Question: Some conservative preachers decry yoga as promoting sexuality. Do you think it does? And does that matter?
Frank answers: Since I have already dealt with two of the three big reasons conservative Christian leaders, both Catholic and Evangelical, warn Christians to stay away from yoga—(1) it is based on Eastern religion (see “Frank Answers About Christians Practicing Yoga”) and (2) it is demonic (see “Frank Answers About Whether Yoga is a Work of the Devil”)—, I might as well tackle the third reason yoga is deemed inappropriate for Christians: (3) Yoga promotes sexuality. This gives me an opportunity to do more reflecting on what I learned in the course on “The Embodied History of Yoga” that I took at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Ayurvedic Health last summer (see “Frank Answers About His Kripalu Adventure”).
As you might expect, there are no simple answers to your questions. But hang in with me as I unpack a lot of information, some of which might be deemed R-rated.
The concern of conservative Christian preachers, Catholic or Evangelical, is that yoga has an alien character that makes it incompatible with the Christian faith. To get a good statement of that I to go to Albert Mohler’s (in)famous blog article of September 20, 2010, “The Subtle Body—Should Christians Practice Yoga.”
Moehler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was reflecting on the content of Stefanie Syman’s book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, which had just been published (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). He wrote: “Syman describes yoga as a varied practice, but she makes clear that yoga cannot be fully extricated from its spiritual roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. She is also straightforward in explaining the role of sexual energy in virtually all forms of yoga and of ritualized sex in some yoga traditions. She also explains that yoga ‘is one of the first and most successful products of globalization, and it has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.’” Moehler clarified his concern about the role of sexual energy in yoga when he wrote,
While most adherents of yoga avoid the more exotic forms of ritualized sex that are associated with tantric yoga, virtually all forms of yoga involve an emphasis on channeling sexual energy throughout the body as a means of spiritual enlightenment.”
Yoga Channeling Sexual Energy
I might have responded to Mohler’s 2010 article that I never heard any mention of sex in any yoga class I attended and I didn’t feel extra sexy for having practiced yoga. But a month or two before Moehler’s blog article appeared, I had a private session with a young male yoga teacher on how yoga improves one’s sexual performance.
I used to attend this yoga teacher’s vinyasa class at the local YMCA. As a young yoga teacher he was trying to get some classes going outside the Y (for extra income, I’m sure). One day he announced at the end of the class: “You know, we’re all adults living in the 21st century and we should be able to discuss the fact that yoga can be great for your sex life.” He said that he was offering a class in which he would talk about how yoga helps with sex and show us some techniques. It turned out that I was the only one who showed up for his class. He said that he was willing to give instruction one-on-one since I had already paid for the session, if that was OK with me. I’ll give this young man credit. That 27-year old yoga teacher gave a class on yoga for sex to this then-67-year old pastor. (Actually, I didn’t tell him my profession until the end of the session, after we had established a bond, and he asked what I did. Some unchurched or non-religious people get weird when they find out I’m a clergy person.)
What he said in our session made sense to me in terms of the physical techniques. Utilizing all the deep breathing, pelvic floor techniques, and relaxation you get from practicing yoga can probably give you better sexual performance. He also claimed that yoga can help with premature ejaculation, improve the libido, and, of course, increase your stamina. (So hold those poses!) Practice ujjayi breathing. Do some core strengthening poses. Moving up and down several times in cobra pose places pressure and release on the pelvis. Poses with a pelvic thrust are especially good, he said, such as bridge, camel, and wheel. Eagle pose squeezes the genitals. So does mula bandha (root lock) combined with butterfly or bound angle pose.
My young yoga teacher testified that yoga has been good for his sex life. I advised him at the end of our session that if he does this session again with older men in the class, he might want to be aware of aging and medical conditions that affect sexual performance, such as the loss of testosterone or the effects of chemotherapy.
Pelvic exercises for men and women, whether in yoga or in physical training, and being in good physical shape generally, can undoubtedly have a positive impact on sexual performance. With regard to Albert Moehler’s concern, these practices don’t depend on invoking spiritual energy to channel sexual energy—unless you give credence to the Tantric subtle body.
The Origin and Spread of Tantra
Tantra as we know it entered India in the fourth century, perhaps from Persia, and became a dominant village religion during the middle ages. It was primarily concerned with fertility and the powers of life. Only later did it become an esoteric practice. The Tantras are actually texts that “weave together” (which is what tantra means) spiritual and mundane ideas. It was not a system complete in itself but influenced Hinduism, Buddhist traditions in India and Tibet, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, Kashmirian Shivaism, Daoism in China, and the Shintō tradition in East Asia.
The Tantra movement emphasized the body as a microcosm of the universe and the abode of divinity. It was anti-ascetic and rejected orthodox Brahmanism. It embraced the realities of everyday life, including sex. Every woman became an incarnation of the goddess Shakti, the divine goddess. Men, too, had this divine feminine within them.
Figurine of Buddha and Shakti in Yab Yum pose.
In India Tantra contributed to the development of Hatha Yoga, which is the most commonly practiced form of yoga in the world today. “Ha” is Sanskrit for sun and “tha”’ is moon. Embedded in Hatha yoga is the idea of the union of opposites, overcoming the dualism of solar and lunar energies, the masculine and feminine aspects of the self, the duality of mind and body, even bringing together the divine and the human.
The Subtle Body
Esoteric Tantra teaches that we have a subtle body. There is a central axis or nadi along the spine called sushumna that includes at least seven chakras or energy vortexes that go up this central axis from the genitals to the crown of the head. These are thought to be located at the perineum, the pelvis, the solar plexus, the heart, the throat, between the eyes in the forehead (as a third eye), and at he crown of the head. The object of tantra practice is to raise energy, associated with the goddess Shakti, from the perineum (where it lies coiled like a serpent ready to spring – this is called kundalini) to connect with consciousness at the crown of the head (actually, slightly above the head and therefore out of the body), associated with the god Shiva. According to this view, the pelvic chakra can be stimulated and activated in back bends because the pelvis is constantly being pressed and pushed forward and backward. Chanting that creates vibrations in the body also helps. Depending on the capacity of the student the energy (kundalini) can get “stuck” rather than rising upward and produce strong sexual feelings. To counter this you would do forward bends.
Map of the subtle body showing seven chakras along the central axis of the sushumna with interweaving lunar and solar nadis.
But before there were maps of the subtle body and gurus to guide initiates in exploring them, there was the virile hero in early medieval India who offered himself in sacrifice to hungry dakinis or yoginis (female demons and witches, respectively) by lying in fields or on mounds or in cremation grounds. The blood-thirsty yoginis would fly down to eat him. He bought them off with his life-giving semen in exchange for their menstrual fluids (each empowering the other). The sexualized rituals had to do not with copulating but with collecting and consuming sexual fluids, which could be exchanged orally or through upward genital extraction (upward suction).
Yoginis exchanging bodily fluids with the virile hero
In exchange for a successful encounter the virile hero could fly off with the yoginis, become a part of their coven, and receive powers from them. This became the basis of Tantra or Kaula rituals. As David Gordon White wrote, “Kaula practitioners were primarily concerned with this-worldly powers (siddhis) and bodily immortality (jivanmukti), with the enjoyment (bhukti) of said powers and immortality taking precedence over any ideal of consciousness raising or disembodied liberation from cyclic rebirth (mukti), embraced by the more conventional Tantric practitioners” (David Gordon White, Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts [Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003], 10). The fact that kings became patrons of and perhaps even participants in Tantric rituals and built temples in which to enact them (open to the sky so that yoginis could fly down onto the would-be hero) indicates that worldly powers and blessings were expected from the successful encounter, not just spiritual enlightenment.
Yogini temple at Behdathat, India. It is a circular structure enclosing a large open field. The heroes could lie in the open field waiting for the yoginis to swoop down on them, and after the encounter they could fly away with the yoginis.
Sublimation of Tantric Practice
So how did Tantra become a quest for spiritual enlightenment? According to White, it was through a process of sublimation (see Kiss of the Yogini, chapter 8). Respectable householders desired to participate in the nocturnal Tantric rites, and as a result the rites were sanitized and spiritualized between the tenth and twelfth centuries. The fierce yoginis were internalized in the energies of the chakras of hatha yoga. The goddess Shakti as the coiled serpent (kundalini) located within the base of the pelvis was waiting to be awakened and sent soaring through the chakras to unite with Shiva outside the body (just above the crown of the head), resulting in a union of energy and consciousness. This was the experience of enlightenment. It was pursued by creating vibrations (spanda) through the chanting of mantras as well as breathing exercises.
The modern Kundalini Yoga, branded by Yogi Bhajan in his “Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (3HO) in 1968, tries to hasten the process through chanting (mantras), using breath work (pranayama) connected with vigorous movement (kriyas), employing muscular locks (bandhas) and hand positions (mudras). Although a Kundalini Yoga class might initially resemble a typical Hatha Yoga class with asanas and meditation, the practice includes a variety of other elements to encourage the awakening of the Kundalini energy and it can be pretty vigorous.
In historic Tantra the novice or initiate needed a guru or master to guide him through the process of awakening the kundalini and the result was what White calls the “masculinization of Tantric initiation” in which the male guru essentially replaced the female yogini. The whole practice was brought within the purity constraints of High Hinduism. If the prohibited foods (e.g., meat and alcohol) and bodily fluids (e.g. blood and semen) were consumed, it was to affect a breakthrough of consciousness rather than to experience transformation effected by the substances themselves. (This is like a Protestant spiritualizing of sacramental efficacy.) The doing of the earlier, sexually raw Tantric rites was subsumed under gnosis (knowledge) in the quest for enlightenment. The gnostic character of esoteric tantra lent itself to the New Age quest for spiritual freedom.
Neo-Tantra Sex Workshops
Your ordinary yoga class doesn’t necessarily promote sexuality (although the sexual energy is there in the body, isn’t it?). But Tantra historically has and does.
Erotic Kama statues in Khajuraho Hindu Temple at Lakshmana Khajurâho, India
Historically, as I said, Tantra was not a yoga system, although it contributed to the development of Hatha Yoga. Tantra sex workshops today might use Hatha breathing exercises (pranayama) and poses (asanas). Tantra was a ritual system that sexualized ancient Vedic fertility rites in the early medieval period. It is not surprising that what Georg Feuerstein calls “Neo-Tantra” dipped into the Tantra tradition to develop a ritualization of sex aimed at increasing intimacy between couples. Tantra yoga has become sex therapy.
I’ve never experienced a Tantra sex workshop, but I interviewed a respected yoga teacher who has conducted workshops for couples. He told me that many couples attend looking to improve their lovemaking, which they usually identify with ejaculation and orgasm. One of the important aspects of Tantra workshops is to separate sexual intimacy from ejaculation. In fact, many ancient people believed that ejaculation is a loss of one’s life force and should be saved for procreation. Ancient yogis worked on achieving orgasm without ejaculation. Tantric workshops therefore work on intimacy and prolonging sexual pleasure without rushing to ejaculation. The processes used in the workshops usually build up sexual energy.
To slow down the rush to the finish line my friend begins with the couples clothed, holding hands, and making eye contact.
Some simple partner poses might be used to build trust and excitement, such as this partner side twist. Partner poses can also be fun and help the couple just to enjoy playing together.
A sensual massage is part of a Tantra workshop. It is important for the partners to experience touching each other. One partner massages the other partner face up and then they change places. This may be done clothed or naked. One possible massage approach my friend has used is to follow the chakras up the torso using different movements and intensities for each one, sometimes with the hand of the massager hovering just above the body of the recipient of the massage.
Showing honor to the lingam (penis) and yoni (vulva) is a touch that connects with medieval Tantra, as I will discuss below.
Criticism of Neo-Tantra by Scholars
Tantra scholars are very critical of Neo-Tantric sex workshops. Having surveyed Neo-Tantra publications, the eminent yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein concluded: “Their main error is to confuse Tantric bliss (ananda, maha-sukha) with ordinary orgasmic pleasure” (see Georg Feuerstein, Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy [Boston and London: Shambhala, 1998], xiv). Tantric bliss is achieved in the unity of being—the union of the self with the cosmos—, not in bigger and better orgasms.
Moreover, one must be properly initiated into Tantra if one expects to receive enlightenment, and lineages of teachers are not intact. (Lineage has been important to yoga, kind of like apostolic succession in some Christian traditions.) Mircea Eliade, the pioneering historian of religion who wrote his doctoral dissertation on yoga after spending time in India studying with DasGupta at the University of Calcutta and in Swami Sivananda’s ashram in the early 1930s, insisted that no one could experience Tantric initiation without being guided by a guru (see Mircea Eliade,Yoga: Immortality and Freedom [Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1958], 206-7). Gurus or masters were needed to guide students in awakening the kundalini (the goddess Shakti at the base of the torso who was conceptualized as a coiled serpent) and sending it up through the chakras of the subtle body to attain enlightenment (which few have succeeded in attaining) by being united with the god Shiva (consciousness) at the crown of the head.
So then, to the question, “does it matter?”
All this history raises several questions. (Isn’t that the purpose of studying history?) First, is there some validity to the Tantric subtle body even if it was discerned only when the earlier rites were internalized? Chinese medicine, for example, has a similar subtle body in its meridian system, which is used to good effect in acupuncture. Would this development of Tantra not be comparable to the development of doctrine in Christian theology or other religious systems?
Second, is Neo-Tantra a legitimate development in the evolving history of Tantra? By way of comparison, millions of yoga students around the world are practicing some form of Hatha Yoga that many of their teachers now know was influenced by the modern Northern European physical culture movement as appropriated by gurus like Krishnamacharyi, who synthesized it with medieval Hatha traditions. Modern postural yoga is not the practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Yet very few students stop practicing yoga even though its roots in classical yoga traditions are tenuous. Yet however tenuous, there are still some connections to be discerned. And in the meantime all kinds of new styles of yoga are emerging in the twenty-first century.
Even if Neo-Tantra’s roots in ancient Kaula rituals are tenuous, is there still some connection? If there is, it would have to be in its focus on sexuality, because that’s what made Tantra distinct from other popular religious expressions (bhakti) in India. And it would have to take seriously the body as the location of interaction with divinity. Orthodox Christianity also affirms that in Holy Baptism the body becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit and that in Holy Communion we receive the body of Christ into our bodies. Through these means of grace Christians believe there is a union of the divine and the human.
Third, if Neo-Tantra practitioners have developed some skills in helping couples became more open to each other, and even more adventurous with each other, is it not serving a worthy purpose in the modern world with its fracturing lifestyles in which we are overworked and tired and feel like sex is a duty or else abandon it altogether? As my friend who has done tantric couples workshops reported to me, he works on intimacy rather than successful ejaculations and big orgasms. Sexuality grounded in love for the partner, and commitment and openness to growth in that relationship, can deepen and strengthen the connection between them and intensify their sense of oneness as a couple. Sex can vary with the fluctuations in our lives, but that is no reason to lose a sense of intimacy.
Fourth, should Neo-Tantra practice be available to Christian believers? Is it something they could do to improve their marital relationships? Some Christians are going to rule it out altogether, like they rule out everything else in the world that is rooted in “pagan” practices. But it seems to me that those who are willing to practice yoga in spite of its connections with Eastern religions and philosophy, and take out of it what seems good, true, and beautiful (Plato’s trio), might find something of value in Tantra practices even if they have to strain out its pagan ancestry or (worse) the spirituality of New Age practitioners.
In this regard, I was impressed when I attended a Tantra Workshop (not about sex) offered by the eminent yoga teacher, Rod Stryker, on “Tantra: Awakening the Sacred Channel,” and he advised participants, “If you bring your bhakti —your faith—to yoga, see what it adds to yoga and what yoga adds to your faith. Have reverence for where you’ve come from and where you’re going.” Amen to that!
Pastor Frank Senn
A loving Tantra couple in yab yum (father mother), one of the most common Tantra poses. As the man and woman sit facing each other with legs wrapped around his torso and her lower back, they represent Shiva and Shakti. In this pose all the chakras are aligned from the pelvis to the crown of the head.