Yoga and Sexuality

by Sharon Gannon |
July, 2012

In present day Western culture, thoughts of yoga and sexuality usually conjure up images of orange-robed, celibate monks. Or the opposite – tantric sex practices that promise to open the participants to higher levels of consciousness but at the same time seem a little tawdry. But what does yoga really have to say about sex?

Our attitudes concerning Yoga in the West have been greatly influenced by Shankaracharya, a teacher of Vedanta from the 8th century who gave rise to the sannyasin movement: these are celibate monks who wear orange robes and turn away from the world. But Vallabhacharya, another great teacher from the 16th century, taught that the way to God is through the activities of the world, and the lineage holders in this tradition are married people. 

Yoga as expounded in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika does not have a negative worldview, yet it could be said that yoga views the unpurified body or the ignorant mind as a potential obstacle to enlightenment. Yoga provides practices to bring about mastery of the mind and body in order to purify the body and to overcome past negative karmic tendencies. Yoga transforms the body into an instrument, which can be used to access or tap into greater knowledge, which in turn leads to moksha-liberation from samsara, the cycle of birth/life/death. Intention determines the result of any action, so if we are interested in purifying our actions, we must have a pure intention. For example, someone could engage in sex for selfish reasons-to humiliate or dominate another-or they could have sex with someone in order to cherish and uplift them. We may call the first act “rape” and the second “making love.” The same act, but done with different intentions.

The word “sex” comes from the Greek for “separation,” which reinforces the distinction between you and me. The word “yoga” really means the opposite of sex. “Yoga” means “to yoke, to dissolve separation.” Yoga is a tantric practice. Tantra is a Sanskrit word that means to stretch (tan) across (tra). The English words travel and traverse come from tra. The term tantra actually refers to the ability to stretch your perception of yourself and others-to travel or stretch across the great chasm that divides us from each other. The primary method used in tantric practices is to give a face to the other-to see the other as a person. If you really take the time to look deeply into another being you will see yourself. This is one of the primary teachings of yoga, known as emptiness or shunyata in Sanskrit. Simply put, everyone that we encounter is coming from us. We could say they are phantoms arising from our own past karmas. If when you were having sex with someone, you took the time to go that deep to face each other like that-to be that naked-it might take the sexiness out of sex. Love can be a scary place to go, because in love there are no others: the faces, the bodies, merge into a transcendental connectedness. In the vast oneness of being there is not much space left for you and me. So most of us have sex just for the sex.

Enlightened sex can be achieved, but it is probably quite rare. So for those who are interested only in enlightenment, celibacy may be a better option. But celibacy should not be encouraged unless that is the natural inclination of the individual, because making a commitment simply because somebody said it should be done-it is the right thing, the more “pure” or “holy” thing, to do – tends to lead to trouble and suffering, and rarely lasts. Brahmacharya is a restrictive practice that Patanjali recommends; it is commonly translated as “celibacy,” which to most people means abstinence. Brahma refers to God, and charya means a vehicle that takes you somewhere. So actually the term means “to use sex with the intention of moving toward God,” which could be rephrased as “moving toward Yoga.”

Our present day views of sex actually emerged from a time in human history when we started to domesticate animals, which involves breeding them and thus manipulating them sexually. The animal industries treat animals with no regard for their own happiness or wellbeing-they are viewed and used as objects, sexually abused and ultimately slaughtered. The connection between killing and sex should tell us something. When so much of our economy-our very way of life-is based on first sexually abusing animals and then killing them, how can that not affect our intimate encounters with other humans? Disconnection disallows intimacy. We have compartmentalized sex as a function devoid of responsibility, something that happens without compassion or love. We have even told ourselves that the body is something different from the mind and from the spirit. We have divided the physical from the spiritual.

How then can sex be moved from something exploitative which perceives the physical as separate from the spiritual? It begins by recognizing another being as more than their genitals and more than existing to service us. It begins by changing the question, “what can they do for me?” into “what can I do for them-how can I enhance their life-what can I do to make them feel better, happier, more cherished?” It begins by putting a face on the other and asking “Who are you, who am I, who are we? What are we doing and why?” Those are powerful questions.

What we see out there in the world is a projection of what is inside us. Yoga means connecting; sex means separation. Yoga means to see yourself in another, to see so deeply that otherness disappears, and when otherness disappears, sex dissolves and oneness remains, and that is Love.