Instruments of Joy


Ever wondered what smut writers read on their off-time? Well, wonder no longer. Your curiosity is about to be satisfied at last: I read…

Yoga Journal.

No, really, I do, and if you haven’t seen the August issue, you should take a look. One of the feature articles is on sex and Yoga, and about how spiritual practice and an active sex life need not be mutually exclusive.

That notion grates at first because most of us have had mutual exclusivity shoved down our throats since religious school, where we got the idea that sex was something dirty and disgusting that we were supposed to save for the one we loved. Or perhaps we grew up in a more secular or intellectual environment, where people were up for sex but down on religion, the “opium of the people” as Karl Marx put it.

Either way, most of us hit puberty with a sense that sex and spiritual practice don’t mix.

The August issue of Yoga Journal does a pretty good job of refuting this by pointing out that Yoga at least has an off-shoot that specifically incorporates sexual concepts and even sex itself, but poking around in other spiritual traditions brings up some interesting merges. There are, of course, the temple prostitutes of the ancient world, but even the Bible has references to sex as something more than a way to disinherit oneself by impregnating one’s dead brother’s wife. The story of Onan is balanced by the Song of Solomon, one of the longest and most eloquent descriptions of sexual longing I’ve ever read. If that’s the relationship between Christ and his church, I’ll take it.

The article also points out that being in a sexual relationship may be one of the most spiritually challenging things we can do. Relating sexually to others brings out the best and worst in everyone involved, pushing buttons harder and faster than anything else I can think of.

It’s not easy learning to live and work that closely with another human being (or two or three), and sex acts as a reminder that we’re not really so separate after all. It even reminds us that very different individuals can work together toward an end result not achievable by each on their own. After all, we don’t spend our entire lives enamored of our hands. The path of the ascetic has its own challenges, one of them being celibacy, but the path of the householder takes on the challenge of living intimately, and if our divorce rate tells us nothing else, it’s that this is no small accomplishment.

The third point the article makes is that sex is probably the quickest route to in-the-moment mindfulness available, even if it only lasts a few seconds. At the point of orgasm, parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety shut down and others light up, including those linked to religious experience. It appears that the disconnection between sex and spirituality is not made in the parts of the brain that actually experience them.

There’s a corollary to all of these that is an ongoing issue in both sex and Yoga, and that’s that both bring us face to face with the limits of the human body. A lot of people are put off Yoga by pictures of pretzel people, men and women twisted into shapes that most bodies will never achieve, and given this kind of thing as a perceived goal, a lot of folks simply give up before they begin.

Sex is the same way. People who see their bodies as faulty or inadequate will often give up before they start, if not giving up sex entirely, at least giving up trying to see how far they can go with it until after they’ve fixed whatever it is they see as a deficit. Sex, they believe, won’t get good until they’re good enough.

One of the things we forget about both porn and Yoga magazines is that the people in those photographs doing those outrageous poses are showing off what they’re best at. Even big-name instructors have weaknesses, which Yoga Journal covered a few years back, and speaking for myself, fifteen years of Yoga has not enabled me to do perfect forward bends. Yoga does, however, simultaneously bolster my weaknesses while challenging my strengths, pushing me toward a kind of acceptance of my imperfect body that mixes celebration and forgiveness.

Done consistently over time, Yoga puts physical pleasure into a new perspective by incorporating the body into spiritual practice. Yoga feels good, and I mean really good, full-body massage and even sex-level good. So can meditation and prayer. The focused, unconditioned mind free from desire and fear really does bear a startling resemblance to orgasm.

The problem is that we’re taught not to trust sex itself, much less where it can take us. We’re taught that it’s something base, or as something that has only one appropriate outlet and can only be done in a particular way by particular people under particular circumstances in order to have value. The possibility of sex as an avenue for spiritual growth sounds alien and exotic, but at the same time, it’s something many of us are looking for. A lot of people want more from sex than physical release, but in order to do that, we have to challenge assumptions so taken for granted that they’re taken as truth.

If we can, though, sex can begin to operate independently of the state of our bodies, making things like youth and age irrelevant, celebrating our humanity and making us into instruments of joy. Sex at its worst makes idols of physical perfection, but at its best, it puts the body into a new perspective. As long as this exchange of mutual transcendence is possible, whatever it is we think is wrong with us isn’t.

Even the spiritual practices that appear on the surface to be striving for perfection are generally asking us to accept our imperfect world as perfect. Life, according to Buddha, is suffering and we don’t transcend it by making all sources of pain and difficulty go away.

It’s our own response that we are charged to perfect by confronting life with compassion instead of resistance. It’s only after we accept what is that transformation becomes possible.

Sex asks the same thing of us, that we be compassionate toward our own imperfect selves and take on the additional challenge of compassionate acceptance of someone else, and if there’s anything that makes sex really bad, it’s resistance. It doesn’t matter what the resistance is to, whether it’s a physical problem or an emotional barrier, as long as the decision to be sexual is based on an attempt at rejecting something, odds of any real mindfulness are slim. Sex doesn’t get transcendent when a problem gets fixed. It gets transcendent when it no longer matters.

People blame our sexually conservative culture for a lot of problems, and rightly to my mind. From where I sit, it seems to have resulted in an unacceptable teen pregnancy and STD rate, as well as an environment where consenting adults are treated like criminals, but even more than this is a sense of collective pain that stems, I believe, from removing the sexual from the spiritual and vice versa. The Religious Right, in attempting to limit our options, is limiting in the process one of the most accessible forms of spiritual expression we have. Not everyone has it in them to be religious in the usual sense, but it’s an extremely rare person who lacks the capacity for sexual feeling. When sexual range is artificially curtailed, it cuts people off from a critical avenue for spiritual growth.

What the Religious Right argues is that it’s trying to create an environment in which all sex is spiritual sex, but in the process they’re arguing that it happens only in a certain context, between straight, married people who are open to the possibility conception.

This stance is patently absurd. Marriage does not hallow an act of rape or indifference, nor does it render a couple immune to sexual abuse.

Ultimately, attempting to force sex into a specific context results in denial and resistance in those for whom that context is inappropriate.

Even when people would normally gravitate toward more spiritual forms of sexual expression within that context, the mandate impairs their ability get there by making it more difficult to ask the critical questions. Mindful sex doesn’t become impossible under these or any circumstances, it only becomes more challenging, often to the point where it appears to be a matter of chance. You get lucky, or you don’t. The idea that any volition is involved gets lost in the noise.

It’s perfectly normal for people to prefer various approaches to sex at different times in their lives or even different times of the month, but to attempt to legislate which approach we can take is a spiritual crime. The attitude we have toward sex is a choice that must be made on an individual basis, not collectively and not for us, and how we express that choice must be decided in the same way.

An artificial, dogmatic separation of sex and spirit results in an unbalanced culture in which sex must fight to rise above the level of a commodity. The farther removed from the spiritual it gets, the more it becomes a currency to be bartered for the appearance of purity or cool, and structure becomes far more important than substance. Trapped between virgin and whore in a culture that will acknowledge no other options, it takes a tremendous effort, or tremendous accumulated irritation, to set them both aside and start looking for other options.

There are several ways to go about it, and keeping my own prejudices and practices in mind, I think Yoga is a pretty good one. Even if you don’t do Tantra, simply bringing awareness to the body and welcoming it into spiritual practice can help. It also has the delightful side effect, as Yoga Journal pointed out, of increasing flexibility and pelvic floor strength. Not hard to imaging how both might enhance one’s sex life.

Fond as I am of Yoga, though, I’m well aware that there are a variety of approaches to mindful sex, including meditation, prayer, the study of philosophy and simple, honest conversation. Some people seem to come to it naturally. I really don’t think it matters. I do think we should seriously question any definition of “good” sex that values form over content, and whether “good” is couched in physical or moral terms doesn’t matter. If we are offered a choice between two paths, one that must be taken and one that must be resisted, odds are very good that we are being offered a false choice.

In the meantime, if you’re in search of inspiration or even just a change of pace, the August issue of Yoga Journal is well worth looking at.

Ann Regentin
September 2006

© 2006 Ann Regentin. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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