By Jennie Williford
Pranayama Yoga Studio
In the wake of news about the sexual exploits and financial mismanagement committed by the founder of the popular Anusara Yoga tradition, William Broad, a science writer at the New York Times, has published another article full of misinformation about yoga.
The confessions of Anusara founder John Friend inspired Broad’s most recent article, in which he equates Tantra Yoga with sex and the Kama Sutra, disregarding the extensive history of the Tantric tradition. He even claims, incorrectly, that Tantra is the basis for all other modern forms of yoga!
It is unfortunate that Broad’s knowledge of the history and science of yoga seems to go no deeper than new-agey, pop-culture lore. And, it is baffling that anyone could justify sexual prowess through yoga when the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (the first and foremost written work on the practice of yoga) teaches self-discipline and sexual restraint.
This article addresses just a few of William Broad’s misconceptions and historical oddities about yoga.
Tantra Yoga is not based on sex. Because of its breadth of practices and ideas, Tantra has influenced many spiritual traditions besides yoga. Simply stated, Tantra teaches that all experiences and practices are divine, including everything from extreme asceticism to gluttony. This teaching arose in opposition to the historically ascetic practice of yoga. Not surprisingly, only the sex part became popular and has resulted in some pseudo-spiritual mega-personalities justifying sexual misconduct as somehow spiritual. More about the actual Tantra tradition can be found in history books by experts like George Feuerstein, but even Wikipedia seems to have better information than Broad.
Tantra Yoga is arguably not the forerunner of all yoga practiced today. The Yoga Sutras were written down in the last decades B.C., documenting the longstanding, unwritten practices of yoga in India. Tantra does not appear until later, in early A.D.
The Yoga Sutras are very clear on moral conduct and personal practices, building the foundation of yoga on the first two limbs of practice, the Yamas and Niyamas. Yoga philosophy has long been interpreted or changed to accommodate the needs or desires of certain ambitious practitioners, producing the spectrum of yoga traditions we see today. However, if we adhere closely to the wisdom of the sages, there is not much room for error.
The Yamas are the universal moral precepts of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-greed. Misconduct perpetrated by yogis like John Friend goes against all of these, but the meaning of “continence” (brahmacarya) is most instructive.
“Continence” is self-restraint, traditionally a refraining from sexual intercourse. This has been widely discussed in modern yoga circles made up of married yogis with children, never to be renunciates or monks. Common practice is to now emphasize “restraint” instead of “refraining from” altogether.
The ancient sages acknowledged sexual energy as a powerful force, one best reserved for the spiritual quest, not to be wasted on a physical act. Yoga Sutra II.38 states that “for the practitioner who is firmly established in continence, knowledge, vigor, valor and energy flow.”
B.K.S Iyengar, father of six and a lifetime yogi, writes that continence is “a positive process of disengagement (from sex), not a sterile rejection, and procreation by those practicing continence will tend to be of a higher order than that which is carried out thoughtlessly or promiscuously.”
The Niyamas are personal observances of cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, self-study and surrender to a higher power. Sutra II.40 states that “Cleanliness of body and mind develops disinterest in contact with others for self-gratification.”
Being content with who we are and what we have keeps us from grasping for new experiences and/or new sexual partners. Self-discipline and self-study cannot be stressed enough throughout the practice of yoga.
Some Indian sages warned against transplanting yoga to the West. They feared that “Yoga and meditation practices would become engulfed by American materialism … and its practitioners, ruled by status competition and consumed with an endless quest for personal ‘fulfillment’ through glamor, beauty and sex, would no longer be avatars of enlightenment but agents of psychic domination.”
How did those sages know that even credentialed writers like William Broad and respected teachers like John Friend wouldn’t be able to avoid their compulsion to define yoga in terms of sex and power? Yet, despite their apprehension, yoga has come to the West. We must decide whether we will accept ancient wisdom or continue to change it to fit our materialistic and sensual ambitions. Only a willingness to learn and practice with intelligence, awareness and discipline will lead us along the true path of yoga.
For more information about Pranayama Yoga Studio, visit www.yogarockford.com or call (815) 968-9642.
From the March 28-April 3, 2012, issue