While many people think of yoga as a Spartan discipline from the East practiced in the U.S by pale, skinny folks who eschew pleasures of the flesh, it earthy origins tell a different story. According to the NY Times, Hatha yoga, which is the most common form practiced here, began as a branch of Tantra. Reportedly, "in medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness." Indian gurus who brought yoga to G-rated early 20 th Century America, toned down many of Hatha's sensual messages and practices.
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Apparently, a number of male yoga teachers stateside didn't get the memo. Over years, there have been many scandals involving charismatic leaders taking sexual advantage of their followers. Notably, John Friend, the founder of the popular form of Ansura Yoga, who allegedly expressed his surname a little too insistantly with female students and employees, recently took a leave of absence for "self-reflection, therapy, and personal retreat…." Among others, Yogi Amrit Desai demanded celibacy from his followers (except perhaps the really, really pretty ones) and was forced to step down as head of the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires in 1994 for improprieties with his students. I met a prominent male Kripalu teacher who had remained chaste for 30 years and was emotionally gutted by his leader's hypocritical behavior. Happily, he later married a beautiful yogini and moved on with his life teaching yoga by the sea in Costa Rica.
In 1995, the California Yoga Teacher's Association enacted a code against instructors having affairs with their students "because there were so many violations going on." When I asked my favorite yoga teacher, Weena Pauly, about the trend she joked, "What do you expect when you get a guy in a leadership position surrounded by a bunch of girls in leotards." While most teachers now make it a rule never to date their students, the yoga scene in general has become more of a pick-up scene for practitioners.
The Times points out that: "since baby boomers discovered yoga, the arousal, sweating, heavy breathing and states of undress that characterize yoga classes have led to predictable results." But it's not just baby boomers. Gen Xers and Gen Yers go to classes more often for the physical benefits than the spiritual, and check each other out the same way they might at the gym. For the really daring, a small but growing trend is Naked Yoga, which even made an appearance in an episode of Kim and Kourtney Take New York in November 2011.
It's been a long, weird road for American yoga from its steamier roots to scandal to the Kardashians, but maybe there is still hope for those who want to learn about the ancient practice's sultry side with a little more dignity.
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