Is yoga not all it’s cracked up to be?

You may have seen this piece making the rounds. Given our penchant for checking out studies that demonstrate the benefits — health, stress-reduction, improved student outcomes — it seems fair to point out the contrary.

This comes via Slate. It suggests that Americans may have moved from wanting to believe prayer can be an answer to what ails us to wanting the same of yoga. And all those scientific studies may have some problems:

Fifteen years ago, a handful of poorly constructed, clearly biased studies purported to show that prayer was a legitimate medical tool. Americans fell for it, and we still haven’t learned our lesson. It’s hard to resist something we want to believe, especially when it comes in a science-shaped box. Today, people want to believe that yoga will solve their problems. More than 200 studies were published about the health benefits of yoga last year.


The yoga studies, however, contain myriad methodological problems, some of which are similar to those that plagued prayer research. First, what is yoga? That’s not a zen koan, but an honest question. In a real, practical sense, medical researchers have to agree on the elements essential to yoga practice before they can test it as a therapy. Is deep breathing or stretching the source of therapeutic benefit? Or maybe it’s simple exercise, which wouldn’t exactly be news. In addition, yoga, like prayer, can’t be dosed in milligrams. How much yoga do you need to do, and for how long, to achieve a benefit? There’s also significant individual variation at play. Some people breathe more deeply, hold poses for longer, and meditate “better” (I assume) than others. That’s going to muddy the statistics.


Doctors eventually realized—most of them, at least—that prayer didn’t fit well into a clinical trial. Yoga doesn’t, either. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do yoga. By all means, do yoga, pray, and eat lemons, if those things bring you contentment. Do yoga especially if it’s your preferred form of exercise—exercise is a health intervention supported by thousands of clinical trials. But recognize the “yoga as medicine” craze for what it is: an indicator of the zeitgeist, not a scientific discovery.

If those conclusions make you mad, perhaps you can do some mixed martial arts training and lash out at the world. After all, as Eddie Stern pointed out in one of his latest blog posts, yoga’s good enough for some of those warriors.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

One thought on “Is yoga not all it’s cracked up to be?”

  1. I actually agree with most of the Slate article. The vast majority of yoga research is a total waste of time. If the study is constructed like: “Can __________(fill in the style of yoga) help people with _____________(fill in the medical complaint)” what’s the point? We already know that intelligent exercise, stretching, relaxation and conscious breathing can help *everything.* What is the value in proving what we already know? And, to whom are we trying to prove it?

    The answer is simple. There are people in our yoga community who want to medicalize yoga, and are trying to make it fit into the impersonal, evidence-based, empirical, reductionist framework that has caused millions of our students and clients to flee mainstream healthcare in the first place. We have *nothing* to prove to the medical profession about the value of what we do. The general public has already voted on that with their feet and their dollars.

    We are not therapists. We are educators. If we want our services to be available to the general public, via medical referrals, we should simply make sure there are more doctors taking our classes, so they can see first-hand the value in what we have to offer. Let us do what we do best – forge positive relationships with people on a one-to-one basis. That is how the world will eventually change for the better.

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