The Yoga Delusion

Written by October 31, 2011 3:18 pm 52 comments

Bihar School of Yoga situated at Monghyr ( now Munger ) in Bihar is a world class institution for training Hatayoga teachers & trainers. It so happens that Mysore is ranked at no.2 as a destination for all those foreigners who would like to learn something exotic and after going back to their respective countries, teach it to others for a fee. These people like to claim that they have learnt the science of Yoga straight from the horse’s mouth. At any point of time you will see 250 to 300 white-skinned people in Mysore who are here to learn the secrets of Hatayoga.

Yoga in my nuclear family

Prema, my wife, has been doing Pranayama for 15 years and she finds it useful in relaxing and overcoming anxiety. That’s ok by me. But when Prema said she would like to take up yoga asanas as a stand-alone exercise I became slightly panicky.

Prema (P) : There is a lady in the Women’s club who teaches Yoga to a lot of women. I would like to join that class.

Myself ( M) : Don’t do that for heaven’s sake. Walking is more useful than tying yourself up into knots like a pretzel and making constipated faces.

P : No, I will do Yogasans in the mornings and Walking in the evenings.

M : It invariably rains in the evening in Mysore and then you will say like all the womenfolk around here that you have done yoga, so it wouldn’t matter if you skip walking….. A lot of nervous energy is expended in doing those asanas. So you might not be left with any energy or motivation to do walking in the evenings.

 P : But I am told that it is a complete exercise and that it prevents all diseases including cancer !

M : Since it was invented 5000 years ago in India, most of the gullible Indians have a conviction that old is gold and their sheer patriotism and loyalty to their ancestors like Patanjali makes then feel that it is a panacea.  Arousing the Kundalini shakthi  and the various chakras are all Bullsh * t.  Moreover Yoga asanas done as a stand-alone exercise can be dangerous too.

P :  How is that ?

M :  When  we engage in any activity like lifting, pushing, punching, squeezing, dancing or moving like in walking or jogging, we contract our muscles. Say a muscle fibre is 5″ long ( It is much more long in the quadriceps, hamstrings or trapezius) . When we do exercise it contracts to, say 4.8″. When in the cooling down phase we do stretching, the muscle fibre comes back to 5″, the optimal size which keeps it healthy, elastic and live. So if we use Yoga for stretching just after aerobic walking or jogging or swimming or biking, it is ok. But remember that Yoga is not the only way to do this. There are Greek calisthenics, Tai chi chuan, and the stretching exercises taught by physiotherapists and sports medicine doctors, which is much more scientific than Yoga.

P : Why can’t Yoga be used as a stand-alone exercise ?

M : Let us again take the hypothetical example of the muscle fibre which is 5″ long. You have not done any aerobics. So it stays at 5”.  If now you engage in asanas, the fibre will elongate to 5.2″. Over a period of time, continued performance of stand-alone Yogasans will stretch the muscle fibre to  5.3″ or even 5.4″. There might be micro-tears in the fibre and the fibre loses its elasticity.  It is now unhealthy. It cannot perform tasks with the same efficiency, since the fibre cannot regain the healthy 5″ length. You will have less strength, less endurance though you will have the flexibility of an octopus.

Yoga delusion in action at Rishikesh. Source, wikimedia commons.

P : What about their claim that it can cure all diseases ?

M : Diseases can be prevented and even cured only through Cardio-vascular aerobic exercises like Jogging, Brisk Walking, swimming or biking and strength building exercises. This has been adequately proved in medical journals.

Benefits of Aerobic Exercises

It improves the cardiac function and our VO2 max lung capacity by decreasing LDL cholesterol and Increasing HDL cholesterol,  by increasing Insulin-sensitivity. Remember that Type 2 adult onset diabetes is caused by Insulin-resistance and not by Insulin-deficiency. It also decreases our Blood pressure and body fat. But most importantly, aerobic exercise builds collateral circulation in our coronary arteries. Even if your main arteries are blocked 40 to 50%, you can still survive because aerobic exercise builds natural bypass capillaries to nourish the heart muscle beyond the narrowed artery.

Benefits of Strengthening Exercises

When we improve the tone & strength of our upper body muscles, we automatically raise our BMR (Basal metabolic rate). This is because body fat in the sub-cutaneous adipose tissues or in the visceral region (Omentum fat) is a dead tissue whereas muscle is a live tissue with arteries, capillaries, veins in it and so even when you are idle you will be expending calories. So an increased BMR helps us to reduce our body fat even when we are sitting or sleeping.

When we exercise, the muscles contract, they pull the joints via the tendons. When the bones are under tensile stress like this, they react to that by creating more bone cells. This increases the BMD (bone mineral density) which strengthens the bones and prevents Osteoporosis and fractures on falling or injury.

In Yoga asanas, the cardio-vascular benefit is only about 10 % and strength building effect is only 10 % ( Unless you can do all those Herculean asanas which Baba Ramdev does on TV shows, in his camps, which only he can do, the megalomaniac exhibitionist that he is ! ) and the Stretching effect is 80%.  So while Yoga may benefit some sedentary females to some extent, since any activity is better than sleeping, it is hardly an ideal exercise and is dangerous as a stand-alone.

P : What about Pranayama ?

M : It is good in principle. It increases the VO2 max in our lungs, i.e., it maximises the oxygen uptake in our lungs. More of the haemoglobin molecules attached to our RBCs will be oxygenated. But the sad thing is, unless there is a rapid movement of the blood through our blood pipes, which are 1600 kms long ( arteries, arterioles, capillaries, veins & venules), this oxygenated blood cannot reach all the trillions of cells in our bodies. So pranayama by itself cannot give us a lot of benefit. Whereas if you do Jogging, brisk walking, swimming or biking you increase your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate and the oxygenated blood reaches most of the trillion cells in our body.

P :  When is Pranayama useful ?

M :  When you are anxious like when you are about to face an exam or interview or you are about to give a public lecture on a topic and you are not thoroughly prepared for clarifying the doubts of the audience, then perhaps a bit of Pranayama or doing other kinds of deep abdominal breathing might help to calm you down.

P : Are you saying that Yoga asanas & Pranayama are unscientific ?

M : Yes, unless you start at the age of 8-10 years. Then the muscles, tendons, ligaments and the spine become flexible and continued practice of Yoga thereafter can maintain this mobility of the joints and flexibility of the spine & muscles. But people take up Yoga at the age of 50 + when they suffer from Osteo-arthritis, Rheumatoid-arthritis, Lumbago, Bursitis or Spondylosis .

In such cases it may make people slightly more mobile after taking up Yoga than before, since any activity is better than no activity. But the Pranayama & Meditation aspects of Hata Yoga do give you stress relief and relaxes you. 

However for youngsters, some of the Hata-Yoga asanas are iatrogenic, causing problems more than building health. When you sit down on the floor with one leg folded, the other stretched forward with knee locked and you try to touch your toes, you sprain your soas muscles in your lower back. This is unscientific. The knee should never be locked. There are many such useless postures in Yoga.

P : Then how come Americans, English and the Europeans have taken up Yoga for physical fitness ? Are they all morons ?

M : Mostly because of Evangelical Yoga teachers, the thrill of learning something exotic, because it is the in-thing or fashionable thing to do and it is being recommended by people in limelight like Hollywood actors. And these Yoga teachers are smiling. Smiling all the way to their bank accounts.

Yog Asans encapsulated

Yog asans or other forms of stretching are comparatively useless as warm ups or stand-alones, but somewhat okay as cool downs. The rest is all hype.

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This post was written by:

- who has written 6 posts on Nirmukta.

He is a Management Trainer & consultant. Has degrees in Engineering & Management. He is a Secular Humanist. Born 1938.

52 Comments

  • Prof Kumar, thank you ever so much for this article. I used to practice yoga in my younger days due to parental pressure but was always suspicious of it because the claimed benefits did not sound convincing based on the postures I was made to indulge in. Also the physique of the yoga teachers and students did not generate much inspiration (unlike gym instructors!)! I gave it up when I was able to rebel against my parents. And ever since I have been searching for scientific information on yoga. This is the first place (I mean your article) I have accidentally discovered where I have got some information that I have been searching for so many years. Please can you cite some of the articles from peer reviewed medical journals that debunk the yoga myth and any other reputed articles on this ancient Indian hoax? Many thanks.

    • Satish Chandra

      This article may interest you.

    • Prof. V.N.K.Kumar

      In addition to the beautiful article by Dr. Srinivas Kakkilaya, you may like to read a recent book “The Science of Yoga” written by a long time Yoga practitioner William J. Broad (Simon & Schuster) Feb 2012, wherein he deals with the positives & negatives of Hata Yoga.

  • Well, I think this is a very one-sided argument and one which apparently which takes into account only biology of a person, although i don’t believe in the muscle flexing crap, i know that pranayama is very useful as a state changer( “State” as in mental state) considering the fact that ur mind and ur body are interconnected,,,use of pranayama is a stress buster and can be useful to reach altered states of conciousness,,now these are things which one knows by experience and not by use of your “neocortex”.

  • In my junior college yoga is a compulsory subject for first-year students; we even have a yoga textbook, though nobody uses it. Replacing physical education with yoga sucks. Too nationalistic… :/

    • Captain Mandrake

      And totally useless. Replace yoga with a run around the campus. You will feel much better.

      • There’s a yoga theory exam too. Even though the subject is not considered important by anyone in the college, I wonder why do students even need to ‘study’ yoga – types of yoga, its history, etc. – and write the theory exam… It’d have been different if the subject was Indian history, but it isn’t. Also, the teacher said something about yoga being about connecting atma with parmatma — which is spirituality, not science.
        I wonder why my college even has that subject. Maybe the education board made it compulsory.

        • Captain Mandrake

          Check out how to get it out of curriculum. All colleges and universities typically have means to drop courses (at least make it an elective) if there is not enough interest.

  • Captain Mandrake

    Here is a nice video of a lecture on stretching. It busts several myths about stretching.

    http://www.channels.com/episodes/show/7586505/Doug-Richards-Best-Lecturer-Finalist-on-Stretching-The-Truth

    • Thank you for the link on the Science of Stretching. It was indeed informative.

    • Great video – really informative. Raises questions that every yoga and fitness instructor should ask themselves when designing programmes.

  • I would not throw the baby out with the bath water. I conduct research in immunology and arthritis and here is my experience. The main positive of yoga is breathing and relaxation. Stress is a major killer in the modern world. While yoga is not essential as say food or water, it is not harmful as described here. Systematic slow practice from a young age as you point out is the way. (e.g. gymnasts start young). Some asanas are not recommended, but others are quite useful. I would not discard them just because they are old. On the contrary, they have stood the test of time. On the other hand some modern strength training like weight lifting has serious consequences as well. Everything has risks and benefits (and dosage) if you will. Jogging for example, is jarring on the knees and joints as you age. And excess aerobic workouts reach a limit as well. In fact, for obesity or Type 2 diabetes diet is more important. For people who cannot walk/jog (disease or injury) yoga provides an alternative form of exercise and strength training for the upper body. Post stroke rehabilitation is another area where simpler yoga exercises come into play.

    I have personally expunged the religious aspects and do think that the wilder claims (like say cancer cure/prevention) have to be dismissed for lack of evidence.

    S

    NY. USA

  • I’m a yoga teacher and fitness instructor working in Northern Ireland. I agree that some Western yoga teachers make pretentious, unscientific and sometimes dangerous claims. I also feel that cardio-vascular and resistance training are overlooked in some forms of yoga.
    Working in gyms however, I have noticed that many people exercise with weights and cardio without stretching sufficiently. A number of body builders, for example, have seriously restricted ranges of movement. I have been privileged to introduce some of these people to yoga – they have had observable improvements in flexibility, appearance, reduced injury and overall health.
    I was never good at sports as a schoolboy, being one of the boys left standing on the wall when football teams were picked. I wish I had been introduced to yoga at school.

    • Captain Mandrake

      *I was never good at sports as a schoolboy, being one of the boys left standing on the wall when football teams were picked. I wish I had been introduced to yoga at school.*

      You do not have to be good at sports like soccer to go for a run. I know several people who were never picked for soccer teams in school but as grown up adults run 20-30 miles a week.

      Wouldn’t that be better than yoga?

    • I agree. But there are other methods too like Pilates, Tai chi chuan and the stretching routines prescribed by Physiotherapists which stretch the contracted muscles and build the flexibility & mobility of the joints & spine. Without chakras & kundalini and the spititual aspects, yoga as a stretching routine is ok by me, not as a stand-alone but post-cardio/weights.

      • I find running rather stressful on the knee and hip joints. I prefer cycling and swimming, although I have helped a lot of runners to stretch.

        A lot of yoga teachers, myself included, do not incorporate any reference to chakras, kundalini etc into our classes. If students want, or enjoy, meditations on these topics, there are other teachers who will oblige.

        The psychological states of awareness, concentration, contentment etc that optimise athletic performance are sometimes, perhaps wrongly, described as ‘Spirituality’: they do not require any belief in the supernatural.

        I agree that some kinds of yoga are best used as a post weights/cardio complement. The Iyengar system, using props and precise alignment is, in my view ideal for serious athletes and sportsmen/women looking to increase/maintain flexibility. The Ashtanga system (or the dynamic form of yoga commonly referred to as Ashtanga in the west) incorporates a lot of cardio-vascular and weight bearing exercise and as such may fulfil fitness needs without any need for other forms of exercise.

  • Is anyone aware of how Tennis represents a means for becoming enlightened, integrating the mind/body/spirit, for becoming holistically healthy… ?
    If not, how could you be aware of how Yoga provides these means?

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