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We live in a brain-obsessed age where our enthusiasm for neuroscience vastly outstrips our knowledge. In the publishing world, most psychology books that aim to sell well emphasize how much they highlight brain function, and they have to have "brain" or "neuro" (or preferably both) in the title. In the West, most people do yoga because it is meant to be good exercise, developing strength and flexibility, and it is also reputed to make people calmer, less anxious, less depressed, and more comfortable with their bodies. We don't need to measure any of these qualities by doing brain scans, so there's no need to start putting yoga practitioners into brain scanning machines to see if yoga is beneficial. We had the technology to measure the potential health benefits of yoga 100 years ago; the new technology of brain scanning may reveal something interesting, but it remains to be seen. So I approached Your Brain on Yoga with considerable suspicion. I found my suspicion was justified. The author makes plenty of claims about the benefits of yoga and has a bibliography of scientific studies for each chapter, but he never spells out how those studies justify his claims. When these claims include such carelessly formulated ideas as "yoga helps rejuvenate our bodies and minds" (Introduction) -- clearly exercise can make us fitter and improve some thinking skills, but calling that "rejuvenation" smacks of miracle cures. He goes on to claim that yoga "allows you to perceive the world in a more relaxed, non-judgmental, positive way," and maybe it does, but there's certainly no studies cited in this book that make a strong case for this. There's no caution about what the book proves: the author claims it "will reveal compelling neuroscientific evidence that demonstrates the variety of ways yoga can change your brain." Yet in fact the main text contains remarkably little discussion of the brain. There are plenty of articles referenced at the end of the book, but without going into detail about what they say, the suggestion that it has revealed any compelling neuroscientific evidence is absurd. At most, he has mentioned some evidence, and we have no assurance that he has done a thorough literature review assessing all relevant findings. And at this stage in our knowledge of the brain, the best that he could say is that the evidence lends credence to these claims about the effects of yoga on the brain, pending further research. But the author prefers to make dramatic claims. After setting out a simple meditation exercise, and recommending that you do it regularly, he writes "I guarantee that doing this technique on a regular basis will help calm your mind and manage your stress." At this point, any sensible reader should discard the book as irresponsible. No treatment is 100% successful, and he has not even specified what counts as "regular meditation." Your Brain on Yoga is proselytizing in the guise of science. For people who are looking for guidebooks about how to do yoga, there are many better ones out there. This one does not have any illustrations and this means that its usefulness is severely limited. I will concede that it does mention a few interesting experiments about the mental health benefits and bodily changes of yoga, and the book is worth browsing to find some description of them. What we need is a book that explains the scientific results in some detail and without pushing an agenda. Unfortunately, such a book does not yet exist. (By way of contrast, the recently published The Science of Yoga seems to overemphasize the problems with the scientific findings and the risks of yoga.)
© 2013 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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