The first time is terrifying, yet life changing. You will be instructed to take off your shoes and strip down to your bare essentials. If you have the courage to look around, you will see men and women contorted in grotesque positions, with various limbs bound and tied. You will lie back while someone spreads your knees and ties your ankles to your hips with a stiff canvas strap. A sandbag will be placed over your eyes and you'll be instructed to breathe through the discomfort.
Perhaps it happened in a hot room swamped by lithe, malleable bodies beaded in perspiration. You were commanded to bend over. You felt a set of hands clutching your hips, guiding you further into compliance. Flushed and receptive, you kept a steady gaze, and held your position until the next set of instructions.
Bondage and discipline coupled with dominance and submission is commonly seen as sadomasochism. It is practiced as a way to, ironically, unshackle us from the pain of life. If we look closely, yoga is not that different. Both employ techniques to free the mind from suffering. Both incorporate means to transcend pain and experience pleasure. Both involve a close relationship between the teacher and student. Both share the ultimate goal of attaining higher states of consciousness and bliss.
We all have an innate desire to be liberated from the struggles of life. Carl Jung believed there is no coming to consciousness without pain. As a society that runs from agony straight into the pleasure dome, it is hard to believe anyone would voluntarily gravitate toward pain, but we do, and it is helpful. For some, being bound, tied, and told what to do is just the type of discomfort we need to set us free.
Pain is a necessary way to enhance pleasure. Beyond promoting the release of endorphins and other pain-killing hormones, pain can make pleasurable activities feel better. Anyone who has ever taken a hot bath after a long day working in the bitter cold knows this to be a fact. The old adage of no pain, no gain, holds true for the yogi who believes enduring discomfort promotes happiness.
The teachings in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali share that transcendence of the ego through the practice of tapas (discipline, self-restraint, and torching inner impurities) is key in experiencing oneness with everything. Like the phoenix, we must burn in order to rise from the ashes if we want to evolve.
Bikram yoga's high temperatures bring rise to that bird of rebirth. After feeling like a captured terrorist inside a military hot box, the moment the door opens and the cool air descends upon us, bliss abounds.
Iyengar yoga's props and contraptions are akin to what might be found in a sex dungeon or a medieval torture chamber. Racks, straps and wall slings are commonly used to tie and bind us into curious poses, all for the sake of liberation.
Photo used by permission.
Spanning the course of history, there have been numerous sexual allusions associated with yoga. In the Kama Sutra, the practice of slapping and biting our sexual partners was meant to promote mindfulness. The Yin and Yang of Taoist yoga rituals involved dominant and submissive role-playing to seek balance in natural forces. Ancient tantric yoga practices involved holding challenging sexual positions over long periods of time, for personal awakening.
Contrary to popular belief, in order to gain positive psychological or spiritual benefits, neither sadomasochism, nor yoga for that matter, has to involve sex.
While sadomasochism carries a certain stigma of insanity, research suggests those who engage in it are not mentally ill, they are inherently healthy and happy individuals.
Current studies show non-sexual practices involving pain instill feelings of unity and connection with others. James Ambler, Brad Sagarin, and a team of researchers from Northern University, believe these altered brain states brought on by sexless sadomasochistic practices are similar to what can be experienced when people push themselves in [sexless] yoga.
"The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is responsible, in part, for distinguishing self from other," said Ambler. "If less blood flows to the brain during these intensely painful experiences, the result may be a feeling of oneness."
"We think this may be indicative of the types of altered states of consciousness people might be seeking," noted Sagarin.
Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University believes sadomasochism is a way for people to escape his or her egocentric identities.
He says, "Like alcohol abuse, binge eating, and meditation, sadomasochism is a way people can forget themselves". However, sadomasochism and meditation are potentially less destructive than boozing and overeating.
Disassociating from our identities frees the mind from suffering. The yogi believes surrendering the ego, especially when it involves a journey out of our comfort zone, is crucial to our spiritual development as human beings. However, some are not only capitalizing on this psychology, they are exploiting it for personal gain.
"Open yourself completely every day. Don't worry about the beauty or the pain of it. There's no growth without distress and disturbance," said Swami Chetanananda, a spiritual leader who purportedly abused dozens of his followers, financially, sexually, and spiritually.
"When ego is lost, limit is lost. You become infinite, kind, beautiful," said, Yogi Bhajan, who was accused of rape and sodomy.
"Yoga is really trying to liberate us from...shame about our bodies," said Rodney Yee, who admitted to having sex with his students.
When any teacher-student or dominant-submissive relationship becomes infused with selfishness, someone inevitably becomes a victim. The current matters of Bikram Choudhury remind us of this sad truth.
The path to enlightenment has many shades of grey. The dark side of yoga is littered with vanity, ego-centrism and a ravenous appetite for seduction and power. If we want a shot at enlightenment, we shall transcend wrongdoing in the midst of our pleasure-seeking practices.
Our first yoga experience may read like a steamy, sadomasochistic trilogy, or be analogous to the Eagles' song, Hotel California, as the narratives are somewhat similar. We are all prisoners of our own device, and it certainly could be heaven, or it could be hell. If ethics are not a top priority, we won't ever experience the pleasure and ecstasy we seek, no matter how hard we push, and how much it hurts.