We need to talk about yoga and pseudoscience

I’ve debated writing this post for a long time, not wanting to come across as critical of others in my industry or even just close-minded. However, as time has gone on I’ve become more and more aware of potentially harmful practices going around that seem to be very specific to the yoga industry. I’m not aiming to accuse my fellow teachers of any malpractice; if anything they have been just as misled as anyone I know. Unfortunately, some yoga teachers now have large international followings across social media, and when they endorse a lifestyle or give questionable figures a platform by mentioning them online, they can influence hundreds of thousands of people make decisions that directly affect their health. These effects are not always positive, and often the advice is coming from those either without qualifications, or those overstepping their area of expertise.

One of the amazing things about yoga and those who practice it is that it leads to people being often very open minded. Whether that is about welcoming in a diverse community, becoming engaged in ethical practices or a willingness to try new things, yoga has it all. Often, yoga and therapies -whether that’s massage and sports therapy or hypnotherapy and counselling -seem to go hand in hand. It is partly a practical career decision by teachers, but is also related to yoga’s roots in Indian philosophy, and also to Chinese medicine for practitioners of yin yoga.

Jumping on  the wellness bandwagon

Sometimes, though, I do wonder if yoga teachers and keen students are more likely to believe a new wellness trend than others. Teacher trainings will teach you many things, but not how to critically analyse an article or scientific report. And with yoga being a holistic practice, many yogis will often have a wider interest in living a healthy lifestyle. Yoga teachers have been found to be at a greater risk of orthorexia (an eating disorder categorised by an obsession of eating healthy or “pure” foods). In my 18 months of teaching, I have become aware of just how many teachers cut out food groups, try alkaline diets, go on juice or water fasts or believe that they must “cleanse” and “detox” to be healthy. Alkaline diets came about on the basis that the body is healthiest in an alkaline diet and at risk of disease in an acidic one, with certain foods being ranked in order of how “alkaline” they are (with, oddly enough, lemons being considered to be alkaline, despite being full or citric acid). In reality, our bodies tightly control our pH levels regardless of what we put into them. In some cases, patients have been discouraged from seeking medical help, even for cancers, in the belief that consuming foods labelled as alkaline will cure them. Juice or water cleanses are marketed on the idea that you can “detox” your body, although exactly what from is very rarely made clear. There are rarely definitions or guideline to a cleanse, and I’ve never heard of anyone checking in with their GP before undertaking one.

Honestly, the thing that really sparked me writing this post is celery juice. Ah, celery juice. Yep, something I’ve already spoken about, as have countless registered nutritionists and dietitians. One well-known yoga teacher put up a big Instagram post about it a few months back, and claimed that it cleared up their acne, alongside alkaline foods. They also mentioned various other health issues that alkaline foods supposedly helped with. Then, just recently, another teacher dedicated a whole post and podcast episode to the main person promoting juicing celery and spoke about the health problems that this figure had “diagnosed” them with. This figure featured in both yoga teachers’ posts has no medical training, and yet the teachers seem to trust them entirely and were happy to promote them to their combined 3 million + followers. Talking about diseases, viruses and using scientific-sounding words sounds really scary, and it is no wonder that many quickly believe whatever health claims they are being told, and subsequently try whatever product or lifestyle that is being sold. The problem is, is that so many yoga practitioners seem to be picking up on these more so than any other group.

Responsibility comes with authority

Why exactly this is the case I can only hypothesise. Yoga is very much a holistic practice. Its meaning and purpose varies from person to person, but often students and teachers will be focused on achieving health goals in a “natural” way. The term natural is pretty arbitrary and seems to go hand-in-hand with a distrust of medicines and pharmaceuticals. With perhaps less of the emphasis on consuming lots of protein compared to gym-goers, you’re more likely to find yogis refuelling in juice bars, where cleanse and alkaline are two marketing buzzwords. With a very particular body type being celebrated in the yoga world, teachers and students alike can be placed under pressure to achieve that appearance. The moralistic marketing of food products capitalises on that. Additionally, people often come to yoga from injury or ill health. More women tend to practice yoga in Europe and America than men, with women more likely to experience issues with thyroid health and autoimmune diseases than men, not to mention the menopause bringing a range of uncomfortable symptoms.

A great deal of respect is placed in health professionals by their clients. To report anecdotally, I have had many students asking me questions about health and anatomy that I cannot answer with nearly as much competence as a doctor or physio could. But as humans, we want to help, and it takes confidence for a teacher to admit that they don’t know the answer. On top of this, yoga teachers truly care about health, and people who have chosen a vocation that is about helping others, it is all too easy to want to share positive experiences with others. Enthusiasm, however, does not equal expertise. And teachers have a responsibility to remember this.

Keeping the fear-factor out of yoga

So what to do? I think we need to utilise this enthusiasm to develop a bit of a filter for poor advice, and to instead hone in on appropriate qualified professionals instead. If advice is coming from someone selling a product -even a book sometimes, -is portraying health as black and white, or who does not clearly display their credentials, then I’d view that as a red flag. If only one, or a small group of individuals are promoting a particular diet or lifestyle, I would tread with caution there as well. Being surrounded -online or in a studio setting – with one particular community can create an echo chamber, making these pseudoscientific trends seems more credible than they are elsewhere. If you are someone interested in health, take a step back before you share what you think you know to someone who may well take it as gospel. And when speaking to anyone jumping onto a questionable trend themselves, speak positively. Trying a new protocol can be very exciting, and challenging that viewpoint can be viewed as upsetting or critical -no one likes to be told that they’re wrong! First, reinforce that looking to improve their health is a good thing and if this new habit is working for them then great.But could they consider looking to someone who has studied that area to avoid risky health advice?

Yoga is an amazing tool and practice that I truly love. But it shouldn’t be an excuse for following or promoting questionable health practices.

For clarification: I am a Vinyasa yoga teacher (RYT 200 hours), with further CPD training booked for this year. I have a background in biology (Mar Bio MSc with international placement, First Class) that taught me physiology and anatomy, as well as how to critically assess papers to look for bias, research limitations and poor data. At the presence I have no medical or nutritional qualifications, so cannot advise on either, although I will be undertaking an AFN-accredited Master’s degree in Nutrition later this year.

Many thanks to associate nutritionist Pixie Turner and linguist Maxine Ali for reviewing this article.