I cringe at every promise of inner peace in yoga class. Yeah, yeah. I've heard it before, I think. Yoga will change my life.
In 15 years of practicing yoga, I've come to resent that most teachers do not say: Yoga might not change your life at all. Instead, I regularly hear absurdities like jumping into postures breaks up cancer or headstands reverse gray hair. My inbox is overrun with workshops avowing a "mastery of life" and "deep healing," all in the outlandishly short span of a few hours.
The science behind the benefits of yoga is getting more robust, but much of the language around the practice remains stuck in New Age-ville. Claims ensuring swift physical and mental transformation detract from compelling headway on how yoga actually can help. For instance: New research released online in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found yoga and controlled breathing significantly reduced the depressive symptoms of participants with twice-weekly classes and a home practice over 12 weeks. But taking from that the idea that yoga will cure depression, as many teachers will inevitably do? Not so much.
"We can't prove causality, therefore we can't say it cures depression," says Chris Streeter, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and principal investigator of the study. "We can say yoga is associated with decreased depressive symptoms."
I have been guilty of overstating yoga's benefits. During a stint as a yoga instructor seven years ago, I pilfered from gurus and books and flung around assertions that yoga would bring joy and healing. One evening, I recall sidestepping the mats of fellow Spandex-clad seekers and spreading notions like, "Breathe in healing. Breathe out anger," as the voice in my head heckled, Liar…It's just AIR!
The concern for a precise language extends beyond semantics. "You don't want people doing yoga who have treatable illnesses and have them not get treated because they prefer [that] this is what helps them," Streeter says.
There are signs the yoga industry is inching toward a more honest rhetoric, partly to prevent teachers from getting sued. Last year, the Yoga Alliance announced a policy to ban words like "therapy," "healing," and "curing" from its registry of roughly 70,000 teachers and schools. The alliance is the largest nonprofit representing the yoga community. "We became cognizant of the fact that yoga today is being marketed in a way that has lots of overlap with medical fields and psychiatric fields," says Andrew Tanner, a Yoga Alliance spokesman. "That, we thought, was a cause for concern."
A minority—a few hundred—of schools on the registry were using terms "in a way that was truly unethical," Tanner says, citing groups offering 200-hour teacher trainings as "yoga therapy" trainings. (The International Association of Yoga Therapists has much more rigorous accreditation standards to be a "yoga therapist.")
The move was largely to legally protect yoga teachers. A lawyer hired by Yoga Alliance concluded that if yoga teachers claim to treat health conditions they could run the risk of coming under government regulation. Ultimately, it's about not misleading the public about the reach of a typical teacher's qualifications.
The ban rattled some in the usually docile crowd. A petition argued it betrayed the spirit of yoga and inclusion. But teachers and schools didn't have a choice but to comply. A program blocks them from entering the restricted terms on the registry.
It's unclear if the push for a more honest language of yoga has trickled down to what teachers say in classes. "No one can go around and know if teachers are saying things or not and if we start trying to tell people, then we become the yoga police, which we don't want to be," Tanner says.
I've met one yoga teacher who was particularly committed to science in her classes. Her name is Liz Owen and she's been teaching since 1990. I became acquainted with Streeter's yoga research spanning several studies during one of Owen's workshops. Owen has taught classes for some of those studies, and she is a co-author on the The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine article.
"Yoga teachers need to be careful how we state things," Owen said in the workshop I attended. "We need a scientific basis."
The voice in my head whooped— Yes! Yes! Yes!— as I nodded serenely from my mat. Later Owen told me her linguistic clarity came from working on the studies. "I'd say something like, 'Yeah, it stimulates the fourth chakra' and Dr. Streeter would look at me and say, 'Really? And do you have evidence to back that up?' I realized I said a lot of things that I believed in as a yogi but that I had no proof."
Now, if Owen is going to share something that is not a fact, she signals with words like, "imagine" or "visualize." She trains teachers to do the same, though newbies can veer into ludicrousness. "Some of the things that they say when they do their student teaching, it's ridiculous," she says, and laughed about the time a student teacher once said, in all seriousness: "The collagen is running through your spinal cord."
My own beef is not with touting yoga's wellness benefits; it's with the over-promising. The reason I still practice yoga, even if in a disgruntled state, is that I generally feel better and sometimes calmer after doing it. Certainly, it has not cured all of my ills. In fact, I'm ashamed to admit I avoided antidepressants for years. A regular yoga practice should be enough, I believed. It had been before, but circumstances change. In my case, I gave birth. Postpartum depression took root. "What if yoga doesn't help with depression?" I asked Owen.
Her answer was obvious, "If you feel like you need meds, take your meds."
Really, it's a question I should have asked my doctor. But it hadn't felt obvious before. All the words had pointed to healing. A snake-oil-infused narrative distracts from finding out how yoga works for you, how it doesn't, and when you need help from a doctor or a therapist off the mat.
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