watch the student like a hawk. Few people in the field want to talk about the potential dangers of what has become a system of mass production. Even so, yoga strokes - serious brain damage that can kill or cripple - are now a commonly acknowledged problem in medical circles. I have letters from stroke patients with heartbreaking stories about their agonising recoveries. I just got another one on Wednesday.
Yoga has become a wild thing in the US, with purists criticising it as the 'yoga industrial complex'. There are new classes and styles springing up every week, new brands of yoga clothing, accessories. We are exploding with this fad. It is totally market driven. You know there are styles where you watch yourself practice in mirrors? How contradictory to essential yoga is that? It teaches you to be competitive with other people in the yoga studio instead of drawing your attention inward.
But doesn't the problem also lie with how learners approach yoga in the West? It is often practised aggressively as an athletic system for a toned body.
I agree. My book talks about how I injured myself in 2007. I was in an Iyengar class, and had paired with a beautiful young woman. We were doing a rigorous triangle pose and I was watching her more than myself! She was doing this perfect, athletic pose and I tried to match it. My back gave away and I collapsed with a horrible pain. It took me months to recover - I should have listened to my body. Yoga students here are so caught up with the notion of a perfect body, a perfect pose, they don't realise that original yoga was never about competitiveness.
Do you think these problems afflict yoga practice in India too?
In India, it seems like you practise an older, more conservative tradition. I have travelled around Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and it seems that the discipline there is in good hands. India has even pursued very good scientific research on yoga going back all the way to 1851, as I detail in my book. I practised yoga at the Lonavala ashram (Kaivalyadham) and it was wonderful. The instructors there were very careful and knowledgeable about what they were teaching and how it affected the students.
How do you react to being labelled a yoga basher?
I know my book and the articles have raised a huge controversy but I sleep very well at night knowing that I am helping someone - that I have helped improve somebody's practice, that I am helping modern yoga. I have received thousands of comments and a vast majority have said thank you. But a few that I've gotten from angry yogis are really nasty. Where is that centre you are working so hard to achieve if you respond to criticism with a 'GFY' ? To me it seems un-yogalike.
People who say that I am anti-yoga haven't read my book. I am a yoga booster not a basher (laughs). I believe that yoga is now at the beginning of a renaissance, that it will become a part of mainstream healthcare, that doctors will use yoga to heal because there is so much leverage for healing to be found in the human body itself. There is no denying that yoga can be a great stress reducer. When I grow old I want to start a compassionate Old Geezers' Yoga Club (laughs) where people can practise at their own level of fitness, laugh at their own bodies and their flaws.
You have upset traditionalists by claiming that yoga is rooted in a sexual cult.
I didn't say that yoga has its roots in a sexual cult - but that hatha does. Many think the two are synonymous but they aren't. Hatha is a branch of tantra that can be broadly defined as a sexual cult. It goes deep into the spiritual process to explain the apparent duality of existence. But there's no denying that tantra has a mixed reputation and is open to misinterpretation. Yoga itself has an ancient history of mysticism;Patanjali wasn't about a sex cult. I've been misinterpreted by people who haven't read my book and want to bash anything they regard as foreign.
malini. nair@timesgroup. com
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