An article published in the New York Times Monday confounded a yoga community already frustrated by an earlier article by the same author outlining what many felt was misrepresentation of the injurious nature the practice.
The sensationally titled “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here,” by science writer William Broad, author of the controversial new book The Science of Yoga, sought to connect the libidinous activities of disgraced Anusara Yoga founder John Friend with a practice that Broad contends fans the flames of sexuality.
In the article, Broad quotes scientific studies that show yoga increases libido among women and men. He also provides a list of popular male yoga teachers—like powerful and charismatic leaders in any field—fallen by their sexual dalliances. But he gets it wrong when it comes to yoga’s history, say scholars. And this major misunderstanding undermines his entire argument.
“What [Broad is] saying is inaccurate,” says Gary Kraftsow, founder and director of the American Viniyoga Institute and a tantric scholar.
Specifically, Kraftsow takes exception to the supposition Broad draws that yoga “began as a sex cult.”
In the article, Broad 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.
Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness. …
Hatha originated as a way to speed the Tantric agenda. It used poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts—including intercourse—to hasten rapturous bliss. In time, Tantra and Hatha developed bad reputations. The main charge was that practitioners indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality.
Kraftsow says that ritualized sexual practices in the ancient yogic tradition came out of a small sect of high initiates in an esoteric branch of what’s known as left-hand tantra. “But to say it was the main thrust of tantra, that’s a total misrepresentation of it. Tantra is a system of yoga philosophy, practices, and rituals oriented toward worldly achievement and or spiritual liberation.”
And it’s inaccurate to to say that hatha yoga originated as a way to speed the tantric agenda for some kind of sexualized goal, says Christopher Wallis, author of Tantra Illuminated, in a response to the article posted to his Facebook page and reprinted in Flow Magazine.
Sally Kempton, Yoga Journal’s Wisdom columnist and a longtime teacher of devotional contemplative tantra, expounded on the misinformation contained in Broad’s article for Yogajournal.com:
“Tantra (from the root tan, meaning to expand) is a very broad category of texts and practices that includes some of the most sublime philosophical teachings in the East. The core principle behind tantra is that one divine energy (called shakti) has become everything that exists, and that therefore the divine can be accessed at any moment and through any facet of life. Tantric practices are methods designed for accessing that divine essence. Most tantric practices are not sexual at all, but consist of mantras, visualizations, rituals and postures that work with subtle energy within the individual. Yes, there are some schools in tantra that use sexual practices in ritual settings, because tantra does provide technologies for transmuting every form of energy, including the sexual, into spiritual energy. But there are many other schools that do not. Sexual practices are actually a small part of the tantric tradition, which mostly consists of internal practices for integrating physical and subtle energy systems in the human body so as to deepen spiritual growth as well as physical rejuvenation.
“Traditional tantric circles of India were not ‘sex cults’ (though, of course, there have always been fun-seekers and power-mongers who used the technology, then as now.) They were ritual circles that aimed at channeling shakti for self-realization. The tantric roots of hatha yoga are based on the core understanding that all energy can be traced back to its roots in spirit, and its correlary: that we can heal the mind through postures of the body, and heal the body through breath, sound, and ritual.”
That the New York Times would cover the downfall of a popular yoga teacher it once deemed worthy of putting on the cover of its Sunday magazine is not surprising. We would even argue that the paper is exhibiting smart editorial and business sense by so prominently featuring yoga, a practice enjoyed by some 15 million Americans.
And that it would run stories about yoga and injury and yoga and sex—two important topics not often discussed in the yoga community—surely makes for interesting reading. But by relying so heavily on the conclusions and questionable reporting by one reporter, and by putting sensationalism over fact-checking, we have to ask: After years of fawning, has the Times turned on yoga?