I’m a fan of Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times – her writing is pleasingly quirky and relevant.  Needless to say, I was intrigued when a friend forwarded her latest piece, which was provocatively titled “How Garbo Learned to Stand on her Head.”  It started out well enough – yoga as a stress reliever.But by the end of it, I was, well, stressed!   According to William Broad, the author whose book Dowd was reviewing, yoga began as a “sex cult,” can make a person fat, and is a “kinder version of alcohol.”  Not having yet read Broad’s book, I’m not so sure I even want to anymore thanks to Dowd’s summary.  Once again, we see yoga being described in terms of a purely physical practice – posture and breath – with no mention of the underlying philosophy or spirituality that drives it.

Far from beginning as a “sex cult” with Tantric roots, yoga has always been a part and parcel of the Hindu tradition with an end goal of union with the Divine.  Yoga and yogic practices date back over 5,000 years — the Indus Valley seals depict a number of figures in postures identical to various asanas.  The terms “yoga” and “yogi” have been mentioned in sacred ancient Hindu texts, such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, with a keen focus on the practitioner’s ability to achieve a steady mental state in order to attain oneness with the Divine.  In his famed Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes the goal of yoga as chitta-vritti-nirodha, or “the cessation of mental fluctuations” – a far cry from Broad’s described sexual arousal and climax which clearly imply fluctuations in one’s mental (and physical) state.

Secondly, if yoga can make a person fat, someone forgot to mention it to countless size 00 actresses and models who swear by it.  If yoga does lower the rate at which a person burns through calories, then arguably, that person will be hungry less often, and thus, consume less food.  So, where does the issue of becoming fat arise?  Because once again only the physical aspect of yoga is being analyzed. Yoga is a holistic method which encompasses both physical and spiritual discipline, entails mastery over the body, mind and emotional self, and transcendence of desire. And asana is only one of the eight limbs of yoga.  The first limb is yama, or restraint, which in and of itself is suggestive of the idea that we should temper our consumption.  Patanjali lists five yamas, but some sources actually list ten, one of which is mitahara, or moderation of appetite – neither eating too much nor too little.  Learning to moderate our countless desires is fundamental to yoga, but seemingly overlooked in the purely physical interpretation of the practice.

Finally, from a purely practitioner standpoint, the idea that my 90 minute yoga practice has the same affect on my mind as a glass of wine, is absurd.  Yoga is considered to be best practiced early in the morning, on an empty stomach.  It loosens the various muscles of the body, centers the mind, and energizes the practitioner for the remainder of the day. If you are drinking a glass of wine first thing in the morning to achieve a similar effect, it’s likely time to check into AA.

Two years ago, the Hindu American Foundation launched its Take Back Yoga campaign to educate the public that yoga is one, much more than just a calorie burning, muscle toning physical exercise and two, rooted in Hindu philosophy.  Yoga is “an inward journey, where you explore your mind, your awareness, your consciousness, your conscience,” and attempts, such as Broad’s, to draw broad conclusions based on analysis of just the physical aspect of the practice do a disservice to this universal gift.

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