Yoga’s Origins: Broadsided
Sex and Yoga: According to NY Times journalist William Broad, the two terms are interchangeable. In a poorly-researched article masquerading as science journalism, the writer claims the origins of hatha yoga reside in “medieval sex cults,” an allegation that has been rigorously protested by yoga and tantric scholars Ramesh Bjonnes, Katy Poole, and Christopher Wallis.
Broad’s sensationalist and fallacious claims are not without historic precedent in the west. In the first half of the twentieth century, tantric yogi Pierre St. Bernard’s antics stirred the tabloids into a rabid frenzy, with yoga portrayed as a sex-worshipping cult. Ever since, tantra has been mistakenly linked in the popular imagination to sex, reflecting the uniquely Judeo Christian love-hate relationship with the carnal impulse.
So what is tantra, exactly? It is a vast tapestry of texts, practices, and philosophies resting on the principle that shakti (divine energy) pulses through all things and can be accessed at any time or place, and through any facet of existence. Tantric practices are designed as tools to access that divine essence. In fact, the lineages of tantra yoga and philosophy are believed to have contributed the most to modern-day conceptions of yoga (meditation, postures, breathing exercises, chakras, mantras, etc). Sally Kempton, a longtime teacher of contemplative tantra, explains that the tantric tradition “mostly consists of internal practices for integrating physical and subtle energy systems in the human body so as to deepen spiritual growth as well as physical rejuvenation.”
Importantly, tantra is comprised of a vast stream of traditions, practices, and schools of thought, only one of which, left-handed tantra, employs sexuality as ritual—not for the goal of orgasm, but to be used as a tool to transmute sexual into spiritual energy and attain higher states of consciousness. Sexual practices are but one of many methods employed in left-handed tantra (including intoxicants and occult powers), and areamong the most rarely utilized.
In India, left-handed tantra is a legendary if very rarely practiced path, known and traditionally feared for its trafficking in “black magic.” Left-handed tantra is not synonymous with “sex” in India as it is in the US, illustrating how western cultural hangups have inadvertently scrambled tantra’s broader contextual and historical etiologies. A second tantric lineage, the middle path, has given birth to the yoga practices common today. This path integrates various physical, mental, and spiritual practices to achieve mindfulness and transcendence in daily life.
In short, tantra has very little to do with sex, and the modern fascination and conflation of yoga with sex says much more about the biases of western society than it does of the origins of tantric philosophy and practice.
In addition to the above mischaracterizations of yoga’s origins, Broad’s article, which has an almost obsessive focus on sex, draws tenuous linkages between yoga’s relationship to sexual desire and the sexual misconduct of yoga gurus including Anusara founder John Friend. The piece also mistakenly equates kundalini shakti (divine energy) and orgasm. Look for more on this in Part II of our series.
What is your experience of tantra in relationship to yoga?