Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Is yoga sex gone sour?

'It was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party's control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible. What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship. The way she put it was:

"When you make love you're using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don't give a damn for anything. They can't bear you to feel like that. They want you to be bursting with energy all the time. All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour. If you're happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year Plans and the Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?"'

George Orwell, 1984

I spent all of yesterday evening on my couch reading 1984. I know what you're thinking: Who spends Christmas Eve reading George Orwell? Well, apparently I do: Having disconnected my home internet account in preparation for my move to Idaho, and having no family in this country (and thus no family obligations to attend to during the holidays), I found myself home alone and effectively disconnected from the rest of the world yesterday evening (the significant other had gone to Florida to visit her dad). So what better thing to do than to curl up on the couch and read some mind-blowing scary shit like 1984?

Well, it wasn't scary, but it definitely was disturbing and thought-provoking. As I read, I couldn't help forming connections between the novel and things I experience in my everyday life, and the above passage was one of those that definitely jumped out at me in this regard. In the novel, the Party champions chastity as one of the virtues to be cultivated by the citizens of the totalitarian state; the Party Line is that the sole purpose of sex is to beget children for the service of the Party (which involves, among other things, telling on and denouncing their parents). This being the case, sex is not something that should be done for pleasure; sexual intercourse "was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema." The Party also recognizes that sex and making love uses up energy; energy which could be channeled into more "constructive" things like marching, waving flags, and other Party-sanctioned political activities. Which is another good reason to promote chastity and discourage gratuitous sex, from the Party's point of view.

As I was reading and thinking about these things, the cynical and subversive part of my mind couldn't help forming a connection here with our yoga practice. As you know, Brahmacharya is one of the yamas or ethical observances of yoga. The yoga "Party Line", if you will, is that if you conserve your sexual energy and not have too much sex, you will have more energy for your practice and the other great things in life, like fulfilling your householder duties and eventually becoming a self-realized being. So if we look at things in this rather cynical way, doesn't our yoga practice function to control and re-channel our sexual energies for a larger goal, just like the Party in Orwell's world tries to control and re-channel the sexual energies of its citizens in order to fulfill some larger political goal? Is yoga then a sort of self-imposed Totalitarianism of the soul?

Wait a minute, not so fast! You may be thinking. Surely yoga practice is the furthest thing from totalitarianism! If nothing else, chastity is imposed on you from the outside in Orwell's totalitarian state, whereas brahmacharya is self-imposed.

Or so you say. But what's the real difference between "self-imposed" and "imposed from the outside"? They are both forms of imposition. I'm not saying that there is definitely no difference between the two forms of imposition, or that there definitely is a difference somewhere. To be honest, I don't know the answer, one way or the other. I'm just thinking aloud, as always. But here's something else to think about: Remember all those gurus who have fallen from their states of grace since the beginning of the history of yoga? If you need a little memory jog, the latest two such cases involve somebody whose first name rhymes with "bathtub", and somebody whose name can be rendered in Spanish as "Juan Amigos". Could it be, could it just be that perhaps these gurus fell from their states of grace because of some failure of whatever systems of brahmacharyic self-imposition that they have imposed on themselves? Could it be that perhaps they had had enough of a life which consists of sex gone sour, from their point of view, so they decided to take things into their own hands and make the sour sweet again (which, of course, resulted in things becoming even more sour than they ever were to begin with...)?

Well, as I said, I have no answers here, only a few not-so-well-thought-out questions. But maybe, if you would like to burn off a few calories from your holiday indulgences by exercising a few brain cells, you might like to ponder this matter a little, and maybe leave a comment or two here. I'll love to hear what you have to say.      


  1. "DO YOU BEGIN TO SEE, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon..."

    —O'Brien to Winston Smith. Excerpted from 1984. George Orwell.

    "The yoga "Party Line", if you will, is that if you conserve your sexual energy and not have too much sex, you will have more energy for your practice and the other great things in life, like fulfilling your householder duties and eventually becoming a self-realized being. "

    Oh no, self-realization is just contradiction. There is no self to be realized. Sex is celebration of life... The word is celebrate :)

  2. Sorry Nobel for my rant, but your post is excellent. Let me add...

    It's 1984 for yogis now, and probably will be forever. Nobel, the real message we can take from Orwell's book has nothing to do with anything so trivial as political oppression or the erosion of privacy rights.

    It has to do with the reduction of man's perceptual faculties to a narrow field of vision, like blinders on a beast of burden, rendering us unaware of alternatives, knowing nothing other than slow, pointless plodding toward our own burial ground.

    1984 isn't a future possibility, it's a present fact. You pointed it so effectively stated that yoga sex gone sour.

    1. Don't worry about ranting, Zee. Your ranting is actually very insightful ;-)

      I also agree that the word is celebrate. Regarding what you say about the reduction of man's perceptual faculties to a narrow field of vision: I can't decide whether this is always a bad thing. I mean, it is generally regarded as a bad thing to place blinders on ourselves and to restrict our life choices/options in this way. But I also wonder if blinders may sometimes be a necessary constraint that we need to place on ourselves so that we don't overindulge, and do things that hurt ourselves and/or others.

      But of course if you follow Nietzsche, you would probably believe that any kind of blinder or constraint is a bad thing, before it suppresses the creative drive which sometimes manifests as the sex drive.

      As for plodding towards our own burial ground... aren't we already plodding towards the grave with every breath we take, whether we like it or not? :-)

    2. Hmm maybe it's worth noting that Nietzsche lost his mind and died from syphilis.

      Also - wouldn't another term for "blinders" be pratyahara, the fifth limb?

    3. Yes, I forgot about what happened to Nietzsche...

      Pratyahara as "blinders"... interesting. I have to think about this one...

    4. There are not positive "blinders".

      Anyway, the main point is this - Yoga and spirituality become a state-sanctioned enterprise. (Like in 1948) None of those things, not Yoga, not Buddhism or Sufism or any New Age stuff or Hinduism or Kabbalah or anything else, pose any threat to the awakening. I'm not saying they are bad at it, as you might think, but that it's outside of the scope of awakening.

  3. so maybe i am just glossing over yogic teaching, but my understanding, colored perhaps by the jewish tradition in which i grew up, is that brahmicharya is more like sexual restraint than chastity. In other words, not using sex in unethical or exploitive ways, or otherwise failing to integrate it truly into your life as a social being. Perhaps it's a continuum, and I may have been influenced by the point of view of one of my teachers. But I also don't really worry (and don't know many people who can afford to worry) about having energy for practice. We just practice when we can, as we can. We love as we can. We do our best. Again, brahmicharya to me stands in for "sex with social ethics" vs. pure drive without regard to effect.

    I may be way off but it works for me. Maybe i am just a bad yogi generally but I am never so consumed by my yoga that I would be likely to give up my soul, so to speak. It adds joy and peace to my life like, you know, sex. But I don't spend a lot of time beating myself up for not going to mysore, either. As David Swenson says, Yoga should make you a better auto mechanic, a better parent, just a better person. You just do it. Things work out.

    Merry Christmas....

    1. Hello Anonymous,
      "my understanding... is that brahmicharya is more like sexual restraint than chastity. In other words, not using sex in unethical or exploitive ways, or otherwise failing to integrate it truly into your life as a social being."

      Interesting point. But here's my question: When does sexual restraint shade over into repression? Or, to put the same point another way, couldn't somebody argue that all of human civilization (starting from the point when we gave up being hunter-gatherers and started living in agriculture-based societies with fixed institutions) is essentially an organized effort to control and channel the sex drive so that it serves the purposes of civilization rather than undermine civilization? Perhaps there is nothing wrong with serving the purposes of civilization; I'm not sure I want to live as hunter-gatherer anyway. But I can't help but wonder nonetheless...

  4. Nobel, you raise a lot of good questions here -- in fact, the best and only questions, i think. I don't imagine they will be answered here today in your blog, but my own opinion is this:

    inner-driven totalitarianism and externally imposed totalitarianism can have the same dynamics and similar results: they lead toward lack of freedom. However, there is also a role for discipline. Properly applied, with constant awareness (not blind routine, not senseless routinization, not dogma, not totalitarianism, in short) can lead to a narrowing of the senses and an abridgment or abdication of the self. This leads to freedom. The road to freedom, paradoxically, can lead to its opposite, a prison. Automaticity is the enemy.

    As Hamlet said, "Oh Lord, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams." Well, perhaps that's a bit off point, but it reminds me of the fact that freedom is possible to arrive at through constraint, even radical constraint. (as in a meditation retreat...a nutshell) However, when the constraint is applied with the wrong spirit or blindly or graspingly -- knowing that it can lead to pleasure, powers, or ecstasy, or when one is tortured by 'bad dreams' -- then it can result in its opposite.

    As for sex and Ashtanga/brahmacharya -- maybe it is understood as you say (a winnowing down of sexual feelings), and maybe it works this way for some people during some periods of their lives, but I have found that one of the great things about ashtanga is the increase in sexual feeling and pleasure possible with the body that practices daily. So excellent -- my goal is to apply this to my marriage ...I know you raised the qu of sex + ashtanga in the past so that is what my experience has been. -Becky

    1. I think you are on to something very insightful here, Becky, when you say that "inner-driven totalitarianism and externally imposed totalitarianism can have the same dynamics and similar results". The difference between restraint that leads to greater freedom and restraint that leads to slavery probably depends on whether the restraint is done on autopilot (or "automaticity", as you put it), or whether the restraint is done with a conscious, mindful spirit. Employed in a mindful way, restraint can result in a flowering of sensuality that enriches rather than imprisons one. I think this may be what Tagore had in mind when he writes,

      "The fire restrained in the tree fashions flowers.
      Released from bonds, the shameless flame
      dies in barren ashes."