NYT takes on the anusara scandal, focuses on the “sex” part of it: no surprise here

Clearly, hatha yoga’s links to ancient Tantric rituals can explain why there are so many yoga philanderers (image via jaisiyaram.com)

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?

Broad’s response:

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.

  1. Thank you for the complement and recommendation!

  2. Apparently all that heavy breathing makes you mess with your employees pensions, too!

  3. I looked into this guy’s background and it turns out WJB has done a lot of work around terrorism and different kinds of weaponry (biological, space-based)— he won an emmy for a pbs special on germ warfare and another award for a doc called “Nuclear Jihad: Can Terrorists Get the Bomb?” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Broad)

    The fact that he’s steeped in the “war on terror” narrative helps explain his alarmist attitude when it comes to yoga.. I don’t know this man, and I want to avoid making any judgments about him, but his approach to the topic seems very un-yogic. It feels like he’s trying to prove a foregone conclusion rather than carry out a real investigation.

    Also, I call bullshit on this:
    “Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult.”
    Yoga started over 4000 years ago as a way to explore the subtle realms of consciousness. As new levels of sensitivity are reached then yes, sex becomes a lot more potent… and part of the journey is learning how to be with that. Some choose celibacy. Some develop beautiful and profound partnerships… and some others, by no means a majority, misuse the energy. Maybe it’s their karma.

    peace, much love and Hari Om

  4. I, too, was disappointed with this story, which was basically a re-hash of stuff from his book. Generally I admire the NYT and its journalists, but this guy is falling steadily in my esteem. (Unfortunately I already bought his book…any suggestions about what I should do with it? I hesitate to donate it to the library, all things considered…)

  5. I am working my way through this book. Whilst so far, I find it frustrating as a “scientific” approach, it has been an interesting read. One of my frustrations is the lack of “numbered references” interspersed in the text so that a person can then look up the actual scientific journal articles that may back up the sweeping statements

    With respect to increasing blood flow to the genital/pelvic area, that does not 100% equate with sexual stimulation let alone prowess. There are many more organs/muscles in the pelvic area than just the genitals.

    The book also compares very different styles of yoga when it comes to looking at aerobic fitness tend to lump them all into one group.
    The study on the “ashtanga” series, looked only at the standing poses , not including the seated poses which involve vinyasas between sides of poses, which comprise of more than just 10 salutes !!

    Having said all this, whilst it is unfortunate that Broad will gain the royalties from my purchase, given all the controversy the book has generated , as a regular yoga practitioner, I think that it is important to actually read the book so that one’s comments and views are actually coming from a place of “practice” rather than hearsay.
    Not all that one sees in life is pleasant or wise, but I think it useful to try to work out what is useful and what isn’t based on one’s own experience

    Perhaps you could donate the book to your shala, Jamie. It is a book that I believe most yoga students should be aware of and be able to intelligently refute where necessary.

  6. This Anusara-gate train has been going on too long.
    John Friend was a pig to be (b)oinking students and married followers and mishandling pensions. Yoga by itself didn’t cause him to do this HOWEVER Yoga Inc. and the ensuing power trip gave him the means and ability to do this but all it did was play up on an aspect Friend himself already had in him..

    I’m at the point now where I actually hope this yoga juggernaut falls so that the authentic and well-meaning teachers are left standing. Too many bad players on the playing field these days which is a direct by-product of not enough oversight, accountability and responsibility and that includes the clichéd “studly” male yoga instructors which seem to be the centre of all attention in one-too-many yoga studio nowadays in cities across North America. This includes the enablers who look the other way and allow these things to happen instead of speaking up and taking a stand against this sort of behavior and just go along for the ride because of the money of the popularity contest. John Friend had BOTH male and female followers pressing their hotel keys into his hand at conferences. Is JF the only one to blame here or are these followers who built him up to be this way just as guilty?

    I don’t agree with Broad’s insinuation that the “yoga made JF do it” or that yoga’s origins were strictly sexually cultic to begin with. Tantra, like the Dionysion orgiastic cults of ancient Greece, were considered to be the “forbidden teachings”. Teachings, if followed correctly would be the fastest route to Enlightenment, but were considered so dangerous to the mind that if a practitioner deviated even 1 centimetre, madness was guaranteed, maybe even death, which is why the teachings were never written down but are only handed down for teacher to student orally. This didn’t only include acts like excessive sex, but horrific practices like necrophilia, cannibalism, meditating in charnel grounds or on corpses, all means to help the mind get beyond the labelling stage of “good” and “bad” and just allow experience. I should add, Tantra in India and Tibet these days, is NOT considered popular or recommended to students and is only taught by a handful of teachers still alive. That doesn’t include the clothing-optional, open air Tantric couples weekend workshops in Hawaii either.

    It’s true yoga can be sexual but a lot of what you get out of yoga is what you put into it. If you want to put that sexual energy into it, that will come out. if you want to put in that compassionate energy, likewise, that will come out too. Broad fails to take that into account. John Friend mishandled his energy and responsibility to teachers and students in a colossal way. Maybe instructors and leaders who were acting unethically can see this as a cautionary tale that bad behavior always eventually gets outed. Always.

  7. If yoga was a sexual act in the past, let’s just leave that thought in history since yoga today has developed a different impression. If we look at the positive side that yoga has provided us today, we should be thankful that it has been created in the first place.

  8. I dont mind about what he was doing tantrically, he is a man not a God, the thing is he has been put on a pedastal, more the fool him and the ones that put him there, Yoga is very sexula and sensual or should be……… it was the lying that was wrong, the First limb of Yoga, he should have been more open about it….. and then it wouldnt have been wrong

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