The Good Liberal Fear of a Yoga Planet

By now, it should be clear that “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” William Broad’s broadside against yoga (sorry about that), is thin on facts and thick on rhetoric. The New York Times Magazine piece, excerpted from his forthcoming book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards (Simon & Schuster, 2012), is an un-fair-and-balanced attack on yoga as it is practiced today, and it has predictably brought about an avalanche of responses, largely from furious yoga practitioners whose responses exhibit little of the peace of shavasana.

The two questions I want to consider here are: 1) Whether the article is fair, and 2) What it says about the mainstream media’s approach to non-Western spirituality.

Let’s dispatch with the first as quickly as possible. Fourteen paragraphs are devoted to Glenn Black, a yoga teacher and physical therapist who explains How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, while zero paragraphs (not one!) are devoted to an opposing voice; someone, anyone from the yoga or medical communities who has a different point of view. Shockingly for a New York Times piece, Black is never challenged on his views by Broad or by anyone else.

Black’s own views are also distorted. If you read carefully, he argues that certain yoga postures are particularly problematic, that yoga is not for everyone, that pre-fab sequences are a mistake, and that it’s important not to be hyper-athletic about it. In a subsequent interview he has stated that for beginners, “the instruction is to be careful and listen to yourself.” And contrary to Broad’s misuse of the term ‘yoga,’ which he equates with moves on a mat, Black observes that “yoga is an art and a science, and if you take just one small aspect, you never get to the higher end of it.” These are opinions many yoga teachers would endorse. Yet they are packaged into a brute claim that yoga can “wreck your body” and lead to “blinding pain.”

The piece also marshals “a growing body of medical evidence” to support Black’s position that yoga can be dangerous. Yet what this evidence shows are the dangers of the abuse of yoga, rather than its regular practice. One injured party would sit in a single position “for hours a day, chanting for world peace,” while another hurt herself when she pushed too hard to show off for television. The article includes a handful of case studies, which, Broad admits, “may seem exceedingly rare.” But to make the point that they aren’t, he then notes that yoga-related emergency room visits rose from a total of 13 in 2000 to a staggering 46 in 2002 (no more recent numbers?) This at a time when, according to Broad’s own numbers, four million people were doing yoga. 

Broad offers no quantitative evidence to support Black’s claims, no opposing points of view, and seemingly no conceptual distinction between “yoga” and “pushing yourself too hard during yoga.” In terms of journalism, the article is a failure.

The more interesting question, then, is why the Times published it. Perhaps the clues are in the throwaway asides—like the snide comment about someone chanting for world peace; or a reference to the Omega Institute as a “New Age emporium,” as though it sells quack medicines and exotic curios; or casual insults, like: “from gurus to acolytes forever carrying their rolled-up mats…” These asides suggest that the Times is doing what it often does: hold up to ridicule any non-Western, non-rationalistic, non-neurotic spiritual practice. A whiff of eurocentrism here, a dash of condescension there, coupled with a handful of pseudo-scientific evidence, and—presto!—yoga is ridiculous.

I Love My Suffering

Of course, there is much to ridicule about contemporary yoga, with its spiritual materialism, ego-jock subcultures, and occasional idolatry of certain teachers and forms. But the excesses of some do not define the spirituality of all. And while Broad’s article mentions in passing that “yoga can lower your blood pressure, make chemicals that act as antidepressants, even improve your sex life,” these benefits are quickly discarded in favor of the cheaper thrill of poking fun at successful swamis and their gullible followers.

A few months ago, I met with a friend who is also a religion journalist. He described his disgust with “spirituality” in much the same terms, and in the same tone, of Broad’s slam against yoga. I readily agreed that the spiritual world was often confused, clichéd, and sentimental. But, I said, meditation, yoga, and other spiritual practices also work. They really do lessen suffering. If done properly, they really can make you happier. (My primary spiritual practice is that of meditation. While I’ve done yoga many times, I do not have a regular yoga practice.)

He replied, “I love my suffering. I can always rely on it. It’s always there, it’s honest, it’s real.”

What a bunch of self-serving B.S., I thought. How ironic to criticize spiritually-minded people for indulging themselves, when what’s really indulgent is to coddle the fear of anything that might disturb the status quo, might actually attack the neurosis and doubt that make a successful reporter tick. Don’t lose your edge, that’s the important part. Don’t ever give in to—dare I say it—opening your heart.

The presumed New York Times reader is similar, I think: basically secular, basically liberal, and basically intellectual. S/he probably drinks a lot of coffee, spends a good deal of money on food and clothing, and is, in essence, a good person. But anything New Agey or touchy-feely—in fact, anything more demanding than whining about neuroses on the couch of a ritzy psychotherapist—well, it just won’t do. Too weird, too wacky. Not for me.

This person has always feared yoga. Broad’s article may provide some rationalization for it, but it’s a fear borne of cowardice, and it’s just as small as the fears of a Santorum or a Bachmann. Like theirs, it seeks any justification for its judgment. Like theirs, it is fundamentally an insecurity about the self and its values, which is why it needs to be continually reinforced. And like theirs, it is a reflex of the wounded ego.

I know, because I had it too. On my first few meditation retreats, I couldn’t believe that I, a Yale-Law-educated, future captain of industry and/or government, was spending my time with these fuzzy-headed, New Age crystal-gazers. At least until some showed themselves to be emotionally adept and spiritually perceptive, and until I saw my own judgments as coming from fear and insecurity. It pained me to realize it, but these “weirdos” were more fully human than I was.

Naturally, it’s safer to stay within the confines of one’s self-constructed neurotic cage, especially when the cage is also lined with basically good, liberal impulses and basically sound, smart skepticism. But all that cushy lining doesn’t disguise what the cage is really made of: fear. Behind all the self-righteous contempt and all the over-compensating arrogance lies an insecurity that’s so obvious, it’s almost painful.