Sex & Yoga (Again!): A Broad, Distorted View of Yoga History.

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Feb 28, 2012
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Yub Yam: The Cosmic Embrace of Shiva and Shakti

One of our common perceptions of science is that it’s always telling the truth. But, while science is based on observational facts, these facts are interpreted by humans. And these humans sometimes distort or wrongly interpret those very facts.

It is a fact that Tantra, and thus yoga, has historically and accurately been linked to sexual rites and practices. But it is not correct, as science writer for The New York Times William J. Broad recently claimed in an article, that yoga “began as a sex cult.” That statement is as inflamed as Mr. Broad’s own yoga-induced back injury once was.

So, what’s the distorted science behind Mr. Broad’s sweepingly broad distortion of truth and thus of yogic history? His logic goes something like this: we know that Tantra has something to do with sex. We also know that all Tantric yogis have vaginas and penises. Therefore, all Tantric yoga was originally about sex and all yoga started out as a sex cult. That’s not science, Mr. Broad. Rather that’s a very broad distortion of science.

Here’s Mr. Broad’s actual quote:“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.”  Take note, fellow yogis, you have unwittingly become part of an ancient sex cult! The New York Times said so; it must be true!

And here’s the part of the article which uses the wildly distorted logic to spread his half-truths:

“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.”

In other words, the logic goes something like this: because-guns-kill-people-therefore-all-gun-owners-are-killers or  because-tantric-yogis-have-sex-therefore-yoga-started-as-a-sex-cult! Is that science, Mr. Pulitzer Prize winner? Nope. That is junk science. And in logic and rhetoric, we call this a fallacy. A myth. A misleading notion. An erroneous belief. Everything but science.

But since these historical falsehoods are written in The New York Times by an esteemed science writer and also the author of the new book Science of Yoga, these “facts” will be believed by millions and thus distorted forever more by its liberal and rational readers who, like most humans, are prone to distortions and sensationalism. Especially when “the facts” are in print. Indeed, that’s the power of “news that’s fit to print”, as the New York Times motto states.

William J. Broad proclaimed on Fresh Air with Terry Gross that he had spent five years researching yoga for his popular book. Perhaps he read all the wrong books? Perhaps he got so fascinated with that small percentage of Tantra that’s truly about sex that he got all bent out of intellectual shape? Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps he simply had an agenda, and he simply used his research to fit that agenda?

I am reminded of the time when Asra Nomani, journalist for The Wall Street Journal, interviewed me for about 2 hours on the phone about Tantra as if she really was interested in the subject. Obviously not making any notes, or choosing not to use them, she went ahead and wrote perhaps the most shallow book on Tantra ever written, a book entitled Tantrika: The Road of Divine Love.

Like Ms. Nomani, I think Mr. Broad also has been a shallow student of everything yogic and Tantric. Because, if he had indeed taken the time to do his research properly, and, even better, interviewed people who actually practice Tantra, then he would have learned something entirely different.

He would, for example, have learned—as in Buddhism, where yogis also (surprise) sometimes have sex—that Tantra is as vast a subject and a tradition as Buddhism, with an even longer history. Indeed, scholars and practitioners often speak of Hindu and Buddhist Tantra to describe two vast historical and cultural strands of Tantra as two giant trees covering a vast array of branches and schools.

Most importantly, Mr. Broad would have learned that neither of these traditions in Buddhism and Hinduism are considered cults of sex, neither by scholars nor by the broad majority of its practitioners. He would also have learned that Tantra is actually older than both Buddhism and Hinduism. Yes, the Pulitzer Prize winning science writer obviously missed this widely acknowledged part of yoga history.

In other words, just because it is widely accepted that the Buddhist guru Chogyam Trungpa had sex with some of his female followers, Buddhism is hardly a sex cult, is it Mr. Broad? And even more relevantly, just because there are known Tantric rites involving sex, the vast majority of Tantric practices, just like life itself, are not related to sexual practice.

Esteemed yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, whom Mr. Broad should have studied better, estimates that only about 5 percent of Tantra involved sexual practices. Moreover, Hatha Yoga, which Mr. Broad rightly claim was developed by Tantric yogis was not, however, primarily a sexual practice “involving poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts” as indicated in his New York Times article.

Ironically, the millions of readers of O: The Oprah Magazine have received a much more balanced view of Tantra than the readers of the New York Times. In a surprisingly well informed article a few years ago by Jaime Lee Ball, they learned the opposite of what Mr. Broad learned: that Tantra is a lot more than just sex. “Just like religion,” she wrote, “it’s been commercialized, and just like ads for toothpaste, it’s been overly sexualized, but there’s a great deal more to it than the physical.” Indeed.

As mentioned in George Feuerstein’s book, Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, it is widely acknowledged among pundits and yogis in India that there are two streams of Indian wisdom traditions, namely the Vedic and the Tantric. It is hotly debated which of these is oldest and if both are indigenous to India, but there is vast agreement that Tantra has contributed the most to what we today know as the practices of yoga. In other words, all practices related to meditation, yoga postures, breathing exercises, kundalini awakening, chakras, mantras, etc., are all considered Tantric.

In addition, Tantra is generally divided into three distinct branches, of which only one engaged in ritualized sexual practices. Why? Simply because sex is considered a natural part of life in Tantra (no big sensationalist surprise there!), and thus it did not require special techniques, but rather what was required was awareness—sacred awareness, which is what Tantra really is all about, the transformation of consciousness, the cultivation of spiritual awareness in everything we do, without suppressing or neglecting the body’s gifts and needs. That’s why some aptly call Tantra “the yoga of everything.”

The three main paths of Tantra, which Mr. Broad ostensibly neglected, are:

The Right-hand Path. Termed Dakshina Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this so-called Right-hand Path attempts to overcome ignorance and darkness and invoke the spiritual through the use of idols, devotional chanting and prayer to the Gods and Goddesses. It is imperative on this path of Bhakti Yoga to realize that the symbolic representations of the Divine are just gateways to the Spirit realm. This is the most commonly practiced form of Tantra in India.  

The Left-hand Path. Termed Vama Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this path is legendary for its highly advanced sexual practices and the explicit use of occult powers. Hence, it is also often considered a path of Avidya Tantra, or the kind of black magic that Tantra is often wrongly associated with in India. (Indeed, in India many wrongly think of Tantra as simply black magic while in the West people’s bias is to think of it in terms of sexual yoga) The main challenges on this path are the many temptations for misusing one’s physical and psychic desires and powers. (Beware yoga teachers and wanna-be-gurus!) But even on this path, sex is only a subsection of the many practices involved.

The Middle Path. Termed Madhya Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this so-called Middle Path is the most common school of Tantric yoga. It originated with Shaivism in ancient India and has been further advanced throughout the ages by various gurus and adepts. It is generally considered the most mindful and dependable path. This middle path toward realizing the spiritual effulgence of Brahma removes Avidyamaya’s veil of ignorance through an integrated and balanced set of physical, mental and spiritual practices. On this path many of the teachers were women, householders, and some were celibate monks. Some also refer to this as The Direct Path since it employs mantras and visualization techniques to focus the mind to go beyond the mind and into a state of pure, flowing meditation.

In addition to these three paths, there are broadly five different schools of Tantra. These are the Shakta, Vaisnava, Shaiva, Ganapatya and Saura Tantra schools—and from these schools flow a plethora of other schools, none of which had sexual cultism high on the agenda.  Moreover, when Jainism and Buddhism flourished in India, various branches of Buddhist and Jain Tantra, developed, which again sprouted many independent branches of Tantra.

Hence, Tantra is a rather vast universe of traditions, practices and schools of thought. But William J. Broad obviously missed or, perhaps, rather got lost in this vast universe we call Tantra or Yoga. I am not surprised. Too much sex on your mind can certainly lead people of influence, especially men, astray.

Still, it’s too bad that such a beautiful science as yoga has been gifted with such a shallow science writer to further his broadly distorted views. Worse, that he also is in such a powerful position to use a few “facts” to distort the truth for so many. Yet, it is wonderful to know that his opinions matters little to our own practices of Tantric yoga.

Indeed, the way I have come to learn yoga history, I would venture to proclaim that most yogis today, even those who practice only posture yoga, are at least in part practicing Tantra. And, thankfully, even Mr. Broad would have to agree with that.

In the rest of the article, Mr. Broad rehashes some of the sordid allegations of illicit sex by famous yoga teachers and self-proclaimed gurus—Muktananda, Swami Rama, Swami Satchidananda, Yogi Amrit Desai—all famous, charismatic and powerful men! And of those men, at least Yogi Amrit Desai admitted as much and has since seemingly turned over a new leaf and started teaching again. The three others have quietly passed on.

Even though Mr. Broad seem to think there is an important connection here, the problem with sex in yoga has actually very little to do with sex in Tantra. Illicit sex is a human problem. Illicit sex by people in power—be they politicians, teachers, corporate leaders, priests, or self-proclaimed gurus—is largely an emotionally-starved-male-in-power problem. That, and not Tantra, is broadly the real issue, Mr. Science.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta.


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


66 Responses to “Sex & Yoga (Again!): A Broad, Distorted View of Yoga History.”

  1. Charlotte says:

    Thanks, Ramesh, for a balanced, informed rebuttal to the NYT's sensationalized and inaccurate article.

  2. once again Ramesh THANK YOU!!! I read that article and didn't even know where to start past …"really, what a load of bs" ..your article was a much better response…now…can we get yours in the journal to balance the crap they seem intent on publishing? not to go all conspiracy theory — but WTH? does someone in the paper have something against yoga?

  3. Padma Kadag says:

    Within Vajrayana Buddhism, with the guidance of a qualified Lama who has the ability to differentiate the students awareness and capacity to integrate teachings, one does not seek out Tantric teachings on Yab Yum with a consort. One does not decide that he or she wants to "explore" this teaching. Within Vajrayana it is a most secret teaching. It is secret for a number of reasons, but most of all, it is secret because the potential of the practice is "enlightenment" or awareness itself and any preconceived ideas or concepts about the method will be an obstacle to the practitioner. When a students practice has ripened to where they are able to utilize all phenomena and mundane experience as the path and can actually convert poison into medicine then the Yab Yum practice is beneficial. Beneficial because the student needs to ultilize all facets of experience as the path.

  4. fluidruid says:

    Good reply to the NY Times article, which was a tabloid level piece that I think is mostly about the author promoting his own book and getting publicity. I'm just surprised that the Times published it in the first place!

  5. sordog1 says:

    Great post, Ramesh. It is good to see a more balanced view of what Tantra is. I also think that the sex part of the scandal is obscuring another part of the scandal. Friend was called a "yoga mogul" by the NYT due to being the CEO of a corporation that makes a lot of money. I think investigating this materialism might show the root of where the other excesses come from. Perhaps a worker owned coop or client owned coop would be more in line with yogic principles like aparigraha rather than selling $80 yoga mats to drive the bottom line.

  6. pranalisa says:

    Broad is an opportunist working towards selling tons of books…and he's winning. thanks for a GREAT article Ramesh.

  7. Ben_Ralston says:

    That's what I call a Broadside :)
    Nice work Ramesh.

  8. Stewart J. Lawrence says:

    Yogis should really welcome all the attention they are getting from the mainstream. It's a sign that yoga is increasingly a part of the cultural and spiritual discourse of the nation, and has an opportunity to broaden its appeal – if, it also become more self-aware and accountable.

    Rather than seeking always to de-legitimize your interna or external critics – which is what the Church of Scientology and Dahn Yoga do — why not see this as an opportunity to engage in self-criticism, and genuine internal reform?.

    Obviously, there's a real issue in American yoga that's prompted this latest scandal – and Broad's completely right, it's been literally one after the other historically.

    Let's reflect on what it is about yoga in the West, and in the way we organize ourselves that might lend ourselves to these recurring problems?

    it doesn't mean endorsing every critical viewpoint of yoga – especially a sensationalized one – but it does mean seeing the appearance of such criticism as a symptom of an underlying malady that really should indeed be addressed.

    The question is how.

  9. missbernklau says:

    THANK YOU Ramesh for being a voice of clarity, again!

  10. I'm aware that any damned fool can write whatever they like, but this book is an embarrassment to the publisher. When will this self-absorbed ranting end, and when will this politically correct bullshit society stop just accepting whatever some idiot says and accept it as "truth" because it "appears" to be well researched???

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Braja Sorensen
    Lost & Found in India
    Editor, Elephant Spirituality
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  11. Narasimhan Delhi says:

    Wonderful post. Appreciate the balanced views.

  12. Robin Daniels Wellness says:

    Thank you for a well thought out, informed, and organized article. I will definitely share this one!

  13. Jerry says:

    Well said, Ramesh. I appreciate your knowledge, insight, and verbal clarity. This entire dramady has given me much to reflect upon. The misperceptions of yoga and tantra, in spite of all the good efforts of the past to the contrary, are alive and well due to our collective hunger for "truth as I want to see it"…not for truth as it is (agreed, a difficult vision to have). More often than not, we see what we are, not what is. I've been a student of yoga since the early 70's, sometimes I teach (Asheville area). I wish you blessings and continued good work/seva!

  14. heather says:

    amen! great article

  15. […] the dominant theme). Want to knows what Tantra really is? Here’s a link. And another. And another. And a great book. (Full disclosure: I’ve been studying Shaiva Tantra myself for a couple […]

  16. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  17. Pankaj Seth says:

    I'm curious about your statement that tantra predates hinduism and buddhism. The vedas are part of the hindu corpus… there is nothing older than these. So are you using the word 'tantra' to designate what was before the vedas, perhaps the indus valley civilization or the gulf of cambay civilization?

  18. […] the dominant theme). Want to knows what Tantra really is? Here’s a link. And another. And another. And a great book. (Full disclosure: I’ve been studying Shaiva Tantra myself for a couple […]

  19. Ramesh says:

    Pankaj, you bring up an issue that has different answers depending on the perspective and source. On the one hand, Hinduism as a cultural and religious term is no more than 1000 or so years old as it was first used by the Muslim invaders to India. However, if we think of Hinduism as including the four Vedas, then the Rigveda is older than Tantra, and some think as old as 10,000 BCE and others no more than 3000 BCE. And if we think of Hinduism as the Upanishads (the fifth veda) and the Ramanas, the Gita etc, (1000 BCE or so) even then Tantra is older by some estimates (Danielou, N. N. Bhattacarya, Swami Satyananda, Anandamurti) Certainly, Tantra is older than Buddhism (500 BCE) as the Shaiva culture of india goes back into the Indus Valley civilization (4000-2000 BCE) and Samkhya philosophy, which is tantric based and also referred to as Kapiiasya Tantra (the Tantra of Kapil) is by some estimates as old as 1500 BCE. There are already tantric influences in the Atharvaveda and the oral version of this Veda predates Buddhism by thousands of years.
    All that said, most scholars think that Tantra is only about 1500 years old as that is when the tantric texts were written and thus younger than what we think of as Hinduism, but obviously I do not agree with that timeline. Is Shamanism only as old as the first shaman text, I do not think so. Tantra and shamanism were oral traditions and much older than textual evidence suggest. But that's a long story……

  20. Pankaj Seth says:

    Thanks for your response Ramesh. Why would one place the Upanishads in the Hindu corpus, but not the Vedas? The Upanishads refer to the Vedas, after all. This is weird, don't you think? Who thinks this way?

    You're saying that it all depends on how one defines Hinduism. What I am saying is how is it possible to define Hinduism as not including the Vedas? The Shaiva culture, Sankhya, even proto-Sankhya are not before the Vedas; no one has suggested anything of the sort. It seems you are thinking that while one could connect Shiva to the Indus valley, one could not connect the Vedas too? Not only is there the Shiva seal, but also the Vedic motif of two birds and a tree, also found later in the Upanishads. I don't understand how one could connect the Shaiva culture with the Indus valley civilization, but not the Vedic tradition itself, except to think that Shaivism is indigenous and the Vedas are imports (the Aryan invasion theory redux)?

  21. […] the dominant theme). Want to knows what Tantra really is? Here’s a link. And another. And another. And a great book. (Full disclosure: I’ve been studying Shaiva Tantra myself for a couple […]

  22. bflatbrad says:

    Thank you, Ramesh. Great article !

  23. Ramesh says:

    Pankaj, here is my take on Indian History. The no river theory is based on the works of john Singleton, the one river theory is the standard yoga history as developed by Georg Feuerstein, the two river theory is my own. Ramesh

    NO RIVER THEORY: Indian-European Origin of Posture Yoga

    ca 1920 AD T. Krishnamacharya and European Gymnasts

    ONE RIVER THEORY: Vedic Origin of Yoga and Tantra

    3000 to 1800 –BCE Archaic Yoga of the Vedas

    1500 BCE –Pre-classical Yoga (Upanishads, Vedanta or non-dualism).

    500-200 –BCE Epic Yoga (Mahabharata, late Upanishads)

    200 BCE –Classical Yoga of Patanjali.

    500-1200 –AD Post-classical yoga (Tantra, Hatha Yoga)

    ca 1900 –AD Modern Yoga (Aurobindo)

    TWO RIVER THEORY: Tantric and Vedic Origin of Yoga

    9000-5000 BCE -Archaic Tantra and Yoga—from Shamanism to proto-Tantra to Tantra
    –Early RigVeda formed outside India

    5000-2000 BCE -Classical Tantra and Yoga—Shiva Tantra
    -Remaining 3 Vedas composed in India
    -Vedic and Tantric cultures form Indus valley civilization

    1500-200 BCE -Epic and Philosophical Tantra and Yoga—Mahabharata, Samkhya, Vedanta

    200 BCE –Post-classical Tantra as Rajadhiraja and Raja Yoga—Astavakra, Patanjali

    200-1700 AD –Post-classical Tantra Renaissance—Hindu and Buddhist Tantra

    1900-1990 AD -Modern and post-modern Tantra and Yoga—Aurobindo, Anandamurti

  24. Kimstetz says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! One of the obvious benefits of yoga and meditation is relaxation induced by the parasympathetic nervous system which Broad fails to mention at all. A fantastic by product of relaxation and pretty much the only way the body is sexually stimulated is when the parasympathetic nervous system is active.Of course people are going to feel more sexual when they're relaxed and open. But we don't need more people coming to yoga class for that. It's bad enough they just want to be able to touch their toes, hold the real yoga please. How one behaves with their sexually is not up to who they learn yoga from though John Friend and other "gurus" seem to need to watch their position as a teacher. Your last paragraph in the article summed it all up.

  25. littlewing108 says:

    Thanks! I thought that NY times article was pretty crude as well— The man clearly does not understand what yoga or Tantra are about– however, just to play devil's advocate here, this article reminds me of two things which have dissuaded me from practicing yoga at all– 1 Is that yoga can increase you higher chakras abilities, but just because these are functioning it doesn't mean the yoga in teacher in question has a good heart. There is a reason yoga was also associated with black magic in India for a long time— some yoga teachers are great, but I've discovered many a naive attitude among yoga people here in Boulder who assume every yoga teacher has a good intention just because they ooze shakti and seem very high. In Tibet they say most people spend more time thinking about which Cow to buy than which teacher to follow– if people are serious about idealizing a teacher, they should be well sure, no matter which hand you are following that they are genuine! 2. In my experience yoga can increase sexual energy in women– not sure what men experience. This can be quite overwhelming, which is one reason i don't practice yoga often unless I plan to get laid 4 times a day! Some way of addressing these energies in classes would be helpful. I personally find many vinyassa classes too fast and and rushed… which is why I prefer Iyangar style where you really can learn each pose well, but realize not everyone may feel like this.

    Yoga in America is a wondrous thing, helping so many people, with obvious benefits to physical and mental health… but like ALL THINGS made by man it has a dark side. To illuminate this dark side with a detached point of view, armed with real facts and the aim to make yoga better, I think people in America can finally get down with the practice in a real way.

  26. Jacqui Hargreaves says:

    You may find the response by Jason Birch (a scholar from Oxford University) helpful and supportive in correcting the many historical inaccuracies in the NY Times article :

  27. ideniselustafter says:

    Thank you sooo much Ramesh, for this article. I was sickened to see the NYT article and intend to be vocal about it.. I'm glad I will have this article to reference.

  28. […] prove anything about any pose being injurious across the board. The book concludes with chapters on divine sex and the muse. Both are tangential and just not that […]

  29. […] The Science of Yoga that “the entire discipline [of yoga] itself began as a sex cult,” is false and an insult to millions of […]

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