Who knew the downward dog has a missionary position?
The New York Times, in all its wisdom, informs us that yoga began as a sex cult.
Now if only I had known this in the ninth standard in Kolkata, I would have paid much more attention during yoga class at school.
The Times had already tied itself up in knots with an earlier story about how yoga can be hazardous to your health.
The firestorm that caused made one thing clear -- yoga sells well. Sex sells even better. And sex scandals sell the best. So what's not to love about a yoga sex scandal?
The man in the eye of the storm this time is John Friend, the founder of the Anusara style of yoga. Friend, says the Times, had built up a huge following by preaching "a gospel of gentle poses mixed with poses aimed at fostering love and happiness." Apparently there was too much love and too much happiness on his end. A former confidante has gone public about his "penchant for women", "partying and fun" and cheating on girlfriends. Friend has stepped down for some "self-reflection, therapy and personal retreat." (Hopefully no yoga will be involved there.) There were also some problems about stealing from pension funds but that's boring stuff when you have juicy sex covens.
OK, so a beloved yoga guru falls face down on his mat. But William Broad, the Times' science writer somehow extrapolates from that to this mind-boggling conclusion.
Why does yoga produce so many philanderers? And why do the resulting uproars leave so many people shocked and distraught? One factor is ignorance. Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a Tantric sex cult -- an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise.
Really? Sex cult?
The issue isn't whether yoga can, among other things, help improve your sexual stamina. There are scholarly studies from the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital and the Guru Gobind Singh-Indraprastha University in India on yoga in male sexual functioning. (Here's the link -- go ahead, click it, I know you want to.) I dimly recall some benefit like that being hurriedly mentioned in that ninth standard yoga class much to the tittering amusement of puberty-stricken boys. But we were quickly also told about how yoga was going to sort our constipation problems and blood circulation issues and make our liver and kidneys hum along.
The bafflement with the Times article is the ridiculous equation that Mr. Broad has seen fit to draw between Friend's personal fall from grace and the roots of yoga. His argument suggests philanderers and yoga are a natural fit. (I wonder if Bill Clinton knew about this.) Also a yoga class is just an affair waiting to happen given all that "arousal, sweating, heavy breathing and states of undress." Houston, we have a sticky mat problem.
As proof, alongside Friend and other fallen yoga gurus like Swami Muktananda and Swami Satchidananda, Broad cites the fact that the student-teacher sex problem was so prevalent the California Yoga Teachers Association had to deplore it as "immoral."
Yes, yoga does draw a lot of starry-eyed groupies and yogis have become rock stars. Yes, after Mahesh Yogi's Beatles adventure many so-called gurus set up ashrams in the West and dispensed the spiritual East in five easy poses and nirvana in five easy doses. But that's really a gullibility problem, a megalomania problem, an abuse of power problem, not a yoga problem. A lot of cult leaders (even non yogic ones) have that very same problem. Remember David Koresh of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas? Or Jim Jones? Or even Thomas Peli in Papua New Guinea who told his followers that the banana harvest would increase every time they fornicated in public? The problem really is, as Lauren Jacobs points out in her Huffington Post blog the "guruization of religious leaders, spiritual teachers, politicians, and even therapists who seem to be permitted to act above the rules that govern the rest of us."
When it comes to yoga, as the Hindu American Foundation tirelessly repeats the problem is the way the West has reduced yoga, the spiritual practice, into yoga, the sequence of physical asanas. Mark Morford, a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a yoga teacher explains, "Yoga is a physical, spiritual, energetic, wildly interconnected practice that can transform every aspect of your world... Oh, and by the way? It also makes your genitals tingle nicely, too. Bonus, really."
Anyway, just as yoga is about more than your bhujangasana, Tantra is about more than your never-ending orgasm. All those Tantric sex workshops are based in as much wishful thinking as all the hair growth clinics and penis enlargement ads. Morford writes: "I've been studying Shaiva Tantra myself for years now, most recently with one of the finest scholars in the business and we have yet to have a single wild orgy or virgin sacrifice. I know! Total rip-off!"
But actually all this could be good news for the booming yoga business. Its clientele in the West has been largely white women. Here's a perfect marketing opportunity to make it a lot more popular with men. Also, the Indian government needs to dig up that 2010 Ram Manohar Lohia pilot study. Methinks much more research is in order.
Now excuse me, while I go to perfect my bhujangasana.
Another version of this blog originally appeared on Firstpost.com.