This week, we found many surprising twists, turns, and holds in the story of modern yoga.
Surprisingly Awesome’s Theme Music is “This is How We Do” by Nicholas Britell and our ad music is by Build Buildings. We were edited this week by Annie-Rose Strasser, and produced by Rachel Ward, Christine Driscoll and Elizabeth Kulas. Andrew Dunn mixed the episode.
Jacob Cruz, James T. Green, Emma Jacobs, Rikki Novetsky, and Benjamin Riskin provided production assistance.
Additional music in this episode is “Santoor and Tabla at Assi Ghat, Varanasi” by Samuel Corwin and “Electronica Tanpura 9” by sankalp.
If you want to learn more about Wendy Doniger’s banned book, you can check out its page on Amazon here — Christine is in the middle of reading it and highly recommends it, and we are linking through Amazon so you can check out the reviews and get a window into the controversy surrounding it.
Or if you just wanna hear more about Indra Devi (and who wouldn’t?!) you can read more about her and get a copy of Michelle Goldberg’s book here. Adam “can’t recommend it enough!”
And if you’re like, “no way, take me to the science!” You can read more about the current research on the health benefits of yoga, by checking out UCLA’s longer interview with Dr. Helen Lavretsky, or a super informative article from Julia Belluz at Vox — “I read more than 50 scientific studies about yoga. Here’s what I learned.”
Yet more strands!
And if you want to know more about what we knew about flossing, you can check out our interview with Joana Cunha-Cruz (one of the authors of a paper in the AP story) about her study examining the efficacy of flossing here:
As promised, flossing report LINKS!
Here are links to the studies we looked at while building our episode.
Links to the AP’s studies, some of which we also looked at, in particular the one that Joana worked on which is at the top.
LESLIE: I didn’t even show you our closet full of body parts.
ADAM: Is that a scapular?
LESLIE: This is a scapular very good
ADAM: This is literally a bag of bones. *laughs*
LESLIE: It is a bag of bones. This is the…
ADAM: What goes on in here Leslie?
LESLIE: What goes on in here? Well, we play with our bones and we teach people to play with other people’s bones.
ADAM: This could keep police busy. I mean I know it’s all plaster and…but wouldn’t there be about twenty minutes of “wow we found a serial killer.” *laughs*
ADAM: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Flossing, I mean Flossingly Awesome, I mean…Surprisingly Awesome. And last week we talked all about guilt around flossing — we’re going to have an update for you on that at the end of this episode, or a second update, so stay tuned…I’m Adam Davidson.
RACHEL: And I’m Rachel Ward, and this week, we are doing part two in our series, make our hosts feel terrible about health habits.
ADAM: Yes, this week’s show is about something I am in a semi-permanent state of feeling a tiny little bit of guilt, that I’m not into. Something that is entirely ubiquitous in our health-obsessed culture, but something I have developed a deep prejudice against as well because it’s so…I don’t know so hippy dippy. I’m talking about yoga.
RACHEL: I do think you come by your prejudice honestly. It’s not about underexposure.
ADAM: It’s about overexposure.
ADAM: And the reason I use the word hippie so often and some of my prejudices come through is that I was born in 1970 in Greenwich Village. I grew up my whole childhood in Greenwich Village, New York. That was the whole world I knew. I didn’t know that there were Republicans out there. I didn’t know that there were people who didn’t constantly put down Western-style medicine and that kind of thing. So when I say I am resistant to yoga it’s not because I’ve never encountered it. It’s been in my life my whole life in junior high we had yoga class instead of gym.
When I hear the word yoga I can picture a sweat-stained rubber mat. I can picture a bunch of svelte, hairy people lined up in rows on a creaky wooden floor, facing someone who claims to have ancient, Indian knowledge.
But I don’t actually know that much about it. I mean I have you know sort of the standard vague notion. It’s from India. It’s some kind of ancient practice that comes out of hinduism.
There’s a lot of use of old sanskrit words ashtanga prana. I don’t really know what these mean. And there’s a clear sort of either explicit or implicit claim that this is good because it’s ancient and authentic and it’s from this wonderful culture that hasn’t been tainted by our crass, Western, capitalist ways.
RACHEL: So it’s this unbroken connection to antiquity. People in Park Slope have been doing this same downward dog that people were doing in Park Slope a thousand years ago.
ADAM: Not only are the yoga studios in my neighborhood and your neighborhood not built on the site of some millennia-old yoga temple. They actually bear very little resemblance to anything anyone in the ancient history of India would think of when they thought of the world – when they thought of the word yoga. In fact the very idea that the thing people are doing today that they call yoga comes from an ancient religious practice is as we learned basically not true. Although the way we get from ancient Indian practice to the thing that we now call yoga is a really fascinating story.
RACHEL: And a really quick disclaimer here – you’re about to hear some grownup words. So parents – consider headphones.
WENDY: It’s bullshit because it’s not what it pretends to be. Now, as an exercise system, yoga’s very good. A lot of people get a lot of out of it. Um, it’s based upon some Swedish gymnastics from the 19th century and perfected in India by a guy named Iyengar in the beginning of 20th century. It’s not what you do when you go to yoga classes nowadays, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to downward dog.
ADAM: RIGHT OFF THE BAT. She is saying what frankly I’ve been suspecting for a long time.
ADAM: This thing I see people doing in Brooklyn and Silverlake and everywhere else. It’s not some ancient practice.
RACHEL: Yeah. So this is Wendy Doniger. She is a religion professor at the University of Chicago …
ADAM: Where I went and majored in the history of religion. I took a class with her.
RACHEL: Although that is not her claim to fame.
ADAM: Right, Wendy is a major figure in the study of the history of religion. She’s a giant in her field particularly for her many many amazing books about Indian history and Indian religion. She’s translated Indian scripture from Sanskrit, the ancient, sacred language that lots of religious texts are written in. And she is arguably the Western world’s most revered expert of a faith that more than 800 million Indians practice today: Hinduism.
RACHEL: So Wendy knows a lot about religion, and Indian philosophy, and she is telling us here, right off the bat that yoga is NOT religion. She also told us what yoga IS.
WENDY: Yoga is a basic word, it’s actually connected with our word yoke and junction. It means to join together. As in to yoke horses together or to yoke a horse to a chariot. And it comes to mean in India to draw together your mental and spiritual powers in meditation. So that’s the real first meaning of yoga.
ADAM: The key thing here is that yoga is not a specific thing in itself, it’s more like a vague category of things. It’s a word like music or exercise: it means very different things to different people at different times and places.
Wendy wrote a book called “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” it was actually RECALLED in India. The publisher had to pulp the copies. It’s effectively censored because of charges that it violated a law offending people’s religious sensibilities. And that’s all because she did something that’s pretty common in scholarship these days. She reexamined history through different points of view, in this case the history of Hinduism through the view of women through the view of outcastes and there’s a bunch of people in India who did not like that. It became a huge scandal.
WENDY: The nice thing about being controversial is that you have as many people who love you as who hate you. But there are lots and lots of people in India who are very much on my side, who invite me to speak at their Bombay Literature Festival, and the Delhi literary festival and I did it by Skype because I can’t go physically to India anymore.
RACHEL: So versions of yoga crop up in Hinduism, but also in other religions throughout history — before the modern era, in Buddhism and Jainism, but nowadays, in some Christian churches. And yes, it’s been used throughout the history of Hinduism, but it is not explicitly, exclusively a Hindu practice
ADAM: So Wendy brought up what is considered the “foundational” text of yoga, the Patanjali yoga sutras….
WENDY: There are different philosophical systems which teach forms of meditation and the famous Patanjali yoga sutras, probably second century BCE, but it’s still it’s very old. It’s old enough. And the only thing Patanjali says in that whole book about the physical body is you should sit in a comfortable way. End of discussion.
RACHEL: So, The oldest references we see to yoga are about SITTING. They’re not about downward facing dog. They’re not about cat cow. They’re not about standing on your head. They’re just sitting and meditating.
ADAM: Because, as Wendy told us, people really needed to just sit and meditate back then. Because the big question everyone was dealing with was:
WENDY: They were struggling with human misery. And the solution was to realize that it wasn’t real and that you were not your body, so all of the meditation systems of Ancient India really are designed to pull you out as if you are a floating above your body in some way.
RACHEL: So that’s yoga at its most basic. A way of meditating, probably sitting, to help you with your everyday woes. But that is not the ONLY kind of early yoga that existed.
WENDY: There are also, from an earlier period, yogis who were magicians and who did weird things, another kind of yoga, these were not meditative people but they were really acrobats and they were regarded as freaks and very lower class. And educated Hindus, the sort of people who might meditate, wouldn’t be caught dead with anything like these extreme yogas.
RACHEL: And so it’s these guys — not the people who are sitting quietly mulling the misery of their lives, but the guys who do things like stand on one leg for 30 years — these guys become the face of yoga as it moves from the East to the West.
ADAM: And to lead us on that journey, from east to west, is journalist and author, and my personal friend, Michelle Goldberg.
MICHELLE: It’s not really about getting fit or stretching your muscles. It’s all this very highly symbolic body magic.
RACHEL: It all starts with this moment in history and culture when things aligned perfectly to make yoga cross borders.
ADAM: We’re talking about late 1800s, we’re talking about people in Boston, New York, Chicago, London. These are spiritual searchers. And one thing they get really excited about is India.
MICHELLE: You had kind of a huge amount of Western projections onto India. This fascination with Hinduism, and just kind of occultism. There was also kind of a lot of back to nature stuff in the air, talk about the nature cure, you know, nudism, vegetarianism, breathing exercises.
ADAM: This moment in history when all of these occult, spiritualist ideas are taking hold, is pretty much the same moment as the British colonial era in India – the mid 1800s. And so there’s all these ideas mostly in books written by British travelers coming out of India to Europe to America and the same thing is happening in the opposite direction.
MICHELLE: And also Indian people trying to appropriate and incorporate elements of you know unitarianism and different kinds of western philosophical trends. So you already had a huge amount of back and forth.
ADAM: And part of why people in India are interested in the ideas that are coming back to them from Europe, is because there’s this growing movement to throw off British colonial rule in India. It’s this nationalist movement. And one of the strategies of this movement for independence, to kick out the British, is to change the perception that India is backwards.
RACHEL: So people who are arguing for independence in India, it is to their advantage to to say “You know, our thing, yoga, this thousands of years old practice, that actually fits in with all of these new modern ideas that you’re interested in.” And then there’s also this other thing that’s happening:
ADAM: Physical culture. Exercise. Vigor.
ADAM: Yeah it’s the moment when all these people are stopping being farmers where they’re just working in a field all day and they’re suddenly for the first time in history huge numbers of people just sitting in offices. They’re working with their minds more and their bodies less so there’s this worldwide movement that manifests in all sorts of different ways to counteract this lazy flabbiness through physical culture.
MICHELLE: all over the world people are kind of rebelling against newly sedentary lifestyles and yeah so all of a sudden there’s a lot of concern about exercise. And so you had a lot of very innovative people in India who said well we also have our own indigenous version of physical culture called yoga. And it was kind of a reimagining of their own tradition. So they took some of these poses that had been practiced in medieval times but that had not previously been understood as exercise. They took some elements of exercises for Indian wrestlers, you know, things that people had done in India but that had never previously fallen under the rubric of yoga. There’s a whole kind of scholarly literature around this. They took elements from British Army calisthenics and a Scandinavian gymnastics system, which if you look at the pictures looks enormously like a kind of modern vinyasa sequence.
RACHEL: And so it’s in this moment — where nationalism, colonialism, capitalism, nudism, vegetarianism, gymnasticism are all colliding, when a woman named Indra Devi is born.
MICHELLE: Some people who are listening to this might be like – you wrote this book why don’t you know how to pronounce Davi? Davi is how you pronounce it in Sanskrit but she wasn’t Indian and was widely known as Indra Devi
ADAM: She said Devi.
MICHELLE: Yes. She had lots of different names and lots of different, you know, versions of her own name but yes.
RACHEL: So Michelle literally wrote the book about Indra Devi. It’s called “The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West.”
ADAM: Indra Devi was born in 1899. Her name was Eugenia Peterson. She was from an aristocratic Russian mother and a Swedish banker father, although she grew up in Latvia.
RACHEL: So she’s already got this international start to her life — and that pattern just continues: She does a lot of moving around, through the world and also through social circles. So growing up, among her British colonial friends, she’s known as Jane. And as a young woman she studies drama in Moscow and then flees to Berlin. She winds up Shanghai. At one point she’s in Argentina …
ADAM: Her life is crazy but all that is down the road. The most important thing that happens to her is when she’s visiting some family friends in Russia when she’s a teenager, she has this moment that will stick with her…and define the rest of her life:
MICHELLE: she comes across this book called “14 lessons in yogi philosophy and oriental Occultism” by yogi Ramacharaka. And it has this huge impact on her, she thinks you know this is – you know I want to devote my life to this. What she doesn’t know and I think – I don’t think ever learned actually because she cited this book throughout her life is that yogi Ramacharaka was a Chicago businessman named William Walker Atkinson.
ADAM: This book was a relic from the first wave of yoga in the US, the unsuccessful wave. That had been about 20 years earlier when yoga had had this brief moment of faddishness after this religion conference around the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.
RACHEL: But that does not matter to a young Eugenia, or Jane, whatever we’re calling her. She falls in love with the ideas in the book — regardless of how authentic they are. And it sets the course for the rest of her life. So in time, she moves to India, to become an actress. Because in India back then, proper ladies didn’t become actresses …
ADAM: But Russian aristocratic vagabonds — they can go for it.
RACHEL: Right so she’s performing under the stage name Indira Devi. She gets famous. She shortens it to Indra Devi. She picks up ANOTHER name, by marrying a Czech diplomat — at this point now she’s Jane Strakaty.
ADAM: Don’t bother keeping track of all these names. Indra Devi just Indra Devi’s all you need to know.
RACHEL: Right, but so once Indra Devi gets a few years into her married life, she gets a little depressed.
MICHELLE: She sort of had come to India on this – what she thought was going to be a spiritual adventure and finds herself kind of an idle society wife.
ADAM: But then, she has this realization…there’s that thing she discovered when she was a teenager and was so obsessed with and she’s in the country that it’s from: yoga.
RACHEL: And specifically, she meets this guy who is really at the apex of all of the cultural phenomena that we were just talking about — mysticism, and physical culture, Indian independence:
MICHELLE: A man named Krishnamacharya. There’s a lot of things that are in the air but he’s really systematizing them and then Indra Devi kind of shows up and asks her to teach her yoga and he tells her to go away. She’s a woman, she’s a westerner. He has no intention of teaching her.
RACHEL: But if there is anything that you should take away about Indra Devi — Eugenia, Jane whatever — it’s that she is such a hustler. And because since birth, she’s been moving in these aristocratic circles, Indra Devi has important friends. So she pulls some strings way high up in her social circle, and gets the Maharaja of Mysore to say to Krishnamacharya, listen buddy, you gotta teach my friend. And he relents — but he is a little bit of a jerk about it.
MICHELLE: And he gave her very strict austerities. you know not just abstaining from meat and alcohol but also spices, also anything that grows under the ground. She’s not allowed to bathe in warm water. He gives her this very strict regimen that she kind of happily submits to and eventually wins him over and after many months of studying with him at the palace her husband gets transferred to Shanghai and so she’s going to move to Shanghai and Krishnamacharya says to her you know now it’s your turn to teach what I’ve taught you to the world.
RACHEL: And this is when things really take off for Indra Devi. She opens a yoga studio in Shanghai, right when the city is experiencing this crazy foment as like a super international place. It’s full of Jewish refugees who have nowhere else to go. It’s occupied by the Japanese.
ADAM: This is before and during World War II. And then right when the war ends, her husband dies, suddenly. She has to leave war-ravaged Shanghai in a hurry. So she buys two boat tickets — one for the US, and one for India. And she decides she’s going to take whatever boat leaves first.
RACHEL: And this is how yoga comes BACK to America.
ADAM: Indra Devi heads where a lot of mid-century strivers are heading: To Los Angeles.
MICHELLE: Then Indra Devi comes and opens the first yoga studio in Hollywood in the late 40s. You know she had this sort of charisma wherever she went, she would kind of develop a following, there would be people – like somebody once told me that they don’t think she ever paid like an electric bill in her life. You know she always seemed to sort of float above the surface of things. So she could show up in Hollywood, you know over 40, a foreigner with not that much money and through a couple of connections, kind of very quickly become taken up. And part of it is because at that time Hollywood has started to become the nexus of American spiritual counterculture.
ADAM: And you describe her as a young woman, as kind of a flighty brat. What’s your sense of what she was like in her 40s or 50s?
MICHELLE: Everyone described her to me as this ethereal presence. She has this indeterminate Eastern European accent. She’s this tiny woman who has with like impeccable manners but a naughty streak. She wears a white or an orange sari which at that time people didn’t know what to make of it.
ADAM: And basically people in LA are like “oh, scarves plus some mysterious accent. She is CREDIBLE!”
RACHEL: This is the point where Indra Devi picks up her final name in her series of names — she starts going by “Mataji,” which is sort of an honorific form of “mother” in Hindi.
MICHELLE: You know when she’s teaching at some of these spas, you know, it’s like Republican housewives that are going there. It’s not the beats. We have this idea that yoga in America started with like the beats and the hippies and then was appropriated by rich housewives. In fact it kind of started with like the celebrities and rich housewives, then briefly got kind of wilder and became a countercultural phenomenon, and then went back to the mainstream.
ADAM: Okay. So it started Lululemon.
RACHEL: And Lululemon is where we are right now.
ADAM: So now I get Wendy Doniger, at the beginning was saying Yoga is a bunch of bullshit. Wendy is someone who studies ancient Sanskrit texts and modern-day yoga is this thing made up by Indian nationalists that was sort of commercialized in California by this charismatic Russian lady with the help of a wealthy Chicago businessman. And then introduced into the kind of La La Land celebrity culture trying to convince everyone in Hollywood that they were getting this spiritual bliss alongside their physical exercise. Yeah to a Hindu expert that does sound like a bunch of bullshit.
RACHEL: Yeah I mean that’s kind of a cynical way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is like: Hey, ee know now this thing that we know now is not entirely ancient, but somehow its essence has survived for a really long time. It’s adapted and it has been adapted as people needed it to change.
ADAM: And that’s what we’re going to look at after the break: if yoga really is bullshit, why do so many people do it?
RACHEL: Dude. You can’t –
ADAM: Ok. Coming up: Some of the science behind yoga’s survival.
RACHEL: Much better.
RACHEL: Welcome back to Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Rachel Ward.
ADAM: And I’m Adam Davidson. And earlier we talked about how what we thought we knew about yoga is mostly wrong. It’s not an unbroken connection to the ancient Indian past — it’s largely a 20th century invention.
RACHEL: And the question is: Why? Why is there such an audience for yoga?
ADAM: And you know the classic yoga audience we know, is known for.. maybe they use the word aura a little more more often than I would. But there are lots and lots of people who use yoga who don’t care at all about that stuff including this lady:
HELEN: Helen Lavretsky – it’s L-a-v-r-e-t-s-k-y, and I’m a professor of psychiatry at UCLA. I study integrative medicine, mind-body medicine, uh for mood and cognitive disorders in older adults.
RACHEL: Helen did a small pilot study that was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. It looked at a group of folks who had uh “mild cognitive impairment” — so that’s a potential precursor to dementia. The researchers split the participants into two groups. So one group did yoga once a week, and they meditated at home. And then the other group did the “gold standard” intervention — so they got “memory enhancement training.” Classes and training in strategies to help people remember stuff.
ADAM: And then they put the two groups of people in an fMRI machine, a brain scanner, and looked at their brains in a resting state … as their minds were just…wandering. Doing nothing, really. Helen says both groups, the traditional memory training group and the yoga group, showed improvements in “connectivity” in their brains.
HELEN: But yoga, in addition to that, had improved in measures of visual memory. Depression, anxiety improved in yoga but not in the memory training group.
RACHEL: Basically, yoga beat the gold standard.
RACHEL: And so was research about yoga part of your academic work before?
HELEN: No. No. My background is neurobiology of mood disorders in older adults, So it’s really –you know my personal passion resulted in this professional transformation really. It took 12 years to get here, but it’s been a very interesting journey for me personally.
RACHEL: So you have a personal yoga practice?
HELEN: Oh sure.
RACHEL: What do you do?
HELEN: I am a certified kundalini yoga teacher. I do various meditative practices. I love nature, so walking meditation, like hiking, connecting with your breath in nature.
RACHEL: When did you start doing it.
HELEN: About 12 years ago, I just fell into it all of a sudden. I was in the middle of a very stressful period of my life. And I felt like I’m about to have a heart attack and I was looking for a solution and during a family vacation in Hawaii, I attended the class and I’ve never left ever since. It was done in a beautiful lagoon on the island of Lanai. So it was just breathtaking
RACHEL: So Adam. I know that you could argue, that’s one pilot study, where 14 people did some yoga, did some meditating, may or may not have staved off dementia for a little while.
ADAM: Yeah, that’s exactly what I would argue.
RACHEL: But Helen points out that there is this whole wing of the National Institutes of Health, a federal health research agency, devoted to looking at how things like yoga affect your health. She works with these guys, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, where they collect studies and synthesize research about how treatments like yoga are complementary to “traditional” medicine.
Their thing is THE BEST SCIENCE. And so the route to the best science is long. It starts with pilot studies, that are very small, like Helen’s. And then those scientists hustle to round up money to do bigger studies. This process is slow, and on the way to getting those bigger, more replicable results, you get a lot of headlines that look like this, from the center’s website:
“Weekly and twice-weekly yoga classes offer similar low-back pain relief in low-income minority populations.”
“Pilot study suggests yoga MAY help women quit smoking.”
“Iyengar yoga MAY improve fatigue in breast cancer survivors.”
“Long term yoga practice MAY decrease women’s stress”
ADAM: And they’re also pretty narrow, you know, this kind of yoga helps this type of person: women, low income people lower back pain. So it’s very cautious, there’s not a big broad generalization and they’re also importantly looking at yoga entirely as a complementary therapy, meaning something you do alongside a bunch of other things you’re doing to treat your underlying condition.
RACHEL: So that said, the list of things that the center finds that yoga might benefit i think it sounds like one of those disclaimers at the end a car ad, if you read it fast enough. It’s like:
Reduced lower back pain and improved ability to walk and move. May reduce heart rate and blood pressure. May help relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia. May improve quality of life, and reduce stress. May improve physical fitness, strength and flexibility. 25 percent off MSRP. Offer valid on select in-stock vehicles only while supplies last. See dealer for details.
This is the science, Adam. The jury’s still out, but it’s looking good for yoga.
ADAM: So this is when yoga really starts to speak to me. My um what’s it called, my chakras opened and I realized hey I’m actually kind of interested in this thing because yoga is modern. It’s not some ancient thing solving problems for ancient people who had very different lives than me. I like the idea that It is designed precisely for people like me. This made me really want to see, alright guys what does yoga offer?
LESLIE: Show me the stretches you do after the jog. See, that’s what I want to see. Do you go up to the wall and do the classic calf thing. Cool. I was hoping that was it. Alright.
ADAM: And I read somewhere like hold it for 30 seconds.
LESLIE: Yeah, that’s bullshit. Ok so here, let me get down here.
RACHEL: So found you the most no bullshit, rational thinking, evidence-based yoga teacher that we could find.
LESLIE: Well, you would use the same rules for evidence that you would use for anything that you would want to accept. Can I move through my day without feeling like my breath is restricted? Can I get up and down off the floor with my kid without making that old man sound. You know?
ADAM: I really can’t. I gotta say, getting down and up off of floors, that’s a big, tough part of my life. But if anyone can help me with that, it’s this guy. Leslie Kaminoff.
LESLIE: And you notice one day you get down or up to play with your kid and it’s not so big a kvetch, then that’s the evidence.
ADAM: Right. Yeah. but I still get to kvetch about something else.
LESLIE: You have an unlimited right to unlimited kvetches in this life.
RACHEL: You’ll find something. I trust.
RACHEL: So Leslie, besides sounding like Adam’s older brother, runs the Breathing Project, this studio in Manhattan that focuses on training other yoga teachers with a series of kinesiology and anatomy courses.
ADAM: And I did feel like, even beyond the Yiddish, he totally got me
ADAM: The last couple of years have been a real turning point.
LESLIE: No yeah I remember.
ADAM: So I do have these physical needs of like my back hurts, my knees hurt, I get out of breath.
LESLIE: Here’s the thing I tell people. When someone comes to someone like me for help, you know we may be the first person that they’re encountering whose job it is to primarily focus on what’s still going right, instead of what’s going wrong. You know? When you need help with what’s gone wrong, definitely go to a doctor. And I’ve worked with people that had stuff I have to look up on the internet cause I never even heard of it and they show up here for help and I get all freaked out inside, I go I’m just a yoga teacher and what am I going to do? Because I’m not a doctor. And I say, That’s right, you’re not a doctor, You’re going to ask them, can they breath, can they move, and can they focus their attention. And if they can do even a little bit of all three of those, they can do yoga, because even on the worst day of someone’s life, it could be the day before they die, still there is more going on in their body going right than has gone wrong. We’re going right down to the level of the cells. That’s where prana lives, this life source we talk about in yoga as long as there’s prana, there’s potential for healing. You know, not necessarily fixing or curing, but healing.
RACHEL: That is the tradition that Leslie is actually connected to. A teacher who addresses a student’s individual needs and goals.
ADAM: If your student says, I have trouble getting down on the floor, you get down on the floor with them.
LESLIE: So let’s um why don’t you come onto your hands and knees here like this. OK, so here’s one of the very first things a lot of yoga students will learn.
ADAM; So I’m on all fours.
LESLIE: And, um, put your hands a little bit closer to your knees so they’re more under your shoulders…there you go. and this is what we call the cat cow.
ADAM: So from here, Leslie had me do the cat-cow pose, I’d never heard of it, and flex my toes. I was surprised how difficult it was to flex my toes. If this show was called Surprisingly Difficult I’d have an episode on toe flexing. And Leslie’s tradition, this kind of one on one, inquisitive approach, based on the student’s needs and what they can do, that’s a very major part of what modern yoga is. And I am at a phase where I’m still trying to figure out how to stretch so it works and it turns out I also need to learn a little bit better how to breath.
LESLIE: [breathing noise] Slowly. There. Yes. Beautiful. And keep that quality on the inhale…
..there you go. Good. You got about a second longer that time. Mmm. Good. Once more. Good. And release. That was ujjayi.
ADAM: I said “really” there like I have any idea what that is. And I’m really stoked to have somehow done it.
RACHEL: But actually we were both like “ooh-what?” But it’s OO-JAYE. And it’s this type of breath that you do in some types of yoga, where your breath takes this journey through your lower belly. It rises through your rib cage, and moves out through your chest and comes out through your throat in this stream.
ADAM: My heart sank a little when I learned it’s known as “the ocean breath” because that sounds a little cheesy to me but that’s because it’s supposed to sound a bit like a wave.
RACHEL: I think “ocean breath” kind of sounds like a crossover between our insults episode and our flossing episode. “Ocean breath”. But anyway, back to ujjayi:
LESLIE: So any movement that you can do in a lot of slow smooth way the coordinates with the breath can be a yoga exercise.
LESLIE: When you focus on your breath, you’re put in touch with that right away, you have some control over it. I can inhale now, I can exhale. I can hold now. You know, I can do these things. But that control – you run out of it really quickly. Right? So there’s this aspect of your breath which you don’t have any control over whatsoever because it’s involuntary but what you can choose is what your relationship is to that.
Our uniquely human breathing is voluntarily and automatic. Not every mammal is like that. A whale for example has no autonomic breathing mechanism. They’re an air breathing mammal who lives in water, they could not survive as a species that forced them to take a breath. Their blowhole could be in the wrong place and they’d drown. Which means they can only sleep half their brain at a time, you know. Monkeys on the other side of the spectrum are all automatic and reflexes. You know you can’t sit them down and teach them pranayama, they’d be like oo oo. You know it’s like – we’re somewhere in the middle between a monkey and whale. We have voluntary and involuntary, uh, control over our breathing that’s are really rich, interesting thing to explore about our unique humanity.
ADAM: He’s really good and he made me feel really good and it was amazing how he would just show me like here doesn’t it hurt to flex this way and then two minutes later he’d do something and it was easier and I’m seeing in real time oh yes this is good. I see how it’s good in the short term. I bet it will be good in the long term. I was sold but then I’d hear him use a world like ujjayi or prana and suddenly I’m back in the 1970s in some patchouli scented yoga studio, hearing a Jewish person in NYC use ancient Sanskrit words as a source of authenticity and it just took me out of it. It just made me feel like, wait is that real? How do I know I trust you? How do I know why you know what you know? And so I asked Leslie about this… Like, how do I trust that you know what you’re doing?
LESLIE: Yeah. linking authenticity to antiquity is problematic. And unfortunately that’s a strong, uh, sort of sentiment among certain people.
ADAM: What’s a strong sentiment?
LESLIE: This idea that antiquity equals authenticity. That the more ancient the practice or the more ancient the origins you can connect your practice to, the more authentic it is. And if there’s anything that is true to the tradition of yoga, it’s that it puts you in the present moment.
ADAM: Alright. I’m sold. I’m sold.
ADAM: I want to come back.
LESLIE: oh, cool.
RACHEL: Like literally sold. Sign him up for classes.
ADAM: Yeah, yeah, no. Literally.
ADAM: This was a surprise journey for me. I started the whole process feeling like all my basest prejudice against yoga were confirmed and I ended it signing up for a session with Leslie. About a week after this airs um I’m going to start working with Leslie one on one. Take it from there. I feel really excited and a little nervous. Somehow this whole journey with reading Michelle’s book and talking to Wendy Doniger and doing this work with Leslie has shown me a place to be with yoga.
That I don’t know need to rest on trusting some claim of authenticity from the ancient world. I have to trust myself, my body how I feel about it. And that feels like a whole new way to think about self-care, for me anyway, and that feels exciting and I will be honest a little bit scary.
RACHEL: I think it’s a really healthy way to think about it, though. This idea of like listening to your body. If it seems like it’s working then there is some actual science to support it but I do want to caution there is that one thing that Wendy Doniger was telling us — which is if you’re a yoga practitioner, if you’re a teacher, watch how you’re selling it. And if you’re a yoga consumer watch out for the basis on which you’re buying it.
WENDY: This is no secret that Indian philosophy can teach us a great deal that is valuable and that would make us happier people, and that’s not yoga. That’s Indian philosophy.
I doubt that many yoga teachers have taken the trouble to really learn Indian philosophy. And therefore I think it’s a shame that they’re selling something as Indian philosophy that is not. But there is Indian philosophy and there are lots of people who know about it, and if you get one of those, then you’re lucky.
ADAM: So basically, we should all be respectful of the way we each individually find meaning in the world, find help in the world, but when it comes to something
that’s being SOLD as a service, on the basis of authenticity in some other culture, maybe that should raise your hackles a bit.
RACHEL: And the last thing you want is tightness in your hackles. You know what, actually we should just work on that. So Adam lift your hackles up up up towards your ears and really LEAN into that stretch, breathe into your hackles, OK GREAT hold that breath in your hackles and now exhale…
ADAM: Before we check out today as I mentioned at the top of the episode we did an episode about flossing with comedian Maeve Higgins and then by coincidence the Associated Press right after we posted our episode released a report they had been working on for a long time about flossing and that the scientific evidence in favor of flossing is much weaker than you might have thought. We then did an update show and we have received more emails more of an intense response to our two flossing episodes than anything we have done and frankly we have been accused of having a radical pro-flossing bias. So what we’re going to do is post on our website gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com slash surprisingly awesome a full interview with one of the top scientists who questions the importance of flossing, Joana Cunha-Cruz and we’re also going to post links to some of the scientific papers, so that you can come to your own conclusion about flossing. Surprisingly Awesome: we report on flossing, you decide.
ADAM: Our theme music is by Nicholas Britell and our ad music is by Build Buildings. We were edited this week by Annie-Rose Strasser, and produced by Rachel Ward, Christine Driscoll and Elizabeth Kulas.
RACHEL: Thanks to James T. Green, Rikki Novetsky, Jacob Cruz and Benjamin Riskin.
ADAM: Also, thanks to everyone who “RSVP’d” for our upcoming wedding episode. We were invited to weddings all over the place — Canada, Poland, UK, Australia. Mazel tov to all of you.
RACHEL: You can tweet us @surprisingshow, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And our Tumblr is TrueSharkAttackStories.tumblr.com.
ADAM: Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media.
ADAM: One last very quick question. Do you practice yoga, have you practiced just modern American yoga?
WENDY: I was in an automobile accident when I was 23 years old in 1964. And I lost my left kneecap. And so I’ve never been able to kneel or do the lotus position so it’s been out of the question for me even to try to do yoga so I do pseudo — I do downward dog actually. I’ve been doing downward dog for years, it’s the only way I can get up from the ground because I can’t kneel so I when I get up from the ground I turn up and I do downward dog and that’s how I stand up. So in a sense I’ve done that one yoga position ever since I lost my kneecap.
ADAM: And my understanding is that downward dog is an ancient, I mean that’s connecting you directly to thousands of years of –
WENDY: It puts you right into the mind of god.
WENDY: And it keeps you from hurting your knees when you get down on the ground.