When Vivekananda stepped up to the lectern at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he was nervous about the speech he was going to give to an audience of 7,000, a speech that would plant a new seed of yoga in America. On another stage at the same time at the same World’s Exposition, an ex-cowboy and self-styled Rattlesnake King was squeezing oil, used in his patent medicines, from snakes he had just killed.
Clarke Stanley, one of the most successful and colorful tonic barkers of the 19th century, was an even bigger attraction than the exotic brown-skinned man from India. He wasn’t nervous, either. He claimed his Snake Oil Liniment gave immediate relief to both man and beast for everything from toothaches and sore throats to sciatica and rheumatism.
It never went rancid, either, said the snakeman.
“Ladies and gentlemen, come up close where everyone can see, it even cures squinting.”
Patent medicines are as old as Daffy’s Elixir, first blended in England in 1647, and popular in the United States into the late 19th century. The alcohol-fortified and drug-laced remedies were peddled by grocers goldsmiths tailors traveling salesmen. They were available for almost any ailment, colic cuts bruises baldness boils nerve damage lame backs deafness and “those painful complaints and weaknesses so common to our female population.”
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 led to the end of Joy to the World Pain Killer, laced with opium, Fowler’s Arsenic Solution, which was iron mixed with arsenic for heart ailments, and the wildly popular Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root, meant to treat something called “internal slime fever.”
The many medical advances of the 20th century and into the 21st, however, did not put an end to quackery. Empty nutritional and supplement schemes, fraudulent arthritis products, and spurious cancer clinics led the way. In 2017 the FDA warned stem cell clinics about their cure-all claims.
“Stem cell clinics that mislead vulnerable patients into believing they are being given safe, effective treatments that are in full compliance with the law are dangerously exploiting consumers and putting their health at risk,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
More than a hundred years ago Vivekananda believed health gave a leg up to making it down the yellow brick road to liberation.
“He who wants to become a Bhakta must be strong, must be healthy,” he said. “Build up your health. As long as the body lives there must be strength in the body. Yoga staves off disease.”
A Bhakta is a devotee of God. Bhakti Yoga, also known as Bhakti Marga, is largely a spiritual path. It employs yoga practice and discipline to help get to where it wants to go.
Vivekananda never said yoga was the snake oil of body mind spirit, that it was a tonic that cured all ills. If you don’t do yoga there’s no need to stress out about it. He seems to have believed the best cure was a quiet mind, like the best cure for sleeplessness is getting a good night’s sleep.
That’s not what contemporary marketplace yoga says. It says there is a remedy for every problem and the remedy is yoga. Step right up!
There are ‘4 Yoga Poses to Cure Diabetes’’ and ‘5 Top Yoga Poses to Cure Gallstones’ and ‘6 Effective Yoga Poses for Autism’.
There are ‘8 Easy Yoga Poses That Will Cure Fibromyalgia Quickly’ and ‘9 Yoga Poses for Arthritis Relief’ and ‘10 Yoga Poses to Heal Migraines’.
There are yoga poses to re-grow hair, alleviate and prevent nerve pain, fight epilepsy, help you poop, treat skin problems, restore irregular periods to a timely basis, improve heart health, lower blood pressure, calm down restless leg syndrome, ease ankylosing spondylitis, overcome PTSD, relieve neck shoulder lower back hip flexor pain, and resolve anxiety disorder and build your confidence.
There is ‘Pranayama Yoga Cures Almost All Incurable Diseases!’
The only thing yoga doesn’t seem to be able to take care of are gunshot wounds.
Writing in The Telegraph in a recent feature article called ‘Why Yoga Cures Everything’, Lucy Fry asked, “ My big question is no longer why are so many people doing yoga. It’s why isn’t everyone?”
On the other hand, Thomas Browne, a 17th century writer, argued against doing anything at all. “We all labor against our own cure, for death is the cure of all diseases.”
Tara Stiles is not Thomas Browne, but she has sold many more books than him. Thomas Browne was an English polymath influenced by the scientific revolution of Baconian enquiry. Tara Stiles is an American model turned yoga instructor. In her book Yoga Cures: Simple Routines to Conquer More Than 50 Common Ailments and Live Pain-Free she tackles everything from “arthritis to fibromyalgia to jiggly thighs and hangovers.”
Jiggly thighs are flabby thighs that can’t be slid into skinny jeans or look sexy in a pair of shorts. The usual remedy is to do cardio-vascular exercises that involve your legs, like walking, and stop eating oily fatty sugary processed foods. Or buy Yoga Cures.
“If you’ve got an ache, pain, or ‘ism, she’s got the natural answer. So dump the over-the-counter pills and pop open Yoga Cures,” recommended Kris Carr, author of Crazy Sexy Diet.
Cure-alls are remedies that resolve all evils, cure all diseases. The cure for everything, the miracle panacea, is driven by a belief that the humors or the liver or the spine is the root cause of all maladies.
In the past in the West leeches and bloodletting were used to balance the four humors, while in the East needles and acupuncture were used to balance the life force. Today chiropractors believe something called sublaxtions block the flow of something-or-other, which when unblocked will let your body heal whatever it is that ails you.
Cure-all approaches neglect to take into account causes of disease ranging from genetic to infectious to biochemical to traumatic to degenerative to metabolic to autoimmune, never mind all the environmental and man-made toxic things in the world.
Poison ivy grows everywhere in the United States, except Alaska and Hawaii. If you get the rash, draw hot water and find some soap, lather, rinse, repeat, wash, rinse, soak, and then go to the drug store and buy a bottle of calamine lotion. Don’t go to yoga class. You’ll only spread the itchy poisonous ivy’s urushiol on your skin to others.
If you go to India, the birthplace of yoga, don’t drink tap water. Drink bottled water instead. More than half of India’s population, more than 500 million people, practice open defecation. Much of the country’s water is contaminated by biological and chemical pollutants, which cause cholera, among other things.
Clean water and sanitation prevent cholera. No known yoga pose or sequence or mudra has any proven effect on its spread. It is endemic because the water is foul, not because you haven’t read Yoga Cures. Oral rehydration solutions, when promptly administered, treat the disease easily.
As good as yoga is as a mindset a practice and a way of life, it is not the cure for much, certainly not cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, cancers of any kind, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, asthma, or gallstones. If you’ve got stones either take a wait-and-see approach, hoping the stone dissolves or dislodges, or join the nearly one million Americans who annually get their gallbladders surgically removed.
You need a haywire gallbladder like you need an infected appendix.
If you have cancer of any kind it might be best to ignore Dr. Joel Brame, a self-styled Cancer Prevention Consultant, when he professes that Bikram Yoga can reverse cancerous tumors. He seems to believe that exercising in Bikram’s Hot Room oxygenates the blood “creating an environment in which cancer cannot grow,” restores the immune system, and generally purifies the body, which in his world is good because cancers can only metastasize in a toxic body.
“Attend your yoga class on a regular basis and feel the magic happen!” he said.
Black magic, maybe, when hell freezes over.
Until that happens, sitting around in the waiting room, it would be worth anyone’s while to page through Timothy McCall’s Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. A board-certified physician who has long practiced Iyengar Yoga and has been the medical editor for Yoga Journal since 2002, he describes yoga therapy as “a systematic technology to improve the body, understand the mind, and free the spirit.”
Yoga as Medicine is largely a practical guide about how to use therapeutic yoga tools from exercise to meditation as complements and occasionally alternatives to medical care and medication. It’s about getting in tune with your body, which is what health is all about.
Yoga therapy doesn’t treat the disease, exactly. It treats the person who has the disease. It’s about learning ways of making and maintaining body mind spirit health.
Gery Kraftsow of the American Viniyoga Institute describes yoga therapy as a practice to help people “facing health challenges at any level manage their condition, reduce symptoms, restore balance, increase vitality, and improve attitude.”
He doesn’t blare, blare, blare about cure, cure, cure. Brenda Feuerstein has pointed out that it might be more helpful if the practice was regarded as something that “may be helpful in the treatment of something, but not yoga cures.”
Well-being is often the result of practicing yoga on a consistent basis. Yoga therapy isn’t a cure for acute conditions, but it is an aid in treatment, augmenting clinical care. Georg Feuerstein believed it was a way to integrate yogic techniques and concepts with medical know-how.
The difference between Snake Oil Yoga and Therapy Yoga is that one sells what purports to work for everybody while the other teaches what is appropriate to the individual and respects the differences in different people. Snake Oil men shoot magic elixir bullets. Yoga therapists try to gauge the capacity and direction of mind of the person before they draw any conclusions. They don’t quick draw. They don’t try to kill anyone with cold-blooded make-believe kindness, either.
Why does it matter?
In the British art critic John Berger’s TV series “Ways of Seeing,” broadcast at about the same time that today’s yoga came around the bend in the United States in the early 1970s, he argued that where when and how we are directed to look at something, to pay attention to it, determines what we see. How something is framed often makes what matters, and what doesn’t matter.
When we pay attention to snake oil salesmen we get sucked down into their wormholes. It becomes believing what you want to believe, the easy answer, one size fits all. When we practice yoga therapy there is no rabbit in the hat, just a lot of work on the mat, day after day. It’s not the easy answer. There have long been and still are plenty of mad hatters and carnival sandbaggers trying to pickpocket the out-on-a-limb with their cooked-up promises. But, there’s no yogi genie lightning in a bottle.
Yoga never was and never was intended to be a cure-all for ill health. “We must all pay attention to your health first, but we must not forget that health is only a means to an end, “said Vivekananda. “If health were the end, we would be like animals. Animals rarely become unhealthy.”
How the practice of yoga can effectively help those in need is being brought to bear by men like Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, not the flimflam men of Madison Avenue. Dr. Khalsa’s research focuses on the clinical effectiveness and psychophysiological mechanisms underlying the practice of yoga and meditation techniques.
His approach advocates yoga as a way of enhancing proprioception, the awareness of where you are in space, and interoception, the awareness of the sensations of your body in space. He believes awareness is what changes lifestyles, and since many diseases are lifestyle diseases, brings the commonness of those diseases under control.
“People change their diets,” he said. “They change their behaviors to ones that make them feel better, because now, for the first time in their lives, they’re actually feeling better.”
Feeling better not by staring down into the bottom of a bottle of snake oil, but rather straight ahead in cobra pose, firming the shoulders against the back, lifting through the top of the sternum.
When Vivekananda stepped up to the stage at the World’s Exposition in Chicago in 1893 it was one small step for a man. Thankfully, there weren’t any globs of snake oil on the stairs to slip him up. Otherwise, the large step that was ultimately taken that day might never have happened.