It Can Hurt More Than It Can Heal
Yoga studios in America are ubiquitous. Lululemon-clad yogis have overtaken our cities and gyms with this pseudo-spiritual form of exercise. I used to be one of them, and I still have an impressive stash of Lulu gear to prove it.
But over time, I’ve realized that yoga is not for me. First, I became turned off by the yoga “scene” and the new age weirdos that thrive in it. I also felt like I was never flexible enough to get the most out of the yoga poses, and that the two-minute meditation (savasana) portion of the class was too short to be beneficial. Ultimately, I became tired of the yoga injuries I frequently sustained.
A few years ago the New York Times profiled a prominent teacher in the yoga world, Glenn Black. The main message that Black had to impart was that yoga is physically dangerous and that most people should quit. According to Black, students and even experienced teachers injure themselves all too frequently, and practitioners who have any underlying physical weaknesses or issues are especially vulnerable. “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”
Luckily, I never experienced any disastrous or prolonged injuries from yoga, but I did have plenty of nagging ones (mostly involving my neck and shoulders). I also regularly experienced acute discomfort from class, including dizziness and indigestion, probably from being upside down for too long.
I’ve learned that you can’t trust a yoga teacher to protect you from injury unless maybe you are taking private sessions. In a group yoga class, everyone flows through the same poses, regardless of skill level or physical limitations. The teacher is there to guide the class as a whole and cannot monitor each student individually, so it is up to them to modify the poses accordingly. But students are not the experts, and modifications can be more dangerous than the intended pose. For example, “downward-facing dog” modified (with heels raised) distributes too much weight to the upper body, causing strain to the wrists and shoulders.
Another reason not to trust your yoga instructor is because any fool with $3000 can become one. It is remarkably easy to become accredited and it only takes 4 weeks (or 200 hours). There is no national certification exam, like the one required to become a certified personal trainer, and yoga teachers do not need to be certified in any basic life-saving skills, like CPR. Plus, only 10% (about 20 hours total) of the yoga training course is spent on the study of anatomy and physiology, which seems woefully inadequate for understanding yoga’s effect on the body.
Evidence and common sense indicate that exercise is good for the health and that the benefits of doing it outweigh the risks of not doing it. I think it’s best to do whatever form of exercise you enjoy and can do consistently, but many people in the yoga community would say that yoga is the best form of exercise because of its “healing powers”. Yoga Journal claims that yoga can improve arthritis, disability, herniated discs, chronic back pain, asthma, bone density, blood clots, drainage of lymph nodes, heart disease, depression, anxiety, obesity, and diabetes.
These claims are either false or hyperbolic. Studies show that there is no evidence that yoga improves arthritis or asthma. The evidence for yoga’s effect on the spine, bones, blood, lymph nodes, heart, chronic disease, and disability is either slim, biased, or non-existent. Yoga may have a positive effect on mood, body weight, and strength, but so do all forms of exercise, including some very affordable and low-risk workouts such as swimming, walking, and cycling.
Predators, Hypocrites, and Weirdos, Oh My
The yoga community is similar to other religious communities in that there exists a moral hypocrisy that I find intolerable. I experienced it first-hand while living in Los Angeles and attending various yoga events, including workshops, kirtans, pujas, retreats, and other spiritual gatherings.
Initially, I was impressed by what seemed to be an inclusiveness and egalitarianism in the community. Yoga teachers were motivated by love and compassion and espoused transcending the lust for status, power, and sex to ultimately achieve enlightenment. The yoga community was like a safe haven, where no one could be hurt, only healed. I entered the yoga scene vulnerable and hoping for all this to be true, but I eventually learned that was a facade.
I used to work at a popular yoga studio in Los Angeles that celebrities frequented, and therefore wannabes followed. The studio was the place to see and be seen, and yoga was the excuse to be there. The classes were some of the most expensive out there, and the owner of the studio had been a member of a very famous rock band. All classes were soundtracked with pop and hip-hop music, and the emphasis was on a relaxed, easy spirituality, like yoga-lite. As you would expect in LA, the teachers were attractive and charming, and during my employment, I was privy to many salacious details of how some of the male instructors were sleeping around with several of the students. In fact, there were multiple occasions where I witnessed the male teachers giving overly enthusiastic massages to select female students during class.
I also used to regularly attend yoga chanting sessions (kirtan), where I met some strange folk. There were homeless hippies, crunchy new-agers, deadbeats, anarchists, zealots, and mentally-unstable people who seemed happy to find a community where they weren’t rejected outright. That is not to say I didn’t meet some lovely people who, like myself, were initially attracted to the yoga scene for what it seemed to promise. In fact, I met one of my best friends in that community, but she also became turned off by what she saw in the yoga world and is no longer involved.
The yoga community in L.A. was predominantly led by men who seemed like the type who were never cool in high school and were getting off on feeling important. Many of them were narcissistic, insecure, moderately educated white guys who gave themselves Indian names (that they mispronounced) and preached Hindu philosophies that they understood only superficially. They spoke a lot about transcending ego and desire while aggressively maneuvering for higher social status in the community and then sleeping around once they got there. They also each had a guru (some long deceased) whose virtues they would extol enthusiastically, even cultishly. I met a handful of “gurus” in the flesh, and they seemed like charlatans to me.
But that was Hollyweird, so I stuck with yoga another year after I left L.A. hoping the community would be different elsewhere. Turns out it’s really hard to escape the darkness in the yogasphere. In fact, yoga in America has a scandalous history. It seems like every few years since yoga came to America in the 1960s, prominent and charismatic male yogis have been exposed as sexual predators and philanderers. Their victims are almost always young female devotees who revere their guru leaders blindly and are therefore easily manipulated. Ironically, the principles these gurus espouse include integrity, restraint, purity, and even celibacy.
The Who’s Who of Sexually Exploitative Yogis
Bio: Born in Southern India in 1908. He came to the West to teach Siddha Yoga in the 1970s. He died in 1982.
Founded: SYDA (Siddha Yoga) Foundation in New York
Claim to Fame: He was labeled “The Guru’s Guru” by TIME magazine.
Offenses: Muktananda was accused of molesting women on the pretext of checking their virginity. Several young women claimed to have been raped by him at his ashram.
Bio: Born in Southern India in 1914. He moved to New York in 1966 to “spread his teachings of yoga, selfless service, ecumenism, and enlightenment.” He died in 2002.
Founded: The Integral Yoga Institute and an Ashram in Virginia called Yogaville
Claim to Fame: He was the guru to many Hollywood celebrities and musicians, including Jeff Goldblum, Allen Ginsberg, Liev Schreiber, Weezer, and Alice Coltrane. He was also the opening speaker at Woodstock.
Offenses: Several former female disciples came forward claiming that Satchidananda sexually exploited them when they were just 18 years old (he was almost 60). They stated that he sexualized their relationship, demanding massages and oral sex while reassuring them when they resisted that “he knew best.”Swami Satchidananda responded to the allegations with the following:
If the public wants to believe that, they can believe that. They are free to feel that way. If they don’t feel comfortable with me, they can go learn from someone else. . . I believe that God is using me as an instrument. I am just there, like a river is there. Those who want to come and take a bath may do so. Those who do not want to do not have to.
Well, as long as they get naked before jumping in that bath with him.
Bio: Born in Northern India in 1925. He came to teach in America in the 1960s and died in 1996.
Founded: Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy in Pennsylvania
Claim to Fame: He was one of the first yogis to allow himself to be studied by Western scientists.
Offenses: His story is pretty much the same as the others: several women claimed that they were sexually exploited by Swami Rama. One woman sued him for sexually abusing her at his ashram when she was 19. She was awarded nearly $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Bio: Born in Northwestern India in 1932. He began training with his guru in India at the age of 16. He came to America in 1960 and founded his first ashram in Pennsylvania in 1972. He is still teaching.
Founded: The Kripalu Center in Massachusetts
Message: Let go of desire. Give your life to God and the Guru. He also encouraged strict celibacy for his unmarried disciples. Married disciples should have a moderate sex life.
Claim to Fame: He was one of the first yogis to come to the West.
Offenses: Desai was accused of sexual misconduct and abuse of power and was exposed as having several extramarital affairs. On top of that, a group of 100 former Kripalu Center residents/employees filed a class action lawsuit against Kripalu for years of unpaid labor. A settlement was negotiated for over $2.5 million.
Bio: Born in Calcutta, India. As a teen, he won several yoga competitions in India. He then emigrated to the U.S. in the 70s and established yoga studios in California and Hawaii. He is still teaching.
Founded: Bikram Yoga
Message: Bikram yoga (aka Hot Yoga) comprises 26 poses that are to be done in 105-degree heat to mimic the climate of India. Bikram claims that doing yoga in a hot room leads to more sweating which flushes toxins from the body and increases caloric burn (though these claims are unfounded).
Claim to Fame: He created a nine-week teacher certification course in his specific style of yoga, which he unsuccessfully tried to get copyrighted. There are now over 1650 Bikram yoga studios worldwide.
Offenses: Accused of “soliciting sex from his female students, punishing them when they refused his advances, rewarding male teachers who brought him willing consorts and bragging during lectures of his 72-hour marathon sex sessions.” Bikram was also sued by a former student who claims “she was denied championship yoga titles and promotions due to her refusal of Choudhury’s sexual advances.” On top of that, he has been accused of harassment, discrimination, sexual assault, and rape. Bikram has denied everything. Oh, and by the way, he’s married.
Bio: Born in Youngstown, Ohio. His mother was into yoga and taught John about the yogis with their supernatural powers. At 19, he moved to Texas and started teaching yoga part-time while working as a financial analyst. He eventually left his analyst job and began teaching full-time. He is still teaching.
Founded: Anusara yoga
Claim to Fame: One of the first white guys to invent a yoga style and build a yoga-business empire around it, including a certification program and school.
Offenses: Accused of sexual impropriety with female students including sleeping around (and cheating on his girlfriend) and forming a Wiccan coven with six women (some yoga teachers; some married) to “raise sexual energy.”
Bio: Born in Chennai, India. He’s a rising star in the yoga world with a famous yogi father (Sri T.K.V. Desikachar) whom he studied under. He’s a yoga “therapist” (though he has no actual training in therapy), and he has written books on yoga. He markets himself as Dr. Desikachar, although he does NOT have a Ph.D. or medical degree.
Founded: Yoga Makaranda- he teaches yoga therapy over skype to anyone willing to pay.
Offenses: He was recently accused of “sexual, mental, and emotional abuse,” and therefore was let go from his position at the Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation. He released a public apology on his website entitled “Positive Beginning” including the following statement:
While I do sincerely regret some of the choices that I have made in the past, I am grateful for the opportunity it has provided for me to look deeper into myself and emerge a better student of life, and a wiser teacher.
There Is A Better Path
Yoga seems to promise everything from a better body, to perfect health, to enlightenment. While there are some physical and psychological benefits of yoga, these results may not be as significant as you hoped. If you really want to reach your peak level of mental and physical fitness, you will need more than yoga.
I don’t think there’s one specific formula to achieve optimal mental and physical health in every individual, but I do think there are some universal guidelines that are generally applicable. If you follow those guidelines and fine tune them to address your unique needs and limitations, then I think you can meet your goals more effectively than by just taking yoga classes. Here are the guidelines:
- The Best Way To Get Toned and Lose Weight
The three components I’ve found to best maintain a thin and toned physique are powerlifting, HIIT (high-intensity interval training), and a whole foods diet low in refined sugar.
Most studies on nutrition are methodologically flawed, and there is no scientific consensus on what precisely constitutes good nutrition. The ambiguity around the science of nutrition is what leads to so much contradictory and hyperbolic diet advice. Until there are better studies and a deeper understanding of the relationship between our genetics, diet, and microbiome, I don’t think anyone knows for sure what the best diet is for weight-loss and health.
My guess is that the answer will be different for each person. While we wait for more concrete answers, I think self-experimentation is a good place to start. Here is my educated guess of what might be a good starting point to eat and exercise in a way that promotes health and fitness:
My Dietary Guideline
Limit refined sugars, refined carbs, and processed foods. Try to eat the appropriate amount of calories for your body weight goals (there are several calculators online).
Here is a sample grocery list:
- Free Range Eggs
- Poultry, Pork, Red Meat, Fish
- Whole Organic Milk
- Full Fat Yogurt and Cottage Cheese
- Olive Oil
Here’s a great resource for nutrition-related info: authoritynutrition.com. (This site recently got acquired by Healthline and the quality of the content has declined, but there’s still some good stuff there).
Weightlift four to five times per week using heavy weights so that you fail by 10 reps. Focus on Olympic lifting exercises, which means include deadlifts and squats in your routine. You can find sample workout programs online, but generally speaking, you should work out each muscle group intensely once a week using a variety of exercises while increasing resistance as your strength increases.
If you’re new to weightlifting, I highly recommend doing a few sessions with a qualified personal trainer so they can teach you the correct form so you don’t get injured and feel confident increasing the weight. Also, you can have a trainer create workout programs for your specific needs that you go do on your own.
I think scientists are starting to realize that cardio is great for your health, but maybe not the answer to obesity. However, studies have shown that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) can improve body composition.
How you approach cardio should depend on your goals, but I think it’s clear that at least some cardio on a regular basis is healthy for your heart, body, and mind.
Here’s a great resource for evidence-based fitness: evidencebasedfitness.net
2. The Best Way To Get Flexible
A big selling point for yoga is that it will increase your flexibility. But if you don’t do yoga, you won’t need to be flexible. There’s no health benefit to flexibility, and most workouts don’t require you to be that bendy (unless you are an athlete or dancer).
The once ubiquitous belief that stretching prevents injury and improves performance has been refuted by several studies. In actuality, stretching before a workout can decrease performance and increase the risk of injury, and the type of stretching most people do doesn’t even lead to increased flexibility. The best way to prepare for an exercise is to do that exercise with less resistance, i.e. do an air squat before you do weighted squats.
3. The Best Way To Heal Your Body
Alternative medicine is very popular in the yoga community, but like yoga, it’s full of empty promises. Most, if not all, of alternative medicine is not proven by scientific evidence and will not provide results beyond a placebo effect. While the placebo effect can be beneficial, I’m still not a fan of spending my money and time on sugar pills. There is no evidence to justify the often expensive and ineffective, not to mention potentially harmful, alternative therapies such as acupuncture, Ayurveda, homeopathy, chiropractic care, reiki, colonics, and juicing (the list is literally endless). Save your money and go to a good medical doctor.
Here’s a great resource for health-related info: sciencebasedmedicine.org
4. The Best Way To Heal Your Mind
While I do believe that religion and spirituality can provide a sense of well-being for many people, I don’t think that believing in a higher power can heal a sick mind. There are a lot of “healers” in the yoga community that will claim that they have the ability to make you happy, fulfilled, and enlightened, but they are charlatans or delusional.
Yoga therapists, shamans, life coaches, and gurus are not qualified to provide effective, evidence-based mental health treatment or psychotherapy. If you are struggling with psychological issues, then your best bet is to find a well-trained mental health clinician, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Here’s a great article (by my husband) on how to find a good psychiatrist: huffingtonpost.com/abilash-gopal-md
5. The Best Way To Ease Your Mind
If you aren’t struggling with any significant psychological issues and just want to feel calmer and more grounded, then mindfulness meditation may be enough for you. Mindfulness is a psychological technique based on the Buddhist concept of meditation, but you don’t need to attach any philosophical or spiritual beliefs to it to garner the psychological benefits. There is ample evidence that it reduces stress and improves focus, and it’s something anyone can do for free.