This is a letter from Dr. Timothy McCall:
Happy New Year Everyone!
I hope you've survived the holiday season, including my least favorite holiday, New Year's Eve. Even though I've generally been a pretty happy and outgoing person, something about the forced joviality of the occasion never appealed much to me. Funnily enough, a few days ago, Kelly Couturier, from the New York Times, contacted me for my comments on a story she was working on for New Year's day about how yoga might help get over a hangover!
As I've come to expect from these interviews, Kelly began by asking which poses would be most effective for hangovers. I always use these opportunities to try to educate the writers about how yoga therapy actually works. Rather than being prescriptive, based on the (western medical) diagnosis -- which is what pretty much everyone seems to think -- the good yoga therapist tries to evaluate the student's overall situation, including such considerations as their current symptoms, energy level, posture, overall fitness, core strength, perceived stress, breathing patterns, yoga experience, contraindications, etc. Then, based on what the teacher sees, and the feedback the student gives when attempting various poses or other practices, a plan evolves.
The Times reporter was interested in my medical opinion about the notion she'd heard from several teachers that twists, in particular, would be good for hangovers, since they help the liver to eliminate toxins. Twists, as you've undoubtedly heard, "squeeze and soak" the internal organs, wringing out stale blood as you compress into a twist, and allowing them to refill with fresh blood when you release. While this theory has some logic to it, and I'd dare say is probably accurate, it's not something that's ever been demonstrated scientifically. Nor is there any evidence I'm aware of that twisting helps the liver detoxify the blood. It may be true, and that's certainly the yogic lore, but really we just don't know. And FYI, even though we are undoubtedly exposed to many toxins, environmental and otherwise, most physicians are allergic to that word, so use it with caution!
What we do know is that a mixed yoga practice that includes a variety of practices appears to help relieve many symptoms, including the headaches that often follow a night of alcoholic overindulgence. My guess is that a combination of practices, including twists, improves the functioning of the liver and other internal organs via several interconnected mechanisms, which include improving the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. Although we often talk about the effects of single poses, in reality, we rarely do them in isolation. They are almost always part of a broader practice, which includes poses of different types, such as backbends and inversions, as well as breathing, meditation, etc. What we know with pretty good certainty is that doing our practice helps us to feel better.
So rather than talk about purported mechanisms of action, which are little more than educated guesses, such as twists releasing toxins, I'd suggest you stick to what we actually know. I also think it's fine to assert things that come out of the yoga tradition, but about which science is (so far) ignorant. But don't dress them up in scientific language to try to give them legitimacy. For example, don't say that Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) improves blood flow to the thyroid (speculation which is probably inaccurate). Rather, say that the yoga tradition teaches that this pose can be helpful to those with thyroid conditions. If you say it the first way, you'll end up turning off some of your audience, who will recognize it as pseudoscientific BS. Since so many yogic claims have been validated in scientific studies -- sometimes to the surprise of researchers -- as well as in our own lives, we don't need to be embarrassed by what comes to us solely via the tradition.
Speaking of science, I've just updated my list of conditions for which scientific evidence suggests yoga is helpful. When Yoga as Medicine was published in 2007, the list stood at 42 conditions. That expanded to 50 in 2009. And now, including published research through the end of 2010, it's up to 54 conditions -- and hundreds of scientific studies. New additions to the list include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Autism Spectrum Disorders. For a PDF listing the 54 conditions, click here. For a PDF of the list with 10 pages of citations, click here. Feel free to post these PDFs on your web site or blog, or share them with anyone, including your doctor!
For those of you interested in a holistic take on heart disease, check out the story I've got in the brand new Yoga Journal (February 2011). Even though drugs and fancy medical procedures get most of the press, it turns out the scientific data are actually much stronger for holistic approaches, such as the approach used in Dr. Dean Ornish's program. And, of course, good holism doesn't shun drugs or procedures like angioplasties and bypass surgery. You're just a whole lot less likely to need them if you eat right and do your yoga practice!
If you're anywhere near the Bay area, consider coming to the Yoga Journal Conference in San Francisco, where I'm especially excited to once again be teaching an all-day intensive with Patricia Walden on Yoga for Emotional Healing on January 14th. The day after the conference is over, I'll be heading back to India to continue my studies of Ayurveda and Tantra. My only other teaching appearance in the next few months will be when I stop back to see my old friends at the Sivananda Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas on my way home from India in late February. For details on these and other 2011 workshops, click here.
So, happy New Year! I hope our paths cross sometime soon...