New York Times journalist William Broad’s contentious claim that the origins of tantric hatha yoga reside in “medieval sex cults” was crucial to set the frame for his subsequent and inaccurate equation of yoga with sex. This was explicitly rendered in his assertion that yoga practice is responsible for the recent sexual misconduct of Anusara founder John Friend and other philandering yoga gurus. In a further misstep intended to provide credibility to his questionable thesis, Broad provides little more than old and obscure research that allegedly shows yoga to increase sexual desire.
Confusion about the association between yoga and sexual desire may stem from a shallow understanding of yoga’s broader relationship to desire. Yoga, with its stretching, breathing, and stimulation of physiological arousal, is almost certainly likely to generate sensations of sexual desire at moments. However, it is equally likely to create sensations of anger, fear, frustration, sadness, euphoria—in short, the vast spectrum of human emotion.
Yoga is such a powerful practice precisely because it allows us to generate these sensations through tapas (inner fire and discipline cultivated through practice), using our mat as a laboratory for discernment when sensations arise. The yamas (restraints) and niyamas (moral observances) strengthen our container so that when the fire of anger, lust, or aversion arise on (and off) the mat, we can more skillfully act with integrity in our values and ethics, rather than from a place of automatic reactivity.
A yoga practice that integrates yama and niyama, in addition to promoting mindfulness, may thus stimulate sexual desire at moments, but this is just another sensation to observe and release in the absence of action. That many gurus and students have experienced this sensation and acted on the impulse says nothing about yoga, but rather everything about the fallibility of humankind and the unhealthy power dynamic and ego which can arise in the context of the student-guide relationship.
As YogaBasics has previously addressed, the nature of kundalini shakti (divine energy) is poorly understood in the west, where it is frequently equated with sexual desire and orgasm. This was clearly illustrated in Broad’s article, where he mistakenly suggests the “autoerotic bliss” of “thinking oneself off” to orgasm to be synonymous with the “rapturous bliss” sought by historic practitioners of tantric hatha yoga. “Rapturous bliss” in the context of tantric hatha yoga refers to kundalini shakti rising up the spine to unite with her energetic opposite, shiva, in energetic union, a supremely blissful, full-body experience that qualitatively dwarfs the fleeting, localized experience of orgasm. This event was historically believed contingent upon abstaining from physiological orgasm (and not infrequently, sex) for many early non-left handed tantrikas.
With reference to the recent scandal in Anusara yoga, Broad concludes by commenting, “But perhaps — if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do [facilitate sex] — they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.”
Say what? In other words, Broad suggests we should forgive randy gurus and sexually-charged yoga teachers because, well, yoga’s main purpose is to help you in your quest to have more (and better) sex. This statement implies that not only is it the students’ fault for inviting unwanted attention by attending such a sex-crazed activity in the first place, but it exonerates would-be perpetrators from wrong-doings.
If Broad wanted press for his recent book, mission accomplished. But at what cost? He stretched the flimsy scientific evidence base to support his questionable thesis, selectively portrayed the rich historical contexts out of which tantra and hatha yoga developed, confused kundalini shakti and the requisite spiritual bliss with a simple orgasm, and blamed yoga practice for guru-related sexual scandals, although the latter is far from the exclusive providence of yogis and occurs in many religious and political settings.
What are your thoughts on the way Broad is portraying the relationship between sex and yoga?
Read part one of our series here.