Yoga has become more popular than ever, and it's easy to see why. It's healthy, it's relatively affordable and undemanding, and it includes a dash of vague spirituality to make you feel more in touch with the universe on your lunch break. But a nine-billion-dollar industry with over 36 million participants in America alone isn't immune to problems, so keep the following in mind the next time you're sliding into those overpriced ass-hugging pants.  

Sweating Out Toxins Isn't A Thing

If you visit your local yoga studio's website there's a good chance it will be poorly designed, but also that it will espouse detoxification as one of yoga's key benefits. This is especially true if the studio practices hot yoga, which is meant to make you spew sweat (from heat and humidity, not from how sexy everyone in the room is).

Yoga class

Bruce Mars/Unsplash

Conspiracy theory: They make you sweat just so you FEEL sexy. 

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This studio in Aspen, for example, says that sweating eliminates toxins from the body, and so the more water you're forced to drink the more crud you'll sweat out. They compare it to "taking a shower from the inside out." And this hot yoga studio in Vancouver says sweating will save you from unhealthy food additives, environmental pollutants, "bad bacteria," and viruses. If you're worried we're picking on random nobodies, rest assured that Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop is telling readers that sweat will save them from the "bad things" they've picked up from "mattresses, non-stick pans, plastic bottles, and pesticide-laden food." 

While this implies that people who don't work up a sweat to the dulcet tunes of Spotify's "Badass Brahman!" playlist are doomed to forever stumble about with aspartame and rat poison rattling around inside them, the human body has an obscure feature called "organs" that filter toxins on your behalf. The liver, kidneys, and intestines all play a role in eliminating unwanted gunk, which is why you don't urinate and defecate for the sheer joy of it. 

toilet

Giorgio Trovato/Unsplash

Your body's great at handling toxins. It's nutrients that are the problem. 

Sweat's role is to regulate your body temperature; a few toxins might trickle out with it, but it's 99% water. If anything, producing an NBA game's worth of sweat in an hour will keep toxins hanging around a bit longer, because your kidneys will be forced to preserve water and slow their work. Yoga still has plenty of health benefits -- it's still exercise -- and far from every class espouses this myth. But it's not a magic bullet for counteracting last night's vodka and KFC binge. And speaking of BS ideas ... 

Chakras Aren't A Thing Either

Even if the closest you come to doing yoga is sitting in weird poses while you play video games, you've heard of chakras. As yogajournal.com helpfully tells us, they're "the body's 7 energetic centers" and "a convergence of energy, thoughts/feelings, and the physical body." Basically, if we were a boss fight, they'd be our seven glowing power sources. 

 A diagram of the human body, containing locations of the main chakras and their locations on the body.

Raymond1922A/Wiki Commons 

If you fiddle enough with your red chakra, you'll go blind!

Countless yoga sites will tell you how chakras affect our well-being. Here's one warning you that unbalancing your chakras through bad habits or negative environmental factors leads to health problems like anxiety and indigestion. Thankfully, yoga cleanses the energy of your chakras, each of which is associated with different functions. The navel chakra, for example, helps regulate your digestive system and willpower, and is associated with yellow and the element of fire. And if yoga alone doesn't restore your confidence and gut health, the Goops of the world will sell you overpriced essential oils, candles, and crystals to get those troublesome chakras unblocked. 

That might all sound like nonsense, but you can believe it because chakras are an ancient concept that came from smart Indians, which is a real double whammy for impressing white people named Kemberly whose Sanskrit tattoo says “hoagie.” Now, the last thing we want to do is wade into centuries of revered religious beliefs ... but we don't have to, because the western understanding of chakras has almost nothing to do with their Hindu origins.

Sapta Chakra, an 1899 manuscript illustrates the esoteric correspondence(s) between subtle energy and Tibetan psycho-physiology

The British Library

This guy's also got a red chakra, but he has other stuff going on too. 

The misunderstanding began in the early 20th century when Westerners, anticipating the internet, began talking about foreign beliefs without a proper understanding of them. An influential 1927 book by the man who thought he'd found Jesus 2.0 tried to cram chakras into theosophy, and a 1918 publication was based on a poor translation of a 1577 text that wasn't especially authoritative. These errors and oversimplifications became mistaken for ancient wisdom and, over time, more and more pseudoscientific ideas were grafted onto them. Chakras became spiritual fanfiction. 

The association of chakras with colors, elements, gemstones, bodily functions, emotional states, and even Jungian archetypes are all the invention of Westerners way too eager to try ordering in Hindi when they visit the corner Indian restaurant. But while your yoga teacher might tell you it's a simple fact that everyone has a red, earthen root chakra that affects their sleep and sex drive, ancient Hindus and Buddhists couldn't even agree on how many chakras there were. But that was okay, because they were considered visualization aids for meditative religious practices, not literal tanks of energy kicking around your body that need regular refueling. There's no scientific evidence for the latter; if everyone in a yoga class feels less anxious and more frisky after a session focused on their pelvic chakras, that's because they took an hour to do something relaxing. 

Bikram Yoga Was Founded By A Lunatic

One of the most popular forms of hot yoga is Bikram Yoga, created by Bikram Choudhury. Every Bikram session goes through the same 26 poses, and they tend to crank the temperature and humidity up even more than their competitors. Celebrities took to it, and you can find a Bikram branded studio in any fair-sized city. It's the Tylenol or Kleenex of hot yoga ... if Mr. Kleenex was also an abusive weirdo. 

Bikram Choudhury assisting a pupil in Paschimottanasana in his own style

tiarescott/Wiki Commons

We have several questions about this guy, and we don't actually want any answers. 

Choudhury got his start in early '70s LA, and his teaching method will make you appreciate even the most inept hippies. He mocked overweight students, bragged about his wealth and sex life, and claimed an absurd number of powerful friends (he totally taught Richard Nixon yoga, you guys, for realsies). An interview where he claimed to have "balls like atom bombs" was typical. In 2005, major publications were writing about his efforts to build a national yoga empire, which included lawsuits of anyone who misused or deviated from his method. 

But his attempt to copyright yoga poses fizzled out, and then the allegations came rolling in. In 2013 it cost $13,000 to be certified as a Bikram teacher (other common certifications tend to cost a couple grand), and these training sessions were ... unique. Two lawsuits accused Choudhury of comparing himself to Christ and Buddha, claiming that his form of yoga could cure cancer and AIDS, exploiting misled volunteers brought in from overseas, discriminating against sexual and racial minorities, sexually harassing seemingly everyone, and raping an exhausted student, among other acts. 

Choudhury leading a Bikram Yoga class in Utkatasana at the Los Angeles Convention Center in 2003

Ambermarquez31/Wiki Commons

This pic here isn't of a cult meeting. All yoga looks like this.

Devotees who poured their life savings into becoming franchisees defended Choudhury from the parade of claims, but by 2016 his sleaziness had become impossible to disguise and he was ordered to pay $6.4 million in damages. He instead fled the country, and has spent the last few years flaunting his fortune while dismissing his critics as "trash" and "psychopaths." There's an arrest warrant waiting for him if he ever returns, but otherwise he continues to issue his expensive certifications and rake in money from branded studios. So, if you do want to practice hot yoga, maybe check out the knockoffs across the street. Oh, but make sure it's not run by one of the many other chains or gurus with their own abuse scandals.  

Yoga Has Been Flooded With Conspiracy Theorists

Because Western yoga has been severed from its Hindu origins, it's fallen in with the "wellness" and "spirituality" crowds. Those broad concepts include everything from crystals to Reiki but, with respect to people who just find yoga relaxing and certain rocks pretty, people who believe there are viable alternatives to modern medicine are more likely to believe there are viable alternatives to modern reality. New Age types are prone to believing conspiracy theories; the overlap between the two realms has been dubbed "conspirituality." 

2018 Midwest Yoga and Oneness Festival

Erik Brolin/Unsplash

They believe in the power of 5-chi

Over the past few months, American, Canadian, British, and Australian publications have all found local yoga teachers forcing anti-vax and QAnon videos on their students. The wellness world has always had an anti-establishment streak, but they've evolved from a general distrust of Big Pharma to believing that COVID vaccines are implanting us with microchips and celebrities are involved in a secretive cabal of child abusers, among other nonsense. 

COVID has kicked the problem into overdrive; not only was everyone stuck at home for months, bored and fearful, but yoga teachers used their online connection to their students to bombard them with conspiracy crap. It's a lot easier to suggest watching a polished video than it is to stand in front of real human beings and give a speech on secret government pedophiles without sounding like a lunatic, and ridiculous ideas sound a lot more probable when you're lonely and afraid. 

Yoga

Wee Lee/Unsplash

Plus, if a yogi sounds like they got their head up their ass, that just means they're skilled

Yoga also helps divorce QAnon from its less palatable elements, while the COVID conspiracies slid neatly into wellness's already lurking anti-vax beliefs. QAnon's rabid Trump supporter origins were downplayed in favor of "We need to save the children!" messaging and, if you believe your body is a magical self-sufficient temple, you don't want to hear that the whole edifice can be annihilated by a little virus even though you've sacrificed red meat and potato chips for years. 

A BBC investigation suggested that yoga's emphasis on self-discovery also fueled the problem, combining a distrust of authority with a tendency to call yourself an independent thinker by, ironically, mindlessly consuming anything and everything that doesn't fit the "official" story. And because the official story has never been scarier, believing that you've been lied to becomes a soothing balm. It's an explanation that doesn't challenge your worldview. 

Yoga sweat

Nate Johnston/Unsplash

"I already knew doctors were fools. They don’t even know about sweating out toxins!"

This all has nasty real world consequences; yoga teachers have been breaking quarantine, accusing random people of pedophilia, and ruining long friendships with students who don't want this stuff shoved at them. But other yoga studios are pushing back against conspiracy theories and endorsing "critical spirituality," which encourages a divorce of yoga's physical and mental health benefits from fantasy nonsense. And, as prevalent as this problem has become, odds are still good that the typical yoga teacher won't do anything more offensive than try to sell you their arrhythmic pan flute music. But make sure you know where the exit is, just in case. 

Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.

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