I love yoga.
If you know me, and this blog, you know that I am a geeky and scholarly yoga practitioner and a teacher for nearly two decades now. You also have heard me make fun of modern day yoga teachers hustling for popularity and trying to outdo each other. You've heard me criticise the yoga industry. But you've never heard me take on the saints of yoga. Here I expose the Lion of Pune for spreading false information and his own misunderstandings and inaccuracies and in the process, I hope to teach everyone the lesson of not believing everything being said in a yoga class.
I recently ran into a video which had 2.5K shares on Facebook showing Iyengar in a demonstration and a lecture on inversions. The video was put out by Iyengar Yoga Australia. If you want to watch the video, click HERE.
First, Iyengar makes the claim that "early yogis" came up with inversions, and shortly after he clarifies that "early" is "when civilization began." Ok, but which civilization are we talking about? If we are talking about the Indus River Valley Civilization, a Bronze age civilization, we have no evidence of them doing yoga. If we are talking about Vedic civilization, then we have evidence of people doing yoga, however, by yoga, they meant meditation and strange ascetic practices and rituals and no postures. In the 15th century, Hatha Yoga Predipika describes the first inversion posture - the Viparita Karani - a half shoulder stand. However, Iyengar is talking about headstand in the beginning of this video.
He then proceeds to explain about the "hypothalamus" at the base of the brain, which according to him regulates the perception of hot and cold and is the "seat of the emotional center." Yes to the first part. No to the second part. It's the amygdala and the hippocampus which control emotions. And the hypothalamus controls autonomic nervous system responses and endocrine function through the pituitary gland, meaning hormone release and regulation. I am not a neuroscientist but even I know that.
Iyengar also makes the claim that Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, has "dealt with this pose," meaning headstand, but Patanjali never makes such claims. He never discusses what "asana" to be considered in the sutras. Patanjali states the qualities of asana such as "ease" and "steadiness" but never what the actual asanas are.
This is a good segway for Iyengar to go into the "three nervous systems of the body" which he names as the "peripheral nervous system, the autonomous nervous system, and the central nervous system."
Sounds good, but not exactly accurate. The peripheral nervous system and the central nervous system are the two main nervous systems. The "autonomous" nervous system is actually the "autonomic" nervous system which is one-half of the peripheral nervous system. The PNS consists of the autonomic and the somatic nervous systems. All this is in relation to structure. As far as function goes, the PNS can function in two modes - sympathetic and parasympathetic response having to do with either "fight or flight" or "rest and digest" responses. It seems to me that Iyengar is mixing things up pretty liberally and making it sound very convincing.
Why? Because it seems to fit neatly into the energetic system of the body described in the Hatha Yoga Predipika, namely ida nadi, pingala nadi, and the sushumna nadi. But while the yogis of yore were talking about energy channels, Iyengar is talking about anatomical parts. We are yet to discover the exact correlation of the energy channels to anatomical parts. According to him, pingala, the solar channel, connected to/passing through the "solar plexus" is synonymous with the sympathetic nervous system. And while it is true that "at the pit of the stomach," aka. the solar plexus is a juncture of nerves and ganglia which are part of the sympathetic nervous system response, putting us in fight or flight, what follows as an explanation of how going upside down "nullifies" the effect of what seems to be a description of daily stress by drawing on the "lunar" or the parasympathetic NS energy, is pure mish-mash. In fact, we've seen that there is a huge difference in the kinds of inversion we do as to the types of effects we get. We have modern day science to give us these details.
A headstand is taxing on the PNS, although it is liberating for the functioning of the heart as it does indeed help with the venous return of blood to the heart. From a neurological perspective, the increase in blood pressure to the brain, doubling, and the inverted perspective is actually activating the fight and flight response in the body. This is the reason inversions should be approached carefully, and with patience. A headstand should be held in small increments and as tolerance builds over time, one can increase the duration.
My favorite line is "the central nervous system is a very difficult system to handle." Well, the CNS is just the brain, spinal cord, and the nerves directly exiting the spinal cord. We actually do not "handle it" despite his claim that it needs "proper judgment" to function, to be handled properly... I get lost here. The CNS is an information highway. The brain, where judgment comes from is the very center of the CNS.
The mish-mash doesn't end here. He calls the "autonomous" nervous system, which is actually the "autonomic" nervous system, "semi-voluntary." There is nothing "semi-voluntary" about regulating the function of smooth muscle around your organs, for example. Yes, you can control or not control your breath. You can directly, or indirectly affect the beating of your heart. But most of what the autnomic NS does, is totally out of one's control, because most of it is completelly out of one's awareness or ability to perceive its functions.
Somehow "lunar" supplies the energy while the "solar" is resting, because "lunar" is at the base of the brain.... This makes no sense whatsoever. Even if you look at the whole thing energetically only, the solar and the lunar channels crisscross at multiple points and definitely not at the base of the brain. If you are looking at the whole thing neurologically, the hypothalamus is not at the base of the brain. It's more centrally located.
And what does it mean "the central nervous system also gets to feed?" Because the CNS is constantly "fed" with various stimuli on which the brain makes you respond in one way or another. Saying that "Hatha Yoga Predipika explains very well on the physiological level" the whole gibberish he just delivered is an insult to the folks who have actually read the text. The HYP was written well before we figured out the existence of the CNS and the PNS, and there isn't a single word in there about physiology. What one will find in the HYP is a model of the energetic body and the energetic channels, as understood at the time. Again, we have not been able to correlate the energetics to the anatomy. And definitely not to the degree, or the effect Iyengar is claiming.
Finally, just because we can't see that something has happened to the subjects holding headstands for 5 min, it does not mean that nothing is happening to them. I can't see what is happening in China from my couch in California, but I am pretty sure something is happening in China at this very moment.
Please, folks, whenever in a yoga class, use your critical thinking capacities. Do not believe everything that comes out of the mouths of yoga teachers. Do not do anything you don't feel comfortable doing just because someone makes claims about the benefits of it. Ask questions about some of these claims to see if the teacher actually understands what they are talking about. Charm, charisma, and confidence are not a substitute for knowledge, sound reason, and facts.