Yoga’s fake. It doesn’t work. It’s all a load of nonsense designed to suck away your time and take your money!
Why would you waste your life with it?
Ok, it’s not, obviously. That’s just the clickbait to draw you in because this is a long one. It’s an article that kept on growing and growing.
It tackles the subject of how yoga works. Which is a big subject.
First off, that means looking at what that might actually mean: what are the reported effects of yoga and what are the possible ways in which some of those effects are realised?
That line of thinking led me to seriously consider yoga as a kind of a placebo and to try work out what that might mean in terms of how it’s practised.
“Seriously” because yoga’s not really a placebo, but also seriously because placebos might not be exactly what you think. In other words – can the type of practice you engage with (as a teacher or student) increase or decrease the placebo effect? And is that something to concern yourself with or not?
The answer to both questions in my mind is yes, obviously (spoiler alert).
The article offers a framework for the practice as a ritual. This gives you a way to situate yourself (or your students) in a specialised space and some ideas of how you can best use the time spent in that space.
A lot of it depends on your mindset, and the process of clarifying that can go a long way in influencing how yoga works for you.
So if you’ve ever practised yoga, you’re thinking of starting it, or you’re a yoga teacher, there’s a lot that might be interesting.
If you’re only here because it’s the End of the World, start doing some yoga and stop worrying about it long enough that you can do something to help hold it off.
Table of contents
Does yoga work?
Yoga must be doing something right. People keep on going back to it again and again. They practise and they practise and they practise. They sweat and stretch and chant and set intentions.
What’s happening? Is yoga working? There’s certainly not a wave of enlightenment sweeping the inner city yoga studios of the Western world. You only have to put your mat down in the wrong spot, overhear some of the post-class conversations in the changing rooms, or work behind the desk at a yoga studio to see that.
This is a potentially big and vague question without a single answer. A question that won’t satisfy your instinctive need for definitive polarised answers. It’s the kind of question that can lead you to the conclusion that yoga’s all in your mind.
It might lead to even wonder what a mind is, and how it works.
And if yoga’s all in your mind, that definitely seems at odds with everyone’s mental image of “yoga practice” which involves rolling out a mat and putting on stretchy pants. (And by “everyone”, I may not mean you personally, but the Western-oriented globalised depiction of yoga in the media, the one that your tax dollars and choices are helping to generate).
So given that practising and studying and thinking about yoga in the modern world has the potential to generate substantial cognitive dissonance, it seems like a good idea to try and answer the question somehow.
The modern take is that everyone has a different approach to yoga. They get into it for different reasons and there are so many different varieties, that for yoga to be “working” it just means that it is working for them, there and then at their particular point in space and time. If it makes you feel good in the here and now, then it’s working. I mean, you must have heard of living in the present, right?
This take has the unfortunate side effect of cutting out most of the history of yoga, the texts which have provided the foundational knowledge of what we mean when we call something “yoga”. And it also ignores the times that yoga might be working for your benefit even if it doesn’t make you feel like rainbows and unicorns right there and then.
It’s an approach which crowns subjectivity as king: how you feel about your experience is all that matters. Is this a problem?
Not on the surface. But once you get down to looking at what constitutes consciousness it starts to. One of the big questions of yoga is: Who is doing the feeling of the experience?
But maybe that’s making this all sound too complicated too quickly.
As we shall see later on, to make a practice as effective as possible, it is important to think about your intentions, or at least to be aware of the direction in which you want to be headed. So ask yourself: what are you actually trying to do by practising yoga?
You might have very specific goals in mind when you practice, or maybe you’ve never even thought about it before, either’s fine. Hopefully it will lead you to another question:
What can yoga do?
This, of course, is part of the big question, “What is yoga?” which isn’t a question that I’m going to answer right at this point. Or maybe ever.
And maybe you don’t care. You just want to get on your mat and zen out. Or do your down dawg thang. Or be you just doing you, you know, the real you. Maybe you have the attitude that if you look too deeply into how it’s working, it’ll stop working the way it does.
Spirit, mind and body
Perhaps it’ll make more sense to break down the “what it can do” and lay it out from the most intangible to the most concrete, the subtle to the gross. Not that this kind of distinction should be mistaken for a value structure.
If you think that the term enlightenment sounds too Buddhist, you might prefer moksha or liberation. Awakening to Reality. You might even think that this is too lofty a goal, especially for your twice weekly Power Yoga class at the local gym.
You also might doubt the possibility that through your yoga practice you can come to the realisation that you’ve misidentified yourself with your ego personality, that conditioned reality is illusory, and that your natural state is one of equanimous bliss.
Conditioned reality (your life, your wife – or husband – and kids – or cats – your nine to five and all the rest of the experience of living in this world that is observed by your senses) can have a strong grip on your feelings about existence. Maybe your life has always been getting you down, and you’re depressed. Maybe you’re overworked and mentally overstretched and it’s making you anxious.
So rather than seeing yoga as means of spiritual transcendence, you see it as a way of living in your world more mindfully, more consciously, of living in a way that doesn’t fear the shadow of the future or seek to escape the grasp of the past.
Or maybe you see it as the panacea that it was hailed as in the 60s, the poster child of the wellness industry, a cause to believe in, capable of working wonders when the medical professionals have all but given up. Your body is a temple and you’re in the business of full on temple renovation. There are so many anecdotes of miracle cures, cancer healings and mid-life reconfigurations, all attributable to the powerful energetic reorganisation of yoga.
Perhaps the most popular expectation is about what yoga can do for your physical body, and this is a large part of the reason why people begin to practice in the first place.
Here, the claims of yoga’s potential become quite expansive. To get fitter and more flexible, to ease the excess muscular-skeletal tension developed from a marathon of sitting, to detox, to improve posture, to get a yoga bod, to get someone else with a yoga bod, and all the rest: injury prevention, improving athletic performance, weight loss, cardiovascular health, maintenance of a healthy metabolism, reduction of inflammation, osteoporosis prevention, regulation of blood pressure and adrenal function, boosting the immune system and more and more and more.
Is yoga working to do that?
Are people less stressed, more present, improving their physical wellbeing, kinder, more compassionate and increasingly aware of their impact on themselves, on those around them and on the environment? Are they stronger, leaner, healthier overall?
Somehow and in some way, some of these benefits of yoga must be realised to a great enough extent, otherwise why would people keep going back? Why does the industry as a whole keep on expanding?
When you practise yoga, a lot of the time (but certainly not always), you feel better. Better about what? Yourself, your health, the world at large, about being human. A whole load of intangible stuff as well as being able to bend down to tie your shoelaces more easily and reach for the cookie jar without putting your back out.
What makes yoga work?
This is a complicated question, especially when you hear claims that yoga might have very specific effects, such as “preventing osteoporosis”, or very broad ones, such as “improving athletic performance.” And there are ones which sound potentially undesirable, such as “ego dissolution.” What if, like most people, you’re particularity attached to the idea of the kind person you think you are?
A reasonable answer would likely be a highly theoretical combination of multiple pathways all interacting with each other in a complicated set of interconnected biological and neurological mechanisms.
This article isn’t looking to generate exactly that reasonable answer. That’s more of a heavy textbook that you put on a shelf and plan to read later kind of answer.
Instead, first I’m going to take a step back and say something obvious:
Exercise is good for you, and a lot of the practices of Modern Yoga fall squarely under the category of exercise. This is not to say that yoga should be considered solely a kind of keep fit activity, it just tends to be what it’s used for.
Depending on how vigorously you move, moving can reduce the odds of you developing a whole range of health problems. Studies have shown that both physical activity and fitness are strong predictors of risk of death. The less physically active and the less fit you are, the higher the risk of death. In particular exercise seems to help prevent chronic diseases, sometimes called lifestyle diseases or diseases of affluence, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. There’s a linear relationship between the volume of exercise and the state of health of an individual. 1
The not very old adage – or, more accurately, cliché – goes that if pharmaceutical companies could package what exercise does in a pill, then they’d make billions from it. The irony being, of course, that exercise is free.
However, from the outset I’ve been deliberately undefined as to what I mean by yoga practice. You can practice yoga in multiple ways. I’m sure you’ve already thought at some point while you’ve been reading:
What do you practise?
Yoga is tremendously diverse. That’s why I didn’t want to answer the “What is Yoga?” question. To survey the current and previous states of worldwide yoga practice would create another leave-it-on-the-bookshelf textbook, and a lot of difficult to answer questions. For instance, the obvious one, can you call something yoga if it doesn’t do what yoga practice purports to be able to do? Do you just take the subjectivist approach? Where do you take your reference from?
If you took the standpoint that the benefits gained from practising yoga were only those conferred by the exercise element, then you’d need that survey to determine what benefit yoga could provide.
Yoga doesn’t just involve movement, but there are a wide range of movements which fall under the heading asana or kriya, and more are being absorbed into it on a regular basis. There are some practices which require very little or no physical activity at all, like pranayama and meditation, and some which involve the opposite: a lot of jumping around and handstands, or balancing on one leg in a super-heated room. You can practise Bhakti, Karma or Jnana Yoga without breaking a sweat yet if you look back in the literature of Hatha Yoga, you’ll find rope climbing and other activities which we now don’t think of as “yogic.” 2
What we think of as yoga and what yoga actually is is a venn diagram that intersects less than you think.
The correlation of yoga to exercise and the benefits that it confers through similar mechanisms is not exact and highly dependent on the type of yoga practice that’s engaged in.
Likewise the mental benefits. There is a lot of evidence that exercise is beneficial for mental health, and the scope of those benefits are dependent on the practice that’s undertaken. Endorphin-producing vinyasa yoga in a crowded sweaty room will have different mental effects than meditating alone on the fundamental transience of all things, including the fundamental transience of the hardware which is allowing the meditation to take place.
So this is really a much bigger question, one that needs to be addressed by each different kind of potential practice available from the spectrum of yoga.
In fact there are many other physiological and psychological axes that could be examined in determining why and how yoga is effective, like the regulation of the nervous system, the part that belief or faith plays in physical and mental health and the neuroscience of sustained attention.
These would all be very interesting avenues to explore.
The secret ingredient
But instead of answering that question, I want to invert all the assumptions that I’ve just been making. Instead I want to try a thought experiment.
Let’s say that yoga – and let’s try and briefly contain all of its various practices in this term – does not confer any of the benefits that you’d get from exercise. For mat-based pseudo-calisthenic practises, this is obviously not true, but stick with it.
Say it still does something (and sometimes something way in excess of what might be expected for the equivalent physical activity to do if you believe those who tell you about their experiences or have ever experienced it yourself). Why is that? What else could be causing yoga to be effective apart from the moving and the breathing?
Is there some secret magic ingredient?
If the effects of exercise were by some ingenious and improbable method made into a pill, then in order for a drug company to sell it, they’d have to test it against a substance that was known to do nothing at all, something called a placebo. That’s the main use of placebos in modern evidence-based medicine: they are usually part of the control arm of a (preferably double blind) randomised controlled trial.
Placebos are the substances that a drug must outperform to a statistically significant extent in order to be deemed effective and therefore marketable by the pharmaceutical companies as the treatment they can claim it to be. They are sugar pills or fake injections: interventions that do something even though they don’t contain any active ingredients.
The intervention doesn’t have to be in the form of a drug: studies have been done on sham surgeries, a surgical intervention which omits the intended therapeutic procedure – like arthroscopic meniscal surgery, where instead of actually having the damaged meniscus trimmed, the patient wakes up from the anaesthetic with some apparent puncture marks in the right spot, but the joint capsule of the knee intact. 3 This kind of intervention – for meniscal damage of a specific kind – seems to be just as effective as having the surgery, and has less long term problems.
In fact a placebo can be made of many things, such as words, symbols, rituals and meanings, and so rather than defining it purely as a “fake treatment,” it’s better to look at it as, “the whole ritual of the therapeutic act.” 4
So we’re not looking for a secret ingredient, just an extra one.
An extra ingredient
What does that mean? That regardless of the effect that yoga has based on the same mechanisms as physical exercise, there will also be some further placebo effect. In other words, placebo is an extra ingredient in the recipe when you’re cooking up a batch of yoga.
To put it more systematically: if we look at the mechanisms of the placebo effect, and see how they apply to the context of yoga practice, it would then be possible to see how these effects could be enhanced to increase the potential of a practice. Just like in the realm of exercise science, you manipulate different variables – range, load, intensity and repetitions – of whatever exercise is being tested to determine its effects, there will possibly be variables that can be manipulated to change the action of the placebo effect.
You might be doing this unconsciously. And there might be ways that you could increase it or decrease it, if you became more aware of it.
First, we need to understand exactly what a placebo might or might not be doing. That’s no easy task. Placebos have had a mixed history. They are as old as medicine itself, an important part of a doctor’s toolkit for centuries, but for those who take the Hippocratic oath literally, there has been a long debate over the ethics of prescribing them.5 How can you be following the edict to do no harm if you know the medicine you’re prescribing contains no active ingredients, at least none to remedy the illness they’re trying to cure? The sugar in a sugar pill would remedy hypoglycemia at the right dosage.
Placebos work best on symptoms modulated by the brain – like the perception of pain – on subjective outcomes, rather than one’s that can be objectively measured – like blood pressure or cholesterol levels. Determining conclusively how effective placebos can be has been difficult due to the ethical constraints inherent in their use, and because of our limited understanding of how they might work.
For a long time, it was thought that it was necessary for the patient to believe that they were taking real medicine, and that if they knew it was a sugar pill, it wouldn’t work.6 It’s an intuitive idea – that placebos work because people expect them to work, and that it’s somehow an act of imagination on the patient’s part, or a conditioned response to an act of healing (being given a pill or an injection or a pat on the head) that prompts the response in those that got better.
However, clinical trials have shown that a non-blind placebo prescription – one where the patient was aware that what they were given had no pharmacological effect – still engendered a placebo response for conditions like anxiety, tiredness and allergic rhinitis.7
The ritual response
Even stranger effects have been observed in real pharmaceuticals: when painkillers (strong ones like buprenorphine and tramadol) are administered covertly – not within view of the patient – the analgesic effect is significantly less than if they’re provided openly. When diazepam (originally marketed as Valium), an anti-anxiety drug that has a calming effect, is given to a patient without their knowledge, it doesn’t have the same effect on postoperative anxiety as if they know they’ve taken it.8
There’s something in the act or ritual of delivery of a treatment that causes it to be effective, at least in the treatment of pain and anxiety.
While placebo research has long identified key psychological mechanisms – not only expectation and conditioning, but also anxiety reduction, learning, memory, motivation, somatic focus (the tendency to notice physical symptoms) and reward – researchers have recently begun to describe more quantifiable changes in things which could influence the course of an illness, like neurotransmitters, hormones and immune regulators. 9 In other words, they also have an effect through physiological mechanisms too.
Placebos activate the same biochemical pathways activated by drugs which have the same effects. For instance, morphine is a painkiller which works by binding to opioid receptors, which inhibits pain transmission. At the same time, the ritual of administering a painkiller has the same effect: the same opioid receptors are activated, inducing responses in key structures of the descending pain control system, the same areas of the brain light up, and the same parts of the spinal cord are involved.10 Placebos have the power to interact with powerful endogenous systems in the body – not just opioid, but the ones related to dopamine and serotonin as well – which all can have a knock-on effect.
And that’s the key, the effect of a placebo is in the ritual of its administration.
Rituals have the potential to have immensely powerful effects: their aim is often to completely transform the participants.
So it would make more sense to call it the ritual response, rather than the placebo response, except that nobody would know what you’re talking about, and it’s easier to test drugs rather than “rituals.”
Much of the history of medicine owes its success to the power of ritual, even as the progress of science tries to isolate the active ingredients and separate them off from the effect of the ritual.
Healing rituals have been evident in many ancient cultures, and some of the modern day treatments of the wellness industry, massage, hot stones, sweating (in saunas or lodges or stream baths), oiling and herb scrubs are the simplified, sanitised and repackaged descendants of these practices.
And it goes deeper than that – ritual in a broader sense is fundamental to human behaviour and social interaction. Think of the difference between how you greet someone you know well compared to someone you’ve never met before. A hug versus a handshake. Both demonstrate a kind of ritualised behaviour – one that is defined by the relationship with your friend, and one that is defined by the culture or cultures that you both come from. When there is culture clash in ritual greetings – when you mistake a handshake for a high five – you find yourself in an awkward and potentially vulnerable social situation. Or not.
The essence of ritual has been instrumental in making us the homo sapiens with the minds we have today. Ritualised behaviour has always been an important part of human interaction, even to the extent that it has influenced our ability to interact and work together. It’s influenced our evolution as a species.
This is a sidetrack, but it demonstrates how ritual has been instrumental in our cognitive development:
- Anthropologists and psychologists have suggested that as early hominid groups became larger and larger, social interaction between parts of the groups would have become more complex and would have required more demanding and elaborate social rituals.
- Ritual behaviour requires focused attention, and the ability to inhibit certain kinds of responses – ones which would be undesirable in a social transaction – both of which place demand on the parts of the brain associated with working memory.
- The development and improvement in working memory this would have brought about – through successful social interactions and the conferred greater selective fitness – could have potentially laid the foundation for modern human cognition.11
What is a ritual?
Rituals are “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performer” 12. This is the terse textbook definition, but covers all the key points. They’re formal acts, in the sense that they follow a set form, and also there’s often a level of behavioural or ceremonial formality involved, and importantly the person performing the ritual doesn’t necessarily specify everything they’re doing, they’re playing a part in a sequence of acts established and given meaning by an authority beyond them.
What has all of this got to do with yoga?
Hopefully that should be fairly obvious by now. Modern Yoga has grown out of a ritualistic tradition, and a lot of yoga practices are displays of highly ritualised behaviour, especially when there is a teacher involved and even if they have become divorced from the tradition which gave rise to yoga.
If you looked at the spectrum of healing rituals, from the doctor-patient interactions of modern medicine all the way to the faith healing of tv evangelists, yoga would probably fall somewhere in the middle – maybe closer to the medicine end for some musculoskeletal issues.
Ted Kaptchuk has spent a long time looking at the interaction of placebo effect and ritual, something he studied extensively as Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He compared three different kinds of ritual designed for healing: Navajo healing chantways, acupuncture and biomedical treatment. From his study, he identified several things that they have in common, things which structure how they have a healing effect, a thread which runs through them all and follows a similar progression. He describes how through the ritual, the patient and their personal and individual story is brought into contact with a larger overarching ordered system, and through the skill of the healer, empowered to identify themselves differently, to the extent that they experience a change of state.13
In relation to yoga, the three different interventions cover the full range of different mindsets and expectations with which people come to the practice, from the purely mystical to those based in hard(-ish) science, from kirtan and bhakti to floating into handstands and functional range conditioning.
And from most perspectives, yoga can be seen as a healing ritual. Even the exercise junkie looking to get a good workout or the hypertrophied gym rat who needs to stretch their overworked pecs is going into class with the idea of receiving some degree of healing, regardless of whether they would term it that.
What do you think you’re doing?
Why do you go to a doctor, or a therapist, or a bodyworker in the first place? Usually because you think there is something that needs to be fixed.
Mindset plays a part in a healing ritual – the participant has to have a predisposition to be healed 14, whether that has been developed from individually confronting their own disordered state, or whether through the influence of an external agent that has changed their disposition. And mindset will play a part in how the different aspects of a yoga practice could have a ritual effect.
Out of context that sounds obvious of course. But remember, painkillers given without the ritual associated with their administration don’t stop pain in the same way as those that are openly prescribed.
The ritual framework
In his comparative analysis, Kaptchuk, identifies four distinct things which all the rituals do. The language he uses is naturally academic, so I’ve rebranded them, to make them seem more user-friendly, or at least easier to remember:
By first creating a specialised SETTING, ritual participants are taken out of their ordinary life. They are guided through a series of actions that provides a STRUCTURE which exposes them to the influence of SUPERPOWERS, powerful forces which act on and become integrated into the individual through the structure of the ritual. By the end they are given SPACE to evaluate how they’ve changed.
By seeing how far different kinds of yoga practices follow similar processes, we can see how far they might share the healing effect of a ritual.
The rituals all provide a special setting, an “evocation of space, time and words separate from the ordinary.”
This certainly happens in studio-based yoga classes. You enter a place which is designated specifically for yoga. There might be incense burning or other sensory signposts provided by music or lighting.
You have to take your shoes off, switch your phone off, and in some places assume a quiet attitude of preparation (“No talking in the yoga room!”). You disconnect from the outside world – the time has been carved out especially for the purpose.
The yoga room is sometimes referred to as a shala (literally “house” or “abode” in Sanskrit), and might even house a statue of a Hindu deity in a prescribed location with a prescribed facing. Or maybe a buddha or yin yang symbol, or more randomly, a picture of the pyramids or Stonehenge.
The teacher will often start the class by suggesting that the practitioners set this time aside in their minds for a special purpose or intention.
The class might start with a mantra, and certainly the words used throughout are separate from the ordinary. How separate depends on the structure of the class, and what kind of superpowers the teacher is inclined to bring to bear on the students – and we’ll get to that.
The teacher themselves creates a setting of sorts. Their very presence is an indicator that you’re in a special space, and at one level they are assuming a role that they can exploit or diminish. It’s not just because they need paid work in between shows that actors become yoga teachers. Usually – when they start out at least – they’re good at playing the role.
The fact that doctors wear white coats has spawned the expression the “white coat effect”. Some people record higher blood pressure when taken in a medical setting, by someone wearing the appropriate attire. So how a yoga teacher presents themselves will have a similar effect – many have had the experience of being taught by a teacher who looks the part. Dreadlocks and a long beard go a long way creating a sense of the out of the ordinary to the mainly white, young female yoga consumers that fill yoga studios. Tattoos have probably crossed over now into being so run of the mill and expected, that having a teacher without any is more unusual.
Hot Yoga affects setting on another dimension, by changing the environmental conditions. If it is Bikram Yoga – the style that spawned the rest of the hot yogas – it takes this to the extremes of 40°C heat, bright lights, carpet under foot, a mirrored room and microphone-wielding teacher. And if they are a “traditional” Bikram teacher (how traditional can 40 years really be in the context of yoga?), the words they use are so idiosyncratic, inscribed verbatim from the speedo-clad guru while he was still held in guru esteem, that it can’t help but take you into a state loaded with potential. And sweat. And confusion over exactly what is meant by “Japanese ham sandwich.”
This won’t be the case for all yoga practices. Practicing in your own house will always have the problem of being a setting already loaded with memories, associations and objects that anchor you to your ordinary life.
Yet even if you are a conscientious Ashtangi and start your morning home practice with the opening chant, and you even if you have a special space set aside for practice which you swish with burning sage on a regular basis, some days you might skip the mantra if you’ve got a sore throat, and you might not always get up to practise at the most auspicious early morning hour in the depths of a northern winter. The setting is much more easily mutable in your own home.
Practising or teaching in a gym could be equally mixed. It’s hard to evoke a space and time separate from the ordinary when your practice space is being overwhelmed by the sounds of 100kg being rhythmically dropped by the deadlifter next door. And if you can still see the skids of sweat left on the floor by the commando bodypump class that’s leaving the room as you enter, it might just put you in the state of mind that gyms trade on – hyper commercialised body identity, which the mass media weaponises to sell whatever needs to be sold – a state of mind which doesn’t lend itself easily to the time and space needed for healing.
And if you practice on the rug next to your sofa with videos from an online app, which you keep on pausing to sip your mid-morning coffee, the feeling of being separate from your ordinary life will be non-existent.
Like theatre, ritual requires some kind of set to help you suspend your disbelief.
The rituals all provide a “pathway of enactment that guides and envelopes the patient.”
In other words, a ritual gives you a sequence of actions or steps to follow that is fully absorbing.
It requires your focused attention. This is at the heart of a yoga practice – at least any mat-(or cushion if you’re meditating)-based practice. Yoga then takes that focused attention and compounds and concentrates it before turning it back on itself in an act of self-reflection.
In its simplest form the sequence of actions could be a sequence of postures, and the degree to which they guide and envelop the practitioner will depend on the type of sequence and how the teacher, if there is one, frames them. An asana class can be taught as a concise and continuous movement of body parts where the participants are expected to do the same things at the same time, or as a workshop, where everyone does what they want with minimal group guidance from the teacher who goes round and interacts with people individually.
In this sense, repetition of asana sequences from practice to practice should increase the potential for a ritual effect, as will the most clarity about the “correct” alignment of the forms. That means fully backing the alignment myth – that there is a prescribed and proper way to do all the postures that shouldn’t be diverged from – would be one way of giving the actions more ritualistic potential. In fact, this is probably the only reason for insisting that anyone uses a particular physical alignment for a yoga posture.
So at one extreme you have Bikram Yoga where, through the language used, a “dialogue” of precise memorised instructions, the teacher tells the practitioner exactly where and when to put each body part. Divergence from the group is often met with hostility by the teacher (depending how far they were indoctrinated into the cult of Bikram), or at least confusion and eyerolls.
At the other extreme you have a class which is a loose collection of different tricks linked together by instructions like, “…and when you’re done playing let’s all meet back in downward dog.”
The Ashtanga Vinyasa Mysore style practice does something between the two. Your practice isn’t structured to be synchronised with those around you, but the sequence is set and handed down from the source, the shala in Mysore, to your teacher (or to your teacher’s teacher), and you are not to diverge from it, but repeat it daily apart from the prescribed, astronomically-derived days off. The structure is totally imposed on the practitioner: the teacher decides when you are ready to do the next posture in the series, physically adjusting you into the asanas, and the teacher decides whether you are ready to move onto the next series, if at all. But you move through your own sequence of poses at your own pace and a lot of the alignment is more open to interpretation.
Here’s an infographic that relates the increase in 3 key aspects of the structure – strictness, fixed sequence and synchronicity – to potential ritual effect. Again it’s a made up graph to appear scientific, but helps explain that it’s not a linear relationship.
Structure is also dependent on setting. Being in a specialised setting like a studio or gym automatically adds some structure. What about practicing at home?
The cloud meeting yoga class phenomenon is the closest you can get to the structure of a studio or gym class in your own home, but technology acts like a screen which filters out some of immediacy due to lag or patchiness in sound or vision. As technology improves, that’s bound to as well.
Following a video has the power to provide a powerful pathway of enactment that could be fully enveloping, except that the pause button puts the power to switch it on and off into the hand of the practitioner. So the ritual effect has to contend with the strength of the physical setting (what if you get a knock on your front door with that delivery you’ve been expecting?) and the willpower of the practitioner to stick with something they’ve started.
And at the far other end of the scale is a completely unstructured home practice. If your practice is a freeform, wiggle about on a mat, doing what feels best at the time, broken up by instagram breaks to inspire your next posture, and photo opportunities to record it, it might not generate the same benefits as something with a ritualised delivery. Not that it won’t do you any good of course
In one way or another, rituals all provide a “concrete embodiment of potent forces.”
In yoga, there are two distinct potent forces at work: Science and Magic.
The magic of Science
In the ritual of biomedical treatment, this is most tangible: a patient is given a pharmaceutical substance, which the auspices of the scientific method and evidence-based medicine have said will have a direct and undeniable effect on their physiology.
In some instances, this is the same effect as Modern postural yoga, in particular when it is put together as a targeted sequence: do this set of postures if you’ve got a slipped disc, or if you’ve got tight hips, or if you’re depressed because it’s the end of the world. Usually it’s musculoskeletal-based, but you do get people selling Yoga for Anxiety and Yoga for Insomnia.
The language used is key – the more technical and anatomical the more the powers of science are conjured into the movements: myofascial meridians, baroreceptor reflex, stabiliser activation, parasympathetic regulation, vagal tone. Yoga is positioned as a kind of bespoke self-administered physiotherapy, and postures are described in terms of which muscles groups are being stretched or strengthened.
Some yoga teachers strongly try and establish themselves in this as a kind of “niche”. Often they are also trained physiotherapists, osteopaths or chiropractors, and their emphasis is on the intrinsic functional deficiencies that practising yoga asana encourages in its practitioners. They’re selling both the disease and the cure.
And although it would never describe itself as “yoga”, the branch of movement that brands itself as functional, a combination of mobility and specialised stretching exercises uses a powerful version of this in its delivery. It emerged during the boom of yoga, partly as a reaction against the kind of passive static stretching that some yoga practices entail, and partly as a way to market the movements to mindsets that wouldn’t accept yoga with all the bells and whistles but needed the movements. In other words, powerlifters need to stretch too, dude.
The exercises used are often acronyms describing the movements in strict anatomical terms, exercises which are designed to increase range of motion and the neurological control of those ranges. Controlled Articular Rotations. Progressive Angular Isometric Loading. CARs. PAILs. It’s a bit like getting a CAT or PET scan – the esoteric power of acronyms for highly technical terminology infuses the ritual with special potency.
Yoga teachers have always leant on science. Bikram did this on a much more symbolic level by insisting on the “medical benefits” of his sequence. 15
In the same way that Traditional Chinese Medicine embodies a theory of the powerful interaction of the body’s internal organs which isn’t backed up by medical science16, Bikram’s medical benefits describe how his sequence of exercises works all the organs systematically. A forward bending spinal flexion is a “compression of the pancreas and extension of the kidneys.”17 The specifics of what that exactly means aren’t actually important, but the postures are emphasised as having a literally visceral effect. It’s Yoga for your Organs.
As a superpower, science has great potential, but it’s not perfect.
Science admits to its own limits. In fact that’s its greatest strength in terms of increasing the global body of knowledge – it’s not a belief system. It allows for uncertainty and admits to its own incompleteness. Any theory can be called into question and overturned if there is observable evidence.
That means it can be hard to say things very decisively, especially about a subject as complex as human anatomy. Biomechanics is a fairly new discipline which means there are a lot of competing theories. As more research is made, theories are reinforced or adjusted. For instance, if you look at something as ingrained in social behaviour and apparently intuitive as posture, you’ll see that not all experts agree on whether it’s important if you have good posture or not.18
Yoga teachers that rely on science are left with a difficult balance. It’s easiest to be convincing when the message you’re delivering is very clear and unambiguous. In terms of marketing, that’s always what works best. But doing some research will usually tell a different story.
Will practicing backbending postures be good for your herniated disc?
Should your elbows be close to your body in chaturanga?
It depends. Will regularly practicing shoulderstand positively affect my blood pressure?
Will doing yoga make me more flexible?
If your agenda is overtly anatomy-based (either as a teacher or a practitioner), and you’re using the potent force of science to embody what you’re teaching into those that you’re teaching, you might paradoxically need to be unscientific about it to make it more effective – at least from the point of view of the ritualisation of its delivery. You might need to stick some magic into it.
Just keep telling yourself how great it is that you’re compressing your pancreas.
And of course both of these – Yoga for your Organs and the bespoke physio, functional movement approach – potentially have a limited scope, as they’re not drawing on an agency that is beyond the practitioner’s physical self. They are concretely embodied in the muscles, connective tissue and organs of the person on the mat. In other words, they’re focused on healing the body, and we’ve seen that yoga has always billed itself as being able to transform the non-physical – or at least to be able to influence the space between the physical and non-physical.
Not that physical well-being isn’t a good thing. We all want it, even though we know it won’t last forever.
But working directly on the mind has some effects which, while having the potential to be far further reaching, are harder to scientifically assess. Consciousness and its potential states, having been semi-fringe research for decades, are only gradually coming into the mainstream due to the very real possibility of the developing artificial consciousnesses.
The science of Magic
Magic is not the right word, but I needed something as a counterpoint to science. Psychospirituality might be more concise. Yoga practice has the potential to draw on an expansive tradition that contains a huge array of potent forces which can be transposed onto the individual world of the practitioner.
Most mat-based yoga practices from the world of Modern Yoga have been inherited from the teachings of Hatha Yoga, in itself a development or distillation of the vast Tantric tradition. Tantra is the home of ritual. It’s where we get a lot of the psycho-technology of yoga, the stuff which doesn’t have any scientific backing at all. To crudely summarise it: our meat-based body machines are running on a kind of all-pervasive life-force energy called prana, which circulates round our subtle (non-physical) bodies through specialised channels, the main one being aligned with the spine, called sushumna nadi, which has seven centres of whirling energy situated on it called chakras.
A combination of cleansing exercises, breathing exercises and postural practices encourages the prana to flow through the body more freely, undoing blockages that sometimes occur in the chakras due to negative psychological and emotional states. In fact a posture can even act like a seal, or mudra, for the prana – a way of containing and focussing its activity – a bit like how connecting up a circuit gets the electricity running.
According to the teachings, at the lowest level chakra, we all have a kind of divine feminine, coiled cosmic energy, which is lying dormant. It’s called kundalini shakti. Once the prana is flowing particularly strongly, it has an effect on kundalini shakti, waking it up and forcing it to rise up sushumna, the energy channel that correlates exactly with the physical location of the spine, to the chakra at the crown of the head. This results in a massive transformation of consciousness, enlightenment, samadhi, a complete reconfiguration of your sense of self.19
That’s the abridged version: there’s more to it than that, more energy channels that play an important role, more mysterious and vital forces, energy centres, elements, gunas, and so on.
In fact, the vast yoga tradition provides a field of interconnected and interdependent metaphorical structures into which the practitioner can situate themselves, and see themselves as part of a greater system.
Some people are naturally skeptical of all of this.
Not all teachers will teach with this as the fundamental reason for doing triangle pose, or shoulder stand, or wheel pose, or any of the other asanas you might do in a class. It takes quite a commitment in teaching terms, especially if it’s not part of your cultural background.
You can’t measure prana. No one’s managed to take a picture of a chakra (yet.) Empiricism is a powerful doctrine, and depending on the individual, a class taught with too much emphasis on the subtle and unscientific – the parts that have been co-opted by the New Age movement and regurgitated onto tote bags and tattoos – might completely prevent the suspension of disbelief to the extent that any ritual effect is significantly diminished.
In other words, some people are very actively anti-woo woo.
And then there’s the strong shadow of cultural appropriation to contend with. That can cut both ways. There are those that see the trappings of yoga as essentially belonging to another culture, and therefore nothing to do with them, and there are those that see yoga as something that has been corrupted by the West and commercialisation of the impious. The first says, “I’m not a Hindu, I was not brought up believing in any of that so why should I start now?” and the second says, “This is a sacred tradition which is not being venerated adequately.” Both valid standpoints, both with major flaws which we’re not going to go into now, but where you stand on the scale of cultural appropriation will have a tangible influence on the ritual effect of a yoga practice.
Which is to say that rituals give the participant an “opportunity for evaluation of a new status.”
This is the simplest to relate to a yoga practice, because it’s pretty much universal to all practices. When you’ve finished an asana practice you’re given some space to yourself. You have relaxation in savasana, the dead body pose, which provides a kind of full stop, a point of renewal, of integration.
Again there will be variation in how effective it can be. The people who always leave before savasana will carry on doing it until something more forceful than the teacher’s encouragement stops them in their tracks. And different types of practice have different endings – they all usually end in savasana, but sometimes the teacher leaves the students to it and exits while everyone’s lying down. Sometimes the teacher will bring them out of it and sit them down for a wrap-up chat and a final OM. Sometimes there’ll be a meditation before, sometimes afterwards.
But with just a few simple words a teacher can ask their students to notice the difference in how they feel after they’ve practised, and likewise if you practise on your own, it’s something you can consciously try to do. This can be done formally, as part of the closing of the practice, or just by chatting with the students afterwards to instigate that process in their minds.
In broader terms, yoga practice gives you an opportunity for self-evaluation.
If this is done on a regular basis, it means you can influence them, or see how the passage of time and the right conditions can modulate and change them without your direct intervention.
It gives you space to observe rather than just act, to be the witness and the witnessed.
The Modern Yoga dichotomy
This is just one framework from which to evaluate ritual, and to fit into it the multitude of potential yoga practices. How you practise or teach yoga will cut through all those different factors that contribute to a ritual effect.
If you want to simplify it further, you could position a practice as a coordinate in space with two dimensions: one the axis of tradition, and one the axis of science. These are the two factors which provide the superpowers – the wider context that through the practice is in someway integrated into the practitioner – and as a knock-on effect the setting and the structure.
There is an extent to which they’re mutually exclusive – and this is really one of the big dichotomies of Modern Yoga – the more strongly you frame the practice within the rationale of science, the harder it is to talk about apparently magical energies or any of the psycho-spiritual technology of Hatha Yoga. Traditional practices lean heavily on the idea of parampara – that the practice has been handed down in a long lineage from teacher to student, and that’s why things are done the way they are.
This has the potential to provide a powerful authority, but one that is very fragile in the face of the scientific method, especially when the practices in question are deemed to be damaging within the scope of modern medicine and healthcare. And there are a lot of practices which are: think of kechari mudra, pretty much any of the shat karman, or the excess of poorly executed chaturangas and updogs in modern vinyasa when practised by people who are otherwise fairly sedentary.
And what could possibly be the scientifically proven health benefit for getting both legs behind your head, and pushing yourself up in the air to balance on your hands, benefits that you couldn’t get from a much less potentially risky and more easily achievable movement?
It really does make more sense to say that practising this particular posture (dwi pada sirsasana) – rewires a magical – or psychosomatic – energy circuit that will change the way you experience reality.
Snake oil does the trick some of the time
There is a kind of middle way – where the powers of science are invoked, but in name only, like in Bikram’s “medical benefits” – but how effective that might be will depend both on the mindset of the practitioner and the length of time they’ve been practising. If you have a curious mind, and want to look into how Half Moon pose can ease constipation, or whether it’s a good thing that you’re creating a “marriage between the pancreas and the kidneys” in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, you will find the powers of science deserting you. And if you’ve practised a long time, the digestive benefits accrued from being told you’re “massaging the ascending, descending and transverse colon”20 by doing pavanamukhtasana, might start to diminish after the first few hundred times of hearing it.
This middle way is where the long lists of yoga asana benefits come from. There are entries of the Yoga Journal where it tells you what postures to practice if you’re having trouble conceiving, or can’t sleep, or have a cold: Yoga for Infertility, Yoga for Insomnia, Yoga for Sinusitis. Iyengar spends a whole page of Light on Yoga detailing the many benefits of shoulderstand, including alleviating uterine displacement, menstrual trouble, piles and hernia.21
To the skeptics, all of this sounds like so much snake oil. Much of the literature on yoga’s health benefits has a dubious authority and looks impossible to objectively verify. So much for wringing out all the toxins from your liver when you twist.
Ultimately the teacher is telling a kind of story. I like the metaphor of the theatre, where the teacher assumes a role. But it’s a kind of participatory theatre, it requires that the audience gets involved and the practitioners must assume a role too. They must get in the right mindset for the play to be convincing, and some of that is down to the teacher, it’s a matter of education. To begin with, you don’t know the full potential of what something can do until someone tells you. You might not even notice the effects it’s having if you’re not paying attention.
To be most effective the story must be as coherent as possible. All the parts have got to fit together. There should be no continuity errors or major plot holes. As a teacher, how you apply the power of science or attach the practice to the greater tradition should align with how the practice is structured and the way the teaching is delivered. If you learned to teach in an established “tradition” (think Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga, Shivananda etc), then this will already have been done for you in some way. Of course there are many hundreds of teacher trainings out there now.
And if you practice yoga, and often on your own, then the key is knowledge. The more you understand of the system you’re trying to position yourself in, the greater the power of the system to affect you.
The bottom line
All of this has looked at the various ways that a yoga practice can be framed as a ritual in order to maximise the potential for a placebo response in the participants. But what does that actually mean? What can it realistically do for a yoga practitioner? Most important to bear in mind that this is all theoretical. We’ve long since crossed from the side of evidence-based medicine to murkier territory.
There’s the obvious question. Do placebos actually do anything? Placebos themselves are notoriously hard to study scientifically, let alone ritual. Research has been mixed, with some meta-analyses suggesting that there is no placebo effect at all.22 Some studies suggest that although the magnitude of the effect might be the same, a placebo is more short-lived than when compared to a pharmaceutical.23 Others have shown that the placebo effect is actually getting stronger – drugs are no longer out-performing placebos to the extent they were before – but only in the US.24 Further studies have identified part of the genome that might have a bearing on the placebo response, suggesting that some people will respond and some people don’t. 25 This is where there is the potential for more interesting research on the exact mechanisms involved in the placebo response.
Part of the problem is that the effect of the placebo seems to be in the delivery, and the delivery depends on a person (doctor, acupuncturist, shaman, yoga teacher), and their particular character and charisma. As will the character of the patient or practitioner affect the interaction between the two. That’s not something you can easily control for in a study, or replicate if you want to show that study has the effect your research claims it does. And these are things that the scientific method demands.
Placebo responses are strongest on a patient’s report of their experience of pain. It seems possible that a yoga practice aimed at reducing muscular-skeletal tension might get some of its success from the placebo effect, from the ritualisation of its delivery. Likewise easing anxiety and stress – as the placebo response activates endogenous systems not just for pain relief, but ones associated with dopamine and serotonin – a yoga practice that emphasises this could have an effect on the self-reported mood of the practitioners that could be increased by the application of ritual.
How all this might have a knock-on effect to the management of disease, and other more objectively measurable disorders – in other words generalised “healing” – would be just pure speculation.
This is a dangerous domain to enter as the time and energy that people want to spend looking after themselves is usually limited, and how it is spent will have a direct effect on their state of health. Promoting untested cures for conditions which already have established treatments is sketchy at best.
And the scientific method doesn’t even bother with ritual. Where would you start? There are too many variables, too many types of ritual with too many proposed outcomes, and it’s therefore too difficult to say with any certainty what exact mechanisms are at work.
Clearly there is something at work. On a study of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) using sham acupuncture, researchers tested the effect of increasing ritual intervention by the therapists: sympathetic general questioning, fake treatment and a follow up supportive patient-therapist interaction. The biggest response – as large as one created by a pharmaceutical, measured from changes in blood immunological biomarkers – was from a combination of all three interventions, the response ramped up with each additional intervention, a bit like increasing the dose of a drug.26
So perhaps it all comes down to connection. The connection of the therapist to the patient. The connection of the teacher to the student. How that connection is generated is as unique as the two individuals involved, and isn’t something that can be easily dissected and analysed, but it does extend beyond the setting of the practice – how much the teacher cares about their students goes a long way in any teaching environment. And it’s one that now extends further than it ever has, as social media connects more people together in ways they’ve never been connected before, and allows the teacher to position themselves in at any point in the space of yoga practice, from traditional to scientific, or somewhere in between.
Ultimately yoga is not a placebo. Whatever placebo response the practice generates in its participants is an augmentation to the effects of moving and breathing, or just sitting and breathing, or sitting and concentrating, or whatever the practice entails.
But it’s an augmentation that could greatly magnify those effects if used in the right way, so understanding it has the potential to become a valuable tool in your practice or teaching.
- Darren E.R. Warburton, Crystal Whitney Nicol, and Shannon S.D. Bredin, Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence, CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal
- James Malinson, Roots of Yoga
- Various authors, Arthroscopic Partial Meniscectomy versus Sham Surgery for a Degenerative Meniscal Tear, The New England Journal of Medicine
- Fabrizio Benedetti, Alessandro Piedimonte, and Elisa Frisaldi, How do placebos work? European Journal of Psychotraumatology
- H Brody, The lie that heals: the ethics of giving placebos, PubMed
- Grace Petkovic, James E G Charlesworth, John Kelley, Franklin Miller, Nia Roberts, Jeremy Howick, Effects of placebos without deception compared with no treatment: protocol for a systematic review and meta-analysis, BMJ Open
- J-J Aulas, I Rosner, Efficacy of a non blind placebo prescription, PubMed
- Amanzio M., Pollo A., Maggi G., Benedetti F. 2001, Response variability to analgesics: a role for non-specific activation of endogenous opioids, PubMed
- Ted J. Kaptchuk 2011, Placebo studies and ritual theory: a comparative analysis of Navajo, acupuncture and biomedical healing, PubMed
- Falk Eippert, Ulrike Bingel, Eszter D Schoell, Juliana Yacubian, Regine Klinger, Jürgen Lorenz, Christian Büchel, 2009, Activation of the opioidergic descending pain control system underlies placebo analgesia, PubMed
- Matt J. Rossano 2009, Ritual Behaviour and the Origins of Modern Cognition, Cambridge Archaeological Journal
- Rappaport, 1999, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity
- Ted J. Kaptchuk 2011, Placebo studies and ritual theory: a comparative analysis of Navajo, acupuncture and biomedical healing, PubMed
- Thomas J. Csordas, 1983, The rhetoric of transformation in ritual healing, Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry
- And these are benefits that he said had been tested and corroborated by NASA – why NASA, a space agency, not renowned for its interest in yoga? Presumably because it’s at the very pinnacle of human achievement, it is rocket science after all. NASA naturally has no record of any contact with Mr Bikram Choudhury.
- Yet – presumably if you put a hundred monkeys in a room with a hundred typewriters (or just provide the right kind of dataset to the right kind of AI, you would come up with something that could string it all together.
- Bikram Choudry, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class dialogue
- Swami Muktibodhananda, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Light on Hatha Yoga
- Bikram Choudry, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class dialogue
- BKS Iyengar, 1966, Light on Yoga
- Hróbjartsson A, Gøtzsche PC, 2010, Placebo interventions for all clinical conditions (Review), The Cochrane Library
- Fabrizio Benedetti, 2014, Drugs and placebos: what’s the difference?: Understanding the molecular basis of the placebo effect could help clinicians to better use it in clinical practice, The European Molecular Biology Organization
- Various authors, 2015, Increasing placebo responses over time in U.S. clinical trials of neuropathic pain, Pain
- Kathryn T. Hall, PhD, MPH, Joseph Loscalzo, MD, and Ted J. Kaptchuk, 2015, Genetics and the Placebo Effect: the Placebome, Trends in molecular medicine
- E. Kokkotou L. A. Conboy D.c. Ziogas M. T. Quilty J. M. Kelley R. B. Davis A. J. Lembo T. J. Kaptchuk, 2010, Serum correlates of the placebo effect in irritable bowel syndrome, Neurogastroenterology & Motility