Questions for William J. Broad
Perhaps the only time the yoga world has a unified voice is when they decide they hate something. Currently, that something is William J. Broad, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the polarizing new book The Science of Yoga. Criticism about his research and commentary on the man has ranged from mild indignation to scathing disdain. As someone who has spent the last 10 years practicing, teaching and/or writing about yoga, I found this curious. So I did what any good recovering yogi would do: I sat down with Bill to get his take on the controversy.
Vanessa: Are you surprised by the backlash about your book?
William: Totally. It’s a measure of my innocence and my naïveté that I thought the reaction to the book would be “Oh, how interesting! This will really help me make my practice safer and better. This guy’s found some great and cool information and it’s really solid. And it can help me.” I mean, it helped me! I did yoga as basically stress management. I have a very, very hard job and it helped me relax. It helped me unplug. It helped me center. I had sort of a mediocre, not an advanced super freakazoid [yoga practice]. I had a very hum-drum approach. And yet I found, in my research, that yoga has some incredible extremes. Both good and bad. Some of these postures that stress your neck a lot can result in strokes and brain-damage. How often that happens? No one knows. But they do know that the consequences are extremely high. They can send you to the emergency room or even, in some cases, to the morgue. So I thought, golly! I’m going to avoid that! And I kind of naively thought that would be the overall reaction, and I was wrong.
Vanessa: You have a largely home-based practice?
William: Yes. I mean, while I was researching the book, I went out with Glenn Black and studied with Mel Robin; I went to all our local studios; I went to Bikram; I felt obliged to get out there both for the science of it — in the case of Mel Robin in Pennsylvania and for the hidden injury story in the case of Glenn Black — but even though I’m not an expert in all contemporary styles, I felt I had to get out there and see what’s hot and what people are doing. But my practice is my own. I did yoga this morning. I’ll do yoga tomorrow morning. It’s something that I do every day.
Vanessa: I started as a yoga practitioner in Bikram, and later taught Vinyasa. And then I assisted with Baron Baptiste and his teacher trainings for a couple of years. And then I went to Anusara training, and that’s what turned me off. And I stopped teaching after that.
William: You got out just in time!
Vanessa: I did, didn’t I?
William: I’ve gotten such interesting insider mail from Anusara. I get such interesting mail [in general]. I’m getting this extremely intimate view into the yoga community that I don’t think anybody anywhere has ever gotten.
The vast majority of my mail is positive. [But] I was shocked by both the vehemence of the invective, the attacks, but also by the number of “If you think that’s bad?” horror stories.
Vanessa: If there’s one thing I’ve experienced in the yoga world — it’s a very fractured world, as you’ve pointed out — but they tend to have one voice when they all hate the same thing.
William: And that’s me right now!
Vanessa: That’s you right now! Yes. What shocks me is the lack of introspection in the personal attacks.
William: It’s unbelievable, the invective. I’ll read you my favorite letter. “Listen Moran!” — and moron is spelled “m-o-r-a-n.” “I have been using yoga and karate for over 35 years and it has improved everything in my life. So before you open your mouth idiot, know what you are talking about!” And I don’t think, charitably, that these people have read the book. I don’t think they’ve read The New York Times article. I think they’re on this 140 character Twitter universe of “like” or “dislike” that’s about as deep as it gets. And right now, I’m disliked. But you know, what? I think the tide is turning. I’m getting some very interesting invites and some very interesting feedback. And the book is selling.
Vanessa: I, too, am curious if those who are critical have read your book. I’ve heard more than one person dismissing it because they don’t like the way you pronounced “Iyengar” in your NPR interview with Terry Gross.
William: It’s pronounced Ahy-yungar!
Vanessa: I think there’s a couple of different pronunciations, so…
William: You say tom-AY-to I say tom-AH-to.
Vanessa: It seems like some people are okay with just reading excerpts.
William: You know what it is? Yoga is surrounded by this certain mystique. Even though people know that it’s not that, they still love the existence of the mystique. The idea of perfection. Spiritual perfection, physical perfection, and anything that shakes that mystique is bad. Right? But to me, that’s like the Roman Catholic church sweeping the bad priests under the rug. There’s just going to be more victims.
Vanessa: Do you think that the reason that people have sort of ignored the vast benefits that you’ve laid out in the book has more to do with the threatening of that mysticism?
William: I don’t know, it’s so complex and there’s so many levels. It’s this sense of the mystique of perfection, and there’s also the real economic interests, right? I mean, I don’t like using the phrase “the yoga industrial complex” because it makes it sound like this monolithic military thing, which it’s not. It’s fractured. But there are real economic interests that feel threatened by somebody saying “Yoga can result in serious injuries.” It’s been a little bit like going to Philip Morris to ask “Can cigarettes cause cancer?” and Philip Morris saying “Well of course cigarettes don’t cause cancer. Cigarettes make you feel wonderful!” There is a deep economic interest in selling good news.
Vanessa: Some of the things people have taken issue with were two of the biggest chapters: the Divine Sex chapter and the Risk of Injury chapter. How do you respond to claims that the connection between Hatha and Tantra is overstated?
William: All you have to do is go into the scholarly literature. Don’t go to Wikipedia. I mean, a lot of the stuff that people cite is laughable. Go to Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, one of the great, early scholarly texts, and see what it says about Hatha and Tantra. Hatha is a branch of Tantra. Period. [But] go to Iyengar – however you want to pronounce it — go to Light on Yoga. Does the word Tantra appear anywhere in that text? The answer is no. There is one reference towards to the end to “Tantric” and it has nothing to do with the origins of yoga. There has been a long, long, long, deep, powerful, concerted effort on the behalf of the re-inventors of yoga to remove every possible association with Tantra. Don’t look [to] popular gurus. Go to the scholars, look at the serious books. They’ll tell you the truth.
Cobra is an old pose. It dates back to Tantric days. These [old poses] were designed for specific purposes of sexual arousal. Not to give you a lot of new supplements in your lower spine. That might have been a side effect, but they were meant to do other things, and they worked! You’re down there pressing your pelvis into the floor as hard as you can and, guess what? Circulation increases there. Tantra works!
Vanessa: One thing I struggle with regarding the sexual nature of yoga, is, well, who cares?
William: I think that learning the science and learning about this can help [yoga students] understand what’s happening with their bodies. There’s another class of people that have low libido. This can be good, free therapy! Why spend billions of dollars on little blue pills when a little yoga can. . .you know? “Get me to a yoga studio!”
Vanessa: Do you think you’ll ever write about yoga again?
William: I have no plans to write another book, but I feel that I could write an encyclopaedia. For instance, the injury chapter. I tried to set it up for the reformers. The Iyengar people, blocks, blankets. “We are going to customize the pose to the person rather than forcing the person into the pose.” That’s genius! That’s smart! That’s reform! That’s saying that yoga can evolve and grow.
Vanessa: You spoke earlier about the economic interests being threatened. Certainly with the reformers, you can’t fit a class full of 80 people with a bunch of blocks and straps.
William: Yes, definitely. But if you go to the economics of this, I think the issue that the community needs to think about is teacher certification. That’s where the money is. And I think that’s where the states are worried. Are these schools real or are they diploma mills? And what is the Yoga Alliance? What do they do with their money? And why are they bossing 200 hours in sort of a magic bullet?
Vanessa: That’s a book unto itself!
William: I’m a science reporter, and these are on the periphery of my vision. I’m not an economics person. But I think for the community, these are issues. Ultimately, the commercialization of yoga does raise issues of bias.
I don’t claim any special expertise in regulatory stuff, but I do know that these issues are out there.
William: So why did you quit [teaching yoga]?
Vanessa: I didn’t really believe what I was teaching anymore. And then around the time I stopped, two other friends of mine from teaching from Baptiste, we were just so tired of all the platitudes. Platitudes about everything. From information about the postures, the alignment about the postures, to more traditional platitudes…. Things like: Savasana is the hardest pose. What does that even mean?
William: Well you know, my Twitter account is mostly monitoring the platitudes. It’s so herd-like and reflective.
Vanessa: But I think that there’s sort of a tide-turning. When Recovering Yogi first started, basically people hated us. I think that people saw it as threatening the good that they found in yoga.
William: I feel that turning happening with me on the basis of the invites that I’m getting. I’m going to be speaking to a Yoga Journal conference.
Vanessa: And you seem to have a pretty decent sense of humor about it too.
William: Well I try! I mean, you have to in this situation right? You do this thing thinking, “Look at my little baby, it’s so pretty and it’s really going to help you!” and then people are like “Get me a knife!”