Yoga Practice as Ars Erotica
In the erotic art, truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice and accumulated as experience; pleasure is not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself; it is experienced as pleasure, evaluated in terms of its intensity, its specific quality, its duration, its reverberations in the body and the soul.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality
Hatha yoga practices have been available in our culture for some time now primarily as a form of gentle exercise or perhaps as physical disciplines that purify and prepare the body for meditation. To consider them as erotic practices is perhaps a semantical stretch, but only if we are too bound up in the conventional understandings of eros. For what we discover is that the postures, breathing practices, and meditations are all ways to plumb the depths of erotic mystery within our multidimensional bodies and open us to a deeper sensitivity to others.
We are searching for how to animate our yogic practices, solitary or partnered, with the energy of sublimative passion. When we pay attention to subtleties and nuances of movement and feeling, the body language of mystery, we begin to transform the more formalistic exercises into an ars erotica. Yet yoga is rarely taught within this context. We usually learn poses as stretching exercises to hold and perfect rather than as a repertoire of intimate and passionate gestures of self-expression that inherently perfect themselves. The spirit or quality of passion that we bring to these practices is as significant as the practices themselves. How, then, to find this passion?
The purist approach consists of meditating in stillness until your body begins to move on its own, however long that might take, sometimes called “awaiting the beloved.” This approach simulates how many yoga postures originated, in a spontaneity similar to one’s first stretchings in bed while barely awake. Here the stillness of meditation allows prana, the vital energy of pranamaya kosha, to build to a certain pitch, and then, guided by its inner intelligence, prana moves the body exactly as it needs to be moved to release tensions and blocked emotions, transmute desires, open nadis (subtle channels), and stimulate the chakras. We are assured of entrance into sublimative passion through the spontaneity of movement, beyond egoic choosing or desiring. The yogic movements feel like acts of surrendered worship and each asana a bodily form of prayer. However, not everyone can arouse prana through meditation to such a degree that spontaneous, or sahaja, yoga results.
There are several ways the breath can be willfully managed in the beginning as an entrance to more spontaneous movements. Perhaps the easiest way is to move very slowly into a series of asanas, or yoga positions, while breathing just as slowly as you are moving. Synchronizing breath, movement, and concentration engages prana as well, and at some point you will feel as if you are no longer willfully moving but are being moved by prana itself. As you penetrate mundane thinking by mentally merging with the nuances of bodily sensation, you will slip unobtrusively into a meditative state. In this way, postures and variations unfold in the moment as a flow from one asana to another.
Another way to arouse prana is by holding a posture in increasingly more accurate alignment. Here, perfecting an asana is like perfectly attuning an instrument to a certain key. When the pitch becomes perfect, strong vibrations of energy can be felt, and one asana follows another, according to our specific needs. Holding a posture beyond the first limits of discomfort can trigger the yogic passion and spontaneous asanas and pranayamas, and even dance movements. We must give ourselves permission to move, even with the scantiest of internal guidance.
Occasionally, sublimative passion is able to move us through asanas far beyond the reach of any willful attempts. It is as if our body needs to be in a specific asana for a specific amount of time to generate exactly the effects required for our development. You might find that chronic tension is actually held in place by your identifying with it and gripping your muscles from within in a habitual fashion. Giving up the tensions feels frightening, when actually it is more problematic to hold on to them.
Other more subtle contractions of the abdominal muscles draw sexual energy to manipura, an important site of transmutation, and also can cause the intercostal muscles to flex with subtle pleasures, propelling energies farther into the nadis in the thorax. Various pumping motions in the throat, rib cage, sacrum, lumbar, and perineum, along with micromotion of the eyelids, nasal muscles, fingers, toes, head, and even the scalp, carry the sublimated energies throughout the body. Again, it is the nuances that bring a depth of feeling and expression to each movement, revealing its pleasures and meanings.
Finally, it becomes clear that you are moving from one practice to another, expressing sublimative passion in your own perfect way. Rotating the neck while drawing the breath in, then exhaling the humming sound “hmmmm” in your throat, which vibrates into a smile as you release the breath and stretch forward on the floor into the cobra posture, then drawing your legs up under you to sit up, cross-legged in stillness; followed by an elaborate series of finger and hand movements, or mudras, in which moods change with every tilt of each finger, myriad variations, each unique to the moment. Thus some yoga texts claim that there are 840,000 yoga asanas.
Gradually we achieve a bodily openness and a rechanneling of erotic pleasures that transform our practiced sublimation into a natural brahmacharya. We feel more fullness in ourselves, and we are more appreciative of what we are receiving from others.