Everywhere else, Americans rush from their high-pressure jobs and tune in to the authoritatively mellow voice of an instructor, gently urging them to solder a union (the literal translation of the Sanskrit word yoga) between mind and body. These Type A strivers want to become Type B seekers, to lose their blues in an asana (pose), to graduate from distress to de-stress. Fifteen million Americans include some form of yoga in their fitness regimen twice as many as did five years ago; 75% of all U.S. health clubs offer yoga classes. Many in those classes are looking not inward but behind. As supermodel Christy Turlington, a serious practitioner, says, "Some of my friends simply want to have a yoga butt." But others come to the discipline in hopes of restoring their troubled bodies. Yoga makes me feel better, they say. Maybe it can cure what ails me.
Oprah Winfrey, arbiter of moral and literary betterment for millions of American women, devoted a whole show to the benefits of yoga earlier this month, with guest appearances by Turlington and stud-muffin guru Rodney Yee. Testimonials from everyday yogis and yoginis clogged the hour: I lost weight; I quit smoking; I conquered my fear of flying; I can sleep again; it saved my marriage; it improved my daughter's grades and attitude. "We are more centered as a team," declared the El Monte Firefighters of Los Altos Hills, Calif.
Sounds great. Namaste, as your instructor says at the end of a session: the divine in me bows to the divine in you. But let's up the ante a bit. Is yoga more than the power of positive breathing? Can it, say, cure cancer? Fend off heart attacks? Rejuvenate post-menopausal women? Just as important for yoga's application by mainstream doctors, can its presumed benefits be measured by conventional medical standards? Is yoga, in other words, a science?
By even asking the question, we provoke a clash of two powerful cultures, two very different ways of looking at the world. The Indian tradition develops metaphors and ways of describing the body (life forces, energy centers) as it is experienced, from the inside out. The Western tradition looks at the body from the outside in, peeling it back one layer at a time, believing only what it can see, measure and prove in randomized, double-blind tests. The East treats the person; the West treats the disease. "Our system of medicine is very fragmented," says Dr. Carrie Demers, who runs the Center for Health and Healing at the Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the USA in Honesdale, Pa. "We send you to different specialists to look at different parts of you. Yoga is more holistic; it's interested in the integration of body, breath and mind."
The few controlled studies that have been done offer cause for hope. A 1990 study of patients who had coronary heart disease indicated that a regimen of aerobic exercise and stress reduction, including yoga, combined with a low-fat vegetarian diet, stabilized and in some cases reversed arterial blockage. The author Dr. Dean Ornish is in the midst of a study involving men with prostate cancer. Can diet, yoga and meditation affect the progress of this disease? So far, Ornish will say only that the data are encouraging.
To the skeptic, all evidence is anecdotal. But some anecdotes are more than encouraging; they are inspiring. Consider Sue Cohen, 54, an accountant, breast-cancer survivor and five-year yoga student at the Unity Woods studio in Bethesda, Md. "After my cancer surgery," Cohen says, "I thought I might never lift my arm again. Then here I am one day, standing on my head, leaning most of my 125-lb. body weight on that arm I thought I'd never be able to use again. Chemotherapy, surgery and some medications can rob you of mental acuity, but yoga helps compensate for the loss. It impels you to do things you never thought you were capable of doing."
A series of exercises as old as the Sphinx could prove to be the medical miracle of tomorrow or just wishful thinking from the millions who have embraced yoga in a bit more than a generation.
Yoga was little known in the U.S. perhaps only as an enthusiasm of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other icons of the Beat Generation when the Beatles and Mia Farrow journeyed to India to sit at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968. Since then, yoga has endured more evolutions of popular consciousness than a morphing movie monster. First it signaled spiritual cleansing and rebirth, a nontoxic way to get high. Then it was seen as a kind of preventive medicine that helped manage and reduce stress. "The third wave was the fitness wave," says Richard Faulds, president of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass. "And that's about strength and flexibility and endurance."
At each stage, the most persuasive advocates were movie idols and rock stars salesmen, by example, of countless beguiling or corrosive fashions. If they could make cocaine and tattoos fashionable, perhaps they could goad the masses toward physical and spiritual enlightenment. Today yoga is practiced by so many stars with whom audiences are on a first-name basis Madonna, Julia, Meg, Ricky, Michelle, Gwyneth, Sting that it would be shorter work to list the actors who don't assume the asana. (James Gandolfini? We're just guessing.)