His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay – a review

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He didn’t know how to put it all together, life and death and things looming up.  Your heart lies in pieces on the forest floor and the days and nights keep coming.  p. 278

Elizabeth Hay’s new novel, His Whole Life, juxtaposes a family in a slow state of collapse, the Bobaks, against the decade or so surrounding the Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1995 – a time when Canada itself felt as though it might be in a slow state of collapse.  The novel starts with a question on a car ride from New York, where the Bobaks live, to a lake in eastern Ontario, where they vacation every summer.  Jim Bobak, ten years old, asks his mother, Nan, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

It’s a question that keeps reappearing in the book, both directly and indirectly.  And it’s a question whose answer requires regular revision.  Every character is a flawed human being looking for connection.

I’d like to be able to say that what I like best about this book is how well written it is, how rich and accurate the descriptions of people, places, and things; or perhaps how well developed, human, and understandable the characters are – all of them, even those who are not painted in the most favourable light – there are no broad strokes here.  I could lay the same praise on any of Hay’s novels, though.  What I love best about this one is far more personal.  My family was also in a slow state of dissolution in the 90’s.  We also split our time between New York and a lake in eastern Ontario.  I was also struggling with questions of loyalty and identity I did not feel well equipped to handle.  And all of what Hay writes rings true for my memories of that period.

As a natural extension to the question of the worst thing each character has ever done, the primary issue each (but most especially Nan) must resolve is the transition from avoiding to accepting the inevitable complexity of living.  In this way, the book recalls Hugh MacLennan’s beautiful line from The Watch That Ends The Night:

But that night as I drove back to Montreal, I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.

Hay, to her credit, does not let her charges off quite so easily as MacLennan does.  She allows their actions to explain themselves.  In a lesser writer’s hand, this (and the analogy between a family and a nation in a state of crisis) could have come across as ham fisted, but there is no such danger here.  The exchanges between her characters flow beautifully, even through the tension between them.

Through a combination of perseverance and acceptance (recurrent qualities in Canadian literature), Nan eventually does find resolution for the primary conflicts in her life.  She comes to a state of equilibrium, as does the nation after the Quebec separatist motion is narrowly defeated.  And equilibrium brings her forgiveness.

It felt like two rivers meeting insider her, one blue, one brown.  The brown of “George, you hurt me,” and the blue of “I’m still breathing.  I must have hurt you too.”  If that could be considered forgiveness, if forgiveness could be considered a kind of movement in one’s chest that made it easier to breathe.  p. 350

She had been hungrier than she knew to hear [Pierre Elliot] Trudeau praised after all the years of denigration and indifference.  And now the hunger was being satisfied.  “I wonder,” she said to Jim, “if the urge to appreciate and forgive is actually more powerful, if a good deal rarer, than the urge to dismiss and despise.”  p. 358

Towards the end of the book, after Nan and Jim have returned to Canada for good, Hay drops this beautiful little nugget into the text:

How vast a land this was in which people lost things that could not be replaced.  p. 360

To this, I can only add that some of us have also found things there that we feared we’d lost forever.

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay is a gorgeous and evocative work.  It’s not just fiction; it’s literature.  If you’ve enjoyed her other work, you will love this.  If you’ve not yet had the extreme pleasure of reading her, it’s a great place to start (but by all means, make sure you read Late Nights On Air and A Student Of Weather, too).

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Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton – a review

goodbye-to-all-thatI do not venerate New York City.  I never have.  Despite living a stone’s throw from it (rather, a fairly short bus ride from it), I almost never visit The City.  The limited appeal it holds for me has always been tempered by the anxiety I’ve sometimes felt when I have been there; the crush of the crowds, the busyness, the claustrophobia, the overwhelming New York City-ness of it all, and until recently, I never saw a need to challenge that.  Other writers and artists (Woody Allan comes immediately to mind) have essentially based their careers on fetishizing the city, and this is something that has distanced me from their work.  I just don’t feel it.  So I wondered when I began to read this book whether I would be able to identify with the authors, or whether I’d feel left out in the cold.

This concern was not well founded.

Despite my coolness towards New York, the ostensible subject matter, this collection still pulled me right in.  I caught on pretty quickly that these essays aren’t just about New York; they are about having an intimate relationship with a place and being so fundamentally changed by it that it ceases to be home.  They are about transformation; New York is merely the backdrop.  Not all New Yorkers go through this transformation.  Some never leave.  But these writers allowed themselves to be changed; they grew, and they spread their wings and flew away.

In odd ways, the writing reminded me in places of Barry Lopez’s descriptions of his relationship to the land in Arctic Dreams.  I never thought that I would come across writing that so beautifully evokes a similar sense of relationships of reciprocity with an urban landscape, but here it is.

Although the references are all local and specific, the experiences of the writers are universal. A few passages hit me hard:

When it comes to place, there are two kinds of writers:  those who more or less stay where they’re put and look around themselves, and those who need to go somewhere else to look around themselves there.  p127, “Losing New York,” Lauren Elkin

I thought I fell firmly in the former category, but I wonder if it’s as simple as that for me.  I remember telling K after our trip to Guatemala that one of the benefits of travel is getting to see home differently.  I do most of my writing in Ulster County, where I live, but the ink sometimes seems to flow most readily when I have some separation from my day to day life.  The important thing, I think, is the looking around and within myself, regardless of where that happens.

I liked to observe non-loner-alien people, and New York City was the best place to do that….  Here, on foot, I was free.  Wherever my feet took me, I was happy to have the city as my sole companion.  I loved the feeling of being alone but among people. p154, “Real Estate,” Sari Botton

I love that feeling, too, though it’s not New York, specifically, where I go for it.  An odd quirk of my own flavour of introversion/extroversion is that I do need to be around people, even if I don’t want to interact with them all of the time.  It’s reassuring to see that others feel this as well.

And finally:

My relationship to New York City – home – is and always has been about my relationship to yearning. p235, “Captive,” Dana Kinstler

Full stop.  Yes.  This is the most powerful sentence in the book for me.  My relationship to home is also about my relationship to yearning.  What would home even mean if I actually arrived there?  If I actually had what I wanted, if I did the messy work of removing it from the abstract and bringing it to the real, what then?  Would I, too, be changed, and discover that I now wanted or needed something else?  That is why these essays touch me so deeply.  It’s a courageous act, bordering at times on desperate, to go after what you want, but it’s an even more courageous act to realize later that it no longer suits you, and that you must let it go.

So, my review in short:  this essay collection is deliciously written, exquisitely introspective, and thought provoking.  Buy it.  Read it.  Thank me later.  I’m not even going to edit out or apologize for all of the adverbs I just used to describe it.  It’s just that good.

Great Big Sea at Ottawa Bluesfest 2013 – a review

I remember a few months ago, my trip to Minnesota with K to transport her apiaries in preparation for her and E’s move from Massachusetts.  We drove 26 hours over the course of two days, then spent a week at her parents’ house.  One night I spent 12 hours in bed.  I’d wake up every few hours and then fall back to sleep after a few minutes.  I’d never spent that much time in bed before.  I was wrecked; completely emotionally spent after months of emotional upheaval and heart break.  That trip was very healing for me.

At some point in the trip, K told me that I’m like a hipster, except that I earnestly enjoy the things that hipsters enjoy “ironically.”  I never would have thought to put it that way, but after a few months’ reflection, I think she’s right.  I do only enjoy earnestly.  The idea of enjoying an experience solely to mock it for its kitsch value is foreign to me; does not even sound like enjoyment, but rather the ghastly phantom shell where genuine enjoyment ought to live.

I spent most of last week in Ottawa.  Partly I came for Bluesfest (which I’ve been promising myself I’d make it to for many years), but mostly I came because being in Canada, especially being in Ottawa, is an experience which I earnestly, wholeheartedly enjoy.  The evening I saw Great Big Sea perform on LeBreton Flats was a capstone experience from my trip (at least, the Bluesfest portion of my trip).  There was something incredibly moving about seeing them play for an audience of 30 thousand, all of whom knew and loved their music at least as much as I do.  My tastes for Canadian cultural touchstones usually separate me.  They introduce an element of otherness.  To find myself in an enormous crowd of people who also knew every word to every song and were singing along at the top of their lungs transformed, for those moments, something that in my day-to-day life distances me into something that connected me.  I am so accustomed to the distance that I am scarcely conscious of it, but it does pervade.  To find that distance lifted, briefly, was validating.  I can think of no better word for it.

It’s not just about Great Big Sea.  It’s not really about them at all, though I did thoroughly enjoy the show (and the Waterboys who played before them – between the two acts, the evening felt like a giant céilidh).  But it wasn’t about the music.  It’s about Canada; but more than that, it’s about feeling validated in my experience; and even more fundamental than that, it’s about feeling connected.  There is a subtext here having to do with other issues in my life and not feeling quite right in my assigned identity, but I don’t want to overlook the text itself, the most obvious level of this.  My Canadian fixations are not simply a veneer for other things, attractive and tidy as that explanation may be.  I genuinely, earnestly connect with this place and love my experiences there by their own rights.

As far as the show itself – I loved it.  The band from Newfoundland (Great Big Sea) and the band from Ireland (the Waterboys) were unabashedly joyful in a way that perhaps only the traditionally downtrodden can be, and I found myself thinking about the conversation K and I had about hipsters and ironic enjoyment.  No one in the audience was enjoying the music ironically – and unlike bands that may curry greater favour with trend setters, Great Big Sea was not playing music which deifies ambivalence and mediocrity.  They were playing their hearts out on songs that they love; songs they’ve written about the people, places, and things that they love.  And we, the audience, were reflecting that beautiful, earnest, joyous energy right back, giving back 100%.  And that’s what was so validating for me – simply letting the soft animal of my body love what it loves, to paraphrase Mary Oliver, in the midst of many others doing exactly the same.

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Björk at Ottawa Bluesfest 2013 – a review

“Review” is perhaps not the right word for this.  My thoughts on the show are wholly unencumbered by any illusion that I understood what I saw or heard, so it’s hard to know exactly what to say.

As limited as this word is, the show was awesome.  Throughout, I kept thinking that this was what magic must look like.  I knew something amazing was happening, but I understood not a bit of it.  It was just amazing to watch.  My first intimation that this was going to be Something Completely Different was when a giant Faraday cage descended from above.  The  two van de Graff generators it contained arced across the gap between them during some of her songs.

Her backup singers were a choir of teenage girls from Iceland.  In addition, there was someone working the synthesizer/iPod/computery thingies and someone else on percussion.  That was it.  Björk in a blue dress, all of five feet at most in her heeled ankle boots and wild red hair wider than she was; some cute kids dressed like extras from an episode of Star Trek TOS; a guy at a desk; a guy on the drums; and a gigantic arcing electrical apparatus dangling from the ceiling that would have impressed Tesla himself.  Prior to her set, I’d noticed a few pipe organs on stage and had assumed they would be part of her show, but they were not.  Possibly they were part of a prior act’s set?  But none of the prior acts seemed very pipe organy.  Possibly Björk just likes having pipe organs on stage?

I didn’t know any of the songs she played, but that really didn’t diminish my experience.  Possibly it made it richer.  She played for a little over an hour, then gigantic jets of fire erupted from the stage, she played one song for an encore (“Raise Your Flag?”), and the night was over.  I was transported from whatever inter dimensional portal Björk had taken us through back to a field in the middle of Ottawa surrounded by happy Canadians.

In the distant future (when misogyny is just a myth we tell each other but which no one quite believes), archaeologists who discover footage of Björk will, I hope, look on us more favourably.  After seeing her perform, I am convinced that she is evidence of higher mental processes at work.

Maybe the best thing about this amazing, amazing show is that the next time someone wants to tell me about how great the National’s new album is, or Vampire Weekend’s, or the Decemberists, or whoever, I now have a perfect response.  Do they use a Faraday cage?  No?  Well, where’s the Faraday cage if they’re so great?

This should stop any conversation in its tracks.

Prior to the show, an image displayed on the screen asked in English (then French) not to take pictures as Björk finds it distracting.  I did take this one, surreptitiously, and although it is not the best photograph I’ve ever taken, I think it captures the quantum fuzziness of the evening perfectly.

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This review is dedicated to my dear, dear friend T, who desperately wanted to be at the show but couldn’t.  I was texting with her to tell her what was going on for the first few songs, but after the Faraday cage I stopped.  It just seemed cruel.  T, if it is any consolation, I kept wishing throughout the show that you could have been there too!

The Tragically Hip, 15th November 2012 at Clifton Park, NY – a review

I should probably start by saying that during the course of the hour and a half drive to the venue last night, I was alternately bawling and screaming.  It was that kind of a day.  I’m not going to go into why; I just want to set the scene.  I’d more or less worked out my issues by the time I arrived and I felt a lot better, but I was still raw.

This is hard for me to admit, but Tragically Hip fans are weird.  I don’t mean “Insane Clown Posse Juggalo” weird; I mean “How the hell do these people love the same band that I love?” weird.

I hate that I just used the word “Juggalo” in a post.  And now I’ve done it twice.  Damn.

It was a general admission standing show, and I got there early enough that I was pretty close to the stage, even after going to the bar for a pint.  I was about 4 rows back.  The trouble with being that close to the stage at a Tragically Hip show was that everyone around me was a Tragically Hip fan.  Gord Downie is pulling off an impressive slight of hand; he’s front man in a band that passes as bar rock.  But beneath the surface he packs his songs with more obscure literary references and unanswerable questions than you can shake a stick at.  Based on what I see at shows, I think most of the Hip’s fan base is there because they like bar rock.  On the other hand, I love the Hip mostly because of the lyrics.  Also, the rambling Gord does between and sometimes within songs is epic; major world religions have been based on far less than what he spews out off the cuff. I feel like I need an extra session with my therapist half the time after their shows.

Anyway, last night’s show.  I was way up close, sandwiched between a drunken bearded man who seemed to keep vacillating between either wanting to beat me up or wanting to make stinky Canadian hippie love to me (he eventually got escorted out for lighting up during “Ahead By A Century”), and a drunk young woman who kept trying to get me to finish her drink for her. I think she was trying to roofie me.  Or maybe she was just too polite, even when drunk, to just drop her drink on the floor as everyone else had done.  Which, you know, was kind of sweet of her.  My bearded associate, when he was not either:  1. Putting his arm around me and staring me dead in the eye while singing to me, 2. Grabbing my shirt in preparation for a fight, or 3. Telling all the women around us that I was hot for them – when not otherwise preoccupied with any of these noble tasks, my new bearded BFF/frenemy was himself hitting on every single woman within sight, including the woman who kept trying to give me the dregs of her gin and tonic.  She pulled me over at one point and slurred, “He’s a jerk!”  To which I replied, simply, “Yeah,” with a sympathetic nod and smile.  Because, really, what else was there to say?  But towards the end of the evening, I guess she’d put her grievances with him aside because they were grinding against each other, and I’d rather not picture what may have happened later.  Is this how Hip fans are made?  Gross.

The music – when I could focus on the music, when I wasn’t preoccupied with the fascinating antics of my fellow Hip fans – was, of course, delicious.  It really helped to pull me the rest of the way out of the funk I’d been in on the drive up.  Gord introduced “Gift Shop” by saying, “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” which for me was the best intro he could give to that song because pretty much every time I hear it the water works start, and last night was no exception.  “Fireworks” was fun, and slipping “Nautical Disaster” into the middle of “New Orleans Is Sinking” worked really well (I think that’s how “Nautical Disaster” began, actually – as a ramble in the middle of “New Orleans Is Sinking”).

Wow.  I know a lot about the Hip.

The new material was very good, too, though I’m not as familiar with it.  I was a little disappointed not to hear “Goodnight Attawapiskat;” I kind of expected them to close with it.  Otherwise, it was a great show!  But I’m kind of glad that at least until the next time they tour, I can go back to enjoying the Hip on my own, without the peculiar ministrations of my fellow fans.

Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed – a review

I did not expect to enjoy this book.  I’ve been seeing it everywhere I turn for the past few months, in bookstores and on best seller lists, and that level of popularity usually gives me pause.  I assumed it was a “memoir” by some twenty-something trust fund kid who hiked the trail on a lark one summer.  Not sure why I assumed that, but I did.  I tend to assume the worst.  It’s not my best quality.  I remember picking up a copy of Wild at Chapters in Ottawa and wondering whether I should give it a try, before putting it back down again and walking out of the store.  The turning point for me was an interview that one of my friends did with the author.  I sensed depth and raw emotion beneath the surface that I didn’t expect, so I decided I’d give the book a chance.

And wow, am I glad that I did!  I could not have been further off-base with my assumptions.  I loved it; absolutely loved it.  Not at first, to be sure, but within the first fifty pages it started growing on me, and by the last fifty, I didn’t want it to end.  By the last ten or so, I REALLY didn’t want it to end.  There were several points at which I was so concerned about the author’s safety and well-being that it was difficult for me to continue reading, and impossible to stop.  Strayed’s writing is incredibly honest, without wallowing in melodrama or poor-me.  She doesn’t pull any punches; she doesn’t sugar coat (or overdramatize) what her life was like before the trail; she doesn’t make any attempt to hide her failures in preparing for the trail, or her near complete lack of understanding of how rigorous the trip would be.  Her descriptions of trail life are spot-on – the fetid odours arising from one’s own unwashed body, the soreness of muscles, blistering of feet, and the ravenous hunger that comes from hiking all day, every day, with a pack that weighs half one’s own weight.  Her writing made me want to do two things that writing about hiking almost never makes me want to do:  hike and write.  And so I have been doing both.

All this in contrast to other hiking narratives I’ve read, most notable Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods, about his time on the Appalachian Trail.  My recollection of this book (which I read ten or fifteen years ago) is that Bryson bent over backwards to be so affable, so goofy and chummy, that by the end of the book I kind of hated him and wished he would shut up.  Subsequent experiences with several of Bryson’s other books have not dampened this initial impression.  I experienced the opposite emotional progression, though, when I read Wild.  I did not like Strayed at first.  Despite her hardships, it was hard for me to feel sympathy for the questionable decisions she was making.  That, perhaps, says more about me than it does about her.  I kept thinking back to friends of mine who have made similar decisions in bad situations and who were not as fortunate; did not come out on top of the game, or even still in the game.  It made me resentful about the dubious connection between cause and effect, a connection which seems more and more tenuous as I get older.  Chance plays a horrifying large role in every outcome.  We can’t control everything.  But these are my issues, and have little to do (directly) with Strayed’s excellent writing.

I did not expect to enjoy this book; but I did, tremendously.  And although I don’t believe the author and I could have been friends at the start of her 1100 mile hike, by the end, I think we may have had some things to talk about.

One of my favourite passages:

…what mattered was utterly timeless.  It was the thing that had compelled them [the trail’s creators] to fight for the trail against all the odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable days.  It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild.  With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets.  The experience was powerful and fundamental.  It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.  That’s what Montgomery knew, I supposed.  And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew.  It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.

page 207

Wild:  From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed.  Read it!

The Science of Yoga by William J. Broad – a review

Hey, remember that book that caused all that ruckus in the yoga world a few months ago?  You know, before that other thing happened in the yoga world and caused that other big ruckus?  Well, I just read it.  And despite a few good chapters, most of it is pretty mediocre, with a few interesting forays into the bloody awful.  In more depth:

The good:

  • The first three chapters are very interesting, and review both the modern history of yoga and research into the physiological effects of yoga.  For example, yoga is not an aerobic activity, despite popular beliefs to the contrary.  Yoga does not accelerate metabolism, it slows it down.  Also, yoga most certainly does not increase oxygenation of the blood, which is more or less constant in healthy individuals.  On the contrary, pranayam’s physiological effects are due to the changes it makes to blood levels of carbon dioxide.  Rapid breathing (kapala bhati, bhastrika) decrease blood levels of CO2, contracting arteries, and decreasing the absorption of O2 by the body and the brain.  Slow breathing (ujjayi) increases blood levels of CO2 (or rather, slows its rate of removal), thus dilating arteries and increasing the absorption of O2 by the body and brain.  This explains the exhilarating effects of kapala bhati and bhastrika, and the calming effects of ujjayi.
  • Yoga shows great promise as an effective treatment for depression and anxiety by drastically increasing levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) in the brain.
  • The nicest thing I can say about the chapter on injuries is that the writing underscores the importance of paying attention to what you’re doing when you practice.
  • In the chapter on healing, Broad makes the case that the lack of any sort of regulation or meaningful certification or licensing of yoga teachers and therapists is dangerous.  This is a good point, and definitely deserves further consideration by the yoga community.
  • The research on women inducing orgasms without any physical stimulation whatsoever is fascinating, but seems tangential.  Yes, these women are yoginis, but this is not a traditional yoga practice.  Nonetheless, it raises interesting questions.  Maybe this reflects an evolution of yoga?  Is this a capacity that only exists in women?
  • Page 218:  “If I have been hard on yoga commercialization [actually, he scarcely mentioned yoga commercialization, but I’ll let this slide], it is because the trend raises fundamental questions that seldom get addressed.  Today, as always, yoga has no social mechanism that sifts through the numerous claims to ascertain the truth, and the commercial blitz with its dynamic goals and competitive agenda seems to make that weakness all the more glaring.  Imagine if Big Pharma had no Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies looking over its shoulder.  The marketing of fake diseases and bogus cures – already a multibillion-dollar embarrassment despite all the bureaucratic scrutiny – would be much worse.”  I am inclined to agree.  There are a lot of charlatans in the yoga world, and a great deal of misrepresentation and outright lying that never gets challenged.

The bad:

  • Broad reports that salamba sarvangasana creates a distinct danger of stroke, due to the flexion of the cervical vertebrae.  Apparently, this risk was first identified over 30 years ago.  If this threat is so pronounced, and was identified decades ago, why does Broad not report on any instances of it happening?  His explanation is that sometimes a blood clot is thrown hours or days after the precipitating event, thus obscuring the cause, but surely if sarvangasana produces such a dire risk, there would be some evidence of this actually occurring.  Right?  So I find the threat of stroke overblown.
  • Most of the yoga injuries that Broad reports are the result of, for lack of a better phrase, practitioner stupidity.  If you fall asleep in paschimottonasana or sit in vajrasana for hours, the culpability for injury is your own, not yoga’s.  Where the injuries Broad reported were not due to practitioner stupidity, they were due to poor instruction or poor alignment/technique.  You should not be putting weight on your head in urdhva dhanurasana.  The cervical vertebrae should certainly not be pushing into the floor in salamba sarvangasana, the upper arms and shoulder blades should be carrying the weight.  And in sirsasana, the arms should be carrying the bulk of the weight, not the top of the head.  To quote one practitioner Broad interviewed (page 124), “I was doing it wrong, and I was pushing myself too hard.”  This seems to be the explanation of most, if not all, of the yoga injuries Broad describes.
  • A handful of case studies of injuries sustained during yoga practice do not amount to a systematic problem with yoga; they amount to sensationalism.
  • Yoga has exploded in popularity over the past ten years, yet most of the peer reviewed (ie, actual scientific) evidence of risk that Broad cites is decades old.  Where are the recent peer reviewed papers on risk?
  • Broad makes a big deal about the increase of US emergency room admissions related to yoga from 2000 to 2002.  From 13 in 2000, to 20 in 2001, to 46 in 2002.  These numbers are miniscule.  While statistically significant, this increase is scarcely worth reporting.  (Also, I resent that I had to run the numbers myself in order to determine their statistical significance; Broad is a science reporter.  He should have known to calculate and report the chi-squared value himself.)
  • Most of the risk/injuries chapter is anecdotal.  If there is a systemic problem with yoga instruction in terms of physical risk, Broad has done an incredibly poor job of reporting it.
  • Sex!  Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex!  Wow.  Broad is obsessed.  Unfortunately, he gets a lot of it wrong.  “Tantra” is not Sanskrit for “yoga sex cult.”  Tantra is much more complex than that, and even so, does not represent all of yoga.  Not by a long shot.  Broad’s reading of yoga as a sexual practice says far more about him, or perhaps, more generously, about Western taboos, than it does about yoga.  Yes, yoga texts sometimes refer to the genitals, to stoking inner fire, to “pleasures, enjoyments, and ultimate bliss.”  But interpreting this solely in sexual terms is awfully reductionist.  Maybe this reflects my own bias, but I think that the parallels that Broad draws between yoga practice and sex research or heavy breathing are a bit forced.  Likewise, his reading of sex into the ancient yogic texts (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita).
  • The scientific studies he cites often lack control groups and have few subjects.
  • In the chapter on creativity, Broad is again forcing the comparisons between yoga and sex.  His argument is essentially “Yoga lights up part of the right brain, and sex lights up similar portions of the right brain, therefore yoga must be sexual.”  Well… maybe.  But not necessarily.  On page 207, he states that “Yoga’s ability to promote a rightward shift [in neural activation] would seem to reinforce the idea that the discipline can act as a sexual tonic.”  Really, I think this is just evidence that Broad sees sex wherever he looks.
  • Suggesting that kundalini practices bear a physiological resemblance to being struck by lightning, and therefore can be expected to produce similar results in terms of creativity to what one lightning victim experienced, is ludicrous (see page 208).  Kundalini may well increase one’s creativity, but the suggested similarity to a lightning strike is completely forced and unnecessary.
  • Broad suggests that maybe in the future, yoga will be seen as a cure for “creative paralysis.  Creative blocks might go extinct…. Maybe world leaders would take up yoga as an aid to their deliberations.”  This strikes me as distinctly utopian.  I hope the reader will forgive my cynicism, but I think yoga – fundamental yoga, a method of calming one’s mental fluctuations – will always be a fringe activity, because it takes work, and we humans are lazy.

The ugly:

  • The book unfortunately suffers from the usual pop-science failing of over simplification of the studies it presents, and unsupported conclusions and idle speculation on the part of the author.  I’ll not mince words; in many places, the journalism was shoddy.
  • This may seem picayune, but I found the way he did the end notes terrible.  It was difficult to determine which citations referred to which portions of the text.  Also, not all of his statements reference the appropriate research, causing me to doubt much of what he claimed.
  • The writing is mediocre; pretty much what you’d expect from a pop-science book (not my favourite genre).  He relied heavily on the formulation “X is by definition Y,” which smacks of laziness, and in some cases was confusing or misleading.

Still with me?  Good!  Here’s my summary:  The first three chapters were pretty good, but the rest of the book is not really worth your time.  Don’t be stupid when you’re practicing (or teaching), and you probably won’t hurt yourself (or your students).