Yoga: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Health Tips / Yoga: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

In the 1990s, when it dawned on the medical profession that their patients were flocking in droves to alternative medicine, yoga classes were generally deemed acceptable to otherwise highly skeptical doctors. Especially compared to virtually anything else “alternative.” As someone personally in the thick of things, I observed the predictable rancor and opposition to chiropractic, herbs, acupuncture, and Reiki. I was surprised by the hostility to meditation (one physician critic called it “satanic”), nutritional counseling (by anyone other than a hospital’s registered dietician), and massage in general (“Are you planning to turn our hospital into a massage parlor?”).

So when research money began to materialize to determine if yoga was actually good for anything, nobody objected to conducting studies on its health benefits. People either improved with yoga or they didn’t.

When you track the inroads of yoga into conventional medicine, a lot of credit goes to Deepak Chopra, MD. An internist like me, he was at the forefront of teaching yoga to both the general public and physicians via lectures, books, and DVDs. Before anyone knew a mudra from a bandha, a down dog from a flying crow, Deepak’s bullet-point slides at meetings of the American Holistic Medical Association showed lists of illnesses proven, by research coming out of India, to have benefitted by yoga.

The Good

The health benefits of yoga practice seem obvious now, but in the 1990s we knew much less about the relationship between stress and illness. John E. Sarno, MD, a New York spine surgeon, wrote the highly influential Healing Back Pain: The Mind Body Connection in 1991, declaring that most back pain had its origins in stress and that most spine surgery was utterly unnecessary. Over time, one study after another appeared in medical journals linking stress to illness and confirmed that yoga did indeed help. Epidemiological data would reveal that regular yoga practice lowered heart disease risk, pulse rate, high blood pressure, and even cholesterol.

Since no one in the 1990s really understood fibromyalgia (sadly, a number not dramatically improved two decades later), it took some time for yoga to be added to the list of useful therapies for it. The first documented study tracking a group of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue patients appeared in the medical journal Pain in 2010, and the results were very positive. My own book Healing Fibromyalgia encourages regular yoga practice as a safe, non-drug means of reducing pain.

Here at WholeHealth Chicago, our certified yoga instructor Renee Zambo conducts group classes and private sessions in Restorative Yoga, designed specifically for those with fibromyalgia, fatigue, or anyone suffering a chronic pain disorder.

Recently, the medical journal Frontiers in Psychiatry published research from Duke University Medical School summarizing 16 controlled studies that showed yoga is very beneficial for depression, generalized anxiety with panic attacks, attention deficit disorder, chronic insomnia, and even eating disorders. Yoga practice actually increases the same neurotransmitters as antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and the stimulants used in ADD.

For any of you coping with depression, anxiety, insomnia, and so forth, Renee is adding a second yoga class specifically addressing these issues. She can also schedule individual Restorative Yoga sessions tailored to you.

The Bad

A highly controversial New York Times article on yoga appeared last year, written by science reporter William J. Broad, author of the book The Science of Yoga. His meticulous research uncovered that, all-in-all, yoga was not advisable for men unless–and this is a big unless–the classes were geared especially for the male body. Broad discovered that men’s yoga injuries often went unreported and could be quite severe (rotator cuff tears, chronic back sprains, even stroke). More importantly, yoga injuries occurred most frequently in men.

When the novelty of repeated yoga injuries started wearing thin, my associate Paul Rubin, DC, switched to t’ai chi(and became a certified instructor to boot). Another associate, Cliff Maurer, DC, clomped sadly to work one morning with a torn rotator cuff, explaining “I was trying to keep up with the instructor…”

The problem for men has several sources. First, men are simply not as flexible as women, especially in areas challenged by yoga–the pelvis, hips, and spine. Second, men in general really don’t listen to their bodies. Experiencing pain, they often clam up and “work through it” rather than slow down. And third, apparently poisoned by their testosterone, men are competitive everywhere, whether in sports, on sales teams, in courtrooms, or at yoga class. While a woman in a yoga class folds into her own private meditative bliss, men seem to be always glancing around, checking the posture of the people next to them and forcing their bodies to keep up. Not exactly what Deepak Chopra had in mind.

The Ugly

As much benefit as I’ve seen yoga confer on my women patients, I personally can’t stand it. I’ve taken about six classes in my life, five with very pleasant instructors, and each ended with some discomfort, like a wrenched shoulder or pulled lower back. So if you take pain and combine it with some nausea-inducing positional vertigo, you realize yoga isn’t right for all people. Also, I have just enough ADD so that anything with meditation is out. When your brain is like a TV set with lots of channels going at once, your incessantly chattering mind interrupts the slow peace of a yoga class: “Isthisoveryet?; almostover; grocerylistgrocerylist; what’sforsupper; whydoIfeelnauseated? doyouthinkanybodyheardmefart?”

Sorry, but just give me an elliptical machine and an audio book.

My sixth class ended yoga forever. This was at my health club, run by a nearby university, which meant the large class was filled with 18-to-25-year-old women. As I mentioned in last week’s health tip on exercise, I’d owned a couple of (unintentionally not-for-profit) aerobic fitness centers, and exercising with women never fazed me. As a man, you discover quickly that once you hit a certain age, to young women you become a non-person, comfortably blending into the landscape. It’s quite peaceful, actually.

So on this day the unsmiling instructor arrived, clearly an older university faculty member, and began moving through a series of impossible poses. She obviously considered herself a yogic force to be reckoned with. I thought she was a show-off. Tucked unobtrusively in the back of her class, I struggled along, wondering why I’d signed up for eight sessions of this misery. All of a sudden the silence was broken, the instructor’s voice echoing across the room. “Sir…sir…!” I knew immediately who this was for. “Sir…YOU ARE DOING THAT POSE WRONG. YOUR LEFT THIGH IS NOT CORRECT.”

The quiet spell of the class broken, suddenly I, an otherwise unobtrusive grey eminence, materialized to everyone. All eyes focused on my left thigh.

I grabbed my mat, rose, and huffed out, turning to her saying, “I am SO…SO…SO… out of here…”

But this is me. Not you.

For you: if you’re troubled by fibromyalgia, chronic pain, fatigue, depression, anxiety, insomnia, ADD (don’t let my experience dissuade you), stress, or an eating disorder—consider signing up for a session of Restorative Yoga with Renee. I promise she won’t yell at you.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD