Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How Controversial is Yoga?

        The short is answer is: very. The fall semester is over and I have been hard at work on both my thesis and my manual for using yoga in a group setting with the Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) model and processes. When people ask what my research is about or what I'm currently writing, I expect them to raise their eyebrows when I tell them yoga. People don't tend to take yoga seriously in the part of the world I live in (Ontario, Canada). When I first tried yoga in 2005, I approached the class with skepticism; I was told it was good for me, that it would help with physical issues I experienced as a result from too much exercise, I was also told it would help my balance, and that it's a great "inner experience." I used to scoff  at that last one — I was not interested in having a meditative, contemplative, whatever experience. I tend to not like it when people try to sell me things and the words that were used to describe yoga sounded a lot like selling spirituality to me.

This position of skepticism did not instantly change after my first yoga class. Although I became hooked on yoga and genuinely enjoyed it from the first class, my skepticism was well intact. I don't think it is gone completely after years of practice and I wonder if it ever will go. I am researching yoga for this very reason: I want to understand what it is about the experience that helps people, how does yoga actually work? Is there a legitimate science to yoga?

The conversations I have about yoga tend to revolve around how helpful people find it. There are numerous ways in which yoga helps people mentally, physically and spiritually. There are numerous disciplines of yoga performed in varying styles for a diverse range of purposes. So, what is the discourse about yoga — the spiritual part. This becomes an especially hot topic when yoga is introduced to children or through public/state/provincial/municipal programs.

Photo by T. Lynne from the Dec. 15, 2012 issue of The New York Times.

New York Times writer Will Carless wrote a recent article, Yoga Class Draws Religious Protest in which parents of children aged six to seven years old are protesting the elementary school in which their children attend, as well as advocating with the district school board in Encinitas, California to remove a 30-minute yoga practice from the schools curriculum. Carless' article and academic research on yoga demonstrate the belief that yoga is a religious practice. There are numerous blogs, websites, magazine articles, and books which strongly contest this fact; they adamantly state that yoga is not religious however, this is not entirely true and people whom attempt to present it as such are misrepresenting yoga. Although yoga is not religious, it is spiritual and involves the use of sanskrit, an ancient language originating from India which is largely only used liturgically, in spiritual/religious practices today. Yoga is also utilized by the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. This of course does not mean all yoga practices are religious or spiritually based. However, as a yoga teacher, researcher, and social worker, I can not claim that yoga is completely non-religious. The way I present yoga to clients is non-religious but I can not speak about the ways in which others may teach it — I have been privy to a number of highly spiritual or religious yoga classes. I therefore agree that inquiry into what exactly the children of Encinitas, California are being taught as yoga is useful to their parents.

Carless' article explains that amongst the controversy over yoga is an issue with meditation. The act of meditation is a part of the yoga practice and again can be presented in a way which is free from religious connotations. In fact, meditation can be presented for any religious or spiritual orientation, lest we forget: Jesus meditated.

Want to know more? Check out my article on what yoga is.

Timothy Gordon
Hamilton, ON


  1. I have become really intrigued lately with the idea of Yoga, as several of my friends swear by it. Very informative post sir! And great blog. I am a MSW student as well so I'm glad I found your blog.

    1. Thanks for your kind words and for reading the blog! I am going to be posting a lot more information about using yoga in direct practice soon, as well as offering training for social workers and other mental health counselling professionals, so be sure to check back in!

      Also, I checked out your blog and it's great. We should keep in touch. Where abouts are you located?

      Thanks again.

  2. Hi Tim, I'm a clinical social worker. Also use yoga 3 times a week as part of an overall exercise program. Fascinated by your concept of yoga as a treatment modality. My only skepticism is that it might have limited value long term. A good method for self-acceptance and relaxation that can provide relief to someone with conditions such as generalized anxiety or PTSD. But apart from perhaps the very occassional connection with repressed emotion or memories, and maybe temporary greater body awareness, I'm not sure how a casual practice could be helpful in longer term change. Perhaps more chance for treatment change for a dedicated yogi, but few in the general population and perhaps even fewer with mental health issues would realistically become that dedicated. Of course client motivation long term a challenge with CBT and other therapies as well.
    What have you found so far? How does yoga compare with other therapies in longer term follow up studies? Are there any?
    Love your site, got it bookmarked.

    1. Jason, wow! Thank you for the compliments and of course for spending your time here, reading.

      In the near future I'm going to be posting more information about yoga, right now I'm just completing my thesis, so I'm a little swamped. However, without having any material in front of me I can tell you that clinical trials with yoga have demonstrated that consistent long-term practice of yoga (I have an appropriate definition of long-term in my thesis) yields very promising remission rates on depression and anxiety. The rates are similar to drug treatments, for example the remission rate on melancholic depression after only four weeks was 67% in comparison to the drug treatment of imipramine which has a remission rate of 73%. That is pretty impressive considering that yoga is not a pharmacological intervention, no drugs.

      In keeping with my own skepticism and filling the methodological gap, my thesis focuses on what is it about yoga that heals anxiety or depression, what practices specifically, and in what way.

      In the near future I will be releasing a manual for the group treatment of anxiety and depression using yoga. However, the group manual uses both yoga and cognitive therapy. The clinical trials that get the "gold seal" are the ones that use drug treatment and therapy together. I hear your comments about using CBT and agree, my clients also find it useful. My idea is to create a space where physical activity through the practice of yoga is introduced with the psychotherapeutic interventions of a cognitive behavioural therapy.

  3. I love this - I've tried yoga a few times and really enjoyed it

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