Bonus: William J. Broad – Two Pulitzers, an Emmy, and the Science of Yoga


Jonathan Bailor- Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor here with another “bonus” Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Really, really, uniquely excited for today’s episode because we really have a stellar guest here to tell us about a subject that I really hold dear to my heart and really hope that we can shine a light on because I truly think it epitomizes our smarter approach to exercise. We have with us, none other than, the two-time Pulitzer winning, Emmy award winning, Senior New York Times science writer – William J. Broad, who authored the now out in paper book, Science of Yoga. William, welcome.

William Broad- Wow, what a drum roll. I’ve got to play that back for my kids and my mom, just to let them know exactly how important I am.

Jonathan- I do side introduction work, so if you ever need…I’m like a hype man in the 80‘s for the rappers that would come out on stage.

William- Nice. I love it.

Jonathan- I’m one of those guys.

William- Bells and cymbals, I love it.

Jonathan- William, let’s dig straight in to it. First, I want to hear your story – then I’ll share mine because I think we have similar paths to how we found yoga and now how we use it today. Then, I really want to dig in to the science and the why it manifests those benefits that we and so many others have enjoyed. So, what’s your story, William?

William- It started back in the dark ages when I was a freshman in college, I took a yoga class and presto-chango, it changed my life. It made me feel great. I got hooked, I kept doing it, and I’ve done it on-and-off ever since. I’m a gym rat, I do all kinds of stuff – I’ll go swimming today, I used to run a lot when I was younger. I can’t reveal my age, that’s top secret, but I stuck with it because it basically does wonderful stuff. One of the surprises of the research was finding that there are certain rare things that happen in yoga which can be quite dangerous. We can talk about some of that if you want, but basically – I got hooked. The fun of the book was finding the objective data that explains it, like there’s this cool team up in Cambridge (at Harvard) that has written two beautiful studies showing why yoga makes you feel so great. It’s neurotransmitters, it’s like the sunshine coming on in your head. You do a good routine and you are lifted up in to the glorious heights, it just makes you feel great. For me, as a science geek, it was really fun to plow through that data and get the science explanations.

Jonathan- William, I watched your interview that you did on the Colbert Report (which is one of my favorite shows) and you did a spectacular job on the show, so congratulations.

William- Thank you.

Jonathan- One of the points I really like that you made is – in your other work (your work with the New York Times and your duPont winning, Pulitzer Prize winning, and Emmy award winning work) you focus on (oftentimes) much darker, less happy, less sunshiny topics.

William- Yeah, we call it death and destruction. Dr. Death, as they call me.

Jonathan- The beautiful points you made, which is something I’ve experienced in my own life, is how yoga in many ways serves to counter-balance that. It is in many ways an empowering form of exercise, a restorative form of exercise that enables you to do other things better. Can you talk about that?

William- Yeah. You see it in the research, it is so clear, it just kind of goes on ad nauseam. Yoga – I use it basically as a stress buster and as a stress management tool. In journalism (especially late in the day if you’re working on a hard story) it can get really stressful, right? So yoga, if it does one thing, it slows you down. It helps you relax, you get calmed, stress is undone, your mood is lifted, blood pressure lowered, body refreshed, hypertension cut, sleep deepened, all that kind of stuff. You’re basically teaching yourself how to unwind. In this world, we don’t need any pointers on how wild it can get, so to have something that goes directly in the opposite direction in such a forceful way – is really a gift.

Jonathan- William, that is such a profound point. One of the great paradoxes I’ve seen on my journey towards yoga (and towards health and fitness in general) is health is really epitomized by less stress. We need to reduce the stress in our lives to increase our health. But, if we look at the way exercise is traditionally approached and even marketed to us, it’s incredibly stressful.

William- It is. Right, right.

Jonathan- If what we’re doing for exercise is stressful, that is definitely not what we here at the Smarter Science of Slim would call smarter exercise. Would you agree?

William- I totally agree. But beware – because there are yoga styles and yoga teachers who do hit high on the stress angle. You can go in there and they will move you around, chastise you, tell you you’re goofing up and you should try harder – get that pretzel pose down perfect, right? That can be stress inducing especially for guys who are not really built for pretzel work. Women tend to be intrinsically more flexible. So, you got to be careful, yoga classes can be stress inducing – they shouldn’t be. Especially when you get one of these teachers who has come out of a yoga diploma mill and doesn’t really have all that much experience. In the back of their head there’s this image of the perfect model on the cover of Yoga Journal and, golly – everybody should be doing it just that way, right? Ehhh…wrong, they shouldn’t. People should be paying attention to their bodies, their own limits, and doing the thing that works for them. That is the thing that really works and becomes this profound unwinder.

Jonathan- I could not agree with you more, William. I have a quick admission to make, I want to make sure the listeners are aware of this.

William- I’m recording this, I’m posting this immediately as we finish.

Jonathan- Are you tweeting this as I say it right now?

William- Yeah – better hold on, brother!

Jonathan- William, I think you can certainly empathize with this as well. I hope our listeners don’t hear when we talk about yoga, talking about – Here we are on our pedestal, we are yoga experts, we go to the toughest classes, and we do the pretzel pose.

William- No.

Jonathan- Yoga for me, truly, this is my admission…I read a book that I really enjoyed called Real Men Do Yoga. The reason I enjoyed the book is it was a chronology of high, elite athletes that you wouldn’t think would do things like yoga and how they use yoga (very informally, oftentimes) to counter-balance their very athletic training. So, when I say, “I do yoga,” I’m really focused on the stretching aspects, the breathing aspects. I tried the balance aspects, it stressed me out, so I stopped.

William- Good for you.

Jonathan- Like you said, it’s very tailored.

William- Right, exactly. Create an eclectic style of your own that is tailored to your own body. I couldn’t agree more, I’m in the same thing. I pride myself on being a yoga slouch, I do not hit the high notes. All these people (especially in Manhattan or Los Angeles, California) out there who are body builders, who do these things as almost circus performances. You shouldn’t try to emulate that stuff. Go at it at your own pace. When medical students first get out of the textbook and go to the anatomy lab, they cut open that cadaver and they look and they see that, “Wait a second, all the organs aren’t in the places where they were in the textbook.” Guess what? Everybody’s body is different, we’re all built in different ways. The organs are in different spots, the muscles and joints. There are huge differences between men and women. Women have pelvises that are specially built for flexibility. It’s very different from the situation with guys- they really should be doing different things. Paying attention to those differences, in my book, is the road to yoga paradise.

Jonathan- William, one thing I’d like to dig in to is your personal story around the benefits you’ve seen from this very customized, personalized, tailored approach to yoga. Just speaking for myself, the reason I got in to it was because I was very much in to (this is “pre” a lot of my research) more traditional, athletic, form training. I constantly had back pain – constantly, constantly, constantly. We’re talking someone in their early twenties, there’s no reason for you to have back pain. Part of it was just due to a complete lack of flexibility. I’m not exaggerating. If I stood up straight and bent forward at the waist, the tips of my fingers came, maybe, three inches below my knees – maybe.

William- Yeah, hey, mine are like four inches, Jonathan. I’m at the same place and I’ve been doing yoga for over forty years, right?

Jonathan- Wow.

William- I just don’t have the stretchiness.

Jonathan- To that point, one of the great wins I’ve seen (I’ve been doing this tailored, very informal form of yoga for over a decade now) is “cold” I can now bend over at the waist and touch the ground – almost with my palm.

William- Not me – I am genetically un-stretchy. Which makes me a strange yoga person, right?

Jonathan- Yep.

William- I work at it and I work it. I do have some strengths balance I can do, so I go with my strengths there. To me, one of the huge hidden benefits of yoga and the keys of the routine is that when you go through these postures…you know, I first heard this bit of wisdom with Glenn Black, who is profiled at the top of one of my chapters – he’s a wonderful, talented yoga teacher. He was taking us through some very non-traditional stuff. He said, “Feels pretty strange, right? Looks pretty weird. Is it yoga? Yes, it’s yoga if you’re paying attention.” That is a huge hidden secret of how you get a lot of these hidden benefits. Pay attention to what you’re doing, zero in on your body, feel those sensations. The last chapter of my book goes in to creativity and some of the psychological repercussions of yoga. A lot of it is tied up with that – getting the somatic sense, which turns out to activate your right brain and a lot of the creative centers. Takes you out of that linear, sequential, chatterbox part of your left brain. It does all kinds of cool stuff and it’s something that surprises me because a lot of teachers don’t emphasize it. They just say, “Do this pose, do that pose.” But doing those poses with attention and following what you’re doing, in my own experience, I’ve found deepens your practice extremely and produces all kinds of windfall benefits.

Jonathan- William you really hit on the core, more metaphysical point I wanted to get across in this podcast and I’d love to just dig in to it more explicitly now. That is…

William- Don’t forget about your sex life too, we gotta talk about that.

Jonathan- We certainly will, but before we get there…

William- Let’s do the metaphysics first.

Jonathan- The metaphysics – that is, to me, one of the major benefits of yoga (or any restorative exercise) is it helps to combat what I perceive as an adversarial relationship with your body. When you’re working in a yoga-type environment (or even just a meditative/any sort of restorative activity) the focus is not a battle against your body, it’s not stress inducing. It’s about centering, calming down, enabling you to do other things better.

William- Right, right, absolutely right. You just come in to a different balance. The book does a lot of de-mythologizing – what’s real, what’s not, what’s fake, what’s true. One of the things is that yoga is not a magic pill. Because in a metabolic way, a lot of people talk about revving up your metabolism and burning fat, there are dozens of fat burning yoga videos out there – it’s all nonsense.

Jonathan- Absolutely.

William- Yoga helps you calm down. But, there are these hidden benefits from what you’re saying – from getting in better tune with your body, from becoming more disciplined, from being more sensitive to your inner states and your real appetites. It’s gonna be easier to push away from the vending machine, refrigerator, fast food, or whatever the temptation of the moment is because you feel so great. You feel better about yourself, you don’t have to do stress eating. You have other ways to satisfy that itch. That restorative getting deep, paying attention to your body and how you feel – WOW! It keeps having repercussions in all kinds of different areas of your life.

Jonathan- William, one way I like to characterize what you just described is it builds other mental muscles. What I mean by that is we have this dogma in our culture that it’s always about more, and harder, and harder. If you’re not getting the results you want – just starve yourself harder, just run longer, just go harder. What you’ve seen in the research, what I’ve seen in the research, is it’s actually not about working harder. It’s about working more intelligently and more deliberately. When you do these kinds of activities, you are strengthening the pull back, pause, think about it, center yourself – you’re strengthening those muscles.

William- You got it, well put. I’m signing up for your home study course! It’s exactly right. You see it in the research, the book reviews, the century and a half of research. There’s a whole chapter on moods. Moods – how do you feel, what’s your outlook? Are you depressed or are you in a sunny place? I went to Kripalu on the East Coast in the Berkshires, there’s a big yoga center. I went there in my research (and I talk about it in the book) for a class on yoga for depression. A lot of it was pulling back and a lot of it was stress reduction. A lot of really nervous, edgy people started that weekend course and came out just beaming. Lots of happy people coming out the other end of that pipe. It has to do with the kind of the stuff you’re talking about.

Jonathan- William, you used a phrase there which I love, which is “pulling back”. I want to specifically dig in to that for a moment because I get questions all the time around… So, the type of exercise I recommend in my work is very infrequent, very intense, very safe resistance training as well as restorative training such as yoga. The most common question I get asked about exercise is, “I want to do more exercise, I want to see more results, I want to burn more fat – so I want to exercise more.” The person who is like ‘I need to exercise more, I need to exercise more’ – to me, that is the person who should most do yoga because you have this mindset where you have to do more, you have to do more, you have to do more. I promise you, the research is clear, you will get results and you will be healthy and happy when you stop thinking about how much more you need to do, and start thinking about how much smarter and more intentionally you can do things. Right?

William- Right. Yep, yep, yep, yep, absolutely. But, in my travels now – having met a lot of yogis, looked at a lot of the stuff, the research, and styles – there are serious yoga zealots out there that want more, more, more. There’s a wonderful book, which I highly recommend, called Hell Bent by a guy named Joe [sic] Lorr. It’s a beautiful read and it’s about competitive yoga.

Jonathan- Oh no!

William- To me it’s sort of an oxymoron, “Oh yeah, let’s go harder and faster!” Ya know, right? It is a good read. It’s really an extended profile of Bikram yoga (or however you want to pronounce it) the “hot yoga”

Jonathan- Yep, yep.

William- It looks a lot at competitive back bending, which he did. It’s a delightful read, it’s really fun – almost as good a read as my book!

Jonathan- Absolutely. Well, speaking of good books, The Science of Yoga is right up there.

William- Gotta put in a plug, yeah. But, no, it really is good. It’s also this underworld of oxymoronic yoga competition which, it’s out there, right? To me, it’s not so much yoga, it’s America. We tend to take everything and sort of want to push it over the edge.

Jonathan- I think that’s a key for the listeners here. Again, our goal (I believe, William, correct me if I’m wrong) is centering, restoration, finding something that helps you be more at peace. We find certain aspects of yoga help us do that. If it doesn’t do that for you…again, we’re more in to the “ends” we believe yoga helps us achieve. The “means” needs to be customized to you. Like what you said, William, people sometimes get hung up on the “means”. It’s not about the “means”, it’s about the “ends”.

William- Yeah, absolutely. Those “ends” have so many repercussions which I try to go through in the book in some kind of structured way. You’re talking health and healing, sex and longevity, moods and creativity, all this good stuff. The book also talks about injuries, which are a real thing and some teachers like to deny and “poo-poo” – but it’s out there. So, you can get smart about ways to protect yourself from that stuff. Overwhelmingly, the benefits of being able to slow down – just on health, hypertension, heart disease (the number one killer in industrial societies) – I mean come on. You are going to lower your blood pressure if you’re doing this stuff. You’re going to cut hypertension. You are going to help yourself in ways that you will only be dimly aware of. It pays so many benefits that it’s ridiculous that we’re hooked on so many other crazy activities that don’t pay off so much, and tend to cost a lot of money. The thing is, you learn your routine and yoga’s free.

Jonathan- Yep.

William- I mean, you’ve got it, it’s portable. You take it with you and you’ve got this feel-good, magic pill wherever you go.

Jonathan- That’s exactly right, William. I’ll take it even one step further. I was having a wonderful conversation with Dr. Daniel Amen, who has the largest database of brain imaging research in the country. He’s actually found that these traditional forms of exercises that are advocated in the western world such as chronic jogging or very high impact, high endurance activities, these can actually cause atrophy in the brain and reduce blood flow when done to the extreme, whereas yoga is going to do the exact opposite and increase brain function. Is it not?

William- You know what? I haven’t seen those kinds of comparative studies, but it sounds right. I haven’t seen his database, but it sounds good. All I know is that on balance, 150 years worth of evidence suggests that yoga does a really good thing. I’m from the mid-west, I’m naively hopeful that in the decades ahead this stuff is going to explode. We don’t need Viagra. You don’t need a zillion pills, you don’t need a zillion workouts. You can do some really simple things that take care of you in wonderful, natural ways. I’m also naively hopeful that there will be things like yoga doctors, yoga medical faculty, and medical schools (if that’s not an oxymoron). Where you can have rigorous science being brought to bear on these things, to show the benefits, to learn how to lower the risks, to increase the rewards, to use this incredible lever that comes out of ancient, foggy history – and I think is still in the process of being born. I think we’ve got centuries of development that are going to happen here. Who knows where it’s going to take us, but it’s going to be a good thing if it’s done in a smart way. Longevity – every serious yoga person I interviewed for this book looked between twenty to forty years less than their chronological age. Youthful! Their brains were youthful, they had a buzz. Now, some of the research shows what’s happening on a cellular level. The de-stressing aspects of yoga have been correlated with cellular changes down at the DNA level, it’s called the telomeres. The little thing’s on the end of your chromosomes that determine you how long your cells live. There’s evidence that yoga helps produce telomerase – the enzyme that builds telomeres. This has not been proven, I don’t want to hype this, but there’s some evidence that you are fighting the aging mechanism at a cellular level. That’s interesting research and that’s going to plow ahead in the years ahead. I’m happy to report that some of that research is done with your tax dollars. Some of the best yoga research is being done by the National Institutes of Health in careful controlled studies where they really work hard. You have to…people don’t realize how hard good science is. You have to get away from the placebo effect. You have to get people away from thinking themselves in to the states that the scientist is anticipating. You have to be very clever in experimental design. Well, good news, your tax dollars are doing that. Your tax dollars are producing whole, interesting, groups of studies of yoga that are very carefully controlled. Delineating how these different benefits and how these different effects happen in the body. It’s good stuff and there’s going to be more of it in the future.

Jonathan- William, we are all about living better through modern, simple science. Listeners, I could not recommend a piece of work any more highly than William’s book, which is now out in paperback, so it’s really not going to break your bank. Really worth the sub ten dollar investment. It’s called, The Science of Yoga subtitled the risks and rewards. So again, this is not some treatise by a gentleman who owns a yoga studio and is just trying to promote it. He’s also going to go in to some of the things you want to watch out for. There’s a wonderful scientific component in there. It is truly a meaty exploration of the topic, I would highly encourage it. Also, please check out William’s website to get more information, it’s williamjbroad.com – also an excellent resource. William, I want to thank you so much for sharing this insight with us today.

William- Jonathan, it has been really cool. I enjoy your schtick, you’ve got a wonderful thing that you’re doing and I wish you the very best. It’s good stuff.

Jonathan- Thank you so much, William. We’d love to have you back on the show in the coming months.

William- Absolutely.

Jonathan- Listeners, please remember this week and every week after – it’s about smarter, not harder. In fact, you can eat more and exercise less, as long as you do that smarter, and achieve life-long health and happiness. Talk to you soon.

This week we have the pleasure of hearing from William J. Broad. William is a best-selling author, senior writer at The New York Times, has won two Pulitzer Prizes, as well as an Emmy and a DuPont, and is here to tell us about the science of yoga and his new book of the same name.

The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards