Bent Out of Shape

The New York Times and the Great Yoga Controversy

Graphic by Eric Bent.

Yoga rode into the lives of Westerners on a tidal wave of Lululemon pants and Namastes on Starbuck’s cups.

Like most endearing and exotic things, yoga became one of the trendier activities in North America, and rave reviews of the benefits followed.

While there have been some criticisms, warning practitioners of potential injuries or unfit teachers, the yoga practice itself hardly received any negative feedback. That is, until William Broad, a senior writer at The New York Times, stepped onto the scene.

This past week, Broad wrote “Yoga Fans Sexual Flames and, Predictably, Plenty of Scandal” in the NYT. He has also penned a book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, which, among other things, makes the claim that yoga could kill you, which caused a stir when it was released in January.

In what now appears to be a smear campaign against yoga, Broad holds a yoga injury he suffered in 2007 as the root of his disillusionment. The epilogue of his book, however, makes it clear that he’s in favour of government regulation and medicalization of the practice. Perhaps this explains his public vendetta; public fear over health risks and sex scandals could lead to calls for regulation.

His latest piece addresses the recent stepping down of John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga, amidst allegations of sexual relationships with fellow teachers. Broad writes that such sexual dalliances in yoga are not surprising and that “yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult.”

Well, they probably don’t mention it because it’s not true.

Broad’s piece about yoga and Tantra is so ignorant, poorly researched, and sensationalized, it could be a joke.

He warns readers about the libido-raising effects of yoga, and how it “[produces] so many philanderers.” He makes all yoga practitioners seem like innocent lambs, wandering into the evil tantric clutches of yoga and its “enlightened facade” or “pretexts of spirituality.”

Accusing ascetic Indian men of devising stretches to make people orgasm, Broad warns you might emerge from your weekly yoga class a sex fiend.

He mentions three sex scandals in the yoga community concerning Swamis (Hindu male religious teachers) and presents these stories as hard evidence, not as rare occurrences. Broad spins a web and capitalizes on the most deviant facets of a religious school for shock value, making the practice appear like a trick rather than spiritual Indian tradition.

But it is a spiritual practice that rose out of Eastern religion, and Westeners certainly don’t need to be any more bigoted and ignorant of other cultures than we already are.

Yoga originated in Tantric Shaivism, a Hindu sect centered on the deity Shiva, and the Śaiva Tantras create the framework for Hatha Yoga teachings. The texts from which yoga emerged were ascetic texts, making sex irrelevant in the first place.

Although this sect of Tantra is known for more sensational varieties of practice, there are a plethora of rituals and practices. Sex rites were performed infrequently, only in fringe communities, and compose a small fraction of many rituals intending to enlighten.

Rituals were more likely to center on mandalas than vaginas.

Furthermore, any sex rites performed were done with the intention of awakening, not pleasure or orgasm. Orgasm was rarely a goal, and the practitioners did not “[seek] to fuse the male and female aspects” as Broad claims—they sought realization of unity and an existing fusion between self and other.

Broad ends on a sympathetic note, lamenting that if only “students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do.”

Maybe if he had picked up one academic text on the topic of Tantric Hinduism, instead of “Cosmo’s Top 20 (Culturally Misappropriated) Sex Tips”, Broad would know what it was designed to do.