News: How Garbo Learned to Stand on Her Head
How Garbo Learned to Stand on Her Head
OP-ED COLUMNIST By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: October 8, 2011. Op Ed Page, New York Times
SOMETIMES it feels as though I spend half my time working and the other half trying to ameliorate the strain of working.
Ever since one particularly clenched day of columnizing years ago, when I found myself curled up on the floor of my house davening, I’ve tried various remedies for the ravages of stress: better nutrition, caramels, gym, green tea Popsicles, kavakava, kale, kombucha, cupcakes, chocolate, chardonnay – sometimes in concurrent combinations.
The one that works best is yoga.
So I was intrigued to open my mail on Friday and find the galley of an upcoming book by the Times science writer William Broad, who made his name reporting about space weapons and biological warfare, on “The Science of Yoga: The Myths and the Rewards.”
I stopped reading about the Rick Perry supporter who denounced Mormonism as a cult, and started reading about my own cult. I was eager to know the science behind the blissful state of mind produced by savasana – corpse pose. It can’t just be the buckwheat-scented eye pillow.
Broad suggests that only an ancient tradition of centering – “an anti-civilization pill” – may be able to neutralize the “dissipating influence” of the Internet and the frantic information flow.
Once esoteric and exotic, yoga is now so prevalent that in 2010, the city of Cambridge, Mass., began printing soothing yoga poses on parking tickets.
But as I read on, I began to feel a little stressed out.
Does yoga make you fat?
“For decades, teachers of yoga have hailed the discipline as a great way to shed pounds,” Broad writes. “But it turns out that yoga works so well at reducing the body’s metabolic rate that – all things being equal – people who take up the practice will burn fewer calories, prompting them to gain weight and deposit new layers of fat. And for better or worse, scientists have found that the individuals most skilled at lowering their metabolisms are women.”
Broad follows that up with another of yoga’s “dirty little secrets,” writing: “Yoga has produced waves of injuries. Take strokes, which arise when clogged vessels divert blood from the brain. Doctors have found that certain poses can result in brain damage that turns practitioners into cripples with drooping eyelids and flailing limbs.”
Now I was very tense. The next paragraph made me coil tighter.
“Darker still, some authorities warn of madness,” Broad advises. “As Carl Jung put it, advanced yoga can ‘let loose a flood of sufferings of which no sane person ever dreamed.’ ”
Maybe caramels work better than chaturanga.
But finally Broad, who has practiced yoga since he was a freshman in college in 1970, began enumerating benefits.
The discipline that started out centuries ago as “a sex cult,” with rapacious vagabond yogis focused on “the path to the ecstatic union” and enlightenment known as Tantra, maintains its ability to calm and arouse at the same time.
“A small trove of illuminating reports and investigations,” Broad writes, show that yoga “can in fact result in surges of sex hormones and brainwaves, among other signs of sexual arousal.”
New medical scans, he reports, “indicate that advanced yogis can shut their eyes and light up their brains in states of ecstasy indistinguishable from those of sexual climax.” One yogini described it as the best sex she never had.
Fast breathing, the author wryly observes, fans the flames.
Being a vegetarian reduces the level of testosterone in the body, but yoga appears to raise it, as well as lowering fight-or-flight hormones and improving circulation and inner flexibility.
After giving “Sex and the City” a shout-out for coining the word “yogasm,” Broad primly concludes, “The findings may also help introduce into the consumer society a number of practical methods for the treatment of sexual disorders and the revitalization of sex lives – hopefully reducing our dependence on costly pills and potions.”
I started to relax again, especially when I got to the final chapter, where Broad explores the intersection between yoga and creativity.
Artists who got rid of aches and gained inspiration from yoga include the violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, the rock star Sting, and Leopold Stokowski, the conductor best known for leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Disney film “Fantasia.”
Stokowski taught yoga to Greta Garbo during a fling in Italy, and Garbo began teaching headstands in Hollywood.
Yoga is a kinder version of alcohol, Broad suggests: “Both do at least part of their mental rejiggering by means of GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid. The neurotransmitter slows the firing of neurons, making them less excitable and thus calming the mind.”
He ends by suggesting that political leaders would do well to take up yoga. Herman Cain in corpse pose?
Nah. That would ruin all the fun.