Yoga’s Relationship to (Sexual) Desire: Broadsided
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
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.
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
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.