Stars do it. Sports do it. Judges in the highest courts do it. Let's do
it: that yoga thing. A path to enlightenment that winds back 5,000
years in its native India, yoga has suddenly become so hot, so cool, so
very this minute.
It's the exercise cum meditation for the new
millennium, one that doesn't so much pump you up as bliss you out. Yoga
now straddles the continent — from Hollywood, where $20
million-a-picture actors queue for a session with their guru du jour,
to Washington, where, in the gym of the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra
Day O'Connor and 15 others faithfully take their class each Tuesday
Everywhere else, Americans rush from their high-pressure jobs
and tune in to the authoritatively mellow voice of an instructor,
gently urging them to solder a union (the literal translation of the
Sanskrit word yoga) between mind and body. These Type A strivers want
to become Type B seekers, to lose their blues in an asana (pose), to
graduate from distress to de-stress.
Fifteen million Americans include
some form of yoga in their fitness regimen — twice as many as did five
years ago; 75% of all U.S. health clubs offer yoga classes. Many in
those classes are looking not inward but behind. As supermodel Christy
Turlington, a serious practitioner, says, "Some of my friends simply
want to have a yoga butt." But others come to the discipline in hopes
of restoring their troubled bodies. Yoga makes me feel better, they
say. Maybe it can cure what ails me.
Oprah Winfrey, arbiter of moral and literary betterment for
millions of American women, devoted a whole show to the benefits of
yoga earlier this month, with guest appearances by Turlington and
stud-muffin guru Rodney Yee.
Testimonials from everyday yogis and
yoginis clogged the hour: I lost weight; I quit smoking; I conquered my
fear of flying; I can sleep again; it saved my marriage; it improved my
daughter's grades and attitude. "We are more centered as a team,"
declared the El Monte Firefighters of Los Altos Hills, Calif.
Sounds great. Namaste, as your instructor says at the end of a session:
the divine in me bows to the divine in you. But let's up the ante a
bit. Is yoga more than the power of positive breathing? Can it, say,
cure cancer? Fend off heart attacks? Rejuvenate post-menopausal women?
Just as important for yoga's application by mainstream doctors, can its
presumed benefits be measured by conventional medical standards? Is
yoga, in other words, a science?
By even asking the question, we provoke a clash of two powerful
cultures, two very different ways of looking at the world. The Indian
tradition develops metaphors and ways of describing the body (life
forces, energy centers) as it is experienced, from the inside out.
Western tradition looks at the body from the outside in, peeling it
back one layer at a time, believing only what it can see, measure and
prove in randomized, double-blind tests. The East treats the person;
the West treats the disease. "Our system of medicine is very
fragmented," says Dr. Carrie Demers, who runs the Center for Health and
Healing at the Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and
Philosophy of the USA in Honesdale, Pa. "We send you to different
specialists to look at different parts of you. Yoga is more holistic;
it's interested in the integration of body, breath and mind."
The few controlled studies that have been done offer cause for hope. A
1990 study of patients who had coronary heart disease indicated that a
regimen of aerobic exercise and stress reduction, including yoga,
combined with a low-fat vegetarian diet, stabilized and in some cases
reversed arterial blockage. The author Dr. Dean Ornish is in the midst
of a study involving men with prostate cancer. Can diet, yoga and
meditation affect the progress of this disease? So far, Ornish will say
only that the data are encouraging.
To the skeptic, all evidence is anecdotal. But some anecdotes
are more than encouraging; they are inspiring. Consider Sue Cohen, 54,
an accountant, breast-cancer survivor and five-year yoga student at the
Unity Woods studio in Bethesda, Md. "After my cancer surgery," Cohen
says, "I thought I might never lift my arm again. Then here I am one
day, standing on my head, leaning most of my 125-lb. body weight on
that arm I thought I'd never be able to use again.
surgery and some medications can rob you of mental acuity, but yoga
helps compensate for the loss. It impels you to do things you never
thought you were capable of doing."
A series of exercises as old as the Sphinx could prove to be
the medical miracle of tomorrow — or just wishful thinking from the
millions who have embraced yoga in a bit more than a generation.
Yoga was little known in the U.S. — perhaps only as an enthusiasm of
Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other icons of the Beat Generation —
when the Beatles and Mia Farrow journeyed to India to sit at the feet
of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968. Since then, yoga has endured more
evolutions of popular consciousness than a morphing movie monster.
First it signaled spiritual cleansing and rebirth, a nontoxic way to
get high. Then it was seen as a kind of preventive medicine that helped
manage and reduce stress. "The third wave was the fitness wave," says
Richard Faulds, president of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in
Lenox, Mass. "And that's about strength and flexibility and endurance."
At each stage, the most persuasive advocates were movie idols and rock
stars — salesmen, by example, of countless beguiling or corrosive
fashions. If they could make cocaine and tattoos fashionable, perhaps
they could goad the masses toward physical and spiritual enlightenment.
Today yoga is practiced by so many stars with whom audiences are on a
first-name basis — Madonna, Julia, Meg, Ricky, Michelle, Gwyneth, Sting
— that it would be shorter work to list the actors who don't assume the
asana. (James Gandolfini? We're just guessing.)
David Duchovny practices Kundalini yoga; Julia Louis-Dreyfuss prefers
Ashtanga. Sabrina the Teenage Witch stars Melissa Joan Hart and Soleil
Moon Frye throw yoga parties. Jane Fonda cut out aerobics for it;
Angelina Jolie buffed up for Tomb Raider with it. The newly clean
Charlie Sheen used yoga and dieting to shed 30 lbs.
Add at least two
Sex in the City vamps, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kristin Davis. All
three Dixie Chicks. Sports stars from basketball legend Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar to Yankee pitcher Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez are
devotees. And speaking of athletes, who showed up the other day at
Turlington's lower Manhattan haunt, the Jivamukti Yoga Center? Monica
Where there's a yoga blitz, there must be yoga biz. To dress
for a class, you need only some old, loose-fitting clothes — and since
you perform barefoot, no fancy footwear. Yet Nike and J.Crew have
developed exercise apparel, as has Turlington. For those who prefer
stay-at-home yoga, the video-store racks groan with hot, moving tapes.
The Living Yoga series of instructional videos taught by Yee and
Patricia Walden occupies five of the top eight slots on Amazon's vhs
"Vogue and Self are putting out the message of
yoginis as buff and perfect," says Walden. "If you start doing yoga for
those reasons, fine. Most people get beyond that and see that it's
much, much more." By embodying the grace and strength of their system,
Yee and Walden are its most charismatic proselytizers — new luminaries
in the yoga firmament.
"Madonna found it first, and I'm following in the footsteps of
the stars," groans Minneapolis attorney Patricia Bloodgood. "But I
don't think you should reject something just because it's trendy."
Bloodgood had the bright idea to commandeer part of the lobby in the
office building where she works for a Monday-evening yoga class.
Yoginis can spend a weekend at (or devote their lives to) such retreats
as Kripalu, where each year 20,000 visitors take part in programs
ranging from "The Science of Pranayama and Bandha" to African-drum
workshops and singles weekends. In L.A. they can mingle with the
glamourati at Maha Yoga (where students bend to the strains of the
Beatles' Baby You're a Rich Man) or Golden Bridge (where celebrity moms
take prenatal yoga classes).
Yoga is where you find it and how you want it, from Big Time to small
town. In the Texas town of Odessa, Therese Archer's Body & Soul
Center for Well-Being has 15 dedicated students, including an
18-wheeler diesel mechanic who drives 50 miles from Andrews, Texas, to
attend classes. "He is very West Texas," Archer says, "and I thought he
would flip when he saw what we did." Yet in eight months the mechanic
has sweated his way up from beginning to advanced work. At the 8 Count
exercise studio in Monticello, Ga., Suzanne McGinnis runs a "yoga
cardio class" that mixes postures with push-ups, all to the disco beat
of tunes like Leo Sayer's You Make Me Feel Like Dancin'.
classes go, this is not an arduous one, but the students don't know
that. They grunt and groan exultantly with each stretch, and are happy
to relax when McGinnis stops to check her teaching aids: torn-out
magazine pages and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Yoga.
So yoga can be fun or be made fun of; it can help you look
marvelous or feel marvelous. These aspects are not insignificant. They
demonstrate the roots yoga has dug into America's cultural soil — deep
enough for open-minded researchers to consider how it might bloom into
a therapy to treat or prevent disease.
The sensible practice of yoga does more than slap a Happy Face
on your cerebrum. It can also massage the lymph system, says Dr. Mehmet
Oz, a cardiac surgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.
Lymph is the body's dirty dishwater; a network of lymphatic vessels and
storage sacs crisscross over the entire body, in parallel with the
blood supply, carrying a fluid composed of infection-fighting white
blood cells and the waste products of cellular activity.
general activates the flow of lymph through the body, speeding up the
filtering process; but yoga in particular promotes the draining of the
lymph. Certain yoga poses stretch muscles that from animal studies are
known to stimulate the lymph system. Researchers have documented the
increased lymph flow when dogs' paws are stretched in a position
similar to the yoga "downward-facing dog."
Yoga relaxes you and, by relaxing, heals. At least that's the
theory. "The autonomic nervous system," explains Kripalu's Faulds, "is
divided into the sympathetic system, which is often identified with the
fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic, which is identified
with what's been called the Relaxation Response.
When you do yoga — the
deep breathing, the stretching, the movements that release muscle
tension, the relaxed focus on being present in your body — you initiate
a process that turns the fight-or-flight system off and the Relaxation
Response on. That has a dramatic effect on the body. The heartbeat
slows, respiration decreases, blood pressure decreases. The body seizes
this chance to turn on the healing mechanisms."
But the process isn't automatic. Especially in their first sessions,
yoga students may have trouble suppressing those competitive beta
waves. We want to better ourselves, but also to do better than others;
we force ourselves into the gym-rat race. "Genuine Hatha yoga is a
balance of trying and relaxing," says Dr. Timothy McCall, an internist
and the author of Examining Your Doctor: A Patient's Guide to Avoiding
Harmful Medical Care. "But a lot of gym yoga is about who can do this
really difficult contortion to display to everyone else in the class."
The workout warriors have to realize that yoga is more an Athenian
endeavor than a Spartan one. You don't win by punishing your body. You
convince it, seduce it, talk it down from the ledge of ambition and
anxiety. Yoga is not a struggle but a surrender.
It may take a while for the enlightenment bulb to switch on —
for you to get the truth of the yoga maxim that what you can do is what
you should do. But when it happens, it's an epiphany, like suddenly
knowing, in your bones and your dreams, the foreign language you've
been studying for months. In yoga, this is your mind-body language.
In daily life, that gym-rat pressure is even more intense: our
jobs, our marriages, our lives are at stake. Says McCall: "We know that
a high percentage of the maladies that people suffer from have at least
some component of stress in them, if they're not overtly caused by
stress. Stress causes a rise of blood pressure, the release of
catecholamines (neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate many of
the body's metabolic processes). We know that when catecholamine levels
are high, there tends to be more platelet aggregation, which makes a
heart attack more likely."
So instead of a drug, say devotees,
prescribe yoga. "All the drugs we give people have side effects,"
McCall says. "Well, yoga has side effects too: better strength, better
balance, peace of mind, stronger bones, cardiovascular conditioning,
lots of stuff. Here is a natural health system that, once you learn the
basics, you can do at home for free with very little equipment and that
could help you avoid expensive, invasive surgical and pharmacological
interventions. I think this is going to be a big thing."
McCall, it should be said, is a true believer who teaches at the B.K.S.
Iyengar Yoga Center in Boston. But more mainstream physicians seem
ready to agree. At New York Presbyterian, all heart patients undergoing
cardiac procedures are offered massages and yoga during recovery. At
Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, cardiac doctors suggest
that their patients enroll in the hospital's Preventive and
Rehabilitative Cardiac Center, which offers yoga, among other
"While we haven't tested yoga as a stand-alone therapy,"
says Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, the center's director, patients opting for
yoga do show "tremendous benefits." These include lower cholesterol
levels and blood pressure, increased cardiovascular circulation and, as
the Ornish study showed, reversal of artery blockage in some cases.
Yoga may help post-menopausal women. Practitioners at Boston's
Mind-Body Institute have incorporated forward-bending poses that
massage the organs in the neuroendocrine axis (the line of glands that
include the pituitary, hypothalamus, thyroid and adrenals) to bring
into balance whatever hormones are askew, thus alleviating the insomnia
and mood swings that often accompany menopause. The program is not
recommended as a substitute for hormone-replacement therapy, only as an
Some physicians wonder why it would be tried at all.
"Theoretically, if you pressed hard enough on the thyroid, you possibly
could affect secretion," says Dr. Yank Coble, an endocrinologist at the
University of Florida. "But it's pretty rare. And the adrenal glands
are carefully protected above the kidneys deep inside the body. To my
knowledge, there is no evidence that you can manipulate the adrenals
with body positions. That'd be a new one."
In 1998 Dr. Ralph Schumacher, of the University of
Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and Marian Garfinkel, a yoga teacher,
published a brief paper on carpal tunnel syndrome in the Journal of the
American Medical Association. The eight-week study determined that "a
yoga-based regimen was more effective than wrist splinting or no
treatment in relieving some symptoms and signs of carpal tunnel
syndrome." Letters to JAMA challenged the study's methodology. The
authors replied that it was a preliminary investigation to determine if
further research was merited. They said it was.
The most cited study around — Ornish's in 1990 — tested 94
patients with angiographically documented coronary heart disease, of
whom 53 were prescribed yoga, group support and a vegetarian diet
extremely low in fat — only 10% of total daily calories (most Americans
consume 35% in fat; the American Heart Association recommends 30%).
Cholesterol changes among the experimental group were about the same as
if they had taken cholesterol-lowering drugs.
After a year in the
program, patients in this group showed "significant overall regression
of coronary atherosclerosis as measured by quantitative coronary
arteriography." Those in the control group "showed significant overall
progression of coronary atherosclerosis." The findings were well
received but open to a major challenge: that the severe diet, rather
than yoga, may have been the crucial factor.
In 1998 Ornish published a new study, in the American Journal of
Cardiology, stating that 80% of the 194 patients in the experimental
group were able to avoid bypass or angioplasty by adhering to lifestyle
changes, including yoga. He also argued that lifestyle interventions
would save money — that the average cost per patient in the
experimental group was about $18,000, whereas the cost per patient in
the control group was more than $47,000.
And this time, Ornish says, he
is convinced that "adherence to the yoga and meditation program was as
strongly correlated with the changes in the amount of blockage as was
the adherence to diet."
Ornish hoped for more than the respect of his peers: he wanted
action. "I used to think good science was enough to change medical
practice," he says, "but I was naive. Most doctors still aren't
prescribing yoga and meditation. We've shown that heart disease can be
reversed. Yet doctors are still performing surgery; insurance companies
are paying for medication — and they're not paying for diet and
lifestyle-change education." (Medicare, however, recently agreed to pay
for 1,800 patients taking Ornish's program for reversing heart
Why have so few studies tested the efficacy of yoga? For lots
of reasons. Those sympathetic to yoga think the benefits are proved by
millenniums of empirical evidence in India; those who are suspicious
think it can't be proved. (Says Coble: "There seem to be no data to
substantiate the argument that yoga can heal.")
Further, its effects on
the body and mind are so complex and pervasive that it would be nearly
impossible to certify any specific changes in the body to yoga. The
double-blind test, beloved of traditional researchers, is impossible
when one group in a study is practicing healthy yoga; what is the
control group to practice — bad yoga? Finally, the traditional funders
of studies, the pharmaceutical giants, see no financial payoff in
validating yoga: no patentable therapies, no pills. (Ornish's
prostate-cancer study was funded by private organizations, including
the Michael Milken Foundation.)
at the heart of the western medical establishment's skepticism of yoga
is a profound hubris: the belief that what we have been able to prove
so far is all that is true. At the beginning of the 20th century,
doctors and researchers surely looked back at the beginning of the 19th
and smiled at how primitive "medical science" had been. A century from
now, we may look back at today's body of lore with the same
"In modern medicine, we're actually doing a lot more guesswork than we
let on," says Demers. "We want to say we understand everything. We
don't understand half of it. It's scary how clueless we are." Desperate
patients consult half a dozen specialists and get half a dozen
conflicting opinions. "Well, of course," Dr. Toby Brown, a Manassas,
Va., radiologist says impatiently, "it's not as if medicine is a
science." Hence the appeal of alternative medicine: aromatherapy,
homeopathy, ginkgo biloba.
Proponents may be crusading scientists or
snake-oil salesmen, but either way, their pitch falls on eager ears:
each year Americans spend some $27 billion on so-called complementary
medicine. "One lesson of the alternative health-care movement," McCall
warns, "is that the public is not going to wait for doctors to get it
Late last month the National Institutes of Health held the
first major conference on mind-body research. "There is a major reason
that many in biomedicine reject mind-body research: it is the pervasive
sound of the popularizers," noted Dr. Robert Rose, executive director
at the MacArthur Foundation's Initiative on mind, brain, body and
health research. "The loudest voices, the most passionate and
articulate spokespersons for the power of the mind to heal come not
from the research community but from the growing number of gurus... the
hawkers on TV for alternative treatments, herbs, homeopathy,
Rose distinguished the nostrum pushers from those seeking
to bring yoga and science together. "Thousands of research studies have
shown that in the practice of yoga a person can learn to control such
physiologic parameters as blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory
function, metabolic rate, skin resistance, brain waves and body
temperature, among other body functions." Critics are quick to note
that few of those studies were published in leading science journals.
Two oddities attend yoga's vogue. One is that America has the
fittest people in the world, and the most obese. Yoga, typically, is
practiced by the fit. Exercise, the care and feeding of body and
possibly mind, is their second career. The folks in urgent need of yoga
are the ones who are at the fast-food counter getting their fries
supersize; who would rather take a pill than devote a dozen hours a
week to yoga; for whom meditation is staring glassily at six hours of
football each Sunday; and who might go under the surgeon's knife more
readily than they would ingest anything more Indian than tandoori
Here's another peculiarity: this ritual of relaxation is
cresting at a cultural moment when noise and agitation are everywhere.
We work longer hours, with TVs and portable radios blaring as the sound
track for frantic wage slaves. If a teen isn't trussed to his
headphones or plugged into a chat room, it's because his cell phone has
just beeped. America is running in place, in the spa or at work. And
after Letterman and Clinton, nobody takes the world seriously;
everything is up for laughs.
In this modern maelstrom, yoga's tendency to stasis and silence seems
at first insane, then inspired. The notion of bodies at rest becoming
souls at peace is reactionary, radical and liberating. If it cures
nagging backache, swell. But isn't it bliss just to sit this one out,
to freeze-frame the frenzy, to say no to all that and om to what may be
beyond it, or within ourselves?
Reported by Deborah Fowler/Odessa, Lise
Funderburg/Philadelphia, Marc Hequet/Minneapolis, Alice Park/New York,
Anne Moffett/Washington, and Jeffrey Ressner and Stacie Stukin/Los
Article found at Time