The Marriage of Yoga and Modern Medicine...Ugh!

New York Times science writer, WIlliam Broad, is making the rounds to speak about his book, The Science of Yoga.1   In his interview with NPR host of "Fresh Air", Terry Gross,  he suggested that because science is beginning to understand the physiological responses to the practice of yoga, that we begin to train doctors of yoga, "people who are trained to uniformed standards, people who understand the science and what these yoga positions are really doing, tweaking our own pharmaceutical complex to produce the hormones that you need and want."

Science is Finally Showing Yoga's Benefits

What I love about Broad's idea of 'yoga doctors' is that science is starting to be able to describe why we feel so good when we do yoga.  Science has advanced to the point of being able to detect neurotransmitters, like GABA, that are evoked while we transition from upward facing dog to downward facing dog.  For many of us who were raised on science, the physical matter--rather than the metaphysical ethers--makes the benefits of yoga somehow more real and, thus, more accessible.  And for many of us who don't give a hoot what science has to say about it-- but do it anyway because it just feels good--we can, now stand justified with smug grins on our faces.

Either way, I've always been attracted to the notion that we could use yoga to heal and transform illness and injury.  As a teacher, I've seen and had the privilege of supporting hundreds of people heal old back injuries, broken hearts, and asthma.  I have a hard time with the notion, though, of yoga being medically standardized.  I also have a hard time believing that the yoga postures along with the various techniques of observation can be used in isolation to and from a yogic worldview.

I am not suggesting that for yoga to be effective that patients subscribe to notions like karma and reincarnation.  However, I do sense that the essence of yoga is a transmission not just of techniques and information, but of something much more subtle and rich.   Unfortunately, science cannot quantify this transmission.  My teacher didn't simply teach me postures.  He taught me a way of being that would give me access to the sacred.  And, unfortunately, science, as powerful as it is, cannot quantify the effects of this type of interaction.  It cannot be conveyed in books, lectures,  or exams.

The Marriage of Yoga and Modern Medicine

While I applaud Broad's idea, I am afraid that the marriage of yoga with science might be translated mechanistically.  So, for example, if you were diagnosed with Crohn's disease, your 'yoga doctor' might look in her Merck Manual of Yoga and see that the research shows that 10-20 breaths in shoulder stand along with seated victorious breathing for 10 minutes has a cure rate of 30%.  She would prescribe it and then asks you to come back in three weeks.  But that absolutely ignores the true healing that takes place when we practice yoga.

One of the main benefits of practice is going to a yoga class.  In this day and age, we are so isolated from one another, that so much of what shows up as illness is really the stress of loneliness.  So part of the cure of yoga is being connected to others: chanting the same chant, moving with each other, and seeing one another on a day-in-day-out basis.  Yoga is not just a series of techniques.  It's community, as well.  Finally, yoga is also about the relationship of a teacher to a student.  As I said above, the benefits of that relationship cannot be quantified by science.

So while I do applaud the idea of yoga doctors, I would rather call them yoga therapist or yoga healers.  I think the latter terms imply an even balance of both the hard and soft sciences, and when it comes to yoga, we're not simply working with hormones, neurotransmitters, and blood production, we're working with an individual who is physical, emotional, and spiritual.  She's also a member of a community, of society, and of the universe, as a whole.  The problem with modern medicine is that it tends to reduce us into body systems and body parts.  And, in a way, I think that this reductivism is really the source of much of the loneliness, malaise, and dis-ease that lures many of us to yoga classes in the first place.  If yoga is to make more forays into hospital settings, we need to think long and hard weather we want it to replicate the modern medical system or whether we want it to retain its essence.

1Excerpts from the book were published in the New York Times under the title, "How Yoga Can Wreck You" and got all sorts of controversy.  One of my favorite responses comes from my friend, Eddie Stern, under the title "How the New York Times Can Wreck Yoga."