Friday, June 1, 2012

Navel contemplations

I like yoga as a form of exercise, I really do. I first got into it some years ago, when I was doing a lot of cycling and not a lot else, and my body was becoming terribly unbalanced as a result – huge chunky thighs, weedy arms, and very little flexibility at all. I was lucky enough to be working with someone at the time who was a qualified yoga teacher, and she introduced me to Ashtanga yoga.

For those unfamiliar with yoga, just as the term “cycling” can cover anything from “popping to the shops on a bike” to “hooning downhill on a full-suss MTB” to “riding a 600k audax”, there are many different forms of yoga. Ashtanga is a very active aerobic form of fitness which exercises almost all the muscle groups. None of this sitting-around-contemplating-one’s-navel. Each posture should flow into the next, via a vinyasa (a very elaborate push-up/plank/set of bends move), and it’s a lovely workout. I’ve tried other forms of yoga (Iyengar, Hatha), and not enjoyed them half as much as I do the flowing sequence of Ashtanga.

What really does hack me off though, is the fact that seems impossible to find somewhere that does the yoga without the hippy bullpoo and complete lack of understanding as to how the body works. I’ve been to classes where teachers insist on starting with breathing “exercises” which involve sticking your fingers up your nose and your thumbs in your ears and breathing in a peculiar rhythm in order to “detoxify”. I’ve had teachers belligerently insist that menstruating women mustn’t do inverted poses (headstands, shoulder stands, full back-bends etc) because it would do untold damage to one’s insides as the flow reversed (fortunately my first yoga teacher took the more sensible attitude of “What’s it going to do: come out of my ears?”1 and ignored this superstition). I’ve been told by otherwise-sane-sounding people that a certain pose is good because it “massages the liver and releases nutrients into the blood”. I’ve been instructed to “breath deeply into the kidneys”.

My current studio is lighter than many on the bullpoo quotient, but nonetheless there's still an underlying trend. It’s so disturbing that so many rational and reasonably-educated people believe all this and worse that I’m tempted to leave a copy of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science lying around the studio I currently attending. But I won’t – this stuff is close enough to a quasi-religious belief to some people that I fear trying to persuade them to think rationally about what they’re saying will upset them. And most of them are nice enough people that I don’t want to do that. But the problem is that there’s a self-perpetuating cycle of irrationality around the yoga industry. Anywhere offering yoga classes will invariably also offer aromatherapy, homeopathic nutritional supplements, chakra realignment, and half-a-dozen other half-baked ideas which keeps yoga firmly in the Hippy Woo camp, and makes it unattractive to scientists and rational-minded people just looking for a form of exercise. Which is a shame, because I think yoga is great.

1 Chuffy and Frood have helpfully suggested Mooncup ear-muffs and a tampon up each nostril just to be on the safe side.

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