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The Science of YogaReview - The Science of Yoga
The Risks and the Rewards
by William J Broad
Simon & Schuster, 2012
Review by Beth T. Cholette, Ph.D.
May 1st 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 18)

One month prior to the publication of The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, author William J. Broad caused an uproar in the yoga community by writing an article for the New York Times entitled "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body."  By offering this preview, Broad also revealed his bias, manifestly announcing that his upcoming book would focus more on the "risks" of yoga (as noted in the subtitle) than the rewards.  Still, as both a psychologist and an avid yoga practitioner, my goal was to approach this book with an open mind.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to overlook the flaws in this effort.  Perhaps the most salient of these is Broad's tendency to unnecessarily perseverate.  In doing so, he skews his work from offering valid arguments to imparting a prejudiced viewpoint.  For example, in the "Fit Perfection" chapter, Broad thoroughly, elaborately, and tediously makes the case that yoga has not been proven to benefit cardiovascular fitness.   (As a side note, I would argue that this is somewhat of a moot point, as most educated practitioners are well-aware of this fact; however, I will concede that the general public is less informed.)  But infuriatingly, both in this chapter and the "Health" chapter which precedes it, Broad glosses over the many other physical benefits of yoga, only very briefly acknowledging well-studied, highly desirable effects, including "enhanced sleep, energy, health, endurance, and flexibility" (p. 57).  Later, he mentions yoga's proven ability to perform equally to or better than other forms of physical exercise in areas such as "improving balance, reducing fatigue…improving sleep, reducing pain, lowering cholesterol" (p. 73), but inexplicably, in the next paragraph, Broad offers a quote which suggests that although yoga has benefits in many areas, physical fitness is somehow excluded from this list.

As a psychologist, I was trained in the classic scientist-practitioner model.  The "scientist" aspect of my doctoral education prepared me to critically evaluate and interpret research.  I expected some of the same rigor from Broad, a science journalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.  Throughout the book, however, I was dismayed by obvious preferential weight which Broad placed on certain studies.  For example, at times he dismisses particular research (and rightly so) for employing small sample sizes and thus having little utility for making more general conclusions.  However, when arguing certain points, Broad is more than willing to cite investigations of very few subjects as well as to reference anecdotal case stories.  This is most evident in his now infamous "Risk of Injury" chapter, in which Broad starts with a few reports (for example, a 2002 survey of forty-six patient emergency room admissions related to yoga) and then goes on to make broad-based, unsubstantiated conclusions. 

Furthermore, Broad appears to be unaware that correlation is not in fact a basis for causation.  The best example of this may actually be his own personal situation:  Broad describes sustaining a ruptured disk in his back, which he attributes to running.  He finds yoga to be effective for pain management, and so he makes the decision to forgo surgery.  Unfortunately, he later experiences a painful episode when coming out of a pose in yoga class—as a result, he attributes his "injury" to the dangers of yoga.  Would this incident have occurred in absence of his pre-existing back condition?  Broad also cites a larger survey (1,300 respondents) in which there were 231 reports (18%) of lower back injuries related to yoga.  However, with an estimate of at least 80% of adults experiencing back pain at some point in their lives (various online sources), it is very difficult to concur with Broad's conclusions that these injuries are yoga-based.

This is not to say that injuries don't occur from yoga; of course they do, just as they result from any other type of physical activity.  The central problem with The Science of Yoga is that the small amounts of true science which Broad does offer are overshadowed by his subjective presentation, which includes favoring the scandalous over the substantive (certainly spending three paragraphs on how Sex in the City popularized the term "yogasm" does not help his case).  And to further add to the difficulties of distilling any science from this work, the citations, although numbered within the "Notes" section, are not numbered within the text itself, and the Notes are tucked away at the very end of the book (providing notes at the end of each chapter would have made much more sense, especially given the lack of text references).

In his final chapter, Broad states that "science—even at its best…is nonetheless extraordinarily crude" (p. 222).  This is perhaps the best summary I could have written of his book; I cannot recommend it.

 

© 2012 Beth Cholette

 

Beth Cholette, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy to college students.


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