Interview with William Broad, NOT a Yoga Basher!

We were fortunate enough to snag an interview with possibly the most spoken about man in the yoga community these days, William Broad.  The author of the book, The Science of Yoga, had some interesting reactions and comments to make about the recent controversy surrounding that article and was kind enough to answer other questions.  We may not agree with everything in the book and you might not either, but, as serious yoga teachers, we are thrilled to see material like this entering the mainstream of yoga culture! “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” broke down the secrecy surrounding the idea that yoga is indeed no panacea and if not practiced correctly has the potential to hurt you, just like any other physical activity. It’s great to see some scientific research supporting an activity that has been sacred and beneficial to people for so long!

Although some of the science in Broad’s book may be debatable (as ALL things scientific are and should be), it is definitely worth the read!  Why?  Because there have been amazing yoga educators working for years to elevate the credibility, integrity, and safety of Hatha Yoga. For instance, the Breathing Project, a non-profit organization in NYC, has been the center of advanced yoga teaching methods, anatomy as it applies to the body in movement and extraordinarily intelligent discussion about all things surrounding yoga in its current culture and practice. This center along with the Broad’s new book are helping to break ground for the evolution of yoga as we would like to see it.

In the book, you will see Mr. Broad refer to various scientific studies that reveal a darker, riskier side to the physical practice, but you’ll also see scientific studies that seemingly present irrefutable truth about the benefits of yoga.  You’ll most definitely be exposed to information that is not discussed in your typical teacher training.  You might even be surprised to find out that Mr. Broad loves yoga and wishes everyone had an active practice!  Shocking we know. *sarcasm*

SB:  Your book covers so many of the positive aspects of yoga.  Why was there no mention/discussion of the benefits of a yoga practice in the article?
GB:  Well the NYT picked the excerpt and I think they like the angle they came up with and the ensuing controversy.  Even I was surprised!  When I first saw the print version, the title was, All Bent Out of Shape.  Later, when I saw, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” I thought it was aggressive and I think NYT was happy about that.  And as an author I love buzz, but I’m NOT a yoga-basher.  I love yoga!  I think everyone should do yoga! Think of even one tiny part of yoga, like balance and take that to senior centers.  Think of the difference that could make; it could revolutionize elder care in the United States!  Bottom line. Yoga can be awesome.  Yoga can be dangerous.  Do it intelligently.  

SB: We interpreted the tone of the article as one of warning.  But many yoga teachers reacted as if you were defacing the value of a yoga practice.  What is your response to the criticism and what was the intention of the article?
GB: People called me a “yoga basher.”  It was all “death and destruction.”  Like, “this guy has no morals.  He’s just a bad dude out to destroy a beautiful thing.” The article took an excerpt from the book and my intention was to show that the whole gist of the book is to see what is real, what is not, what is good, what is bad about yoga, a spiritual practice that came over to West under a “New Age” fog.  This fog allowed for an environment where any claim or promise or miracle cure goes.  I wanted to use 150 years worth of science and yoga science to discover what is real.  It’s scary that there are serious injuries. The vast majority of emails I received in response to this work were positive.  From people like you, doctors and orthopedic surgeons saying, “Yes!  Go! This is what we’ve been trying to tell people for years.”   I’ve got a file of horror stories of spinal stenosis, vertigo, stroke, C6/C7 injuries, spinal infarcs, etc. I really feel for these people.

SB:  So then, were you most surprised by the reactions of yoga teachers?
GB:  Some of the emails I received from yoga teachers were extraordinarily negative.  Emails like, “You are a jerk!” And one that ends with, “Go F*ck Yourself!”  Ha!  In my school that’s very unyoga-like.  Are these the centered, spiritual beings that are role models for us all and are somehow supposed to be lifting us up to a higher level?  I’m still a little shocked.

SB:  In light of the startling and optimistic results of yoga increasing GABA in practitioners and making a real positive change for people who have suffered with chronic depression and other sometimes crippling mental disease, what will it take for mainstream science to notice yoga and use it in experiments that pertain to mental health and well-being more often?  Celebrity endorsement?!
GB:  This is a question that Harvard School yoga scientist, Sat Bir S. Khalsa, confronts everyday.  He often refers to the story of the regular toothbrush.  It once took a whole body of scientific evidence to prove that fluoride toothpaste and daily brushing really do fight cavities.   We have to create more social awareness about yoga and mental health.  Maybe it is a celebrity endorsement, maybe it is more science.  The National Institute of Health does a yoga week every year now.  They are funding this at a very small level, but it’s some of the best yoga science out there.  It’s controlled studies at an elite institution, so it’s really good stuff.  It’s going to take work though to get past yoga’s checkered history of “peace and love, hippie” image.  But I’m hugely excited.  As a practitioner that yoga works.  I could not do what I need to do as a hard-headed reporter without the ability to go to that clear-headed space that yoga provides.   Yoga is refreshing!  I know that, Michelle Obama knows that!  She’s trying to get kids to eat better and become active and use yoga.  Even the book’s sex chapter describes the benefits of a yoga practice and doing something for yourself that you could do a few minutes a day and it’s really beneficial for you on so many levels.  The evidence is overwhelming!

SB: Our criticism about yoga teachers is that we don’t make the scene look better for yoga when you teach a class and say things that are anatomically incorrect like, “Do a spinal twist to wring out the organs.”  People in the fitness industry don’t take yoga instructors seriously either, because of the reputation of lacking real anatomical knowledge.  What do you think yoga teachers should do about this?  Or do you think it is the responsibility of the students to take on the fact checking and create a safer experience?
GB:  I think the whole field has to become much more professional and serious with the certifications.  Serious anatomy training and serious physiology, I think yoga teachers should be like medical doctors.  It’s like you are a natural physical doctor.

SB:  So how would you go about creating these safer standards while not sacrificing the nuances that each school of yoga brings to the table?  We think that is so much a part of the anxiety that teachers feel about the possibility of licensing and bringing insurance into it and all of that.  It might take away the ability for different schools of thought and methods of teaching to exist.  How do we standardize in the optimism and hope to create safer experiences without losing all the nuances?
GB:  That’s really the $24,000 question isn’t it.  In my last book, The Oracle, when scientists debunked the mystery of the Oracle in the end the science still could not fully explain her as a person, what inspired her, or much of what makes up Greek culture.   Science can do some things wonderfully and some things it can’t even touch.  I think there is a way to professionalize yoga without removing some of its majesty and mystery.  Bio-mechanics only makes up one part of it.  Science can’t explain what makes up empathy and compassion.  It’s a cultural thing.  People are beginning to understand what science can do and what it can’t.  It can’t necessarily answer every question and scientific findings have been overturned many times in history.