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Yoga Under the Microscope

Can claims of yoga's health benefits stand up to scientific scrutiny? These three researchers think so.

By Kathryn Black

Publication in that prestigious medical journal was the culmination of three years' work for Garfinkel—from getting the idea for the study, to designing the yoga intervention and lining up rheumatologists to help her, to finding grant money, and then submitting the article. Just as you don't often see the word "yoga" in JAMA, you don't see many Ed.D.s—Doctors of Education—writing JAMA articles. It is, after all, the leading journal for medical doctors. But Garfinkel is a "can do" sort of person. And listening to her talk about what she has done and is doing can make you feel like a couch potato even if you don't own a TV.

Besides her Ed.D. (from the Department of Health Education at Temple University, where she also received certificates in gerontology and stress management), Garfinkel also has a Master's degree in English literature and theater from Penn State University. (The same Marian Garfinkel who surfaced in JAMA wrote her master's thesis on "The Fascist Tendencies of William Butler Yeats.")

She also studied art appreciation at the Barnes Foundation, collects fine art, and has long been part of the Philadelphia art scene. And that's not all; Garfinkel also serves on the board of the American Poetry Review and is a member of the Fine Arts Committee at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. In her capacity as a health educator, she presents lectures and workshops on pain management, prevention, and treatment of arthritic disease and repetitive stress injuries, and teaches at the School of Nursing Education at MCP-Hahnemann University (also in Philadelphia). In her, um, spare time, she sings and loves to throw parties—not backyard barbecues but fundraising galas for hundreds of people at a time. She's even organized Philadelphia garden tours to raise money for arthritis research.

Then, of course, there's yoga, her first love. She discovered yoga in the late '60s and soon found herself teaching. In 1973, an Indian friend gave her a gift: a signed copy of B.K.S. Iyengar's book Light on Yoga (Schocken, 1995). It presented a yoga unlike any that Garfinkel had known, and it both fascinated and scared her. No one taught Iyengar Yoga in Philadelphia then, and she could see that this yoga would require hard work, time, and practice. So, despite her responsibilities in Philadelphia, including a preschool-age son, she jumped at a chance in 1974 to meet Iyengar when she found he would be doing a workshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When, the evening before classes were to begin, she was introduced to him, he asked: "How can I help you?" She told him of coming to own a copy of his book, and said she'd like help with her Headstand. The next morning, Iyengar, red Brahmin stripe on his forehead, entered the hall where about 40 students were warming up in front of 100 or so observers. Garfinkel remembers that "he looked formidable, terrifying"—nothing like the mild-mannered gentleman she'd met the night before.

He disrobed, jumped up on a table, called the class to order, and commanded, "Tadasana." He moved directly to Garfinkel, tapped her on the shoulder and barked: "You want to stand on your head, and you don't even know how to stand on your feet!" Four hours later Garfinkel hobbled out thinking, "I know nothing. How can I ever teach again after being around him?"

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