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
Poole, and Christopher
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.
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.
Importantly, sexual practices are but one of many methods employed in
left-handed tantra (including intoxicants and occult powers), and are
among the most rarely utilized.
In India, left-handed tantra is a
legendary if very rarely practiced path, known and traditionally
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?
Read part two of our series here.