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.
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.
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.
Ayurveda taught the world’s first holistic lesson on sexuality by identifying shukra’s presence, not in the human genitals or organs of reproduction alone, but in each and every cell, as an inherent bridge to the mind. One significant way of seeing our sexuality, according to Ayurveda, is in its cycles.
The Ideal Times For Sex: Diurnal Sex Cycle
The ideal time of day for sex in Ayurveda is between two hours after dinner and before you fall asleep at 10:00 p.m. From the aspect of the doshas, sex at night is optimal as opposed to early morning sex, which is a second choice.
Human Sexuality Cycle by Age
Ayurveda recommends sexual activity from age eighteen to seventy. This means no sex before the age of eighteen. After the age of seventy, a person should engage in sex infrequently or—and this is ideal—not at all. These age restrictions prevent the loss of vital energy that is contained in sexual fluids. The ideal ages to initiate sexual activity, with the highest frequency, are between eighteen to twenty-five; moderate sexual activity should be between twenty-five to forty; and the time to begin tapering off the frequency of sex is between forty to fifty-five, with the time to consider mindfully abstaining from sex (as a self-care practice) at age seventy and onward. Of course, sexual intimacy is made possible by the presence of a partner and the right social situations, but these guidelines can serve as a reminder that sexual frequency cannot and must not remain the same throughout our lifetimes according to Ayurveda’s sexual wisdom. It is best to be realistic and to preserve the body’s vital shukra, whose production peaks in youth and early adulthood and begins to taper off with increasing age.
Women’s Sex Cycle
Ayurveda recommends not engaging in sex during an active menstrual cycle because this can cause dosha problems. This is a complex issue, which I will only summarize by saying that vata dosha can become aggravated in a woman if she regularly engages in sex during her menses. Low back pain, tendency toward miscarriage, and a host of other problems can result. Sex during pregnancy, how much, and when to stop, are questions that are also important, and Ayurvedic texts on sex have addressed such questions in detail.
Digestion-Related Sex Cycle
Digestion is also a significant physiological cycle, and sexual activity is neither a substitute for eating nor a suitable activity to immediately follow eating. The body needs energy for each. Below are appropriate times for sex in relation to when food was last eaten. Following the rules summarized will prevent uncomfortable symptoms such as regurgitation of food, cramps, and fatigue. The key is to allow the digestion to be far enough along in the process so that the body has freed up energy for sex.
When hungry and thirsty, abstain from sex. Eat and drink instead. Adverse symptoms if not followed include: dizziness, headache, bloating, tiredness, possible exhaustion during or after sex.
Immediately after a meal, abstain from sex. Adverse symptoms if not followed include: indigestion, heaviness in heart region, pain in chest, possible breathlessness during or after sex.
Two hours after a meal, engage in sex if you wish. No adverse symptoms related to digestion.
Guidelines for Mindful Sexual Engagement
We can see that Ayurveda does not ban or curb our sexuality as much as connect it to natural cycles. For centuries, Ayurveda has been concerned with how to prolong sexual pleasure and enhance human fertility. Ayurvedic sages found interesting connections between sexual health and the immunological capacity. Sexuality was also found to be important for mental wellbeing and to be connected to creativity. For all of these reasons, along with the all-important reproductive function, sexual health is paramount in Ayurveda. Fortunately, a few simple lifestyle rules pertaining to our sexual nature and foods that replenish sexual tissues can help to ensure our Ayurvedic sexual health with.
These rules, which I share below, are a fraction of Ayurveda’s vast body of sex-related wisdom. Ayurveda cautions that, in ignorance, we can fritter away our shukra and lose our God-given natural sexuality, something that could have been prevented. Perhaps shukra is a prize that only the wise can claim through lives lived in harmony with the material and spiritual laws of nature. So for starters, Ayurveda recommends initiating the sex act only when we are truly engaged—mind, body, and soul—and a genuine interest in sex is present. This is a precondition for sexual engagement. There is no room for obliging another, for faking it, and pleasing another if our own self is not pleased.
Immediately after copulation—I’d say within thirty minutes of an orgasm—Ayurveda recommends drinking warm cow’s milk with added cane sugar. This is like a miracle food for shukra. This Ayurveda sex tip may appear like the stuff of sexual fantasy, but the sages predicted that when the body experiences depletion of precious shukra tissue, it immediately attempts to restore it if it has the right ingredients handy. Hence the warm, sweetened milk bypasses regular channels of digestion with much more speed and converts into shukra within minutes!
Post-Sexual Rejuvenation Practices
Many an aging couple who has sought help for post-intercourse exhaustion at our school’s clinics now approach lovemaking with a flask of warm milk at their bedside—and they cannot thank Ayurveda enough. And since milk is a natural sleep aid, it also helps the couple fall asleep like babies, when it is time to sleep, augmenting lost kapha further through restful sleep.
After sex, whenever possible, take a warm shower or bath, put on fresh nightclothes, apply fresh essential oils or natural scents, and prepare yourself for bed. If it is warm, then a light breeze through an open window or a fan is great. Moonlight exposure on summer nights is especially beneficial, so sleep with curtains open or sleep near an open terrace or balcony. The sages, I find, are quite poetic about the healing effect of moonlight, known as jyotsna. One says, “It confers coolness, pacifies pitta, as the moon rays enter the body through exposed skin, and relieves our being of sexual exhaustion, thirst, and any pending morbid thoughts.”
For the next few days after engaging in sex, Ayurveda recommends that you eat nutrient-dense, rich foods that replenish shukra: goat’s meat; chicken soup; meat and seafood lightly sautéed in ghee; black gram (urad dal) with rice and ghee; recipes including some form of winter melon, pumpkin, okra, sweet potato, asparagus, and avocado; pure sugarcane-sweetened syrups and desserts (rice pudding with cane sugar, wheat pancakes with cane syrup or sugarcane-based molasses); cow’s milk and cream-based recipes; coconut water and coconut cream; unsalted butter; dried fruits, especially figs, raisins, and dates; and of course, seasonal sweet fruits, especially sweet mangos, bananas, peaches, plums, and pears. A spice that purifies the genitourinary tract in males and the uterus in females is cumin. Use cumin along with turmeric (always a help in daily micro-quantities!) and rock salt (a salt that sweetly enhances libido for next time).
Foods and Factors That Deplete Shukra
A strong, vital body that is well fed and well rested is the foundation of healthy shukra, according to Ayurvedic sexual science. Make sure every meal counts and provides fuel to build kapha. Various eating and lifestyle choices are particularly detrimental to shukra. Here is a simple list of things to avoid—nutritional and otherwise—to prevent shukra depletion:
+ Avoid excessive eating of pungent, astringent, bitter, salty, and sour foods.
+ Avoid excessive intake of dry foods. (Fats and oils are required for the manufacture of shukra.)
+ While balanced exercise improves shukra production, excessive physical activity reduces the quantity of kapha, which is required to manufacture shukra. So, do not remain sedentary but watch out for excess.
+ Injuries, especially to the genital organs, do not help shukra—be careful during sports.
+ Do not consume empty calories, such as diet soda.
+ Do not fast excessively.
+ Do not indulge excessively in alcohol (though wine in regulated doses can act as an aphrodisiac).
+ Avoid or minimize habitual ingestion of detrimental substances such as coffee, tea, and soda.
+ Simply abstain from tobacco, marijuana, and other recreational drugs. These substances are anti-kapha, anti-health, and quickly destroy shukra.
+ Don’t stay up late regularly. Try your best to go to bed by 10:00 p.m.—a good night’s sleep restores shukra.
Eating to Enhance Shukra
Shukra can be consciously cultivated and enhanced through foods that increase kapha, but we must also take into account our digestive capacity. Optimum digestion is our best ally here because shukra is the final and seventh tissue formed in the body from the food we eat. (The other tissues are, Ayurveda says, plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, and nerve tissues.) Shukra is the ultimate, refined finale of a healthy digestion.
If you want to build a healthy stock of shukra, take stock of your daily diet and assess if you are eating adequate kapha-promoting foods. Shukra requires foods that are more nurturing, heavy, moist, sweet, cooling, and fatty in nature. Next, consider your digestion and your elimination with regard to Ayurveda and sex. It is important not only to eat and digest shukra-building foods but also to properly eliminate the physical waste afterward.
Now you are set. When shukra-enhancing food is digested well, with maximum efficiency and minimum toxic by-products, then the shukra produced will be high in quality and quantity. You will experience not only higher libido but also a greater sense of well-being.
Of course, if the food is laced with toxins, fillers, chemical additives, and pesticides; if the food is overly processed; or if the food has been genetically altered, then your shukra will also be affected. There is no circumventing this issue. I feel, in fact, that these problems with food shed light on why sexual disorders, immunological disorders, and birth defects are on the rise.
Our polluted food has damaged our seed. So, for the sake of your own body and the sake of your offspring, I advise you to take any measure needed—even those requiring extraordinary effort—to obtain your food from fresh, organic, non-genetically modified sources. This is a part of showing due reverence for yourself and for Mother Earth and taking a serious approach to Ayurveda and sex.
The Importance of Sweet and Fat for Shukra
Shukra is best enhanced by eating naturally sweet-tasting foods like milk, sweet fruits, and even cane sugar, and also by eating fatty foods such as ghee or clarified butter. With the modern trend of valuing thinness at any cost, sweet and fatty foods like these are considered an anathema to good health. So I think it’s important to mention the perspective on sugarcane and ghee when it comes to Ayurvedic sex.
Sugarcane (ikshu) has been researched by the Ayurvedic tradition extensively in its numerous forms: fresh cane juice, treacle, molasses, jaggery, sugar crystals, and powdered sugar. All of these forms are shukra-enhancing. Obviously, there are health issues involved in eating too much sugar. If, however, entire generations of humanity were to reject sugar and ingest instead only artificial sweeteners or honey (which is anti-kapha), then our collective sexual and fertility principle (shukra) would be seriously compromised.
Ghee, according to Ayurvedic sexual science, is also considered a major promoter of shukra and of the body’s natural immune principle (ojas). Ghee is cooling in its potency and sweet in its taste. Though there are many forms of ghee available in India, in the West what is found is predominantly cow’s milk ghee, which is the strongest of all in promoting both shukra and oja.
Ayurveda does not leap to either “fat is bad” or “fat is great.” Ayurveda prescribes the responsible use of fats, considering with awareness and caution our own dosha requirements and digestive limitations. From a common-sense perspective, it’s better to eat rich, fatty foods earlier in the day rather than in the evening. The season as well comes into play. You can eat more ghee in winter, less in summer and fall, and the least (or even none at all) in the spring. If you suffer from the symptoms of indigestion or toxins, you should abstain from eating ghee or any other fat until you have undergone a physical detoxification.
Given all of these considerations with regard to Ayurveda and sex, people who are healthy should eat the amount of ghee that helps them remain healthy; and those desiring shukra, after thinking seriously about their digestion, should eat foods cooked in ghee to the extent that they can—in other words, as many as possible. Besides ghee and sugar, there are other dietary considerations to enhancing shukra.
Ayurveda sexual wisdom wants to ensure that depletion of sexual tissue through orgasm (in both males and females) is countered by the shukra-enhancing foods listed here.
Dairy: Milk, cane sugar-sweetened yogurt, sweet cream, sweetened lassi (yogurt drink with cane sugar), ghee, sweet butter, fresh-made cheeses such as cottage cheese (paneer), and mozzarella
Sweeteners: Sugarcane and all its derivatives
Fruits: Sweet mangos, peaches, plums, pears, fresh or dried figs, ripe bananas, Indian gooseberry preserves or jam (amalaki), pomegranates, sweet and ripe jackfruit, and musk melons
Vegetables: Garlic and onions cooked in ghee (never raw), eggplant (fried in ghee), beetroot, sweet potato, pumpkin, okra, yams, snake gourd, winter squash, climbing spinach or Malabar spinach, water chestnuts, asparagus, drumsticks (all vegetables are to be cooked in ghee)
Spices: Cloves, carom seed or ajwain, cumin seeds (all of these spices purify the shukra-carrying channels), turmeric (removes toxins from shukra), saffron (aphrodisiac)
Meats: Goat and chicken with mildly spiced curry, soups, and ghee-based stir-fry; also meat of sparrow, duck, partridge, deer, rabbit, pig, quail, and grass carp; crab (aphrodisiac)
Eggs: Chicken, duck, goose, quail, turkey, pheasant, ostrich
Dried fruits and nuts: Almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, raisins, dates, figs, sesame seeds, and apricots
Cereals: Rice, wheat
Beans: Black gram (urad dal)