Interview with William Broad, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and senior writer at the New York Times, on his book: The Science of Yoga.


Callum Makkai (interviewer): From the ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali up to present day magazines like the Yoga Journal, a lot has been written on the topic of yoga. What contribution does your new book, The Science of Yoga, make to the discussion?

William Broad (author): Well, I call it the first scientific overview of the discipline. The first time that all the science that's been done on yoga has been put into popular expression. A century and a half of yoga. The way I think it hugely contributes to the conversation is that it shows what's real and what's not. What helps, what hurts. Yoga has made many claims for many millenia and centuries, as you know better than I. And this book, this science, can help winnow and sift. What's real, what's not, what's good, what's bad.

Callum: You yourself practice yoga and I understand you've been practicing for quite a long time.

William: Since 1970.

Callum: Nineteen-seventy. And yoga's introduction to the West goes back at least a century or so.

William: [Henry David] Thoreau used to talk about how he considered himself a yogi, so that's back in the middle of the 19th century.

Callum: 19th century right exactly. But you know, even though it's come in to Western culture, even back at that late date, it's only really reached mass acceptance in the last couple of decades. So I guess I'm wondering what your thoughts are on why it took so long to catch on in the West.

William: You know, I don't know. I mean, the social dynamics of this are beyond me. My strength is as a science reporter, at understanding the science of yoga and what scientists have discovered about yoga. To a certain extent, scientists were fascinated by yoga maybe even before the general public, right?

Callum: Mm-hm. Yeah.

William: There were so many extreme claims, especially back in the 19th century with miracle claims yogis can stop their hearts, or you can bury yogis for weeks and they'll come out just fine. So those were, in terms of biology, extraordinary claims. So there was a lot of scientific interest and I detailed a lot of that in the book. Why yoga explodes as a popular thing? I could guess. One of my guesses is that yoga works wonderfully. I think the book goes into...I've got this reputation as a yoga basher, which I think is undeserved, because the book enumerates lots of the facets that science had shown, right?

Callum: Mm-hm.

William: I mean, one good reason why I think yoga has become so popular is because it works to relax you. It works to de-stress you. It works. It's like an anti-civilization pill.

Callum: [laughs].

William: It helps you disconnect. It helps you center. It helps you find your inner ... you know, this point of inner tranquility, which is unbelievably important in this day and age when we are facing so many stresses, so many cultural changes, so many uncertainties; they are skyrocketing. If I had to guess, I would say we're just seeing the beginning -- that yoga is going to get bigger and bigger, because it works!

Callum: Mm-hm.

William: It works to help people deal with their lives. There's a reason in New York City why there's a yoga studio every couple blocks -- because yoga is an antidote to big cities, right? And you know the science of it shows how yogis are very good at activating their parasympathetic nervous systems. That's the digestive side of the nervous system. It's the metabolic rate. It slows you down, right? Most everything in our culture presses the other side, the sympathetic side: caffeinated drinks, loud noises, scary movies, theme parks, and rock music. All that stuff is pressing the accelerator right? It's all zipping you up and yoga works the other way. It helps you wind down. That's not very scientific. This is just my rambling science reporter, but I think yoga is big and it's going to get bigger because it works.

Callum: I often wonder if it has something to do with the advent of the Internet age. Everybody's sitting in front of computers all day long. I'm sure as a writer you probably struggle with having to sit in front of the computer.

William: Yep, yep, yep and I get hundreds of e-mails and I have to be talking to people all around the globe and, you know, it's too much, right? Plus I've got two jobs and three kids.

Callum & William: [laughter]

William: Well, I'm not complaining. I have a wonderful life. But it can be overwhelming. Yoga, for me, is a very close friend. I do yoga every morning without fail. I don't do a lot ... I don't claim to be an advanced practitioner, but I do what I do and I love it.

Callum: You've researched the scientific literature on the risks and rewards of yoga for human health, which we've already touched on briefly, but how well do you think Western scientists have done in making those inquiries and what conclusions if, any can, we draw from their efforts?

William: Well, the whole book goes into the conclusions, right? They've done pretty well. The problem is -- and it's not such a big problem that I wasn't able to write a book. But, compared to other things, like cancer, like major diseases, like lots of things, yoga hasn't been studied all that much by science.

Callum: Yeah.

William: And that's quite logical, as I say in the prologue to the book, it's because yoga has very few patrons. No drug company, which sponsors enormous amounts of research, is going to pay for it to study yoga. I mean, very few governments put money into yoga research because they're just not interested. You know, it's like, it's considered marginal, right? That's starting to change in the United States and it's starting to change in other countries. There are some governments that are starting to put money into yoga and into yoga research, because they can see that it can work for disease prevention ...

Callum: Right.

William: .. which they're very interested in because it's very cost effective. So, that's starting to cook in some respects, but the money is still remarkably small. And that means that, overall, the scientific picture tend to spotty.

Callum: Okay.

William: There are some areas where the science is extremely clear. Like, for instance, modern yoga styles, like Ashtanga or power or these really heavy gym-oriented styles, claim that they're aerobic, that they'll get your heart going so fast that it's like being a marathoner.

Callum: Mm-hm.

William: Well, there have been several studies done that show that's not true. You can do sun salutations all day long and you're still not going to get the kind of aerobic work out that you do working an elliptical cross trainer or cycling or something like that. You can't get your heart going that fast.

Callum: I see.

William: There are some areas where the science is very clear; there are some other areas where it ain't. At the end of the book I say, "Onward. Let's do some more studies because yoga is, on balance, a very good thing, and it can become even better in the future if we understand it."

Callum: So are you optimistic that we'll see yoga become a normal part of conventional medicine or do you think that the two will remain disconnected?

William: I grew up in the Midwest and I'm a naive optimist. I think that, a few decades out -- maybe even not even a few, maybe just a couple decades or fifteen years -- we're going to start to see yoga doctors. I think we're going to see yoga get connected into more mainstream health care. The guy who is at the top of my health chapter, which is Chapter Five, he's Mark Fishman. He is this wonderful physician in New York City who studied with Iyengar in India and uses yoga all the time in his practice. If he's right, and if there are more Mark Fishmans in this world, we are on the cusp of a revolution in which yoga is going to go mainstream. Now, Mark is a very unusual person, and he's very gifted, and he may not represent the median or the conventional medical wisdom but there are a lot of doctors out there, who are interested in using yoga. There are definitely professional societies that are trying to produce certifications, like the International Association of Yoga Therapists, which is based in Arizona. They are trying to create schools with hard curricula that train yoga therapists. They are trying to create a professional scientific basis for the profession of yoga therapy. They're not there yet, but we will see it. It's in the embryonic stage. If things keep going for decades, I think yoga doctors are a real possibility.

Callum: Yeah. I wonder ...

William: And, also, I think that would be a good thing. Right. Because, we spend so many billions of dollars on little blue pills to have a better time in the bedroom -- or, very expensive pills from neuropharmacology to try to lift our moods and take away our depression. What a bunch of ... well, I don't want to use bad language. But, you know, you can do yourself for free. Why not?

Callum: Yeah, exactly. I'd agree with you there. I sometimes worry that, especially in United States, the legal environment (as well as the way in which the medical profession is set up as a lobby group) might make it difficult for medical practitioners to embrace it.

William: Yeah. Maybe. But they do. The National Institute of Health, which is a big federal research organization here in the United States, has a yoga week. They sponsor a lot of yoga research. They spent $7 million last year on yoga research. That's not a lot by federal standards, but it's very good research done at elite institutions across the United States. They're starting to shed a lot of light on yoga -- and a lot of good things. For instance, yoga turns out to be really good for cardiovascular health. It doesn't do what all these aerobic sports people say it does, but it does other good things for your heart. Because it lowers blood pressure, and it lowers hyper tension, which is a big risk factor for stroke. There are even wild things, like the stress decreasing aspects of yoga. The preliminary evidence suggests that it can work to make your cells live longer. So there could be this overall impact on the longevity. Every yogi I interviewed always looked like they were 20 or 30 years younger than their chronological age, and they often acted that way, too. They were spunky and had a gleam in their eye, and they'd tell funny jokes. I mean, they were alive in ways a lot of sixty- and seventy-year olds aren't.

Callum: After I started practicing yoga, my wife told me that I was looking younger than when we met, originally.

William: Right. And you probably have an OK sex life, because, in the book, the sex chapter shows the evidence is very strong. Yoga zips you up. Yoga spurs those hormones. You can see it in the hormonal studies; you can see it in brain scans. A very nice study done at the University of British Columbia shows that Bhastrika, a kind of fast breathing, is definitely sexually arousing -- which I think is a good thing. Sexuality is a central part of the human experience. Why not be in good shape sexually, like you can be in every other way? Why pay billions of dollars to the drug mafia when you can do it yourself?

Callum: Absolutely. Actually, that's a good segue into my question about the New York Times review of the Science of Yoga, in which Annie Murphy Paul says: "yoga seems to have come full circle: flush with cash and focused on perfecting the body, modern yoga has returned to its earthy origins in money and sex." I thought that observation would come as a surprise to many yoga practitioners.

William: Well, I think she's a little bit mixing metaphors in a way. She's kind of conflating the yoga industrial complex and Lululemon, and that kind of stuff, with some of the more earthy, sexual, tantric sides of yoga. I don't consider tantra a part of the yoga industrial complex. Tantra is something you can do in the bedroom or in a meditative state.

Callum: One thing that I've found fascinating in the yoga tradition are the Sadhu, who traditionally were dreadlocked beggars who practiced yoga and smoked marijuana. It seems to me that most in the West would be unaware of the Sadhu and their connection to the yoga tradition, maybe because as you point out, it's related to some aspects of yoga that are not in the mainstream discourse.

William: Yeah, people don't know. I think some people do kind of have this general idea that yoga came out of that tradition, but yoga as it's marketed, especially in the United States -- it's sleek and shiny, and it's gonna solve all your problems and help you lose weight. Like Bikram, you know. He himself makes so many flakey claims. He says you're gonna be a superman and a superwoman. I mean it's just an over-the-top kind of crazy salesmanship. So, that to me, has very little to do with spirituality, compassion. I mean, what do we want out of life? Life is short. How do we be good to ourselves and be good to the people we love? It's a crazy world, right. I mean there are these old ancient questions of spirituality and consciousness and how to live your life in the best possible way -- a lot that the old Sadhu tradition addressed, and that modern yoga doesn't. Modern yoga, to me, seems like an arm of the "me"-generation narcissism, right? It's all about me, baby.

Callum: You mentioned Bikram and I'm sure you probably talk about different styles of yoga. There's been a real proliferation of styles of yoga. Looking at the scientific evidence that you've reviewed, are there any particular styles of yoga that seem more or less beneficial from a medical perspective?

William: Well, the Iyengar people I think have shown a lot of creativity for trying to tailor poses to individuals rather than tailoring individuals to poses -- with blocks and blankets, all their props and things. I think that's smart. There's not that much science that's compared styles. So you don't get that comparative stuff. A lot of it is common sense, but clearly Iyengar and gentle styles are going out of their way not to produce huge stresses on your joints that can be devastating. There's a lot of anecdotal and survey evidence that injury rates have spiked quite high as yoga has become quite popular.

Callum: Yoga has become deeply politicized in recent years to the extent that it's almost impossible to publish a book about yoga without provoking the anger of some practitioners. In writing The Science of Yoga, did you anticipate any controversy surrounding the book's themes and, if so, how did you prepare for that controversy?

William: I didn't think it would be this controversial. I mean, there are bits of really sharp attack. The overwhelming response to the New York Times article was positive, but I get letters from yogis and yoginis saying things like, "You are a jerk!" One guy, after about three or four sentences of invective, ended it with G.F.Y. I'm not going to spell out what that acronym means, you probably know it. But it's a really crude, rude, un-yoga-like thing to say, right? I think it says loads about them. I mean, who are they that they get so -- anyways, I guess I was kind of a naive. I wrote this book. I started doing it for myself and I ended up wanting to make it as available to practitioners everywhere as possible, because I felt the science could help them a lot. I didn't think that there would be so many bitter denunciations and dismissals. The original headline of the New York Times excerpt really got people angry: How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. That [headline] came as a surprise to me. I didn't know that was going to be that way.

Callum: Oh, I see.

William: I think that got people angry and, unfortunately, I think some people reacted but maybe never read the article. But I'm not a bastard, man. I love yoga, and I want to see yoga succeed as much as possible. There it is. I wrote a book about it. I hope people read it and judge it on its merits rather than the rumours.