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Mission Implausible

by Patrick Reynolds

Let me tell you a story about the power of yoga. I owned and operated my own yoga studio for seven years. I was teaching up to 20 lessons a week, and putting in extra time on workshops and retreats that would last several days. For those years I was either on the mat teaching and practicing, or in the bed sleeping. It was an awesome time where I met so many great people, including my wife, and where I formed my core principles about what gets people to change their approach to fitness in meaningful, sustainable ways. 

Also, during those seven years I didn't have a single serious cold or flu. I know because I have the class logs from every year the studio was open, and I never missed a session. We had a space in the log to talk about how the class went and there's only one entry where I wrote "slight toothache today." That was my only illness for seven years. I remember before I started doing so much yoga I would be sick several times a year, often missing a week of work at a time.

I closed the studio a few years ago to focus on the project that became Kenzai. Getting people fit on a global scale is more impactful, more challenging, and just more interesting than running a yoga studio. But the downside is that my yoga practice has suffered. Now that I don't teach or practice yoga much at all, the steady pulse of colds and flu is back, I just got over my third cold of the year this week, and I'm feeling pretty run down even as I type this.

It seems pretty clear. Before I dived into a strong yoga practice, I was sick throughout the year. Then during my intense yoga immersion I went seven years without a single illness. And now without my practice I'm getting sick more frequently again. Yoga has the power to heal and protect against illness and disease, and you need to make it part of your life TODAY.

You can now copy this and post to your social media accounts, or submit it to alternative health websites as a testament to the power of ancient Vedic wellness paradigms. Or you can read on and have some real food for thought.


I promised you a story about the power of yoga. And that's exactly what it was; a story. All the facts above are true, but that doesn't mean it's a true story. Because I omitted some details.

One detail I left out. What was my job before I started teaching yoga? I was an aid worker in developing countries for a few years. Then I was teaching English, mostly to children, for the two years following that. In both cases I was spending the majority of my days interacting closely with people dealing with sanitation issues. As an aid worker I spent several days a week in a rural clinic without electricity or running water. As a school teacher I spent most days giving high-fives to little kids who seconds earlier were wiping their noses or playing "swine-flu tag" on the playground. So getting sick was part of the deal with those jobs.

Another detail I left out. I closed my yoga studio a few months before my daughter was born. Little kids should come with a biohazard label. She's a tiny trojan horse, bringing all manner of disease vectors into the house; viruses mutated to perfection in the petri dish of her pre-school. Unless you're going to kiss your kid goodnight in a hazmat suit, being a parent guarantees some sickness.

And how about my years running the yoga studio? The first big difference; I was never around children. Secondly, we ran a classy joint; most customers were between 30 and 60 years old, fairly well-to-do, and prioritizing their health (which is why they were in yoga class after all). Of course, our yoga students got sick from time to time. BUT, when they were sick they didn't tend to come to the studio. Top all that off with the fact that I was working in a super-clean space, dusted and mopped daily, with a filtered, climate-controlled air system.

Now we have two competing theories about why I never got sick when running the yoga studio. One, that the yoga itself was keeping my body healthy and repelling disease. Or two, that I had exponentially fewer exposures to bacteria and viruses that cause disease. How can we know which is the correct answer?

There's a magic word for these situations, and that word is PLAUSIBILITY. 

Plausible and implausible are wonderful words because they get us away from their cousins, possible and impossible. If you hear a creaking noise in your house and think it's a ghost, I can't tell you it's impossible, because maybe, just maybe, in your house there's a mysterious ghost realm interacting with our world through an inter-dimensional gateway that vibrates the air in such a way to make a creaking noise. But this theory is highly implausible, implausible to the point that it would upend physics as we know it and be the most incredible discovery in the history of mankind.

You have to stack that ultra-implausibility against the dozen quite plausible things that can make a house creak, like the wooden frame contracting in the cold night, or your cat walking on a floorboard, or even a human burglar looking for valuables. Those are things that we KNOW make houses creak, and that don't require the world to work a special way for this circumstance.


In the case of our "What kept Patrick healthy?" question, let's look at the plausibility of the two options.

1. Yoga kept me free from colds and flu.

For a physical practice like yoga to actively stop me from getting sick, the only plausible pathway would be to boost my immune system. Snake-oil salesmen and medical quacks adore the term "boost your immune system". It's hard to quantify, it can't be disproven, and at the same time makes no promises. "We boosted your immune system, but sadly the cancer was stronger in the end."

So I'm very wary of anything that says it will boost your immune system. What is the plausible pathway that would allow yoga to boost my immune system? The best candidate is that all the stretching, breathing, and (probably most important), the human interaction decreased my stress levels, allowing my immune system to operate at maximum efficiency. There are two problems with this scenario however: One, I was running my own business for the first time, money was always tight, and I would say my stress levels then were often higher than they are now. Two, the same reduction in stress levels is shown for any kind of exercise, and while my yoga practice has been greatly reduced, I exercise just as much now as I ever did, just in different modalities. So for yoga to be the main cause behind my good health, we have to do a bit of handwaving. I did a lot of yoga, some good stuff happened with my mind-body-spirit, and the end result was a new super-power; resistance to the common cold.

2. My kid-free, low exposure environment kept me free from colds and flu.

Unlike yoga, there's no need for hand-waving to make this work. The common cold and influenza are infections brought on by exposure to the viral agents, which come to rest in your nose and begin proliferating from there. Less exposure to the microbes means less instances of disease. The only question is whether my assumption that life with kids was germier than life as a studio owner is true. Researchers at the University of Arizona checked the surfaces of desks, computers, and phones of various professions and came up with the following data:

Click here to view full report.

This supports the case pretty well. I was spending the majority of my time in a very clean place, interacting with healthy adults. It makes sense that I wouldn't get sick. With the information I have and some critical thinking, this seems to be the most plausible reason for my run of good health.

I know I've belabored the point here, but it's for a purpose. With your pull-ups and chest-dips and v-sits you strengthen and tone your muscles. This kind of critical thinking strengthens and tones your mind. Every single day the world is going to present you with competing theories about how you should take care of your health. Investigating the plausibility of these claims is your responsibility as the steward of your body. You'll be amazed at how much time, energy, and money you save by disregarding things that simply don't pass the plausibility test. It filters out the nonsense, and leaves you time to explore things that actually work. 

Investigating the plausibility of these claims is your responsibility as the steward of your body. 

None of this is to say that yoga is nonsense or doesn't "work". It's one of the best basic bodycare practices you can do. The biggest (most plausible) benefits are for your mobility, joint-health, core-strength, respiratory function, and stress levels. This is why you should do yoga. Any special claim it makes over other forms of exercise stretches plausibility to the breaking point. 

What does it matter?

When I share this way of thinking with people, they often shrug and say "Does it really matter? Maybe it was the yoga, maybe it was the lack of kids, the important thing was that whatever you were doing was working."

If I were to walk around telling everyone that yoga kept me free from sickness for seven years, it would be spreading a "junk thought" through the world. It's a fact that I cherry picked from the data of my life without critical thinking. Just as I don't want to put junk food into my body, I like to keep junk thoughts out of my brain. 

For some reason I have it stuck in my head that Budapest is in Turkey. I know that it's the capital of Hungary, I know that the city I mean to say is Istanbul, I have BEEN TO ISTANBUL, but it's still wedged in my brain wrong. "Budapest is a city in Turkey" is a junk thought. I don't want it in my head. I don't like using up what little space I have up there with bad information!

I feel this even more strongly about junk thoughts involving health and wellness. You only have so much time, energy, and money to devote to the project of keeping yourself well. Wasting those resources on implausible, hand-wavy products or services is a real shame. If the general public could just apply the basic test of plausibility to the claims being made, we could stop wasting so much bandwidth on things that don't work and get serious about improving ourselves and our world. So, yes, I can come down harshly on people's alternative medicine practices and herbal supplements, because I truly believe these things are keeping our society from its full potential.

But it works for me!

Once people have latched on to an idea that something is working effectively, it's very difficult for them to let go. It becomes intwined with their sense of self. Challenging the practice becomes an attack on the person themselves.

People ask me about alternative medicine, supplements, popular gurus, and new exercise techniques nearly every day. I do my best to walk them through the plausibility check that I've outlined in this post, but most of the time I can tell they're not really following me. They weren't looking for a nuanced discussion. They wanted a yes or no answer. And if it's something they've already bought into, they're actually just looking for a ringing endorsement.

What I usually end up saying is, "If you really feel like it's working for you, and you're taking care of your nutrition and exercise, then you can keep doing it. But I have to tell you, it isn't very plausible according to everything I know about how the body works." I've found that last line plants the seed of critical thinking in the person, and they can water it or let it wither as they like. I've seen it go both ways.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There's so much more to cover on this topic, and I'll flesh it out as time goes on, but for now, start running the plausibility test on the health facts that you have floating around your head. Some examples:

Being out in the cold makes you "catch a cold". Being cold doesn't suppress your immune system. If anything it activates it. The more plausible reason we get sick more often during cold months is the increased time we spend inside, in warm, low humidity environments that viruses love, breathing the same air. You're actually better off outside! 


 

Eating chocolate causes zits. There's not much of a plausible pathway for a particular food expressing itself in acne. This has been studied to death. However, what you might find is that you tend to eat chocolate during times of high stress. And the hormones produced by stress have a highly plausible link with zits. The same goes for the changing hormone levels of the pre-menstrual cycle, when many women report chocolate cravings are strongest. So, the chocolate could be a red herring, masking the actual cause of your zits, hormonal shifts due to stress or your period! 

 

Eating carrots makes your night-vision better. There is some plausibility to the idea that a nutritious diet improves vision, mainly because Vitamin A plays an important role in the relay of electrical impulses from your eyes to your brain. But carrots are no better at this than any other particular vegetable. The reason they gained such a claim to fame was World War II propaganda films which highlighted British pilots' carrot-rich diet as the secret to their skill at shooting down German planes on night raids. The reality was improved British airborne radar systems were responsible for their success, not carrots. But the idea felt "truthy" enough that it lives on to this day.

Wasn't exploring the plausibility of those health claims interesting, and dare I say it... fun? This is the delight that awaits you when you start looking at the world this way. People think critical thinking makes you cold and closed off to wonder, but for me it always makes the world a deeper and more intriguing place.

Don't get complacent. Keep asking what's plausible, and when you don' t know, jump into the research that's available to refine your understanding. You may not get always satisfying answer. You'll often end up saying, "We don't know enough about this to come down one way or another." But you're guaranteed to come out of the process better informed, with a sharper, more incisive mind. That's good for you, and great for our society as we wrestle with the large-scale problems of the 21st century.

Feed your body clean, nutritious food and strengthen it with daily exercise. Feed your mind solid, well-sourced information and strengthen it with critical thinking!

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