Calling Bullshit on Penn and Teller’s yoga episode

When Fell posted a Bullshit! segment a while back, I provided some thoughts about the two episodes I had seen.

I just watched the yoga segment of their “new age” episode last night, and thought it was even worse. This is a really old episode and it might not make any sense to respond to it after all this time, but here it goes anyway.

First things first, they say that yoga is “just stretching.” They’re either being deliberately misleading here, or they didn’t bother to stay for more than the first 5 minutes of the yoga class they filmed (or they found a yoga class that was not representative of yoga classes in general).

ashtanga yoga

ashtanga yoga

(Pics swiped from Yoga Bhoga in Portland).

OK, so the pics above are relatively advanced (I believe they’re Ashtanga, aka power yoga, positions), but I think you can get the point – yoga is also about exercise using your own weight. Saying “yoga is just a fancy name for stretching” doesn’t hold water. Asking “does yoga hold up against other forms of strength training” is a valid question to ask. All I can say is that yoga (including “hatha yoga,” the most common, basic yoga) classes challenge my strength every time.

Neither does their claim that yoga is bogus because stretching a muscle longer than 30 seconds is not useful. I rarely, if ever, have been instructed to hold a stretch for more than 30 seconds. When a position is held longer it’s held for the purposes of strength, discipline, and/or relaxation. The exception is when you’re actually pushing a stretch further and further, which doesn’t found for “holding” because you’re actually advancing.

The other claim Penn and Teller make is that yoga is more expensive than other exercise classes. In my experience, it is not. Most of the gyms/health clubs in Portland offer yoga classes along with other exercise classes as part of your standard fees. I know that $15 seems to be the going rate for drop-ins at yoga classes in the Portland area, but I don’t know what the rate for other strength training classes are. (Yoga classes are cheaper when prepaid in advance or as part of a package deal, and there’s actually a free class at Liberty Hall).

It would have been more interesting to see P&T evaluate some of the other claims about yoga, such as improved immune systems, stress relief, etc. as compared to other forms of exercise, or even how yoga stacks up as strength training. But to dismiss it as overpriced stretching is bullshit.


  1. Those interested in cheap non-yoga strength training should check out the Navy Seals Workout:

  2. There is a lot of silly stuff associated with Yoga today. The best approach is to laugh at the excesses.

  3. Yeah, that episode annoyed me, too. Even overlooking the mistake about stretching, there’s proven beneficial effect from the relaxation/breathing/meditation compnent. While a long stretch may not help the muscle any more, that’s a straw hore- it’s not what the holding positions at length is meant to do. I suspect they know this, too, which is why it cheeses me off.

  4. I agree with Klint. After some further research, Penn & Teller are spinning certain issues in manners I’m not fond of. A few of their episodes were interested experiments in approaching matters from different perspectives, but overall they seem to be stretching to build contexts to rile many subjects for the sake of riling ? by intentionally building shallow arguments around a few good points that they may have.

  5. What a shock– prejudice and condescension from a hard-line materialist! I’m reeling here, I’m reeling. Maybe it’s just me but if the Yoga teacher doesn’t know any sanskrit then I walk away because s/he probably doesn’t have the grounding in theory. Touting Western Materialism over Auryvedic Philosophy is like touting American English as intrinsically superior to Quebecois French.

  6. That may be the most awesomest analogy I didn’t understand ever. Mad Qu?b?cois props to ya!

  7. I thought Penn & Teller were right on, particularly with the kind of Yoga that is sold to bored middle-class housewives.

    That aside, Crowley also destroyed the illusion when he pointed out that the purpose of Yoga is to: ‘Sit still. Stop thinking. Shut up. Get out!’

    Otherwise they’re just a bunch of stretching exercises sold to dumb people as some kind of ‘New Age’ alternative lifestyle.

  8. Yogaboy – I’m all for a hard-line materialist inquiry into the health effects of yoga. Penn & Teller did not do this at all. They made some inaccurate statements about what yoga is, and left it at that.

    Mortimer – I’ve been to several yoga classes over the years in different cities. The least new agey and silly are the most popular and mainstream classes at places like YMCAs and 24 Hour Fitness. And I’ve been to more mystical seeming places. All of them, even “gentle yoga” classes include a good amount of physically challenging exercises. I can’t say that crappy, stretching only classes don’t exist but I think it’s pretty safe to say these are not the norm.

    YogaDawg – there is plenty of sillyness in yoga. Thanks for keeping it real.

  9. Penn and Teller are bullshit artists par excellence. They mix some facts with ridicule and falshoods and trick people into adopting false beliefs. They are professional con-men(stage “magicians”) who have found a high-paying niche: “debunking” non-materialist modes of awareness and quantum technologies. Beware!

  10. I lost around 80lbs. doing the Hard-Body Yoga with Tari Rosi dvd. Eat my shit Penn & Teller.

  11. they did indeed gloss over the fact that what they were debunking is NewAge yoga/herbalism.

    Herbal medicine has a scientific basis, to wit: Dexedrine (pharma-meth) comes from Ephedrine, which is an alkaloid of the plant Ma Huang.

    an herbalist is merely skipping the chemistry and going with the source.

    as for Yoga, there is a pile of 5,000 year old bullshit surrounding it, much less what these NewAge fucks are doing.
    This is not to say that yoga is not valid; besides that, is Hatha Yoga the only yoga people know about anymore? what about the mental yogas like Mantra/Yantra/Bhakti/Jnana etc?

    I’d like to see a serious inquiry regarding ‘Kundalini’. Is it really some awesome mystical consciousness mechanism, or is it a sensory simulation brought about by mental programming in the form of meditation and asana?

    I have seen studies and felt the effects of the more traditional yoga postures and practices on the nervous system, the glandular/endocrine system, and of course its ability to build muscle.

    I have been reading a book written in the eraly sixties, I beleive, which was written by a Chiropractor that deals with a scientifically based amalgamation of asana and isometrics, and chiropractic.

    it makes wild, wild, wild claims, but the proof is in the pudding, you know.

  12. I’m not anti-materialist at all, I just hate the way the dogmatic reductionist approach. Deconditioning the habits of body reciprocally deconditions the “mind” because both are rooted in the brain. Materialism is a provisional worldview beacause matter is indeterminate and still under investigation. It’s not that I think mysticism shouldn’t be kept on a tight leash also.

  13. So there 😉

  14. Frater Plecticus

    February 5, 2007 at 7:25 am

    Penn and Teller are lying illusionist degenerates.

  15. “Materialism is a provisional worldview beacause matter is indeterminate and still under investigation.”

    So fill the ditches in with Bullshit! and call it a day! Good show.

  16. lately I have had questions about yoga practiced / sold today. Is seems that this yoga is being used to keep our daily minds focused on ourselves and nothing, all the while the enslavement of humans continues. new school yogis dont seem to be transcending anything, just learning/teaching how to be more complacent and at peace in this false system. weve rooted down long enough, now its time to rise up….

  17. as someone who’s never practiced yoga, i agree!

  18. I’ve not seen the P&T episode on bullshit, but they piss me off in general so I don’t watch them all that much. I’m an atheist who believes that there is not such thing as the supernatural. I also practice yoga and have had a lot of physical, emotional, and mental benefits from it. I roll my eyes at the new agey stuff, or else take it as metaphor. I think chakras and stuff like that are BS but yoga on the whole is not.

  19. all exercise is pointless non-orgasmic masturbation…

  20. Godfrey Binks

    July 1, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    I have deliberated and considered the facts, and have come to the following conclusion.

    Yoga is stretching for the middle classes.

  21. Bill Whitcomb

    July 1, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    “Yoga” happens to encompass about a congressional library or two worth of traditions. Discussions on this level make about as much sense as asking if “martial arts” work. That being said, I’d recommend finding a good translation of Ptanjali’s sutras. Also, if anyone’s interested in research done on Kundalini, take a look at Kundalini: Psychosis or Transcendence by Lee Sanela, MD. (Spelling possibly correct). Yoga is yoga. Depending on the flavor, sometimes there is stretching involved.

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