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Larchmont Author Applies Science to Yoga

LARCHMONT, N.Y. — William Broad will tell you he's no expert yogi, but what he does know cold is the science of yoga, which also happens to be the title of his new book.

Broad, of Larchmont, is a science writer for the New York Times. He has practiced the ancient art of yoga since 1970, when he was a college student. So, it's only natural he combined his passions and write "The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards."

"The book draws on a century-and-a-half of scientific research to give the first impartial evaluation of yoga," says the spirited science writer of 32 years. 

Broad is known for his quick wit and effervescent attitude, qualities he said can be attributed to his practice of yoga.

"Yoga helps me unwind, and it does for millions of people," Broad said. "It's this perfect means of stress management. I have a very hard job, and my mood is pretty good and I can handle the stress of this hard job. Yoga is a big part of that."

The benefits of yoga, which also include improving self-discipline, are well-publicized; but Broad's hands-on approach to research, which took him as far as Calcutta and Bombay, India, revealed some risks.

While taking a yoga class in Bethlehem, Pa., in 2007, Broad threw out his back performing an extended side-angle pose. He described the pain as ecsrutiating and blinding. "I fell down into a pile on the floor," he said. "It was one of those bad days in the studio."

While Broad admits he wasn't focused on his pose, the experience was enlightening.

"It alerted me to the fact that yoga has risks," he said. "I realized at the time many people have an impression, or a belief, that yoga is perfect. And my whole book is trying to address this issue: Can yoga be made better?"

For Broad, this includes eliminating some of the more dangerous poses, such as the shoulder stand and the plow. These poses bend one's neck in a way that, Broad says, can result in strokes and brain damage.

"These risks are low, but the consequences are so high," said Broad, adding that it appears again and again in the medical literature. "You can end up in the emergency room, or, God forbid, in a morgue. It's better for me to just avoid doing it altogether."Along with the dangers come some myths, Broad found. The idea that yoga is the only exercise one needs is false, he says.

"A lot of science has looked at that and it's not true," said Broad, who suggested supplementing yoga with an aerobic exercise. "You don't get your heart beating fast enough to get the aerobic workout that public health officials recommend."

Another myth is that yoga will automatically help one lose weight. If anything, Broad said, yoga slows overall metabolism.

"If all things are equal and you eat the same number of calories, you'll actually gain weight because of this metabolic slowing," he said.

In addition to checking out hundreds of books from the Larchmont Library, Broad's research involved a lot of practice. This included visiting several ashrams, or yoga studios, in India, where the first scientific research on yoga was done in 1851, he said.

"That first 1851 study turns out to be vitally important today, because it goes to this issue of the metabolism."

The study, Broad said, investigated yogis' claims that they could stop their heart and be buried, almost indefinitely. It revealed the importance of respiratory physiology, an interesting study that Broad addresses in detail in his book.

"The book lays out both the downsides, as well as the benefits," Broad said. "In truth, I'm a yoga booster, not a basher."

Broad will read from his new book at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Larchmont Village Center, 121 Larchmont Ave.

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