Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Labyrinth, a Gauntlet and The Science of Yoga by William J. Broad.

I love great science writing.

When I was in grade school Nana (who lived in another state) would always send me the Science Times section of The New York Times every week when she and Grampa were done with it. I think that's why I scored in the 97th percentile in the science section of the ACT standardized test I took when I was in high school. When I was in college, I consciously decided to pursue art because I thought my life might be more interesting socially, and I probably didn't believe in myself enough to take myself seriously. I feel certain that there were gender-related dynamics limiting my ability to imagine a future Brooks. And my chief advisors, Nana and Grampa, wanted me to be like my Mother, who had pursued art.

Now I'm a yoga teacher and writer. And a creative life-liver.

When I found out about The Science of Yoga, by William J. Broad, senior science writer for The New York Times, I was excited and immediately said "yes" to a preview copy from Simon & Schuster. I was also a bit hesitant to the content because of the colossal misstep in the Times’ presentation of the adapted excerpt from the book. It seemed to upset both teachers and students of yoga, and no matter how it affects sales of the book the preview held a rather alarmist and incomplete message.

But I found the book to be really interesting and informative, even if I don’t always agree with the way Mr. Broad extends non-yoga related data to make up numbers about yoga dangers. To be fair, “beauty parlor syndrome” where people have suffered from stroke after their head was thrown back in a sink at a beauty parlor has been compared to yoga in a few places, and Mr. Broad is also referring to the warnings and worries of a highly credentialed neurophysiologist (Mr. Russell) from 1972 regarding yoga and the danger of stroke. It is worthwhile to consider this information. I am definitely having more respect for the fascinating way that blood flows to the head.
In traversing the neck, the vertebral arteries go through a bony labyrinth that is quite unlike anything else in the body and quite different from the soft easy path that the carotids follow to the brain. The sides of each vertebra bulge outward to form loops of bone, and the arteries penetrate these loops successively in moving upward. The left and right vertebral arteries enter this gauntlet at C6 and run through the loops until they reach the top of the neck, at which point they start to zig and zag back and forth as they move towards the skull. Between C2 andC1, they usually bend forward, and then, upon exiting the bony rings of C1, usually curve sharply backward toward the foramen magnum—the large hole at the base of the skull that acts as a conduit for not only blood vessels but nerves, ligaments, and the spinal cord. Anatomists describe the final journey of the vertebral arteries toward the brain as serpentine and report much variability in the exact route from person to person. It is not unusual for the tops of the vertebral arteries to branch out in a tangle of coils, kinks, and loops.
A view from within the labyrinth at Kripalu.
This presents a pretty exciting idea of how the blood flows through the neck, including a labyrinth, a gauntlet (with connotations of inherent danger), and serpentine aspects with coils and kinks… I almost had a yogasm when I read this description! A thrilling adventure… But, does tightening the screws on the story of blood flow really serve the subject matter?
Where Iyengar saw benefits, Russell saw danger. The postures, he said, “must for some people be hazardous.” His choice of the word “must” betrayed the speculative nature of his worry…
Mr. Broad goes on to paint a “big picture” for us reaching for some big numbers for people who might die from having a stroke from yoga, considering his estimates reasonable “given all the neck twisting and bending.” But at least one of his numbers introducing the topic is incorrect according to a few places I looked. He asserts that the neck “can rotate on its axis about 50 degrees.” This is lower than other sources. So how much weight should we put on Broad’s terrifying account?

At one point he says (and the subject goes on for pages…):
…the medical world had exactly zero evidence about the frequency of such damage.
And even though this is written in past tense, I didn’t see that there was any conclusive evidence offered in this account.

But it did make me want to sharpen my eyes in teaching, and my practice. So that’s okay. It’s good to have more information, and a reporter’s ideas on a subject. But to have such a long and terrifying account of the subject of stroke and yoga, based on so little evidence seemed irresponsible especially in the excerpt that was published in the Times. It indeed painted a big picture, but what was it of? It seemed somewhat sensational, even though it is easy to recognize that there is the potential for danger in any activity. So that’s why it’s hard to completely refute Broad’s account of things. And it made me suspicious of The New York Times and perhaps how they perceive yoga that it would print such a biased piece with goofy photo illustrations that only served to make the subject matter more strange and even macabre.

So there it is, I resisted talking about the dreaded article, only to end up talking about it.

And I’ve spent time reading and considering the book, and find it good. It is well put together, and full of interesting studies that have been done on aspects of yoga that show benefit:
The 2010 paper examined more than eighty studies that compared yoga and regular exercise. The analysis, by health specialists at the University of Maryland, found that yoga equaled or surpassed exercise in such things as improving balance, reducing fatigue, decreasing anxiety, cutting stress, lifting moods, improving sleep, reducing pain, lowering cholesterol, and more generally in raising the quality of life for yogis, both socially and on the job.
There is also a strong sexual thread in the book that I wrote a bit about at ElephantJournal.com:

The Science of Yoga: from Ritual Sex to Yogic Hypersexuality. A Book Review.

And I don't agree with Mr. Broad's recommendation:
But to have a hope of exerting greater influence on the organization of global health care, yoga must come into closer alignment with science—with clinical trials and professional accreditation, with governmental authorities and their detailed evaluations, probably even with the insurance companies and their dreaded red tape. Yoga could become a major force. Or it could stay on the sidelines, a marginal pursuit, lost in myths, looking to the past, prone to guru worship, fracturing into ever more lineages, increasingly isolated as the world moves on.
No thank you, on the governmental authority over yoga. I could go on... But, that's enough for now.

I guess it's not because I also need to say that yoga is definitely not on the sidelines. Clearly it is being recognized. This book is evidence of that. And I hope that this book helps more men get into yoga. The focus on men's sexual health could help that. I also hope that this book will encourage more scientific studies of yoga. I found the results presented in The Science of Yoga to be really interesting, and it's nice to be able to tell students that some of the claims of yoga books have been proven in a scientific setting. And that there are some benefits that may surpass what has been said before.

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