Sex And The “Bleaching” of Yoga History

“Sex Fiend” John Friend

There is no denying that William Broad’s tactic of tweaking the lowest common denominator in search of publicity hit the mark once again. His latest NYT article “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here” caused an uproar when he asked in the face of yoga mogul John Friend’s dizzying fall from grace — why yoga produces so many philanderers? Chiding the yoga community for seldom mentioning that the discipline began as a sex cult, he goads: “ this is hardly the first time that yoga’s enlightened facade has been cracked by sexual scandal…so why does the resulting uproar leave so many people shocked and distraught?”

Which quite frankly I’ve wondered myself. Because who cares about Friend or any other guru’s moral failings, they’re human after all. I don’t understand why Friend’s sexual trysts are seen as an assault on the holy edifice of yoga. Why do we let Broad get under our skin?

William Broad

While I get why influential yoga bloggers such as YogaDork and Roseanne Harvey rushed in to trounce Broad’s claims linking yoga with philandering as “simplistic and irresponsible” and “idiotic” – what I don’t understand is the growing undercurrent of hysteria being exhibited around the topic of yoga and sex.

Because, after reading much of the response to Broad’s article, it seems what continues to offend the yoga community is Broad’s claim that yoga evolved out of the sex rites of Tantra. But really, despite the vociferous protest of this history as misinformation, doesn’t Broad have a point?

No one with any familiarity of Tantra or its teachings would claim ritualized sexual practices form the main body of Tantra’s philosophy or practice – hardly. But to relegate sexual ritual to an infrequently performed rite of relatively fringe Tantrik groups (as Chris Wallis has done) is a sanitizing of history. I find his claim that Hatha-yoga -the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe – was never a branch of Tantra, but only a discipline that “drew on inspiration from the Tantrik scriptures” an understatement to say the least.

Kali (image source found here)

Quibbling over the details aside, there is a wealth of historical scholarship that acknowledges of the two streams of Indian wisdom traditions, The Vedic and The Tantric – it is Tantra with its practice of meditation, yoga postures, breathing exercises, kundalini awakening, chakras, mantras etc. (and yes sex rituals) that has contributed the most to what we understand as yoga today.

Tantra differed primarily from the Vedic tradition because it saw the body not as bondage, but as sacred, the very embodiment of the divine itself. And as to sex, most scholars agree that Tantra is generally divided into three distinct branches, one of which engaged in ritualized sexual practices. And it was these Tantrics or Tantriks, as scholar Miranda Shaw writes, who dove “deep into ocean of the passions in order to harvest the pearls of enlightenment.”

But its important not to let our 20th century notions colour our perception. This sexual yoga wasn’t about sexual technique – it was really about the transformation of consciousness. The goal was not simple hedonism but spiritual transformation.

So why our sudden squeamishness? Who cares if the yogis and yoginis of old practiced a sexual yoga? In the 8o’s and 90’s the pages of Yoga Journal’s featured numerous open-minded articles on Tantric sexual practice – not to mention step by step instructions on how to turn “sexual energy into spiritual mastery”.

Yet today its website features commentary by authors Gary Kraftsow and Sally Kempton who characterize Broad’s article’s as licentious misinformation. Could the change be that in the intervening decades yoga has become a gazillion dollar industry with a reputation to uphold?

Broad may be guilty of lewd misinterpretation of Tantric practice, but does that give us the right to minimize the earthier erotic aspects of yoga history? Especially, when truth be told, it has more claim to established yogic tradition than the yoga we practice in mainstream studios today?

Most scholars agree that our current” dynamic system of asana” (notably Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram and Power Yoga) evolved from gymnastics and body building routines of the early 20th century.  (see my previous post) So ultimately, in Broad’s defense I ask you what is more authentic? A yoga based in 20th century calisthenics or sexual yoga based in centuries of Tantrik texts?

I don’t mean to be glib. It’s essential to keep in mind, as Kempton herself reminds us “Traditional tantric circles of India were not ‘sex cults’ (though, of course, there have always been fun-seekers and power-mongers who used the technology, then as now.) They were ritual circles that aimed at channeling shakti for self-realization.” Again I agree with Kempton “The tantric roots of hatha yoga are based on the core understanding that all energy can be traced back to its roots in spirit, and its corollary: that we can heal the mind through postures of the body, and heal the body through breath, sound, and ritual.”

And so, as the Tantriks of old might ask us – why not sex? Does it really make a difference whether we are ‘one’ with the body (or channeling kundalini) on the yoga mat or in the bedroom? Today we’ve come to equate sex with pornography, as dirty , something dangerous to be controlled, but for these sex rite practicing Tantriks, sexuality was a divine force to honoured.

Isn’t this a legacy worth keeping? So lets not throw the baby out with the water in our haste to dispose of Broad and his more outlandish claims.  I want to be clear that I’m not endorsing sex rituals of any kind – that is a private matter between consenting adults after all. But lets not let our modern notion of sex (as divided from spirituality) or the increasing commodification of yoga cause us to rewrite history. And lets hope, especially, that we don’t give in to  “bleaching” yogic tradition just to make it more palatable for mass consumption.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Tricia says:

    Interesting post, although no mention of Kundalini yoga which many consider the “Mother” yoga not hatha. Also, there’s another kind of bleaching of yoga goin on, the complete lack of knowledge at best, or the complete denial of Kemtic or Egyptian yoga which is a precursor to the sacred teachings in India.

    1. Stewart J. Lawrence says:

      Danielle — Very well argued and right on the mark, I think. And I agree it all comes down to $$$$$. Frankly, it’s you girls, mainly. For the most part it’s only we men who are constitutionally capable of handling the more ascetic rigors of the Vedanta, and keeping yoga focused on the Sutras and meditation. Tantra allows people to flaunt and and to worship their bodies, which let’s face it, like yoga shopping, is a distinctly female obsession. We’ll probably never have a properly grounded and balanced yoga movement until it becomes less, not more “feminist” and goddess-oriented. Women only hold up half the sky after all. LOL Cheers, good piece.

      1. nicole says:

        Danielle, excellent piece. I like the scope upon which you extrapolate. Still though I think the real importance is being skipped over. The fact that we focus on the sex, still only shows how horribly “childish” we are. “Sex scandals” are nothing new, the media loves them, the masses eat it up. I’ve seen two camps in situations like this(it was so for Clinton and it now has become true for Friend): those that are repulsed/have disdain and those that are apathetic/cool, calm, collected. No one is joyous and this is perhaps most important because we cannot be, because regardless of “sex”, when a person in power misuses their power for their own personal gain at the expense of those they mentor it needs to be checked, discussed, brought to light. Why? Because we all need to be checking how we are “throwing our weight around” We are here to practice satya, ahimsa, tantra, yoga. The bigger questions that need to brought into light, is, “How am I using my power and to what ends?” “Does this serve the collective?”
        John Friend’s behavior got barreled down and pushed aside and instead we argue about the influence of Tantra and the Vedas. They are both there, both largely influencing modern yoga. And sex and the body is there too, how can it not be? Whether it is being rejected, accepted or embraced, it is present for all of us in some way, all coming in having, *gasp* a penis or vagina or quite possible both *gasp*
        And Stewart, while you may be witty and charming, the “you girls” “we men” denotes exactly what is wrong with the Masculine Ego, and those who embrace it

  2. Yes, other disciplines have also discredited the notion that Yoga is simply born of Tantric sexual positions and practices. Least known is that the practice of Yoga postures, breathing, stretching, floor exercises, etc. was in fact the first ‘fighting art’, used by Hindu wrestlers. (It is accepted that ALL martial arts descended from India with Bodhidharma’s 6th century travels to China and to the Shaolin Temples. Looking at the movements of Kalaripayattu – considered the oldest martial art in the world and still in practice by some devotees in India today – one will see the similarities).

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