Is Yoga Really a Tantric Sex Cult?

Like everything that grows popular, eventually a backlash begins. It now looks like we've firmly entered the era of anti-yoga hysteria. It's both amusing and sad.

The attacks and odd claims come from a variety of angles. Fundamentalist Christians, of course, have long ranged somewhere between mildly concerned to downright apoplectic over the ascendance of yoga. That's not new--or news. More interestingly, the latest hysterical misinformation comes from the mainstream media. Especially from New York Times science writer, William J. Broad.

Broad has written a series of increasingly silly books and articles about yoga. Sadly, because of his lofty perch as a Times writer, his illogical, anti-historical, and blatantly unscientific claims are actually being believed and promulgated by others in the media.

The latest--and by far the most ridiculous--is his latest Times article, Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here.

The article uses as its launching point a"sex scandal" centering around the yoga teacher John Friend and some of his employees and students. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm 100% against teachers using their power and influence to lure people into sexual relations. I don't know John Friend and I don't know the depth and accuracy of the claims against him.

What John Friend did or did not do is beside the point of what I'd like to address here. In fact, let's grant that everything being written about Friend and his actions is true. What I want to discuss is the absurd extrapolations that Broad makes from this.

Broad uses the claims against Friend to make two key points about yoga in general. The first is a historical claim. The second is a much broader claim about the physiology and philosophical/metaphysical meaning and purpose of yoga. Both are equally spurious.

Both of his claims are encapsulated when he writes:

"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."

He also goes on to claim that yoga actually began in "medieval India."

So Broad is saying two things. First, that yoga is by nature a libido-enhancing practice. Exhibit one that "proves" this is that John Friend decided to have sex with his employees and followers and that obviously he was sexually stimulated by his own yoga practices. Two, that yoga postures themselves began in Medieval times and began very specifically as a Tantric sexual practice.

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry. Both claims are so patently absurd that I would laugh if only for the fact that I'm absolutely sure there must be people out there who actually believe Broad and will now pass it along like the gospel truth for years to come.

As such, there's really no choice but to examine both claims in depth and see if we can restore some sanity to the discussion. To begin:

There is no reason to pinpoint yoga as the culprit for Friend's sexual choices when there are so many more obvious and general explanations. Sex, the desire for sex, and the delusion that sex will make us happy, is perhaps the single most widely pursued desire on the planet. Only a handful of Earth's billions of inhabitants aren't susceptible to it. Literally billions of men and women think about and pursue sex every day, most definitely including those who are both anti-yoga and have never even heard of yoga. People of every race, nation, religion, socioeconomic status and historical epoch have avidly pursued sex.

So you don't have to resort to any specific claims about yoga to understand why Friend was interested in sex. It's a universal desire. Friend's behavior simply doesn't tell us anything about the larger origin, meaning, validity, or results of the underlying yoga practices. Just as when a Christian, Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, or atheist does something morally wrong, it doesn't tell us anything about the meaning of those beliefs and practices.

Moreover, if one insisted on finding additional reasons to understand and explain Friend's behavior, his yoga practice wouldn't remotely be the first place to look. The next most likely influence on him can be found in the prestige and power he held. By all accounts, Friend not only was the sole figurehead at the top of his multinational organization (he literally owns his organization, Anusara) but was adored, even quasi-worshipped, by thousands (or even tens of thousands) of his students. There are innumerable high-quality, mainstream scientific studies (read the section starting with Chapter 5) that show the tight correlation between holding power and aberrant behavior. In fact, as the researcher and scientist, Dacher Keltner has concluded, power tends to make people behave in ways that are indistinguishable from psychopaths. This includes pursuing reckless sex and falsely believing that our power makes us immune to consequences.

In other words, if we need a reason to explain Friends' behavior other than his mere humanity (which is more than enough explanation) then the next most likely culprit--and one for which there IS tons of credible scientific evidence--is his power position.

As Lord Action said, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." This again, has nothing to do with yoga, per se. Politicians, world leaders, corporate CEO's, and yes, religious leaders, are all susceptible to the corrupting influence of holding too much power. I won't even bother to list the examples because we all can names scores, if not hundreds, both in current and historical times. Power can skew our thought processes and makes us do strange things--and also makes us erroneously believe that we can get away with things that others can't. Further, as is also a well-established fact, power is an aphrodisiac, not only for the power-holder but for many of that person's admirers who are intoxicated by it and are drawn to it.

Obviously, these two explanations alone are all the explanation one needs to understand John Friend's choices. Unless he can account for why these two much more fundamental factors aren't the critical variables, Broad's claims are thoroughly discredited. It's called Ockham's Razor--and it's all we need to understand what's happened in this situation. Obviously Broad has never heard or or simply doesn't understand the principal. (Which in this case is doubly sad because it's one of the key guiding principals of any good scientist, as a science writer ought to know, if not practice.)

Still, we're not done. In the process of making his silly claims, Broad also decided to throw out some whopping untruths that need to be corrected for the sake of stopping the dissemination of false beliefs before they can take root.

In fact, now comes the truly delusional part. Broad backs up this specious claim by making one of the most absurd, untrue, and just…well...wildly insane claims about yoga that I've ever seen. Calling the origins of yoga a "sex cult" is just so patently false, it's breathtaking. Had this ended up on some crazy fundamentalist Christian website, perhaps I wouldn't have been surprised. That the New York Times (where oh where are your fact checkers?) website would print it is not only sad, it's irresponsible and risible.

First of all, he misstates the origin of yoga by at least 4,000 years. Yoga postures predate the Tantra branch of Indian philosophy (and the medieval era in which Tantra arose) by at least 4,000 years--and that's at a minimum. Yoga postures have been depicted on stone tablets dating as early as 3,000 BCE. Tantra doesn't come into existence until around 1000 CE. And that's just the proven evidence that survives to this day. There's an abundance of excellent reasons to believe that yoga postures were already in use for thousands of years prior to 3,000 BCE. But like so much of our pre-history, written or visual sources have been lost through the ages. Not to mention, the earliest cultures in India were most likely primarily oral, not written.

More pointedly, the first real systematization of yoga postures comes from Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras, probably circa, 200 BCE -- itself about 1200 years earlier than Broad falsely claims yoga postures originates. In fact, most modern styles of yoga are really based on Patanjali--increasingly loosely, unfortunately enough--and have nothing whatsoever to do with Tantra Yoga which came much, much later and was never the dominant practice of its era anyway (in fact, it wasn't that widely known until 1960's hippies stumbled across it and introduced it into American society in a very different form). In fact, Tantra really isn't so much a distinct school or style (let alone cult) anyway as a set of broad principles and practices that have freely floated about within Hindu philosophical thought.

Put another way: Tantra is a (later) branch of Yoga, not the other way around. And like meditation, yoga postures are a general practice that has been around for thousands of years and incorporated into many, many branches and schools along the way.

Broad's claim is analogous to claiming that, say, a Christian cult from the 11th century (or David Koresh at Waco in our time) used prayer in a harmful way, therefore prayer itself not only must stem from that period but is intrinsically negative. This is completely illogical to the point of absurdity. We all realize that of course that prayer is a broad and general practice that predates any particular Christian cult or denomination. However any particular group specifically employed it, that tells us nothing about the underlying practice itself, or how millions of other people used it prior to or afterwards.

(I should also say, that though it's beyond the scope of this article, Broad--as well as most other people--misunderstands the true origin, meaning, and intent of Tantra anyway. To the extent that it has much to do with sex at all, which is largely a myth and contemporary misunderstanding, Tantra was not in fact meant to be a sex-stimulating practice but a sex-overcoming practice. So even if yoga really did have its origins in Tantra--which it most certainly does not--that wouldn't at all imply that yoga practitioners are stimulating their sexual desires. It would actually imply the opposite: that they were directly trying to extinguish it. And on top of all of this, Tantra was certainly not a "cult," not by any definition of that word. Tantra is a set of sacred texts and broad practices utilized by many, many different practitioners with a wide range of beliefs and commitments. It was never one specific group of people doing something furtive and dangerous. But getting deep into what Tantra is, and is not, is requires a much longer and in depth conversation. This response to Broad in Yoga Journal focuses more on this particular angle. This one by Christopher Wallis is even better.)

Aside from the false historical claims about the origin of yoga, Broad commits a far greater sin. He completely and totally misunderstands the genuine meaning and purpose of yoga. There are two main reasons why yoga was invented, neither having anything to do with sex.

First and foremost, the ancient yogis of India started doing postures as an adjunct practice to meditation. That is to say, their primary goal and interest was to sit for many hours in meditation, where wisdom, realization, and enlightenment could be most quickly achieved. However, they quickly discovered that the human body, unaided, has difficulty sitting still for long periods of time. Not only do we have aches and pains --just imagine how it was for the ancients in an epoch with little medicine or advanced painkillers like NSAIDs!--but the body itself most likely evolved around the need for constant activity. The ancient way of life was not nearly as sedentary as our own. Evolution has given us bodies designed more for motion than rest. Plus, of course, our minds themselves (hence the need for meditation) generate a constant stream of thoughts, action items, and create endless "to do" lists that further contributes to bodily restlessness. They needed a way to combat the body's inherent restlessness.

Yoga postures, then, are first and foremost a way that wisdom-seekers can help calm their bodies, prevent physical aches and pains, and assist enlightenment-seekers in sitting for long periods in silent, unmoving meditation. That's actually the primary and most important reason to do yoga--though of course I concede that this original reason for its creation has been lost to many modern, Western practitioners.

The second reason for the creation of yoga postures does, indeed, concern the ability of the postures to help the practitioner understand and get in tune with the energy of our bodies. But that's Energy in general, not sex energy.

Yoga has nothing specifically to do with sex. It does not specifically awaken "sex energy." In the yoga tradition, there is no such thing as a separate, distinct "sex" energy or "intellectual" energy or "creative" energy or any other sub-species of energy. There is only One, Universal type of Energy that flows through and animates all aspects of our body, mind, and spirit.

The second purpose, then, of all spiritual practices in Hindu/Yoga tradition is to first become aware of the one energy in the body and then learn how to direct that energy inward and upward toward the spiritual eye or top of the head, not downward and outward through the sex organs.

The chakras are representative of the primary places within our body that energy pools in the highest concentrations. One of the chakras--energy pooling centers--is indeed the sex organs. But there are several others, all but one of which are considered higher both physically and spiritually. Yogis learn that the One Animating Energy of Creation can be directed or focused more and less heavily in one place depending on their skills, awareness, and goals. So, yes, if we choose to, we can direct this one energy towards lower fulfillments and pooling areas such as sex, the sex organs, and sexual desire. But we can also direct this same energy upwards toward, for example, heartfulness and compassion in the heart chakra or enlightenment and pure bliss in the spiritual eye or crown chakra. It's up to us where the energy flows and congregates.

It's a choice, not a physiological imperative forced upon us by the practice.

Critically, too, in every school of yoga--including Tantra--the clearly stated goal is indeed to lift the body's energy upward toward the highest levels. Absolutely, positively zero of the traditional schools of Yoga (or even the not-so-traditional) instruct practitioners to consciously harness energy and drive it downward into the sex organs and outward towards sex partners.

Essentially, then, Broad has exactly, precisely inverted the meaning and purpose of yoga. He's literally gotten it 100% opposite and backward. It's like trying to claim that midnight is noon.

Lastly, towards the end of his screed, almost as an afterthought, Broad attempts to throw in and link to some scientific studies that purport to back up his claims. In fact, not a single one of the studies he links to says or means what he thinks they do. (Since this post has gone on long enough, I won't go through them one at a time here though I'd be happy to do so in a later post if there's interest or Broad would like to challenge me to a discussion on them.) My only assumption is that he's either counting on most people taking him at his word and not reading them, or perhaps that those who do won't understand what they're reading if they try. Or worse, I suppose, it could also be that Broad himself though supposedly a "science writer" doesn't understand them either. (Actually, to be honest, I should say that it's possible that one of them may or may not say what he claims. I couldn't read it because it's in Russian! I wonder: is Broad fluent in Russian? Not just conversational Russian but scientific Russian? Somehow, I doubt it. Which means he deliberately and knowingly tried to pull a fast one on his readers by linking to a study that he likely hasn't read or understood himself.)

This is what happens when people who have no understanding of a topic area decide to advance their careers by creating false controversy to sell books, win prizes, or gain personal recognition (not to mention most likely conducting most of their "research" by skimming Wikipedia). Even better to make your mark by writing on topics that single out people and practices not understood by either his peers--scientific or media--or readership. They'll probably just believe whatever you write and you won't have to worry about pushback or being exposed as a huckster.

Quite frankly, this kind of behavior needs to stop.

Look, I realize that Broad has a book on yoga to sell (itself constructed on an utterly banal premise, but that's a topic for a different day) but this just isn't the way to do it. We've created a polarized society where the goal seems to be to continually say more and more ridiculous and inflammatory things in order to have one's voice heard and products sold. We try to advance our own agendas and careers through manufactured sound bites, hit pieces, extreme positions, cultural insensitivity, lack of thoughtfulness, and a general relishing of chopping off the heads of others to make ourselves look taller. And not only facts be damned but any attempt to truly understand one another be damned, as well.

My sincere hope is that, after all is said and done, we'll all wake up and realize this behavior produces the opposite of genuine knowledge and insight.