Let’s Talk About Sex
by Nora Isaacs
In a country in which many people grow up divorced from their bodies, what is the role of sex in our lives? And how do we talk about it and navigate its challenges? In this piece, which features the wisdom of several Kripalu presenters whose work focuses on sexuality and relationships, writer and former Yoga Journal editor Nora Isaacs explores intimacy, communication, and fulfillment.
After almost three decades of marriage, Iris and David Burnett had a stable partnership. “But we needed a little reconnection,” recalls Iris. They discovered a course with Kate and Joel Feldman, who run Conscious Relationship workshops for couples. Once there, they learned something that transformed their state of intimacy, sexuality, and marriage. “They taught us how to talk in a safe place,” says Iris. Talking, it turned out, helped to reignite their sexual lives and enhance their day-to-day life together. What they learned over the course of two workshops and some private sessions with the Feldmans has given them a road map to the fulfilling intimate life that had eluded them for decades. Says Iris: “We learned how to communicate with each other in a way that we never did in thirty years.”
Many people—straight or gay, married or single—find themselves in a similar place: plodding along with a so-so sex life, relating on a superficial level, and with a nagging feeling that, somehow, they aren’t quite reaching their fullest potential. Vaguely troubled with the status quo, many of us yearn for more profound intimacy—but have no idea how to get there. It’s no wonder. The path to such fulfillment, it turns out, is littered with societal misconceptions, unnecessary obstacles, and crossed communication.
But the experts say don’t give up. Taking small yet crucial steps like talking about your desires, taking responsibility for your satisfaction, and approaching sexuality consciously can help break the frustrating cycle of dissatisfaction. It may not sound sexy, but profound honesty, deep listening, and clear communication can hold the key to unlocking a fulfilling intimate life.
Roadblocks to Intimacy
It’s no wonder that people have a hard time talking about sex. A deep current of discomfort around the topic runs through our society. “In general, in this culture, sex is considered something separate from life, done behind locked doors after you’ve taken your socks off,” says Gina Ogden, sex therapist and the author of The Return of Desire: A Guide to Rediscovering your Sexual Passion. According to Ogden, “there is much evidence in our earliest cultures that sex and Spirit were one, and that the coming together of the god and goddess was the creative impulse in the world,” say Ogden. But as civilization marched forward, she says, various institutions decided that dividing sex and Spirit was the fast track to controlling large groups of people. “Now we have this dualistic and divisive way of thinking, which is embedded in all of our institutions, from religion to medicine to law to education.”
This kind of secretive veil around sexuality permeates our partnerships, according to Kate Feldman. She says she consistently works with couples who simply don’t talk about their needs and desires, instead expecting that each should automatically know what the other one wants.
Poor communication isn’t the only obstacle to a robust sexuality, says Esther Perel, a couples and family therapist and author of Mating in Captivity. She points to a whole host of long-term, deeply held inner beliefs that can be potential roadblocks for individuals, including lack of sense of self-worth, lack of entitlement about pleasure, nonacceptance of body image, feelings of shame and guilt, family messages, cultural and religious restrictions, and the inability to experience freedom and autonomy. “If you tell me how you were loved, I’ll know how you make love,” she says.
It’s Not About Technique
Rather than focusing on ways to communicate better, many people think that improving their sexual technique is the answer. But the hype about learning the “perfect” technique to please your partner turns out to be one huge sexual myth. “For me, the essence of high-quality sexual intimacy is not having any technique,” says Alan Lowen, founder of the personal and spiritual growth Art of Being workshops. “What I’ve experienced and witnessed is that the techniques are only valuable when supporting a state of being in which people are already intimately connected with their whole constellation of feelings.”
If you don’t bring your whole self to the bedroom, he says, you run the risk of shutting down from your partner—pretty much ensuring that true intimacy won’t happen. “In order to have a beautiful intimate sexual life,” says Lowen, “you need to make the connection between the sexual energy and integrating your feelings.”
This beautiful intimate life can be particularly elusive for long-term partners who love each other but don’t desire one another anymore. “What fits people emotionally isn’t exactly what excites them sexually,” says Perel, In these cases, she says that restructuring the emotional element of the relationship will inevitably result in a more fulfilling sex life. “People don’t just want more sex, they want better sex that connects them with a sense or renewal, joy, and the capacity to reimagine themselves.”
A Paradigm Shift
The first step toward a more liberating and inclusive form of intimacy starts with shifting the paradigm. “Instead of just physical, I want to try to broaden the conversation to a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual level, so people can talk about the meaning and feelings, as well as the behaviors,” says Ogden, who reminds us that sexual energy can also be expressed through eye contact, meditation, bringing your chakras in line, and heart-to-heart contact.“Couples who focus mainly on the goal of orgasm often miss many other experiences and narrow their sexual repertoire,” says Feldman. Without the pressure of achieving orgasm, we are freer to explore other kinds of non-goal-oriented touch like cuddling, kissing, or massage: “A satisfying and robust sexual life originates from regular, non-demand touch, in and outside the bedroom,” Feldman reminds us.
The bottom line is that when it comes to intimacy, there is no right or wrong. “There is a misconception that there is some perfect way to do and be sexually,” says Feldman. “A couple’s sex life is one they create together as an intimate team, and there are no rights and wrongs—only some good principles.” Among these principles, she says, are feeling good about your body, thinking of sex as a healthy part of our lives, and giving ourselves permission to evolve sexually as we age.
A Spiritual Perspective
While some spiritual traditions advocate sexual celibacy or restraint as the fast track to spiritual elevation, a tantric approach considers sexuality as a joyful, natural, and healthy part of our existence to be celebrated. And a body-centered practice like yoga or qigong can certainly help us connect our sexuality with our life-force energy, says Saida Désilets, cofounder of the Alchemy of Passion with Sol Sebastian. A practice like yoga helps us to slow down, become aware of the breath and sensations in the body, and “to have some life-force energy to play with, have access to that energy, and to become conscious of what is subtle,” says Désilets.
Yoga teaches us awareness—but it’s up to us to practice this awareness rather than simply trying to muscle our way through to the ultimate pose. The same can be said about sex: It’s our choice whether we practice consciously to deepen our relationship, or unconsciously to gain power or manipulate. Ultimately, bringing the kind of consciousness we cultivate through our yoga practice might provide much-needed healing for our intimate lives, leading to the kind of union of body, mind, and spirit that yogis seek on the mat or the cushion. “If done consciously, sex can dissolve our notions of isolation or separation and [help us] feel something bigger than our own personality,” says Sebastian. “It’s an initiation that leads us from a sense of separation and into a sense of being a part of something greater than ourselves.”
Nora Isaacs, a former senior editor at Yoga Journal, is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about health and spirituality and is the author of Women in Overdrive: Find Balance and Overcome Burnout at Any Age. www.noraisaacs.com
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.