BOOK REVIEW: The Physiology of Yoga by Andrew McGonigle & Matthew Huy

The Physiology of YogaThe Physiology of Yoga by Andrew McGonigle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This is a much-needed book for two reasons. First, while there are a number of fine books on anatomy as it applies to yoga, such books focus on the musculoskeletal system, occasionally venturing into the respiratory system – re: pranayama (breathwork.) However, yoga anatomy books rarely giving an overview of the workings of the body as a whole or describe how yoga influences and is influenced by other bodily systems. This book systematically reviews not only the muscles, bones, and lungs, but offers insight into the less familiar systems, such as the lymphatic, immune, and endocrine systems. Unless you want to know more about yoga and the integumentary system (skin, hair, and nails,) this book has got you covered. The book does an excellent job of avoiding muddling science with mythological beliefs about the body, a common sin among yoga books.

Second, there are many physiology misunderstandings and mistakes that are widespread and have come to be repeatedly parroted by new generations of teachers. These range from ideas that are unsupported by scientific evidence to those that are completely in conflict with well-understood science. This book has text boxes throughout that investigate widely taught physiology myths (e.g. twists detox the liver, shoulder stands stimulate the thyroid & pineal glands, kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) stops the aging process, heavy sweating detoxifies the body, and various claims about specific asana / practices curing specific ailments.) These boxes review what studies have been done on each claim, and (in the absence of scientific literature) it discusses whether claims make any sense in light of well-established physiological science.

The book is clear and easy to read, and has well-drawn anatomical drawings and diagrams to help communicate the workings of the body. It also has an extensive bibliography of works referenced.

The book wasn’t perfect. I thought the last chapter, which is a collection of yoga sequences, was out of place and unnecessary, given the objectives of this book. I suspect its inclusion was solely to remind readers flipping through the book that they were reading a book about yoga as well as physiology. (The graphics and headings don’t necessarily scream yoga.) However, I think this could have been more relevantly and effectively by including more graphics throughout that show individuals engaged in yogic practices / asana, or – alternatively – focusing on the physiological aspects of the practices and sequences in the last chapter. There was also a place or two where I wasn’t sure what the authors were saying, not because they didn’t write in a clear and readable style or because what they were saying wholly conflicted with what I understood to be true, but just because there was enough ambiguity that I was left puzzled.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for yoga teachers and practitioners looking to expand their understanding of the workings of the human body, and to liberate themselves from some misinformation that has gained a following.

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BOOK REVIEW: Immunity by Jenna Macciochi

Immunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune SystemImmunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune System by Jenna Macciochi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This is a book about how to keep one’s immune system firing on all cylinders, and it reports on the scientific findings about how a range of lifestyle activities (e.g. exercise, sleep, and nutrition) impact upon the robustness of one’s immune response. The book was exceedingly timely, having been put out last spring in the early days of the pandemic [though I was delinquent in getting to my review until now.]

The book consists of just seven chapters, though they are substantial in length and extent of discussion of the respective topics. The first chapter offers a primer on the immune system, its components, and how it does its crucial job. This chapter also explains how vaccinations work, what autoimmune diseases and allergies are, and what role genetics (nature) and lifestyle / environment (nurture) play in immunity.

Chapter two investigates a range of topics at the nexus of lifecycle and immunity, including: differences between male and female immune responses, pregnancy and immunity, and the effects of aging and menopause on immune system activity.

Chapter three is about our intestinal microbiomes and immunity. If this seems like a strange topic to devote an entire chapter to, you probably haven’t been following the voluminous outpouring of research findings about how our helpful microbiological lifeforms are being shown to have a profound impact on all aspects of human health and well-being from mental health to, well, immune system robustness.

Chapter four explores how immune system activity is compromised by lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep. However, it also looks more broadly at how our immune system responds to the various cycles in which it finds itself — from the daily cycle of days and nights to the yearly seasonal cycle.

Chapter five considers the nexus of mental health and immune response. As was mentioned with respect to the gut, the connections between physiological activity and mental health are becoming ever more apparent – though there remains much to be understood.

The penultimate chapter is about fitness and physical activity and what is know about why exercise is so good for one’s immune response. Of course, there seem to be diminishing marginal returns (less benefit for a given additional workout) and even diminishing returns (negative outcomes) if one goes too crazy with one’s exercise regiment and doesn’t give one’s body adequate amounts of rest.

The final chapter is about the role of nutrition in immune system activity. The approach is very much accord with my own beliefs which are that if one eats right, there is little need for supplements, and no volume of supplements will save you from a poor diet. The emphasis is upon a high-fiber diet rich in plant nutrients and balanced to provide all necessary macro- and micronutrients, while debunking fads and dietary myths. There is discussion of many of the foods that are traditionally associated with immunity (echinacea, elderberry, turmeric, etc.,) and what claims seem to hold and which are unproven.

If you don’t know a lot about the science of healthy lifestyles, this book offers an additional benefit in that it approaches the topic from a quite basic level. That is, it provides a lot of background information that would be useful for a complete neophyte to understand the points about immune activity. So, for example, the author lays out rudimentary explanations of micronutrients or sleep cycles before getting into the relevant information about how these impact on immunity. Of course, the flip side is that for those who have studied this science, it may take some skimming because there is a lot of material that will probably be elementary to those who practice healthy living.

I found this to be an extremely beneficial book. Its focus upon what one can do to improve immune robustness makes it tremendously useful for the average reader. It presents the science without getting too deep in the weeds of detailed physiological activity. I felt the author did an excellent job of walking the line to produce a book that is useful, readable, and digestible.

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