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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 


Posted in Blog, Knowledge Base, Y Tagged with: , ,
13 comments on “Yoga: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
  1. Denise says:

    You are sooooo funny. What a terrific read early in the morning—a terrific reminder how someting that can be very good might not work for everyone.

  2. Linda Silbert says:

    Hilarious! I love your honesty!
    Yoga wasn’t for me either but I have absolutely seen the benefit for others!!!

  3. Pat says:

    Why don’t you and Renee come up with a yoga class just for men?

    Look forward to your weekly articles.

  4. chris says:

    I have taken yoga in the past, and I take some classes at my local park district health club (drop in). I have found that if you are with a good teacher, that makes all the difference. I also enjoyed being in a class that I signed up for each group of classes in a progressive learning style, with the same teacher. She helped us with the proper alignment so that the poses were more comfortable and had us focus on our breath. Yoga grew to be the place where I could just “be”, and turn off my “monkey” mind.

  5. Joanne Boylan says:

    Dr E sorry for your experience, however, yoga at the health club??? You need to find a reputable studio and teacher, there won’t be any injury or uncomfortableness with a knowledgeable and watchful teacher, you might even enjoy it! Thanks for the good chuckle, but I always admire the men who brave an “all women” class! Being a non person happens for us women too at a certain age as well!

  6. Chris Moses says:

    Just wanted to let you know I’m new to your list and am enjoying your newsletter like no other. How refreshing to get information on both sides of the fence AND laugh every time! Quick question, don’t know if you’ll answer, but do you have any info on Genacol? I went on it for a month, it worked well, and then I started hearing it raises cholesterol, which I can’t do. Can’t find any info/studies on the web. Appreciate any info!

  7. Addie says:

    I had a friend who was a certified Iyengar Hatha Yoga instructor for years before she discovered she’d seriously injured her neck from shoulder stands — even though she knew what she was doing. She warned me to NEVER practice yoga –something about Western body types. Recently I learned about Peggy Cappy’s “Yoga for the Rest of Us” on PBS. Cappy’s program is for the elderly and disabled, and the exercises she uses seem really good even if you’re not elderly. An older and very overweight friend of mine who used to practice yoga when she was thin was interested, and I gave her the DVDs as a present. She reports that these exercises are fabulous, easy to do and leave her feeling energized more than her earlier yoga exercises. I haven’t tried these yet, but I plan to.

  8. Val Wilson says:

    Ugly is certainly the right word for that so-called Yoga “instructor”. What would she have done if you had stayed – twisted and pounded your left thigh into correctness??!
    So much for harmony and inner peace!

  9. Stephanie says:

    Dear Dr. E.,
    Please reconsider what “meditation” is. You may need a better teacher–meditation is not necessarily being physically still. Neither is it trying to ‘shut down’ your mind.
    I used to live in Chicago (in NM six years now) and first tried yoga with Daren Friesen, who I believe still practices down the road from you at Moksha Yoga (feel free to delete my email, I’m not trying to promote him or his studio). He taught me mindfulness meditation (without my really knowing that was happening) and taught me humility in respecting the practice and where my body was…so altho I am highly competitive (all state bb and sb player, boston-qualifying marathoner, etc.), I learned to listen to my body about whether it wanted to stay at the ‘beginning’ pose, or try to advance.
    Seriously, please try a few of his classes and, if you don’t have a different view of yoga and meditation, I will pay for your classes myself.
    (says MSW now living in NM, working in hospice and private practice/energy medicine).
    Thanks for all that you do,

  10. Dr E says:

    Hi Stephanie
    Thanks for your suggestions! I will definitely investigate Moksha Yoga

  11. HI Dr. E – I am SO SORRY you had that horrible experience. I am coming into town this month and hope I have a chance to see you (I just need a blood draw….). But if not, let me ASSURE you that a good yoga instructor is not about showing off postures, but about getting YOU into the best practice for you. I wish I were in Chicago full time but anyway, thanks for being open-minded with your suggestions of yoga as therapy.

  12. Daryl Horn says:

    As a yoga teacher, I feel compelled to comment. First, Hatha Yoga or asana yoga, is only one of the eight limbs of yoga, one that is intended primarily to prepare the body for meditation.
    It also has a lot of other really nice benefits, like increasing the flexibility, strength and stability of the musculature, supporting the endocrine system, lubricating the joints, etc, etc.; but the primary purpose is to teach you to be able to focus your mind, since a lot of concentration is required to achieve an asana. Also, if you really focus on tuning into your body while you are in an asana, you will immediately know if you should do or not do a pose, if it needs adjusting for your body and when it is time to come out. Yoga is not supposed to inflict sharp pain!
    Dr. Edelberg, your restless mind makes yoga difficult, but this is precisely why it could really benefit you.

  13. Addie says:

    To Val Wilson: The yoga instructor I wrote about was my friend AFTER she left yoga practice. I have never practiced yoga, and she warned me against ever doing it. She discovered her neck injury in law school just after she’d stopped yoga practice because of the pain –which, didn’t occur until she’d been an instructor for a number of years. The injury snuck up on her, and that was the creepy part. It wasn’t a matter of not holding an asana because it was painful.

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