William Broad has done an excellent job with gathering the scientific reports and synthesizing an intelligent review of modern yoga. The 'scientific' platform turns out to be a `must have' prop for improving our understanding and practice of yoga.
The book situates modern yoga, the physical and scientific endeavor, as a development to promote Indian nationalism in the mid-nineteenth century. In an early and startling scientific disappointment - even with the recent tinkering of adding Sun Salutations and developing the faster moving vinyasa styles - yoga fails to meet standards of aerobic challenge - the gold standard for fitness evaluation - set by the American College of Sports Medicine. With that case closed - Yoga builds recognition for significant findings in important areas such as uplifting mood, rejuvenating endocrine function, improving creativity, fortifying longevity, improving balance, reducing fatigue, decreasing anxiety, cutting stress, improving sleep, reducing pain, lowering cholesterol and more generally in raising the quality of life for yogis both socially and on the job. In an ironic twist the study of yoga as a physical form returns us to wondering about its more subtle and uplifting benefits.
Along the way the author blazes an impressive path in reviewing yoga's impact on the subtle science of respiration. As well as injuries that relate mostly to joints and subsequently to vital circulation connected with risk of nerve damage and stroke. The findings suggest that the faster styles of yoga raise the risk of injury - a 2009 study in Europe reports that over 60% of Ashtanga practitioners have sustained injuries lasting more than one month. Noting the rising concern the author cites more than a few hero's in the field that are making strides to effectively address the issues. I found his critical review to be most helpful in refining and validating my own approach.
The text develops its climax in the well paced recognition of yoga's right brain activation and subsequent limbic stimulation. This is the neurological pathway to improving the information processing of primal experience akin to raising the inner fire. Central to this development is the yoga paradox which is that certain exercises promote hypo-metabolism while others ignite hyper-metabolism. These two extremes refine homeostatic inquiry and plays a key role in yoga as wellness.
Yoga is everywhere - from the white house lawn on Easter to fringe sub-cultures on retreat in the forest. One interesting thing I noted in this text is that the studies come from all over the world. The technology that sprang from India resonates with the interests of researchers in the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Russia, Italy and the United States to name a few. The timing of this text is perfect and opens up an important conversation.
He concludes that the `science of yoga' is just beginning and if yoga is to evolve to meet the challenges of a modern world let alone discover its own potential then the scientific method will be among its greatest allies. That said there are certain challenges and limits to acknowledge when science meets yoga:
(1) funding for objective research does not match its proven potential as a cutting edge and low-cost, low impact alternative therapy
(2) there is no central and appropriately funded governing body to organize yoga or yoga therapy let alone coordinate an effort to systematically investigate the exercises - a big question emerges and everyone should be asking: 'Why was this critical review of the science of yoga not already organized and widely available inside the yoga profession?
(3) yoga teachers can be certified but undertrained to meet many of the challenges associated with healthcare let alone understanding their own practices and professional responsibilities - in a 2009 report 68% of 1300 YT's surveyed agree that there needs to be higher training standards if we are to reduce injuries
(4) yoga is highly subjective and has been difficult to study but the tools are improving rapidly
(5) no study has so far identified what yoga is in their operating definition and it continues to exist that yoga can be many things to many people
(6) modern yoga is a billion dollar industry with `economic rationalizations' and 'spreadsheet ethics' with no oversight regulating as to its dispensation and sales appeal
My main concern with the text is that Broad is not a professional yoga educator. He is a talented, accomplished writer who is thus well situated to observe from afar. However, from my seasoned insider's perspective, the current text could be significantly enhanced with more expert input.
Broad defines the roots of modern yoga as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Tantric sex cults, and the Indian nationalist movement. These are true artifacts but in editing out approximately 4,000 years of texts and culture prior he loses significant ground work - including Classical Yoga of Patanjali, Ayurveda - the sister medical science, the poetry of the Upanishads and the technology of fire that is the Vedas - that could inform and illuminate a more robust operating definition of what yoga is and can be.
For example, the author notes that Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 'says nothing of [asana] despite its regular citation as a founding document of postural yoga' (p. xxv). In my reading of Yoga Sutra there are three sutras dedicated to asana and Patanjali is quite clear on his approach as a means of realization (book 2.46-28). To read in the opening pages of Broad's text that Patanjali YS are irrelevant to modern postural yoga is erroneous but understandable given the limits of understanding in the scientific inquiries based on the physicality of yoga.
Science plays the hero in this text but in truth its methods and tools for examining subjectivity have only just begun to improve in recent years. No one in the field knows exactly what yoga is in the first place so each investigator can define it in their own terms and pull yoga in any number of directions to achieve any goal. But where is it truly rooted? The field is exciting and fertile for this very reason. The operating definition of yoga needs to be the focus of a future review.
Broad's bio states he has been a yoga practitioner since the 1970's. And his current text is a significant addition to the field that surpasses the existing works of many so-called yoga experts. While a skillful researcher and narrator he sometimes overcasts the villains and heroes. In the Epilogue he proposes the creation of a regulatory body called YES - for Yoga Education Society. Broad's criticism of the existing entity doing that job namely IAYT is implied but never directly expressed. And IAYT as far as I know is a leader doing excellent work with what relatively limited resources it has available. In my opinion it would have been more appropriate to suggest enhancements to such organizations as IAYT that would make a difference.
Broad seems determined to demonstrate his expertise and get deep inside the structure of yoga. His rigid notion of yoga as 'sex' pokes its way into the text over and over and ends coming all over the narrative arc. I agree that there is a meaningful resonance. But would suggest, as Jung did with Freud, that the term `creative force' or `life intelligence' is better suited and more stabilizing as an objective framework to the future inquiries especially in neuroscience related to the science of yoga.
I found this book to be the reflection of major work, an inspiration and educational. It was well worth my time as a practitioner, Kripalu Yoga Teacher and Yoga Teacher Trainer. It has changed the way I work with yoga for the better.