Oh, William J. Broad and the New York Times. You’re a dynamic duo. First, you got the yoga community all worked up with your “How Yoga Wrecks Your Body” article/book excerpt. That provoked outrage from many senior practitioners, panic in the mainstream press and confusion in the blogosphere. It generated a lot of hype for The Science of Yoga but obscured the essential message of the book.
And now this. I’ve been waiting for the NYT to get wind of the Anusara situation so we could see how they’d mangle and sensationalize the story. For some reason, the NYT thought an appropriate way to address it would be to call in WJB and ask him to provide some scientific research to answer the questions: Why does yoga produce so many philanderers? And why do the resulting uproars leave so many people shocked and distraught?
One factor is ignorance. Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult — an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise.
Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness.
The rites of Tantric cults, while often steeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex. One text advised devotees to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. Candidates for worship included actresses and prostitutes, as well as the sisters of practitioners.
Hatha originated as a way to speed the Tantric agenda. It used poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts — including intercourse — to hasten rapturous bliss. In time, Tantra and Hatha developed bad reputations. The main charge was that practitioners indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality. [NYT, Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here]
I’m no Tantric scholar, but stating that this latest development is to be expected, based on hatha yoga’s tantric roots, is simplistic and irresponsible. Broad goes on to cite current research on the effects of yoga on sex:
In India, recent clinical studies have shown that men and women who take up yoga report wide improvements in their sex lives, including enhanced feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as well as emotional closeness with partners.
At Rutgers University, scientists are investigating how yoga and related practices can foster autoerotic bliss. It turns out that some individuals can think themselves into states of sexual ecstasy — a phenomenon known clinically as spontaneous orgasm and popularly as “thinking off.”
The Rutgers scientists use brain scanners to measure the levels of excitement in women and compare their responses with readings from manual stimulation of the genitals. The results demonstrate that both practices light up the brain in characteristic ways and produce significant rises in blood pressure, heart rate and tolerance for pain — what turns out to be a signature of orgasm.
This was enough to warrant a series of tweets from sex therapist and advice columnist Dr. Ruth Westheimer: “Article tells how yoga poses can increase blood flow to genitals and thus cause arousal. Phrase ‘whatever turns you on’ applies here, no?” and “fast breathing — done in many yoga classes — can increase blood flow through the genitals,” followed by “There was recent Times article on how certain yoga poses can be physically harmful, so I’m not telling you to do yoga, just informing you.”
Anyway, Broad concludes that, “If yoga can arouse everyday practitioners, it apparently has similar, if not greater, effects on gurus — often charming extroverts in excellent physical condition, some enthusiastic for veneration.”
So basically, according to Broad, yoga “produces so many philanderers” because of… yoga! The practice itself fires up sex drives and sparks spontaneous orgasms, and popular gurus just can’t control themselves. It’s a simplistic argument that hides the underlying complexity of the drama that’s unfolding.
For a better analysis of recent events, see Michelle Indianer’s blog post on Bay Shakti, The Asana of Emotional Healing: Anusara and the Dark Night of the Soul. Well+Good NYC also offers some interesting insight via “yoga intellectuals” Stefanie Syman and Neal Pollack.