Healthy Sex with Ayurveda
The Ayurvedic tradition celebrates human sexuality not only because it enhances physical and sensual pleasure but also because it enhances emotional intimacy and mutual respect and can even, in the act of physical union, bring individuals to the experience of their own divinity.
One Sanskrit word for sexual intercourse is sambhoga, which brings together samyaka (a word that means maintaining a balance) and bhoga (pleasure or sensual enjoyment). Thus, in Ayurveda, sex and sexual intercourse means that activity by which one maintains equilibrium and also acquires sexual gratification.
From time immemorial, human sexuality has been celebrated in India and Ayurveda incorporates sex. The sages who gave us the holy Vedas were usually married and sexually active family men and women with spouses and children. The Hindu gods are likewise depicted to be enjoying conjugal bliss.
Sex and the Divine
Though India also has a strong monastic tradition, there is no requirement that, in order to know the Divine, a person must suppress natural, biologically rooted instincts. In ancient India, the souls who took a vow of sexual abstinence for spiritual purposes were few in number; they were the exception and not the rule. To be celibate was a voluntary choice and was never undertaken by the mainstream. The goal of the Vedas was certainly not to convert a human being into a sexless being in the name of spirituality. Rather, this tradition can help us appreciate the power of our inherent sexuality and—something much needed in today’s world—to temper this sexuality with wisdom and moderation.
One word that is often identified with celibacy in India is the Sanskrit term brahmacharya. Translated literally this means “quest for the Ultimate Reality, Brahman.” Within Vedic culture, brahmacharya represents chastity during a time of spiritual studentship. In this sense, it is celibacy but for a limited time and for a specific purpose. In an Ayurvedic sexual context, brahmacharya also connotes the voluntary regulation of sexual energy and desires. In this context, brahmacharya means fidelity in marriage or sexual partnership; it means the monogamous, balanced, and healthy expression of sexuality between committed partners and lovers.
Healthy Management of Sexual Energy
In Ayurveda, brahmacharya is often adopted as a way of life and refers to our acceptance of ourselves as more than just beasts under the control of a frenzied sex drive. Instead, we are asked to celebrate our sexuality and at the same time accept the responsibility to understand and regulate our sexual drive. We accept that our sexuality itself is God-given. Thus, the word brahmacharya beautifully brings together the opposites of sexual indulgence and sexual restraint. The Ashtanga Hridayam puts it this way: “From a disciplined indulgence in sex through brahmacharya, one gains memory, intelligence, health, nourishment, sharpness of sense organs, reputation, strength, and long life.”
The Vedic sages were farsighted, indeed, when they conceived of a society that holds its collective sexual energy with transparency, accountability, respect, sensitivity, and care. Human pleasures, such as singing, dancing, playing, enjoying material wealth, and sexual gratification, are seen by the sages as pursuits that play an important role in the overall health and wellbeing of an individual and a society. In fact, when speaking of sex, the Ayurvedic sages go so far as saying that if the sexual instinct is forcefully suppressed, it leads to mental perversions and countless physical diseases.Sexuality (kama) is, thus, recognized as a valid and legitimate human goal by Ayurveda. To aid the realization of this goal, several texts called Kama Shastra were compiled that serve as manuals for engaging in fulfilling sex. The Kama Sutra written by Sage Vatsyayana is one such example.
In the context of Ayurveda, sexual desires—along with all of our other personal wants and desires—are seen in relation to the whole of dharma. This context and sexual education within a larger framework of values and ethics gives our sexual desires a healthy outlet and prevents sexual perversions, addictions, and compulsions. Our preferences are not needs; our wants are not gut-wrenching cravings. Established in the spiritual self, auspicious in its intent, universal in its character, abundant in its means, the embodied spirit is encouraged to play out its earthbound desires with its fellow beings and express itself through the joy of sex. Remember, cosmic ecstasy is a natural aspect of our divine nature.
Keeping Things Balanced and Healthy
To the one awakened to exercising choice, sex is like a magic tool, an inborn cosmic expectation of pleasure, a passion so pure, a permission to play with life and fondle and enjoy this world in which we have chosen to journey. It is, however, quite significant how we choose to indulge our sexuality.
According to ayurvedic sexual teachings, when kama, or desire, becomes a dominant force, hiding our own higher purpose from us, then the potential to suffer emotionally increases. Lurid craving, restlessness, emptiness, and bondage to obsessions can descend on us as if from nowhere. A simple sexual desire and its pursuit can take us literally to heaven or hell in a single moment, and all within the hallowed cave of the mind. In the end, it is we who have to decide if kama or sex rules us, or if we rule kama.
The Ayurvedic sage Vagabhata described sex as a pleasure of two kinds: instant and delayed. Instant gratification is the happiness that is changeable and is related to the material world. Here is the kind of sexual gratification associated with one-night stands and pleasure with no commitment. Such sex may feel deliciously indulgent, but it is riddled with risks.
Delayed pleasure, on the other hand, implies accumulated happiness through self-control, self-respect, and the exercise of restraint and discernment. What one “discerns” is the difference between immediate sense gratification and the actions that lead to ultimate freedom, or moksha. This is the mindful path, the path of balance and moderation.
The art and science of divine lovemaking is an important facet of health in the Ayurvedic tradition, and a full treatment of this subject is not within the scope of this. What I would like to do, instead, is to communicate some fundamental Ayurvedic sex principles that you can incorporate in your daily life.
Choosing a Partner: What to Watch Out For
In this modern age, sexuality is treated casually by many, and this casual approach to such a powerful act as sex is not what the sages of Ayurveda ever had in mind. According to ayurveda, sex should be consummated with a partner you like and of whom you approve of mentally—someone who engages in respectful speech, who lives by ethical values, and who honors healthy boundaries.
This ensures a healthy state of mind and emotions for both partners. Respect and affection are an important part of sexual consummation, and the ancient sages definitely recognized this. An ancient Ayurvedic text promises that after an “ethical” sex engagement, a person will enjoy “happiness, longevity, renewed youthfulness, improved luster, improved physique, and improved mental and physical strength.” Without question, sex is to be performed with a person you know and love, beloved partners, spouses, and consenting adults with underlying honorable terms of engagement for sex. Ayurvedic texts also stress the importance of not engaging sexually with a child, with someone who is married to another, with someone in your family of birth, with your guru or your guru’s spouse, or with someone who has excessive libido or is sexually demanding. And once the partner has been responsibly selected, Ayurveda recommends enhancing sexual anticipation with the use of fragrances (special desire-arousing perfumes), flowers, special beds, and cosmetics.
The various Ayurvedic sex guidelines I outline below will be considered a boon to anyone who is in a long-term, committed sexual relationship. These are rules that will allow you to maintain a sexual relationship without depleting yourselves. For those who have just embarked on a sexual relationship, it’s probably difficult to imagine following rules of any kind in this moment. For you, I suggest that you eat the right foods to support your sexuality and take good care of yourself. You can come back to this full discussion at a later time.
The commonsense controls I go into are a strong protection against the loss of something precious: shukra.
The Presence of Shukra: Sexual Essence and Vitality
One of the most important concepts regarding Ayurvedic sex involves shukra, a Sanskrit term that denotes not only the human sperm, ovum, and hormones regulating sexuality, but something more—a matter-based and intelligent potency that is located in every cell. It is because of the presence of the shukra that each and every cell can regenerate itself again and again.
It is important to note that shukra is not merely energy, like the Chinese concept of chi or the yogic concept of prana shakti. Shukra is formed from food that has undergone several levels of metabolic transformation. It is an extraordinary tissue. Inwardly it explodes as creativity in all that we think and do, and outwardly it can create an entire human being!
While shukra’s presence in our reproductive organs becomes the cause of procreation, shukra’s presence in the rest of the body is the basis for sexual attraction, beauty, and magnetism. Within Ayurvedic sexual teaching, shukra is the generative tissue, and it has the power to create a human being and to endow that being with the capacity for pleasure, happiness, strength, and courage. Shukra’s presence in our minds ties imagination, memory, creativity, and inspiration together into a bouquet of inexplicable enthusiasm and joy.
Shukra is present in our cells from birth; and from puberty onward, it becomes a potent force in the body, manifesting through the development of secondary sexual characteristics. The power of shukra peaks in our youth; and then, from middle age onward, its potency begins to decrease with the natural result of a decline in libido, fertility, and alas, youthful beauty, with progressing age.
How to Avoid Losing Shukra and Wasting Sexual Energy
Ayurveda sex principles address this issue head-on by slowing down loss of shukra by following a regimen that directly protects shukra. Through activities like intercourse and masturbation, shukra is lost. Through activities like eating special foods and restoring the body between sexually active periods, shukra can be built up. By following certain rules regarding when to engage in sexual activity—the season, the time of day, the time in our own lives—we can protect ourselves from the unnecessary loss of shukra. This is, in essence, the sexual wisdom of Ayurveda.
Shukra, the sages declare, is the source of inexplicable joy and creativity, of skills and artistic talents, of cheer and poise in the face of life’s challenges. If, however, our minds are especially negative or caught up in rajas and tamas—modes of extreme passivity or extreme aggression—then the mind can have an unfortunate effect on shukra, destroying it, as if through emotional self-poisoning. It sounds harsh, but it’s true.Increasing age is a natural cause for shukra loss. But time is not in our control, so we need not fret. Fortunately, nature does her job gently and gives us ample time to play and procreate if we wish. Shukra is also replenished naturally from time to time—by nature in certain seasons and by ourselves by eating certain foods. The most telling way to deplete shukra however is solely our own responsibility—and this is our choice to indulge in stress and in negativities like shame and self-pity.