Can Yoga Kill You?

The recent fad of wellness has lots to commend it. But it also puts a lot of pressure on individuals to be responsible for their health; and if something goes wrong there is all the guilt of failing and the haunting thought that you are sick because you didn't have that kale smoothie.

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Barbara Ehrenreich, the acclaimed US investigative journalist, has a fascinating new book out, Natural Causes about how and why we die, and what the causes are. Here are some of her thoughts and research ideas from a recent newspaper article:


Of course I want to be healthy, too; I just don’t want to make the pursuit of health into a major life project. I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste good and will stave off hunger for as long as possible, such as protein, fibre and fats. But I refuse to overthink the potential hazards of blue cheese on my salad or pepperoni on my pizza. I also exercise – not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do. As for medical care, I will seek help for an urgent problem, but I am no longer interested in undergoing tests to uncover problems that remain undetectable to me. When friends berate me for my laxity, my heavy use of butter or habit of puffing (but not inhaling) on cigarettes, I gently remind them that I am, in most cases, older than they are.

So it was with a measure of schadenfreude that I began to record the cases of individuals whose healthy lifestyles failed to produce lasting health. It turns out that many of the people who got caught up in the health “craze” of the last few decades – people who exercised, watched what they ate, abstained from smoking and heavy drinking – have nevertheless died. Lucille Roberts, owner of a chain of women’s gyms, died incongruously from lung cancer at the age of 59, although she was a “self-described exercise nut” who, the New York Times reported, “wouldn’t touch a French fry, much less smoke a cigarette”. Jerry Rubin, who devoted his later years to trying every supposedly health-promoting diet fad, therapy and meditation system he could find, jaywalked into Wilshire Boulevard at the age of 56 and died of his injuries two weeks later.

Some of these deaths were genuinely shocking. Jim Fixx, author of the bestselling The Complete Book Of Running, believed he could outwit the cardiac problems that had carried his father off to an early death by running at least 10 miles a day and restricting himself to a diet of pasta, salads and fruit. But he was found dead on the side of a Vermont road in 1984, aged only 52.

Even more disturbing was the untimely demise of John H Knowles, director of the Rockefeller Foundation and promulgator of the “doctrine of personal responsibility” for one’s health. Most illnesses are self-inflicted, he argued – the result of “gluttony, alcoholic intemperance, reckless driving, sexual frenzy, smoking” and other bad choices. The “idea of a ‘right’ to health,” he wrote, “should be replaced by the idea of an individual moral obligation to preserve one’s own health.” But he died of pancreatic cancer at 52, prompting one physician commentator to observe, “Clearly we can’t all be held responsible for our health.”


I’m not saying you should sell your yoga mats, or give up your gym memberships.  Hey, giving up the vodka and cigarettes and walking a bit can’t be a bad thing, I agree.   Yet, the “wellness” industry seems to have become a new religion, which can blind us to its dangers.  Yet, the wellness craze can give us the illusion that we can live forever if we follow the secrets of the Sardinians or Japanese, or change our diet or mindset or get the latest fitness tracker. In modern western culture death is rarely talked about and hidden from view (most people want to die at home with loved ones, but the majority of people die in hospital wards).  Just think, when was the last time you saw someone die?   Go to California and you’ll find people who are restricting their diet or taking supplements with the fanciful idea that they really will live forever.  They have been truly captured by “surveillance medicine” which logs and registers every heart beat and morsel eaten.  But Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us that we need to think about we are going to live, and what makes life worth living.  

Ajay Khandelwal PhD

Ajay Khandelwal is an experienced psychotherapist and consultant. He welcomes contact and enquiries and is accepting new clients via zoom during the shut down.