Does Yoga Really Drive People Wild with Desire?

Studies suggesting that the practice of yoga arouses the libido have been cited to explain why so many gurus are embroiled in sex scandals. But is that really what's going on?

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An article about sex scandals in yoga is heating up the New York Times most-emailed list. Writer William Broad, author of a new book on the popular practice, details the latest transgression: It involves the guru John Friend, the founder of the popular Anusara style of yoga, who recently resigned from teaching to pursue “self-reflection, therapy and personal retreat,” following revelations that he had sexually betrayed multiple girlfriends and lied to many.

But Friend isn’t the first yogi to have failed to master his desire for his female disciples, Broad notes. Yoga has been racked with a lengthy history of such problems. Broad writes:

[T]his is hardly the first time that yoga’s enlightened facade has been cracked by sexual scandal. Why does yoga produce so many philanderers? And why do the resulting uproars leave so many people shocked and distraught?

One factor is ignorance. Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult — an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise.

According to Broad, it’s because of yoga’s ability to enhance sex that so many respected gurus have fallen. He explains that Hatha yoga, the style of yoga now practiced widely in the West, originated in an Indian practice called Tantra. Disciples of Tantra strove to unite the cosmic male and female principles in a state of ecstasy. The practice sometimes involved group sex and the worship of prostitutes.

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Broad goes on to cite research that supports the idea that yoga can improve sex life. But this is where the argument falters. The quality of the data is questionable: the studies he references are either old, uncontrolled or published in obscure journals. Two studies examine the effects of fast breathing, rather than yoga itself, finding that this does enhance genital arousal in women. Broad also claims that yoga can increase a woman’s ability to “think off” — or experience orgasm without any physical stimulation.

However, while it’s possible that there’s something about yoga that is inherently sexy — perhaps it’s the scantily clad people exercising in close quarters? — Broad neglects to explore a critical issue. It’s not only powerful figures in yoga who have a tendency to stray.

From John Kennedy and Newt Gingrich to Jimmy Swaggart and Warren Jeffs, top dogs — none of them yoga gurus — have long been known to take advantage of their position. It doesn’t take a yoga pose to arouse sexual appetites. Indeed, evolutionary psychologists would argue that men seek status and leadership itself primarily because it gives them access to more women. As that noted sexpot Henry Kissinger once said: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

Consequently, the fact that yoga gurus from Woodstock’s Swami Satchidananda onward are frequently caught with their pants down probably says less about the practice than it does about men, women and power. While yoga might improve your libido, fortunately it’s not likely to make you uncontrollably driven to cheat. And when considering connections between behaviors like sexual impropriety and yoga — or associations between drugs and certain side effects or other reported outcomes — it’s important to remember that correlation isn’t necessarily cause.

MORE: The Caligula Effect: Why Powerful Men Compulsively Cheat

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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