Meet Well+Good’s fitness historian, Natalia Petrzela, PhD, a history professor at The New School in New York City and a premier IntenSati instructor, who shares the sweaty past with us in this column.
You and your boss end up eye-to-eye in Warrior Three so often during your office’s free lunchtime yoga class, it’s not even awkward anymore. Your six-year-old niece drops into a perfect down-dog when you ask what she’s learning in school. Your mom is as likely to rave about a new hatha class at the Y as she is about her dreamy Zumba instructor. When a recent bill passed allowing yoga studios to escape a tax, a state senator jumped into a celebratory crow pose for a photo opp.
Yoga is all over American life, and for the most part, it’s G-rated. But this is new. For much of the 100-plus years yoga’s been present in the US, it’s hovered on the cultural fringe, raising suspicion due to its exoticism in general and to its challenges to deeply held sexual norms in particular.
Yoga was sexualized way before the internet was a thing
On the one hand, in the late 19th century (when ideas about how a “lady” should express herself sexually translated to not much at all), Ida Craddock, the “self-appointed Priestess and Pastor of the Church of Yoga” who promoted “spiritual eroticism” and equal rights among married couples (including that to mutual orgasm), was fiercely prosecuted by anti-porn regulators as “obscene.” (She also claimed she was married to an angel and that their sex was so loud the neighbors complained. So there’s that.)
A few years later, Midwesterner Pierre Bernard (AKA “The Great Oom”) traveled to India and returned to the US with tantra, setting up clinics from New York to Chicago that reinforced the perceived connection between yogic and erotic bliss. Bernard’s exploits were shocking for celebrating sexual pleasure in a time when it was still mostly unspoken, but he also veered into criminality: he was briefly jailed for “consorting with” two teenage girls who fell “under his spell” at his institute.
The sexual revolution made yoga even more about sex…but also about sweat
By the 1960s and ’70s, yoga popped up beyond secluded retreats and shadowy tantric clinics. In some ways, the sexual revolution sexed up yoga more intensely. Countless personal ads looked something like this: “Eastern lover man seeks women/couple for fun, games & yoga expert. Marital status/age unimp. ALL satisfaction.” In an age of rule-breaking and thrill-seeking, yoga was one more way to challenge the status quo…and have some NSFW fun while you were at it.
Paradoxically, yoga’s growing popularity as a quintessentially counter-cultural activity also spawned its more wholesome versions. World-famous yogini Indra Devi (Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo’s teacher) called herself an “exercise instructor” and dismissed the notion yoga was spiritually or sexually subversive. One “beauty authority” claimed in 1968 that yoga gave participants “strength and suppleness, grace of movement, and a lovely figure.” And by 1980 the Yoga Journal (which had launched in 1975) thrilled at yoga’s bright future in schools, sports, and the mainstream, now that it had shed its “peculiar connotation.” So where are we today?
Sexed-up yoga is here to stay and still scandalous
Consider the controversy over Equinox’s sultry campaign showcasing lacy-lingerie-clad Briohny Smyth contorting before a muscled companion sprawled across rumpled sheets. Or over Tara Stiles twisting into poses in a rolling, glass-walled W hotel room reminiscent of Amsterdam’s red-light district. Even young girls have been banned from wearing dangerously “provocative” yoga pants to school (“the boys will be distracted!”).
If some women use yoga as a vehicle to be more sexually expressive, the darker side to the longstanding sex-yoga connection is also very much with us today. Abusive behavior of towering figures like John Friend (who was said to manipulate several Anusara followers into a Wiccan sex coven) and Bikram Choudhury (who was accused of the rape and assault of multiple trainees) show how traditions of sexual experimentation can become coercive, especially when over 80 percent of yoga practitioners are women, but many gurus remain men who take on godlike status in the eyes of their students.
The sex-yoga connection persists powerfully; we can only hope it’s in service of goals like body positivity and sexual autonomy—even if you might not want to discuss these particular results over a post-class green juice with your boss or your niece.
(Photo: Michael Sofronski)