Oh dear. I somehow managed to ignore most of the uproar over William Broad’s “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” in the NYT. I didn’t really get his point, as it seems like a no-brainer. You can hurt yourself doing any physical activity, and that’s why you’re selective about what yoga you do and classes you take (right?!). And even then, you still might get hurt. Some might even argue that’s part of the practice. Are NYT readers really so stupid that they believed, before Broad, that yoga is a flawless transmitter of purity and health? I hope not. And as a journalist, a Pulitzer-winning science journalist, can’t he make that point without exaggerating figures and asserting that correlation is causation? Or is everyone so desperate to sell these days that responsible journalism goes out the window?
(Leslie Kaminoff has a good video review of Broad’s new yoga book. I don’t entirely agree with the review, but I do recommend.)
But now I am flummoxed. Broad has turned to history to perpetuate his inaccuracies, and that bothers me (science has enough defenders). The yoga world has enough problems with historical accuracy, particularly with teachers and practitioners who’ve accepted myth as fact—without the likes of William Broad joining their ranks. And because for a dreadful number of bourgeois Americans, “If it’s in the NYT, it must be true,” this article is bound to have truly annoying ramifications for thoughtful yogis the world over.
To be fair, the history of yoga is complicated and full of long, question-filled gaps. There is no evidence of a continuous history. And so, there’s plenty to argue about regarding what actually happened. But it’s fairly safe to say that sexual practices in Tantra are rare, and are/were practiced by the fringe. More importantly, they were not practiced, as Broad asserts, to have a rocking good time, but to cultivate awareness. Pleasure was not the goal, but an avenue to more intense levels of awareness. A bit like the way Gandhi slept with naked young women to test his chastity. (Well, actually not like that, but it did come to mind.)
The central medieval text, and the oldest known text on hatha yoga, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, states that if “the body is healthy, bindu [semen] under control, and appetite increases, then one should know that the nadis are purified and success in hatha yoga is approaching.” (Ch.2: Pranayama, section 78).
Further, I’d venture to guess that Tantric practices are historically and perhaps currently much more common than hatha yoga. Take, for example, the Dalai Lama. He’s a practitioner of tantra. Is he screwing about ritually or otherwise? (Though his school, the Geluks, are known to visualize.) In fact, the misconception of Tantra as a chiefly sexual practice is sometimes referred to as “California Tantra.”
If you are interested in more about just how wrong Broad is about Tantra, Sanskrit scholar, Christopher Wallis, has called him out in a post on Flow Magazine. And Maia Szalavitz at Time magazine takes down the scientific studies he uses to back his argument.
When I first read the article, I wondered why the science wasn’t reported as a good thing, framed as “Dump your viagra and take some yoga! Become emotionally closer to your partner without even trying!” Instead, it’s some pseudoscientific reasoning for gurus’ poor behavior? In any “spiritual” group where numbers of young people give up their agency to a man who is revered and somewhat famous is going to have problems regardless of the premise of the group. I think that’s psych 101. Who’s really surprised? Why the need to fake history, quote some questionable studies, and patronize yogis’ lack of knowledge about the roots of their craft (when he can’t be bothered to research it himself)? Very bizarre.
My favorite bit, and the most amazing part of the article, is the last line:
“But perhaps — if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do — they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.”
Why? Broad’s agenda. His new book, The Science of Yoga, is basically an argument for regulating the yoga industry by making it part of the medical industry. (Shudder.) Like Kaminoff says, Broad has a lot of trust in the government’s ability to regulate, not to mention trust in the medical industrial complex. What is so gorgeous about this science journalist’s last line is that by saying, “and what it was designed to do” he implicitly argues that the mystical yogis circa the 14th century knew how to increase their sex drives by designing yoga poses that did so. Now how, Mr. Broad, did they have the scientific knowledge to do that?
And were they properly regulated?
Science? Crackpotism. (Not the yogis. Mr. Broad.)
A big thank you to my former student Joel Bordeux for his opinion on the matter. He added that it’s impossible to know how common sexual practices in Tantra were because it was a secret practice:
I share your suspicions here. If pressed I’d say the vast majority of what we think of as ‘tantra’ does not involve sexual practices. Not all tantric traditions directly advocate them and within those that do, they’re supposed to be the preserve of a select few adepts.
However. It’s quite impossible to say with certainty how much ritual hanky panky ever actually happens, since it’s supposed to be top secret. So we have a situation where people who keep those traditions generally rationalize it away or claim to practice a modified version of the ritual where they either visualize (e.g. monks of the Dalai Lama’s geluk sect) or substitute out (e.g. Sri Vidya practitioners in South India) the offending elements.