After six years of living in an ashram —three of those spent celibate—Jordan Louise Kirk knew intuitively that her life had to include, among other things, sex. "The missing piece in my spiritual growth was an intimate relationship. Nothing pushes our buttons more than an intimate, committed relationship. It's only through engaging in relationship that we can start to work through the muck of our own psyche and see where healing needs to take place. Our biggest spiritual awakenings result from how we relate to each other. To run from that would have stunted my spiritual growth." Then, the Scottsdale, Arizona, Anusara Yoga teacher met her husband, Martin, and things came together. Now, she says, "When I'm making love to Martin, I truly see him as the Divine incarnate. I see him as holy. When you're seeing that the other is a manifestation of divinity, you get in touch with your own spirituality."
For most of us, that sort of spiritual-sexual connection—if we've ever had it—is a very rare experience. You might even call it the elusive trifecta of great sex: feeling desired and cherished by your partner; experiencing a complete sense of comfort and of being present and awake in the moment; and connecting deeply to your partner on both the spiritual and physical levels for a satisfying release (whatever that might be). It's what sex therapist Gina Ogden, Ph.D., author of The Heart and Soul of Sex, describes as "a feeling of oneness and transcendence—being wrapped in a sense of universal love."
Chances are, "better sex" isn't at the top of your list of things to work on to bring yourself closer to enlightenment. But the two go hand in hand, according to yoga teacher Mark Whitwell, author of Yoga of Heart: The Healing Power of Intimate Connection, who goes so far as to say, "Sex is the principal means to directly experiencing our authentic life." Sex, at the very least, gives us a peek into our true essence. The moment of orgasm may be one of the most accessible (albeit fleeting) ways we can find nonthinking and nonduality.
Like the richness of our spiritual lives, though, the depth of our sexuality goes far beyond easy, quick satisfaction and often takes years to unfold. Says Ogden, "Our sexuality is much more complex than the Masters and Johnson model of arousal, orgasm, and rolling over and going to sleep. It's spiritual, and the body has memories. Sex always means something even if you deny that it does." That's why exploring the spirit-sex connection is best done in a love relationship, rather than with a variety of casual partners. As Whitwell puts it: "Dear friendship must be established as the context for sex as spiritual practice."
If linking sexuality with spirituality seems unnatural to you, it may be because Westerners are generally saddled with barriers to a deeper spiritual-sexual connection, starting with what Ogden calls the "performance model," which focuses on intercourse, with orgasm alone as the goal. Then there are conservative religious traditions that put the kibosh on anything that links God to the pleasures of the flesh, as well as advertising that parses us into a set of idealized body parts.
But if there are more than enough obstacles, there's also plenty of evidence that we crave a more spiritual sexuality. A survey that Ogden undertook in 1999, Integrating Sexuality and Spirituality, found that 67 percent of the 3,810 respondents (women and men) agreed that "a spiritual element is necessary for sexual satisfaction" and 78 percent said that "sex is much more than intercourse; it involves all of me—body, mind, heart, and soul." There's even measurable evidence that sex and spirit are linked, she notes: "Brain research shows that orgasmic response and even vaginal stimulation in women lights up the whole brain, including the parts associated with spiritual and religious ecstasy, not just the physical-sensation parts. We're hard-wired for multidimensional sex."
Fortunately, there's a venerable yogic tradition that teaches the connection of spirituality and sexuality. In Tantric yoga, for example, says Whitwell, the focus is on the merging of opposites—heaven and earth, male and female, inhale and exhale, yin and yang, above and below, front body and back body—to help us overcome our ego-driven sense of separateness and achieve union with the Divine. "In the yoga tradition of the nondual schools from which asana arose, God was feminine, or shakti, energy. So, pleasing the feminine is the point of Tantric philosophy," he explains. "When men surrender to receive feminine energy, both men and women are strengthened." Put more plainly, when a man's goal isn't just ejaculation but a true focus on his partner's pleasure, both have a better time in bed. When that happens, Whitwell says, a balancing of male and female energy takes place. We're all made up of both the masculine and feminine (which is why Whitwell's philosophy applies equally to homosexual couples), so when strength and softness are part of our sex lives, we're likely to feel more complete—and more completely accepted. And as anyone who's ever felt it knows, that is the essence of great sex. It's also the essence of spiritual experience.
So if spiritual sexuality is our birthright and even our responsibility to pursue as part of the "householders" path (as opposed to the path of monk or renunciate), most of us might ask: Where do I start? After all, we'd all be having better, more connected sex with our partner(s) if we knew how, right? "The best thing you can do for your intimacy is a nonobsessive asana practice designed appropriately for you," Whitwell asserts. Begin with a regular personal practice of poses and Pranayama (breathwork). As you become more sensitive in your body, cultivating the softness and receptivity that comes with asana practice, you are also readying yourself to offer that to someone else, he says. (Few of us Westerners need to cultivate more strength; it's the softness that makes the difference.)
Maril Crabtree, 63, an energy healer in Mission Kansas, Missouri, began a spiritually focused yoga practice in her 40s that become the catalyst, first, to a better self-image and then to better sex with her husband, Jim, to whom she's been married for 43 years. "I always tried to ignore my body, but yoga created an awareness of being present in my body that wasn't there before," she says. "My sex life got better all through my late 40s and into my 50s. Now the quality of my sexuality has changed, from whole-body orgasmic experiences to just feeling more present in my own body. There's an awareness of my connection—spiritually, physically, emotionally—to everything."
Connecting with ourselves isn't a step any of us can skip, Whitwell stresses. "Your first intimacy is with your own body and breath," he says. "If you try to improve a relationship without developing that receptivity, there is no chance you can receive or be sensitive to another. There is a direct correlation." Without relaxing into ourselves, in other words, how can we truly relax into the body (and soul) of another? If we are only strong (what Whitwell calls a "penetrating" force, rather than a "receiving" one), we haven't set ourselves up to truly accept someone else, and the usual relationship problems ensue. "But," he emphasizes, "if two people are sensitive to their own bodies and their own lives through a yoga practice, and they come together, a natural feeling follows between the two—a sense that their bodies know what to do and how to move."
Jordan Kirk agrees: "If I'm tired or stressed, I see a huge shift when I just do some yoga. I'll do a practice and the whole world looks different. Especially after my twice-weekly two-hour practice with Martin, it seems like it clears out the cloudiness and confusion about what's going on in our relationship and we can get back to where we're in alignment again. Also, I always say Martin looks cuter after yoga," she says with a laugh.
State of the Union
A regular yoga practice adds spice to your sex life in a variety of ways, says Arthur Jeon, author of Sex, Love and Dharma: Finding Love Without Losing Your Way. For starters, it improves stamina, flexibility, and core and pelvic muscle strength, which have obvious physical benefits during lovemaking. Not so obvious is that yoga can enhance your connection to the muladhara (root) chakra at the perineum and the base of the spine, and the svadisthana chakra of the hips, sacrum, and genitals, a connection that makes you more receptive and stimulates your libido. What's more, Jeon says, "yoga gives you a sense of nothing but the present moment, and that translates into one's sexuality and the actual act of making love, not thinking about the future or focusing on the orgasm, but letting it unfold moment to moment, being as wakeful as possible. This allows you to be very in tune with your partner and with what's going on."
While a personal yoga practice comes first, practicing with your partner can add a new dimension to your relationship and to your sex life. "Doing poses together builds trust, strength, intimacy—all the components that go into a relationship," says Patti Asad, 34, a head teacher at Jiva Yoga Studio in Pacific Palisades, California, with her husband William, 35,who is also a head teacher. The two teach couples yoga retreats in Los Angeles and Mexico and have just released a new yoga DVD, Journey to Birth. In practicing with your partner, Patti says, you start to synchronize your breath and move together, and that "creates a very intimate flow that enhances the sexual energy between you."
For the Asads, parents of an 11-month-old and a two-year-old, their practice, together and apart, is essential for fighting stress and that biggest of libido-killers: fatigue. "Sex changes as you deal with real life and you've been married for a while and you're working and having children. Those things really wear on you," Patti says. "If we practice together and we carve out a moment to dedicate to one another, to strip out the rest of the world, to be in our breath, that's something that translates into the bedroom. When partners harmonize their breath and bodies, an effortless sense of intimacy is established."
When we're young, and especially if we're in the treacherous waters of the dating pool, having a true spiritual connection in a sexual relationship can seem like asking for the moon. "In your teens, 20s, and even 30s, sexual desire can be wrapped around getting a partner, having a partner, moving in, building a life together," Ogden notes. In treating relationships as something to be accomplished or achieved—much as we often approach our careers at this time in our lives—and having specific expectations for what we want, we're likely blocking the way to a more authentic connection between spirit and sexuality.
"When I talk to people in their 20s, there's a powerful sense of the way things should be versus the way things are," says Jeon, 46. To counter that, Ogden suggests meditation—with your partner or on your own—with "the intention that you will learn about your next step in connecting your sexuality with the larger meanings in your life. What is the next step that your body is leading you to?"
This means overcoming the mistrust of the body that most of us have been taught. "We are told over and over that we learn through our minds, not our bodies, so sometimes it takes a process before you can fully trust the body and learn to separate egotistical tendencies from life-enhancing ones," explains Jorge Ferrer, Ph.D., an associate professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. "If an experience—including sexual experiences—is egotistical, normally it gives you short-term satisfaction and later a sense of emptiness. If it's life-enhancing, there's a sense of satisfaction with the body."
True self-acceptance is a crucial part of combining yoga and sexuality in the service of a richer spiritual life. It's also something that Americans frequently stumble over, particularly during our youth, claiming that we don't feel any shame about our bodies or our desires. But, says Ogden, who's seen thousands of women who say they want more meaningful sex, "guilt often gets in the middle of the desire for spiritual meaning." Whitwell has observed that almost everyone feels self-conscious or "bodily inhibited" to some degree. Which means that it may be necessary to take a hard look at how you're defining what's "normal" when it comes to sex. "You want to begin to shift the focus on the body from its being either dirty or shameful, or as a tool to attract someone, to the body as sacred—not in an inviolate, virginal sense, but as something to treat responsibly," Ogden explains.
And, how, exactly, do you make such a shift to overcome inhibitions or discomfort with the full expression of your sexuality and spirituality? (After all, talking about God often feels more taboo than sharing every detail of our sex lives.) First, says Ogden, recognize that we're all bombarded with "cultural messages that sex and spirit are very separate. Those messages are everywhere, so if you've come
to believe them, it doesn't mean you're strange or sick." Women in particular may still hold ideas about what "good" girls should and shouldn't do, she adds.
In her therapy practice, Ogden's clients short-circuit the cultural hard-wiring by talking about what their parents, clergy, or teachers told them about sex. "I find out literally where in their body they're incorporating that," she says. "Often women will feel it in their pelvis. They'll tighten it right up or they'll hold their breath. I can see them breathing just from the chest up instead of taking full breaths." Thus, coming back to the very essence of yoga—the full, deep inhalations and exhalations of pranayama—is a simple way to counter ingrained ideas and feelings that sabotage body and spirit.
Better with Age
If there's an upside to aging, it may well be the greater self-acceptance that comes with the passing years. This softer, gentler approach to ourselves and others may be the reason so many people in midlife and beyond say that their sex lives are better—more spiritual, more varied, more fun—than ever before. "They begin to come from a very clear place of "This is what I want. That is what I don't want,'" Ogden says. "As people get older, they tend to connect spirituality and sexuality more. Sex does not tend to decline at midlife as the pharmaceutical companies would like us to believe." Older people are also likely to redefine what a satisfying sex life is, Whitwell notes. "There may well be a natural inclination to make love less, while the free flow of feeling between intimates remains as strong as ever. A touch of the fingertips may be sufficient, or lying in stillness together."
Like the Crabtrees, Martin and Jordan Kirk have seen sex get better and better over their seven-year marriage. "When we were first together, our sexuality was new and we had lots of sex and were experimenting," says Martin, 46, an Anusara Yoga teacher and the coauthor of Hatha Yoga Illustrated. "Both of us had been married before and had longer-term relationships before, so we knew the cycle that you have sex less often over time, but the depth of our sexuality has increased. It's much richer and more meaningful. I could relate that to our practice of yoga—not just asana—and the deepening understanding of ourselves and each other." Jordan, also 46, agrees: "I feel like I know who I am so much better than 10 or 20 years ago, and with that comes a real comfort level and a confidence with myself and my body that definitely translates into sexuality as I get older."
For men, age loosens what Jeon calls "testosterone's stranglehold," a change that Maril Crabtree's husband has felt firsthand. "The reality of my sex life, versus my perception when I was 40 of what it would be like when I got older, is that it's much more exciting, fun, energizing, and fulfilling than I would have predicted," says Jim Crabtree, 64. "The things that caused me grief or concern in my sex life when I was younger have melted away as I have become more focused on the spiritual aspect. The outcome of that has been that I've just been free to play without performance concerns and I have more fun expressing how I really am, instead of being driven by a part of me that is only a part of me." Or, as Ogden says, "When you combine sexuality and spirituality, a whole new world opens up."
Lorie A. Parch is a freelance writer and yoga teacher in Scottsdale, Arizona.