The Common Good

Om Shaka Laka Laka: Three Myths and Two Truths About Yoga

As a yoga practitioner — no, make that "zealous convert and obsessed fanatic" — I listened with great interest to Terry Gross's Fresh Air interview this week with William Broad, whose book The Science of Yoga has just been released.

In the interview and in the book, Broad (a science writer for the New York Times and a yoga practitioner for more than 40 years) takes on some of the claims about yoga and separates the wheat from the chaff, arguing that only some of these claims are borne out by science. Here are three myths debunked, and two major claims — that yoga can do wonders for your sex life and your mood — officially verified.

Myth #1: Yoga is perfectly safe and harmless.

In the interview Broad noted that yoga injuries are increasing as people with little background attempt challenging poses -- especially inversions that put a lot of stress on the back and neck, like plow pose, shoulder stand and head stand. In an article a few days ago for the New York Times, he quotes a yoga teacher who actually says that most people who are trying yoga should give it up because their bodies aren't cut out for it and the rest of their daily life is so sedentary that they have little preparation. I certainly wouldn't go that far, but it's true that people try challenging poses too early and too often. You don't need them to get the greatest benefits of yoga, so why take the risk? Necks were not designed to carry the whole weight of the human body. They were designed to uphold the weight of the human head. Let's keep it that way.

Myth #2: Yoga is a great way to lose weight.

Disproving this popular and attractive idea was some of the most interesting debunking Broad did in the interview. He argues that yoga does not cause weight loss, as so many claim, because yoga slows down everything in the body, including metabolism. This finding makes sense for me scientifically, but not anecdotally: I have lost weight myself doing yoga. I wonder if that is because the strengthening of body core and the building of muscles helps to increase metabolism or at least balance it all out?

But it's clear that yoga, even bikram yoga (which I hate), is not aerobic exercise. Your cardiovascular benefits are not nearly as high with yoga as they are with, say, jogging or swimming. More's the pity.

Myth #3: Yoga teachers are mostly qualifed and well-trained.

In 2001, about 4 million people practiced yoga in the US. Now it's approximately five times that number, and yoga studios and teachers have sprung up to meet the demand. But there is a wide variation in how those studios train their teachers, and the hours they require. Some are well-versed in physiology, anatomy, and science as well as yoga techniques. Others seem to just grab a bolster and a strap and hang out a shingle. Those are the teachers that are most likely to cause injuries to their students by pushing them too hard, sometimes even physically manipulating them into postures that endanger the body. Broad is adamant that practitioners should research their teachers' backgrounds and run far, far away from underqualified teachers. He also advocates a licensing system as with other kinds of therapists and fitness experts.

Truth #1: Yoga will make you feel better.

One of the findings of Broad's research is that yoga is a natural de-stresser and mood elevator. It has performed well in studies as a natural antidepressant. It brings blood pressure down and relaxes you. People who do yoga sleep better and report feeling better than those who don't. Moreover, you don't have to go to several long yoga classes a week to get these benefits. Just five or ten minutes of yoga a day is "like putting a little bit of money in the bank every day or every month. The payoff comes as these things start to multiply."

Truth #2: Yoga can help your sex life. Yay, yoga!

And the myth that we are all thrilled to hear is true: yoga may be the best thing going to ramp up your sex life. Here is some cool science on the subject:

"You can see, over and over, people seeing rises in sex hormones — particularly in testosterone — brain waves getting zipped up in the same way that lovers' brains look when they're in deep pleasure," he says. "There have been beautiful studies that show even fast breathing can produce strong states of sexual arousal. And just recently, there were studies in India where they looked at married couples who took up yoga and surveyed them before and after. Across the board, it's improvement in desire, arousal, orgasm, overall satisfaction. Men have better erections. Women feel more emotional closeness with partners. It definitely does lots of good stuff."

In fact, he says, yoga may well have originated not as a spiritual practice and certainly not as a form of exercise, but as a sex cult. So now we know.

Jana Riess is the author of Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor  and several other books. She is currently immersed in a multiyear Twitter project called The Twible. (It’s the Bible, now with 68% more humor!) Jana's posts appear via RNS.

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