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Thursday, 1 March 2012

Getting the History Right - Yoga in the New York Times

By JASON BIRCH
Published: 1 March, 2012


Williams Broad's recent article in the New York Times on "Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here"
contains historical inaccuracies which undermine his argument and integrity.  He claims that Haṭhayoga "began as a sex cult".  This bizarre statement is based on his mistaken belief that the sexual practices of Tantra were adopted by Haṭhayoga, and these practices included the postures and breathing exercises which have become central to modern yoga.

Mahāmandir in Jodhpur (late 18th - 19th c.)
Tantric Śaivism reached its zenith in the 10 - 11th centuries with the work of the great Kashmirian Śaiva, Abhinavagupta.  Textual evidence confirms that Haṭhayoga 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.  Firstly, Haṭhayoga had discarded the complex metaphysics, doctrine and ritual system of Tantra.  This included any transgressive practices of consuming meat, alcohol and ritualized sex.  And secondly, the focus of Haṭhayoga 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, Haṭhayoga 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 include the textual, epigraphical and archaeological evidence behind his statements.   

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 a female yoga practitioner'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 Haṭhayoga and half of the aforementioned texts omit it. 

Mahāmandir in Jodhpur (late 18th - 19th c.)
Far from describing the practices of a sex cult, Haṭhayoga texts generally advise male yogins not to associate with women.  After all, Haṭhayoga 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 Haṭhayoga was designed to raise Kuṇḍalinī, which, far from her early origins as a Goddess, became a metaphor for sexual energy in some 20th-century yoga books influenced by New Age religion.  The raising of Kuṇḍalinī in pre-20th century Haṭhayoga texts is said to cause meditative absorption (i.e. samādhi) and is not concerned with boosting one’s sexual performance.  Even in New Age yoga books, sexual energy is raised for purposes which they considered to be “higher” than mere worldly sexual intercourse.

As to why Haṭhayoga 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 the Bhagavad Gītā, and quote the Haṭha texts to a lesser degree.

The underlying flaw in Broad's argument is that he presents no evidence, scientific or historical, that Haṭhayoga 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.

Jason Birch
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 and the Raja Yoga that 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.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for this great piece, Jason. I have posted it here.. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sandip-roy/john-friend-yoga-sex_b_1309860.html?ref=yoga#comments

    Pankaj Seth: www.deepyoga.ca

    Glad to have found your blog... looking forward to reading more.

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  2. Thank you, Pankaj. I'll have a look at that article and your website.

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  3. interesting info... journalists need something to write about don't they and the more controversial the better for them (ego....)
    love yoga and nothing or no-one will every change that

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  4. I came here from the HuffPost comment and found you arguments not only convincing but new to me and most interesting. Thanks!

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