March 4, 2012

Getting the History of Yoga Right in the New York Times. ~ Jason Birch

Photo: Jacqueline Hargreaves

Williams Broad’s recent article in the New York Times, “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here,” contains historical inaccuracies which undermine his argument and integrity.

He claims that Haṭha yoga “began as a sex cult.” This bizarre statement is based on his mistaken belief that the sexual practices of Tantra were adopted by Haṭha yoga, and these practices included the postures and breathing exercises which have become central to modern yoga.

Tantric Śaivism reached its zenith in the 10th and 11th centuries with the work of the great Kashmirian Śaiva, Abhinavagupta. Textual evidence confirms that Haṭha yoga rose to prominence from the 12-15th centuries A.D. (in works such as the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, Vivekamārtaṇḍa, Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā, Gorakṣaśataka, Yogabīja and so on).

Much of the terminology in the early Haṭha texts derived from Tantra, but two great innovations had occurred. First, Haṭha yoga had discarded the complex metaphysics, doctrine and ritual system of Tantra. This included the transgressive practices of consuming meat, alcohol and ritualized sex. And second, the focus of Haṭha yoga was almost entirely on the practice of yoga rather than other methods of liberation such as gnosis and rituals like initiation (dīkṣā). By the time of the 15th century, Haṭha yoga had developed a much more complex system of physical practice than earlier forms of Tantric yoga, including many new complex postures (āsana) and breathing exercises with locks (bandhas) and seals (mudrā).

Broad’s comments imply that sex was central to Tantra’s ritual practice. This is not true.

Ritualized sex was not practiced by all Tantric sects and, when it was practiced, it was but one component in a complex ritual system, which was built on the use of mantras, visualisation, mandalas, mudrās, contemplation, worshiping a deity, making offerings into a fire, etc.

The rich diversity of this religion is lost in Broad’s comments and I would encourage anyone who is curious about Tantra to read Alexis Sanderson’s articles, which outline the textual, epigraphical and archaeological evidence behind his statements. (See here.)

The only sexual practice described in some of the above-mentioned Haṭha texts is Vajrolīmudrā, in which the male Yogin absorbs, via his urethra, a mixture of his semen and his consort’s sexual fluids. The aim of this practice was not “rapturous bliss” but the retention of sexual fluids, which was believed to bring about greater strength, a longer life, a pleasant smell to the body and freedom from disease. These benefits could also be achieved through chastity and other mudrās, so Vajrolīmudrā was not central to Haṭha yoga and half of the aforementioned texts omit it.

Far from describing the practices of a sex cult, Haṭha yoga texts generally advise male yogins not to associate with women. After all, Haṭha yoga was usually practiced alone in an isolated place. Apart from the goal of liberation from worldly life, the texts frequently mention that postures and breathing exercises purify body and mind, give freedom from disease and lead to steadiness of body and mind. Contrary to Broad’s claim, I know of not one instance in a Haṭha text where a posture or breathing exercise is said to bring about sexual arousal.

One must wonder whether Broad has read that Haṭha yoga was designed to raise Kuṇḍalinī, which far from her early origins as a Goddess, became a metaphor for sexual energy in some new age yoga manuals of the 20th century.

The raising of Kuṇḍalinī in pre-20th century Haṭha yoga texts is said to cause meditative absorption (i.e. samādhi) and is not concerned with boosting one’s sexual performance. Even the New Age yoga manuals talk about raising sexual energy for purposes they consider to be “higher” than mere worldly sexual intercourse.

As to why Haṭha yoga fell into disrepute in 19th century India, see the second chapter of Mark Singleton’s book, Yoga Body. It is true that modern yoga was the result of a reformation in the early 20th century, but the suggestion that its founders unwittingly or otherwise adopted techniques designed for sexual stimulation is false.

The fact that gurus such as Kṛṣṇamācārya and Iyengar do not mention Tantra in their publications has more to do with their own religious affiliation which is closer to the orthodox Brahmanical traditions of India rather than Tantric ones. Hence, they prefer and teach Patañjali’s Yogasūtras and its commentaries.

The underlying flaw in Broad’s argument is that he presents no evidence, scientific or historical, that Haṭha yoga practices cause sexual arousal.

They may lead to health and perhaps less likelihood of impotence, but the suggestion that they cause sexual arousal is absurd. He does not consider whether the sexual transgressions of gurus and yoga teachers derive from the temptation of a charismatic leader to abuse their power over devoted followers. One must wonder why Broad has attempted to link yoga techniques with sex scandals in the way that he has. Some journalists do think that controversy benefits all and to this end are willing to ignore or cherry-pick the evidence and throw out the truth.



Editor: Brianna Bemel



Jason Birch has been dedicated to the study of Sanskrit and the practice of Yoga since 1996.  His special interest is in the Medieval Yoga traditions of India, particularly the Sanskrit texts of Hatha Yoga as well as a type of Raja Yoga which stemmed from Tantric Shaivism.  He is reading for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Oriental Studies (Sanskrit) at Oxford University under the supervision of Professor Alexis Sanderson.



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