Review of "The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga"

By Marlynn Wei and James E. Groves
Da Capo Lifelong Book, 2017
Review by Beth Cholette, Ph.D. on Aug 15th 2017
The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga

In The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga, authors Marlynn Wei, a psychiatrist and certified yoga teacher, and James E. Groves, a psychiatrist and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, have created a manual that is both impressively comprehensive and completely accessible.  The writers open their guide with a disclaimer and a brief section on cautions.  Throughout the book, they are candid about the risks, although minor, associated with the practice of yoga, and they are clear about the situations in which these are more relevant.

The authors then move into a review of yoga's benefits.  Citing up-to-date research, Wei and Groves describe how yoga can impact various areas:  physical gains such as enhancing strength, increasing balance, and improving sleep; stress management and improved mood; better connections with others through increasing compassion and giving back to the community; plus other body, mind, and general health merits.  Each author also shares personal stories of how yoga has positively impacted their lives, adding a genuine sense of authenticity to the benefit claims.  A later chapter on "The Modern Science of Yoga" further presents specific scientific research—which has grown exponentially in recent years—into yoga's positive impacts on health and wellness.

Rather than rush to provide physical pose portrayals, the authors first offer a basic yet thorough overview of the history of yoga.  They begin with describing various traditions and styles of yoga, referring not only to specific schools, such as Iyengar and Sivananda, but also to general forms of yoga, including prenatal, chair yoga, and yoga therapy.  The traditional eight-limb path of classical or Ashtanga yoga is covered, as is the fundamentals of the chakra system and Ayurveda. 

When they reach the section on practice, Wei and Groves continue with their thoughtful approach.  They encourage self-reflection and contemplation in developing a personal practice and review additional cautions.  The initial emphasis is placed on pranayama, or breath control.  Detailed, step-by-step instructions are provided for over a dozen types of yogic breathing, and yet for the more advanced techniques, the authors are more conservative, recommending working with an experienced yoga instructor.

The section on yoga poses (asanas) is similar.  Wei and Groves offer meticulous directions for each posture; these are accompanied by simple line drawings.  The postures are categorized into Warm-Up Poses, Arm Support Poses, Forward Bend Poses, Standing Poses, Twisting Poses, Balancing Poses, Backbend Poses, Hip Opener Poses, and Cool-Down Poses.  Again, the authors err on the side of being conservative by including "Cautions & Contradictions" for each posture and leaving out a few more controversial poses (mainly due to pressure being placed on the neck) such as shoulderstand and headstand.  The writers enhance their presentation of the asanas with a discussion of both bandhas (muscle locks) and mudras (hand gestures). 

Chapter 9 is devoted to meditation, a significant part of yoga's eight-limbed path.  As with the styles of yoga, the authors offer an overview of the various forms of meditation.  Consistent with the book's subtitle, the meditation practices are broken down into a series of routines meant to be performed over the course of eight weeks.  Some of the types of meditations presented include Breath Meditation, Walking Meditation, Compassion Meditation, and Body Scan Meditation.  Several additional meditation exercises are offered to provide readers with alternative options.

The final chapter coalesces everything into a specific eight-week home practice program.  For each week, the authors present a theme (e.g., Grounding, Compassion, Energy, Stress Relief, Gratitude), a series of poses following the categories described above, a breathing exercise, a meditation, and a self-reflection journaling exercise.  The routines are provided both in chart form and in a two-page layout with small illustrations of each pose from the sequence included.  Beyond these guidelines, the book concludes with several helpful appendices.  Here the authors address the important topics of yoga for specific health conditions—including both physical and psychological health—and yoga during pregnancy.

Most books that purport to be "guides" to yoga tend to be relatively superficial, detailing aspects of yoga's physical practice but never scratching beyond this surface to uncover yoga's rich grounding in philosophy or to reveal the other types of practice that fall under yoga's umbrella, including breathwork and meditation.  This book embraces all of these areas and more, demystifying this ancient practice and making it attainable for the modern yogi.  Being a yoga teacher myself, I appreciate the efforts Wei and Groves took to provide informed, up-to-date material.  At the same time, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to one of my students wanting a readable, user-friendly guide.  As a general overview to yoga and a basic practice manual, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga: 8 Weeks to Strength, Awareness, and Flexibility is one of the best texts I have encountered, and I would highly recommend it.


© 2017 Beth Cholette


Beth Cholette, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy to college students.


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