Sex & Yoga

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Sex & Yoga

I can’t tell if I’m late or right on time with this.  But, because the yoga world seems to be on a constant increase of commentary I will add my words to the bubbling over pot of opinions, insights, pronouncements and he said/she saids in response to a dynamic which has been slippery (pun intended) since the beginning.

Sex and the teacher-student relationship.

For better or worse, I seem to begrudgingly but consistently find myself clicking on the various enticing articles outlining perspectives on this difficult subject. Once knee deep in the verbal muck, I almost always notice an alienated and largely reactive rhetoric that fails to mirror the goal at the heart of yoga: finding the middle ground.

First, before trying to find that middle ground, I must communicate the lens through which my perspective is generated. I am a yoga teacher. I am a human being. I am a male. I have been queazy in noticing the behavior of some of my colleagues and I have also witnessed amazing long-term relationships manifest through yoga.

The conversation about sex and yoga is, like all things in life, prone to extremism and fundamentalism. In one sense the topic is about freedom and exploration. In another it’s about responsibility and stewardship. It’s about educating ourselves on the dynamic between power and vulnerability. And it’s most certainly an invitation for discerning humans within a community to collectively define what is temporally appropriate and relevant.

Our task as practitioners of yoga is to remain grounded in a healthy skepticism while simultaneously maintaining an open mind. To be receptive to what we are taught through lineage and history–from the experience of others in similar situations, but, to remember that everything is always changing and every situation is open to interpretation.

Yoga is best applied when paired with the ability to improvise with a discriminative intelligence.

Discriminative intelligence is characterized by the ability to see things from more than one perspective. In yoga it is symbolized by the double-edged sword. With one edge of the sword we cut through something in order to see it as it is from the core out. With the other, we slice through our own viewpoints in order to witness the attitudes and assumptions within ourselves that color our observations.

Step one, cut through the object. Step two, cut through the subject. Both are equally important.  In taking these two steps we realize a very important teaching. Every sword is different and everything it cuts through is in a constant state of evolution. We are each unique and enmeshed in a personal truth that cannot be truly understood by others and, each situation we encounter is one of a kind in its own sphere.

It can be a great injustice to project our own truth in one situation onto all circumstances external to us.  Unfortunately, this reality is commonly whittled down into a biased necessity for non-judgement. Non-judgment is very en vogue. But like all things in yoga and in life, non-judgement is only as good as its opposite.  If we can’t engage in a healthy amount of assessment and evaluation as a community than we have nothing on which to prop each other up. Nothing to keep us accountable as individuals within a collective.

Balancing unbridled acceptance (non-judgement) with a keen and compassionate appraisal of what is prudent and appropriate (judgement) is our task in this conversation as well as all others. The trick is to remember that we can never see the whole truth. So, when touting opinions and rules, we must always make them balanced and open-ended.

The yoga world is in many ways extremely new. It is simultaneously more accessible and less defined than it’s ever been. The propagation of its popularity is exciting but has created a distinct ambiguousness which is felt sometimes as a lack of solidity in its foundation. With more teachers than ever and a seemingly downward-heading trend in appreciation for lineage, we are losing touch with a common rubric for what the practice is and how it is to be both transmitted and undertaken.

This can, in a way, be a positive thing because we find ourselves in a time where we’re crafting a collective definition of the yoga practice every day. It’s up to us as teachers and students to, with a great sense of reverence and duty, figure out how to honor the roots while keeping them malleable enough to evolve with the world itself and the needs of the people in it.

The teacher-student relationship is among the most important but most obscure facets of modern yoga. The recent influx of sex scandals is nothing new in the long line of yogic history but has spurred much debate about how the contemporary relationship should be defined, if at all.  In my observation, much of the conversation has fallen into one of two extremes.

Extreme 1: What’s the big deal? Can’t we all just have sex? Sexual celebration does not hurt yoga!  It’s a part of it!

This is the attitude of self-proclaimed freedom and exploration. Yogis already get sweaty and half naked while learning all over each other, it only seems natural to allow things to progress to the next level. Consenting adults can make their own decisions. Stop being so serious all the time.

Extreme 2: Absolutely not! Yoga should be sex free! Can’t you see that teachers and students should never cross the carnal knowledge boundary?

This is the self-proclaimed attitude of responsibility and stewardship. The innate imbalance of power in teacher-student relationships is too sensitive to be overcome. Under no circumstances should the solemnity and piousness of yoga be compromised by desire, even if you can’t stop noticing the size of your teacher’s sri-ness.

What I’m hoping we can start to recognize is that these two viewpoints are entirely incomplete without each other.  Just like Republicans and Democrats and Sunnis and Shiites become fundamentalists in their reactive responses to each other’s ideologies, each of the members of the above camps have the strong tendency to become drones of a belief system that has very little root in reality.

In reality, there are many complex things at play.

On one hand, there does in fact exist a very delicate balance between power and vulnerability, especially in yoga.  This is of the utmost importance. The practice works because we can relinquish our defense systems, we can let go and trust that we’re in a safe space to feel the depth of our being. We can take compromising positions and not worry that we’re being devoured by predatory eyes. We can open up without fear of being taken advantage of.

Because of this crucially important vulnerability we must recognize and understand the patterns of transference and counter-transference that are always present in relationships of such influence.

Students have the propensity to outsource their own empowerment onto objects of grandeur and authority. This is transference. It happens regularly.  It shows up as the phenomenon in which we see the gains of our practice and effort as only coming from an external individual (teacher, therapist, grandfather, etc). It is the attitude that we are nothing without our teacher and is the reason why people get placed on pedestals.

Teachers then have the propensity to feel this attitude projected at them so much that they begin to believe in their own grandeur…and to such a degree that they actually inflate themselves internally based upon the subordinate inferiority of adoring students. This in counter-transference. It happens regularly. It quickly turns into narcissism and is fraught with an ego imbalance.

On the other hand, the freedom to explore and interact with other people is among the most natural yearnings we posses. As we’ve all experienced first hand, love and attraction are things that defy logic and reason and tend to err on the side of unpredictability. They catch us off guard and when we least expect it. And, how beautiful it is when that happens! Among the most fantastic things in life is the ability to let ourselves be completely swept away by the celebration of beauty and the wonderful feeling of getting lost in another being's gravity.  No matter where or when it happens.

Saying that there’s no room for sex around the yoga studio is like saying there’s no room for farting around the burrito shop. Forces of nature are at work. But just like we can be mindful of impending flatulence and be dutiful and conscientious in its manifestation, so too can we observe the internal sexual processes of which we have little control and choose how to externalize them with a sense of responsibility and respect.

This is the balance between extremes. It comes in honoring the fact that there are powerful dynamics of inequality inherent in the teacher-student relationship and, at the same time, in leaving room for the expression of love in all its glorious mystery.

We must remain aware of the countless lessons we’ve learned from the millennial history of guru explosions and allow these lessons to infiltrate our felt passions and emotions and attractions with a sense of grounding.

When we allow history to qualify experience and experience to qualify history we are practicing yoga. This balance then may help us realize that some of our desires and urges might be a bit unhealthy and better passed un-acted upon.

Then, when a heartfelt connection pops out of nowhere, it is tied into the background of stewardship that we as yoga teachers and students take so seriously.

It is shortsighted to downplay the well documented phenomenon of transference and counter-transference in yoga.  As we learn so diligently through regular practice, creating awareness around something is the very tool that allows it to shift. In educating ourselves about this ingrained imbalance we create a foundation of intelligence used to make solid choices.  

It is also shortsighted to contend that we cannot foster a thriving relationship with someone who we learn from or teach. After all, we each have something to learn from every person we come into contact with.  When we appreciate this opportunity, we unshackle our own innate offerings and start to see ourselves within a vast net of peers.

In order to cultivate a responsible relationship that has a chance to survive, there must be an even playing field. We have personal lives and we have professional lives. When the personal intersects with the professional it can be a great practice of selflessness to eliminate or at least minimize the professional aspect. In doing so, we soften power imbalances and meet each other in the middle… each with our entirely unique contributions. Without objectification and narcissism. With diligence and with love.