Dangers of Pseudoscience: How a Yogi almost killed (Editorial.)

Just out of interest, this hand position, over hailed as integral to meditation, can be brought about through irregular breathing. Hypoxaemia can cause muscle spasm, when the intrinsic muscles of the hand can pull the flexors of the fingers and thumb tight. This is often accompanied by tingling around the mouth and fingers, a high heart rate, feeling of having a lump in the throat an emotional distresss. Some gurus say this is all energy and connection with deep consciousness. Other explanations include low blood oxygen and a panic attack.

Pseuodoscientific thinking is common and dangerous. Belief systems based on faith shared throughout religion, spirituality and specific practices such as homeopathy are prevalent and appear to be growing. Individually, these beliefs threaten little, but when applied outside of a small zone they could kill.  Here at Trusted Medicine, we seek the truth, using scientific evidence, to help you. This is just one story of millions where the border between such thinking and medicine have become at odds.  Dengue meets Yoga. Thanks to luck, and science, a young girl lived.

Note; I am not licenced to practice Medicine in Thailand. And I didn’t.  My job in this situation was to recognise risk and escalate care to a trained professional. I used my education and tendency to worry toward helping someone. We can all do that. 

A headache and a mistake

Sam (name changed) came to Thailand looking to learn. A hard life met with new challenges, drove her to a new adventure. After hearing of a reputable Yoga centre, she booked a room and began an exhaustive 30-day course. A course that promised physical strength, emotional and spiritual fulfilment and a new perspective. Little did she know that her new perspective would be the walls of a hospital.  This girl was, by absolute chance, to become my friend. Not all things end well, but sometimes the right person can be there at the right time.

Everything started well, two four hour sessions a day. Lessons and lectures on spirituality, the chakras and the breath. Tumultuous attacks on western medicine, claims of the Yogis ‘curing cancer’ with anecdotal examples. I will not pretend to know everything about medicine, but I will happily accept my level of expertise when it comes to health. Even more so when it comes to spirituality. The danger comes when reality and expectation diverge.

On day 3 Sam developed a headache. Common, nothing to worry about. She took some painkillers and carried on (much to the behest of her yogi, who declares such medicines as false.) Then things began to worsen, the headache grew and began to pound. She began to develop a fever and came to see me. I began to worry, asked her if there was anything else wrong. She told me ‘No’, that she had asked her Yoga teacher, and that he said it was part of Yoga. I was not convinced. Sam took some more painkillers and laid down to sleep, my mind distinctly uncomfortable.

Reality, expectations and IV fluids

I kept an eye on her. Within a few hours her headache was so bad she couldn’t get comfortable. Her fever had skyrocketed, almost burning to the touch. Her eyes became sunken, her skin dripping sweat. I asked, then told, her the hospital was necessary. I am no tropical disease expert, but a high fever, rapid pulse, sunken eyes and a worsening headache scream sepsis. I’ll admit I didn’t have Dengue fever at the top of my list, in fact, I was more concerned about meningitis. But she was not my patient, she wasn’t a patient at all.

But either way, she needed help. A short moped ride later and she was admitted to hospital, high infection markers, borderline clotting count and a combination of Dengue and growing added bacterial infection. Thank god for tramadol, IV fluids and antibiotics. No thanks to Downward Facing Dog and Chakras.

The next day I went to the Yoga centre to have a serious chat.

Where Pseudoscience, Medicine and a large television collide

My first impression of the Yogi’s office was one of surprise. I expected a man preaching such spiritual practice to be modest in his means, but the large televisions, multiple computer systems and hi-tech audio betrayed him. He was incredibly charming, quiet and never dropped eye contact. Very disarming, clearly a set of skills that come very useful in making a sale.  I told him what had happened, and that it was dangerous, inappropriate and foolish for any of his staff to give medical advice. He seemed receptive enough.

He then went on to tell me that ‘Dengue is hard to spot.’ I agreed, but reasoned that in a Dengue endemic area and with an uncertain case presentation that to err on the side of caution may be the safer option rather than to assume ‘It’s due to Yoga.’ He appeared to accept this, but then pointed out that ‘People have fevers all the time.’ I sensed that I wasn’t getting through. I tried a new tactic, explaining the worst case scenario.

Sam was young, trusting and enthusiastic. She wanted to learn, to become part of something. A charming and experienced older man had promised her that (For a price) and then lectured her on the limits of western knowledge whilst extolling the virtues of his own. He had claimed to cure cancer. One of the Yogis had then told Sam that her symptoms were normal and to carry on. Who was she to believe, herself (naive of medical training) or a soothsayer with his hand in her pocket?

I then explained that if she had not sought help from me, things could have been much worse. Sam, given bad luck, would have stayed in bed, her sepsis shutting down her kidneys, weakness keeping her trapped. Her clotting could have failed, and death comes from internal haemorrhage and profound infection. That’s just one person. I ran the stats by him. 20% of dengue requires urgent treatment, with a small percentage becoming fatal (especially if poorly treated.) I explained that even a 10% prevalence of the disease amongst his clientele would amount to around 10 new cases a week, with on average 2 needing hospitalisation. ‘People have a fever all the time’ I repeated, wondering how many others had avoided the hospital.

I then explained a young girls death on his hands would end his business. He seemed to really listen. And then he told me about how he can cure cancer. I left with half a mind to call the police but was informed it would make no difference.

What can we learn?

First, I realise how extremely lucky both me and Sam were to meet. We were lucky that she thought to ask me about her symptoms, and that I am twitchy and prefer tests over waiting. I used my head and acted as safely as I could. And because of her questions and my nerves, she sits in an expensive hospital and not buried.

I guess the takeaway lesson from this misadventure is that when it comes to health, there is no such thing as faith curing ill. If you are feeling ill, and are concerned, you must access a health system to ensure that you don’t require treatment. I’m sorry to say that your Yoga teacher, if respectable, will send you straight to a doctor instead of blaming it on yin and yang. Expertise in a subject has definite borders, and this Yogi overstretched his. A death because of his hubris wouldn’t look good on his resume. Several other Yogi’s I know condemned his behaviour.

There are anecdotal stories of ‘Yoga curing cancer’ and ‘Spiritual experiences making people walk again.’  Debunking these deserves its own book, and believe me it can be done. The short version is that in these cases there is often some external factor that has been missed, such as cancer already being in remission when the patient gives up conventional treatment, or a lack of follow up when it comes back aggressively a year later. Or the miracle of ‘walking again’ being due to a psychosomatic condition, and not the hand of God. Not to be facetious, but I will also note that these ‘miracle’ patients were also likely sat in the Sun for significant periods of time at Yoga and Lourdes, so perhaps we should thank Ra, ancient Egyptian Sun God first.

Also, why would the Yogi tell you about the ones that died? Not good for business.

I am all in favour of having an open mind, but when it comes to peoples health, I’d expect those without medical training to close their mouths. You wouldn’t ask your plumber to land your plane, or your gardener to do your taxes, so why as your Guru to diagnose your headache?

As renowned skeptic, Carl Sagan says ‘It pays to keep an open mindbut not so open your brains fall out’

Note: The name of the patient has been changed to protect their rights. I have chosen not to name the Yoga Centre in question but will welcome any legal advice regarding the liability of the staff in such a case. My only fear is that the standards we hold in the west may be seen differently here.

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Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice. 

Images courtesy of pixabay


About drbmjanaway (16 Articles)
Doctor and author with an interest in neurology, evolutionary biology and public health communication

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