This week of lovers, On Faith is talking to William Broad, author of “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards,” about the sensual side of yoga.
Q: Did yoga really start off as a sex cult?
Broad: It’s a bizarre fact of history that is little known. Hatha yoga – the ancestor to the countless styles now practiced around the globe – began as a branch of Tantra. In ancient times, Tantra sought to have the devotee fuse the male and female aspects of the universe into a blissful state of consciousness, its rites often symbolic. But Tantric cults also engaged in group and individual sex. One sacred text advised the devotee to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. It suggested that candidates of worship might include the sisters of practitioners as well as actresses and prostitutes.
Hatha was developed as way to speed the Tantric agenda. It used poses, deep breathing, and physical techniques – including intercourse – to accelerate the onset of rapturous bliss. In time, Tantra and Hatha developed bad reputations. The main charge was that Tantrics indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality. As a result, the founders of modern yoga, early in the twentieth century, worked hard to remove the Tantric associations. They devised a sanitized discipline that downplayed the old eroticism for a new emphasis on health and fitness.
Q: In “Sex in the City” Samantha had a “yogasm.” Is there any truth to that?
Broad: The script implies that when Samantha got horny in her yoga class and ran off with a willing guy, what she experienced with her partner was quite primal and un-esoteric. But the word yogasm – which the show invented as part of a marketing campaign – has come to represent a diverse class of autoerotic experiences that science has been investigating.
It turns out that an unusual class of individuals can think themselves into states of sexual ecstasy – a phenomenon known clinically as spontaneous orgasm and popularly as thinking off. At Rutgers University, scientists working with brain scanners have carefully measured the levels of excitement in such women and compared their responses to readings generated by the manual stimulation of the genitals.
The results are unambiguous. The scientists have found that both techniques 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.
One of the women, an advanced practitioner of yoga, told of her willingness to concentrate on her spinal column and throw it into high states of arousal. “I can orgasm up and down all the energy centers,” she told the scientist in charge. “I don’t know how much time you’ve got, but I won’t have any problem keeping things going all afternoon.”
Q: What yoga positions inspire those good feelings?
Broad: Decades of science have demonstrated that a number of common poses and techniques – many developed in Tantric days – are highly arousing. One of the easiest to do is the Cobra. The student, lying face down, legs together, simply brings the hands forward and pushes down on the palms, raising the chest and head. Done correctly, the pose exerts firm pressure on the erogenous zone. Scientists have found that the pose stirs an important kind of sex hormone, and speculate that it does so my increasing the microcirculation of blood through the genitals.
Fast breathing – done in many yoga classes – also turns out to be quite arousing. Scientists at the University of British Columbia have shown that hyperventilation can increase blood flow through the genitals. The technique turns out to be so effective that it can promote sexual arousal not only in healthy individuals but among those with diminished libidos.
Interestingly, many yoga classes – after bouts of bending and rounds of heavy breathing that become increasingly vigorous – end the activities in a period of quietude where the practitioner enjoys a sense of calm elation. Sexologists call it the resolution phase.