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Is yoga bad for you? New book sparks discussion

| Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012

As a yoga practitioner and a science reporter for The New York Times, William J. Broad had a lot questions about yoga.

So when he thought about a topic for his next book, yoga was a natural.

"I've done yoga forever and I've got a lot of questions," he says.

Among his seven earlier books, Broad had written about "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War" with Judith Miller and Stephen Engelberg, as well as "The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind Its Lost Secrets" and "The Universe Below: Discovering the Secrets of the Deep Sea."

In "The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards" (Simon & Schuster, $26), released earlier this week, Broad used his skills as a science journalist to look into the facts and myths about the history of yoga and evaluate long-standing claims that yoga is a risk-free way to help you lose weight and heal your body, cure depression, improve your sex life and enhance your creative powers.

What he discovered is alternately reassuring and alarming.

"What surprised me was the extremely bad and extremely good things," he says.

According to Broad, scientific studies have shown that yoga can rev up your sex life naturally. But his research also turned up evidence that doing yoga can be harmful or even fatal.

Those latter claims stirred outrage among local yoga teachers last month when the New York Times Magazine published an excerpt from Broad's book under the title "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body."

Broad cited his own experience -- he once injured his back while doing an extended-side-angle pose. He relayed the cautionary tale about a yogi who snapped three ribs while performing a spinal twist during a class in India with legendary yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar.

Other evidence came from scientific journals or papers, most prominently a 1973 paper by an authority on spinal rehabilitation that documented a 28-year-old woman who suffered a stroke while in a position called the wheel or upward bow.

"I was really put off by (the excerpt)," says Zeb Homison, who owns and teaches at Bikram Yoga Pittsburgh in the Strip District.

"Any physical act you do, you can hurt yourself. But this tone (in the excerpt) and how he addressed it -- he seemed to be demonizing it," Homison says. "He failed to mention any benefits people get from yoga."

As in any physical activity, injuries can occur with yoga, says Leta Koontz, the founder and a teacher at Schoolhouse Yoga. which has five locations in and around Pittsburgh.

"It seemed blown out of proportion," she says, noting that Broad's example of the woman who experienced the stroke occurred almost four decades ago. "If it was a more common occurrence, he could have come up with an incident in more recent years."

Broad thinks the New York Times article might have misled readers into overreacting. He was surprised when he saw the title editors had chosen for excerpts from a chapter titled "Risk of Injury."

But, he says: "Asking yoga teachers when yoga can produce injuries is like asking Phillip Morris if cigarettes can cause cancer."

One thing Broad, Koontz and Homison can agree on is that many yoga injuries can be avoided.

"One of my biggest jobs (as a teacher) is telling people to back off," says Homison, who cautions that the "no pain, no gain" mindset can do damage. It's important for students to pay attention and respond to the signals their bodies give, he says.

"It's about being in the present moment. You can't think about what's for dinner when you're balancing on one leg. You've got to focus your mind," he says.

"Your breath will tell you if you have gone too far," says Koontz, who counsels that clenching your jaw or holding your breath may be an indicator that you're working too hard. "If you can smile, (the pose) is probably appropriate."

To avoid injury, it's important to tell your teacher about any limitations you have before class begins.

"Let (your teacher) know if you're in a pose and feel discomfort. An experienced teacher will be able to help you modify the pose," Koontz says.

While Broad believes there is lots more for scientists and practitioners to learn, he hopes his book will help widen awareness of yoga's strengths and weaknesses.

Yoga can be extremely safe. It also can be extremely dangerous, Broad says.

He continues to practice yoga, but has modified or eliminated some of the poses.

"The trick is to be informed and (practice) with awareness and mindfulness. You have to learn how to be your own best teacher."

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