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  • You’ve been lied to

    51 comments Published Apr 11, 09 AM
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    By Mijael Brandwajn

    I love science. Not that I would become a scientist myself, but I’m fascinated with the idea of “proof.” Furthermore, I believe a healthy dose of scientific skepticism could strengthen the image of yoga as a science (currently tarnished by many unsubstantiated claims).  But brace yourself, this stuff can get quite contentious.

    To illustrate, my first example comes from the book “Light on Yoga” by B.K.S. Iyengar (a modern classic on the subject).

     

    For Salabhasana (above) he says, among other things :“Since the spine is stretched back it becomes elastic and the pose relieves pain in the sacral and lumbar regions. In my experience, persons suffering from slipped discs have benefited by regular practice of this asana without recourse to enforced rest or surgical treatment. The bladder and the prostate gland also benefit from the exercise and remain healthy.”

    Really?

    The spine isn’t necessarily “stretched back,” is it? The bones don’t really “stretch,” and the back muscles are shortening in this pose, so they wouldn’t gain elasticity. Furthermore, although less common, a disk can be slipped in such a way that it is further stressed upon spinal extension. And last, but certainly not least…

    Mr. Iyengar does not use any specific research to back up the benefits of this posture.

    This is not to say that the bladder and prostate do not benefit; they might. But it may also be a fallacy that arose from intuition, or someone’s feeling. What if this posture is one day found to be counterproductive to certain bladder or prostate problems? Our intuition is not really the best source of validation when talking about therapeutic effects of a pose.

    Which brings me to my second example, which is a mistake I personally made as a teacher many times, because what I read and was taught — and my intuition — were completely wrong.

    You may have heard that Kapalabhatti, or breath of fire, oxygenates the brain. Which would explain why people can feel dizzy or lightheaded when they practice it, right?

    Wrong.

    Kapalabhatti decreases the amount of CO2 in the lungs, and your body then attempts to equal the gases by taking stored oxygen from places like… your brain! This lack of oxygen in the brain is the reason many feel dizzy or lightheaded when they practice this exercise.

    Why do yogis come up with this stuff, you might ask?

    The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali mention three sources of pramana or “right knowing” (YS 1.7). They are: direct perception, inference and testimony. Of course, all of these sources can be flawed. Back in Patanjali’s day, the only recourse yogis had was enlightenment, which would ostensibly prevent any errors of faulty perception and incorrect inferences and would warn you immediately of false testimony. But as we have learned with Kapalabhatti, not everything handed down from our teachers is “enlightened.” And since most of us aren’t either, we might as well start using the best tools at hand to differentiate truth from error.

    That’s right, science!

    We can’t continue the thinking “It worked for Peter, so it will work for Paul.” Even if it seemed to help twenty people, in one teacher’s experience, many things could have happened to skew those results. That’s not a valid scientific test. And just because you read it in a book, learned it in a workshop, or saw it on a yoga DVD, it doesn’t mean it’s correct.

    I have nothing against saying things like “Because you get what feels like an abdominal massage, the organs in that area may get stimulated and helped to heal.” I know, it sounds cautious. But that’s as much as we can responsibly say. The rest are not objective statements, and we might be flat out lying.

    Loose claims tarnish the image of yoga as a healing science, and could eventually hurt people, even with the best intentions. And we don’t want that, do we?

    In Truth (I’m trying),

    Mijael

     

    About Mijael Brandwajn

    Mijael Brandwajn is a Yoga teacher and currently owns a yoga studio in Panama, Central America. Although he trains teachers and just released a line of beginner yoga DVDs, he is most passionate about the evolution of yoga and how we can make it relevant in our lives. He has his own very opinionated blog, where this piece originally appeared.