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"In modern medicine, we're actually doing a lot more guesswork than we let on," says Demers. "We want to say we understand everything. We don't understand half of it. It's scary how clueless we are." Desperate patients consult half a dozen specialists and get half a dozen conflicting opinions. "Well, of course," Dr. Toby Brown, a Manassas, Va., radiologist says impatiently, "it's not as if medicine is a science." Hence the appeal of alternative medicine: aromatherapy, homeopathy, ginkgo biloba. Proponents may be crusading scientists or snake-oil salesmen, but either way, their pitch falls on eager ears: each year Americans spend some $27 billion on so-called complementary medicine. "One lesson of the alternative health-care movement," McCall warns, "is that the public is not going to wait for doctors to get it together."
Late last month the National Institutes of Health held the first major conference on mind-body research. "There is a major reason that many in biomedicine reject mind-body research: it is the pervasive sound of the popularizers," noted Dr. Robert Rose, executive director at the MacArthur Foundation's Initiative on mind, brain, body and health research. "The loudest voices, the most passionate and articulate spokespersons for the power of the mind to heal come not from the research community but from the growing number of gurus...the hawkers on TV for alternative treatments, herbs, homeopathy, handbooks." Rose distinguished the nostrum pushers from those seeking to bring yoga and science together. "Thousands of research studies have shown that in the practice of yoga a person can learn to control such physiologic parameters as blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory function, metabolic rate, skin resistance, brain waves and body temperature, among other body functions." Critics are quick to note that few of those studies were published in leading science journals.
Two oddities attend yoga's vogue. One is that America has the fittest people in the world, and the most obese. Yoga, typically, is practiced by the fit. Exercise, the care and feeding of body and possibly mind, is their second career. The folks in urgent need of yoga are the ones who are at the fast-food counter getting their fries supersize; who would rather take a pill than devote a dozen hours a week to yoga; for whom meditation is staring glassily at six hours of football each Sunday; and who might go under the surgeon's knife more readily than they would ingest anything more Indian than tandoori chicken.
Here's another peculiarity: this ritual of relaxation is cresting at a cultural moment when noise and agitation are everywhere. We work longer hours, with TVs and portable radios blaring as the sound track for frantic wage slaves. If a teen isn't trussed to his headphones or plugged into a chat room, it's because his cell phone has just beeped. America is running in place, in the spa or at work. And after Letterman and Clinton, nobody takes the world seriously; everything is up for laughs.
In this modern maelstrom, yoga's tendency to stasis and silence seems at first insane, then inspired. The notion of bodies at rest becoming souls at peace is reactionary, radical and liberating. If it cures nagging backache, swell. But isn't it bliss just to sit this one out, to freeze-frame the frenzy, to say no to all that and om to what may be beyond it, or within ourselves?