5.3
February 28, 2012

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

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.

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Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes has traveled the world as a meditation teacher, Ayurvedic practitioner, author, and is currently the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center teaching yoga, meditation, and juice rejuvenation. He studied yoga therapy in Nepal and India, Ayurvedic Medicine at California College of Ayurveda, and naturopathic detox therapy at the AM Wellness Center in Cebu, Philippines. He is the author of four books, and he lives with his wife Radhika and Juno, a sweet, gentle Great Pyrenees, in the mountains near Asheville, North Carlina. Connect with him via his website: prama.org and rameshbjonnes.com.