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The Science of Pet Peeves: Yoga's Latest War of Words

The yoga world's in a minor uproar -- again. And once more, it's training its fire onPulitzer Prize-winning science journalist William Broad.
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MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 08:  Guests attend AD Oasis Hosts Clarisonic 'Rise, Shine & Be Well' Yoga, Beauty, Breakfast at The Raleigh on December 8, 2012 in Miami Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for Architectural Digest)
MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 08: Guests attend AD Oasis Hosts Clarisonic 'Rise, Shine & Be Well' Yoga, Beauty, Breakfast at The Raleigh on December 8, 2012 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for Architectural Digest)

The yoga world's in a minor uproar -- again. And once more, it's training its fire on New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist William Broad. The proximate cause is the release of the paperback version of Broad's controversial book, The Science of Yoga, which now includes an extended defense of his thesis that yoga -- as practiced in the West, at least -- can cause life-threatening injuries, including heart attacks and strokes, and that less severe injuries -- from neck and knee sprains to ligament damage -- are still vastly under-reported.

But it may be publication of a separate Times article by Broad, coinciding with the paperback's release, that really has some yoga stretch-panties in a wad. In that article, "Wounded Warrior Pose," published last December, Broad had the temerity to suggest that yoga's growing "feminization" -- 82 percent of practitioners are women up from 72 percent just four years ago -- could well be due to the fact that men are significantly more likely to get injured in yoga class than their female counterparts are. Men, Broad suggests, may well be opting out of yoga, simply to protect their bodies.

As polemical, or unfounded, as that argument might sound, it's amazing that it's raised such hackles. After all, most sensible yogis, once they actually read the hardcover version of The Science of Yoga, ended up embracing the book, realizing that it contained immensely valuable information on the history of the ancient Hindu mind-body discipline, and actually was highly supportive of the yoga movement's claims to offer a unique healing modality. Broad, they realized, simply wanted yoga to accept its faults and imperfections, especially when transposed to the West, and not oversell its goods by pretending that it's always as "safe as Mother's milk," as a prominent Hindu sage once claimed, despite recurring and substantial evidence to the contrary.

But the fear among some yogis that Broad is still out to "get" yoga with exaggerated -- and now gender-inflected -- war stories about statistically rare injuries has lingered, apparently. And it's true: in his new Afterword, Broad sounds anything but chastened by the original controversy. Indeed, he strongly suggests that not only was he right all along, but that the injury threat is even more severe than he once thought.

Broad does rely heavily -- too heavily, perhaps -- on mere extrapolations from annual injury statistics based on hospital emergency room visits compiled by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. That's unfortunate, because his original argument wasn't based on statistics alone, but on what yoga teachers and other industry specialists have said in the past about the incidence of injuries and their causes. As I wrote previously, Broad cited some pretty shocking surveys done in recent years, in which veteran yogis not only acknowledged the injury threat but admitted that the industry's own poorly-trained and inexperienced yoga teachers were placing many students at risk.

In his Afterword, Broad doesn't recite those surveys. Instead, he sifts through new data, which shows that his earlier estimates, if anything, underestimated the problem substantially (by a factor of 100 or more, perhaps). He also cites numerous letters he's received from long-time yogis and from students who read the hardcover version of the book and either supported his findings with their own anecdotes or simply applauded the balance they felt he was bringing to what has been, heretofore, a largely uncritical reception of yoga in American pop culture and the media.

But if Broad thought the controversy was over, he's clearly miscalculated. Dr.Timothy McCall, an internist and self-described yoga therapist who has published several well-received books on the topic -- and whom Broad cited favorably in his book -- has dismissed the Times author's latest writings, saying they confirm that Broad is, indeed, a "sensationalist." McCall -- whose opinions carry as much weight in the insular world of yoga as disgraced American guru John Friend's once did -- says it's clear now that Broad is more interested in drawing attention to himself and in peddling his book than he is in informing the public fairly about the actual risks and rewards of yoga. McCall's written about injuries in yoga, too, but says, without citing any evidence of his own, that the issue comes down to how well students prepare their bodies for yoga and how mindfully they practice.

In other words, if there's a problem with injuries, it's certainly not the yoga industry or its agents -- its teachers -- that are to blame. It's the consumer.

That's all very convenient, of course, and it's the kind of argument that medical apologists for numerous industries far more health-damaging than yoga typically make. And it should be pointed out that McCall is the "medical editor" for Yoga Journal, the leading yoga business trade publication, whose glossy, sexualized, and -- to many yogis -- racially insensitive advertising and highly commercialized upscale portrait of yoga has helped boost the industry's gross sales revenues from a mere $3.1 billion annually in 2004 to a whopping $10.3 billion in 2012. You don't get to become the medical editor of a major trade publication if you're an industry critic, mind you. Indeed, your entire reason for being is to vouch for the industry that's hired you, and when needed, to shoot down or neutralize industry critics -- much like, it would seem, McCall is doing in the case of Broad.

And it's not just McCall. Jennilyn Carson, who edits Yoga Dork and has her own cozy relationship with Yoga Journal, has taken up the same cudgel. Carson is well-known for attacking high-profile male yogis like Friend and multi-millionaire Bikram Choudury while serving up puff pieces for her favorite female yoga pop stars, women like Sadie Nardini and Elena Brower, who are largely cut from the same cloth, just nowhere near as successful. She recently highlighted McCall's attack on Broad, echoing his concerns and featuring commentaries from other self-styled experts in the yoga industry, nearly all of whom disparaged Broad's work.

Significantly, though, not everyone seems to be biting. One of Carlson's leading yoga blog competitors, Elephant Journal, edited, it might be noted by a man (self-styled Buddhist bon vivant Waylon Lewis), just published a long excerpt from Broad's Afterword, without critical commentary. And even many long-time Yoga Dork readers have risen to Broad's defense, wondering why so many leading yoga voices insist on trying to dismiss him, rather than welcoming his insights and support, along with his criticism, and making some badly-needed reforms.

What's it all mean? For one thing, that the stakes in this highly profitable but still fledgling industry are still quite high -- high enough for some of its leading thought-police and hall monitors to try to ride herd on those pesky doubters like Broad who, it's feared, might scare away new consumers with their modest but persistent caveats. And second, that men, especially men with the power to persuade, are, for some yoga women at least, the "enemy." And they may well be right. They're the enemy of those that think the only "good" science is one that sells -- and the only "good" yogis, the ones that sell it.