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A Different Kind of Hot

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Selling the sizzle if not the steak, the Harvard Crimson serves up a feature called "the 15 hottest freshmen." It is a Bay Area couples therapist, yogi, and author named Stuart Sovatsky who savors a different kind of hot. In a new book, he offers an alternative metric to judge success.

A whole spectrum of meanings applies to the colloquialism "hot." At one end of the stick is the hard-core porn now accessed on smart phones in the palm of the hand. This digital ease has provided a generation with what Cindy Gallup calls "default sex education" (and also, as she said in a TED talk in Oxford, a "wanking" aid).

For the past few decades, one relief from shallow encounters has been the "neo-tantra" movement, as described in such classics as The Art of Sexual Ecstasy (disclosure: the author, Margot Anand, is a friend). In the minds of some workshop participants, neo-tantra has mainly involved getting past Puritan guilt, learning skillful techniques, slowing down, while reaching for the big O.

In his new book, Advanced Spiritual Intimacy, Sovatsky treats neo-tantra with the same disdain that political progressives apply to neo-cons (disclosure: the author is another friend). Inspired by his long-time practice of yoga, he draws a basic distinction between ars erotica (the sensibility he favors) and scientia sexualis (what's taken for granted in this society, including the approach of Freud).

Paradoxically, Sovatsky argues that the erotic arts can benefit by a period of "brahmacharya" (or a deliberate holiday from genital sex) which veers sharply away from the culture of "hooking up," sex-on-the-first-date, and, in a phrase from the author's youth, "going all the way."

"Going all the way to what?" he recalls asking after slipping out of a college party with his date and ending up on a lower bunk. It's clear from his books that the author has tasted the fruits of periods of brahmacharya and of erotic relationships.

In Sovatsky's writing, ars erotica is illustrated by some of the ecstatic utterance of Your Perfect Lips. Self-published nine years ago, this book-length poem has yielded many lovely excerpts, along with plentiful Sanskrit terms, both incorporated in Advanced Spiritual Intimacy.

Sovatsky has earned his living mainly as a psychotherapist, a counselor to couples who are immersed in scientia sexualis and who are lurching, along with many of their peers, in the direction of divorce court. The author, along with arising before dawn and doing his yogic practices, has been moved by witnessing the distress and even agony that he confronts in the consulting room.

In a video interview, you can see Sovatsky explaning how he seeks to start an upward spiral in the couples, less by focusing on negative patterns than by helping clients start the back-and-forth practice of witnessing the other partner seeing and thanking him or her, hesitantly at first and then, in Sovatsky's experience, with growing enthusiasm.

He introduces the idea that other "puberties" can come after the genital awakening typical of age 13 (plus or minus two). The idea that later "tumescences" are possible, no less dramatic, but not automatic, is new to most of us in the West. Quoting yogic scripture, Sovatsky holds out the promise, for example, of a puberty in the pineal gland, associated with the third eye.

Brahmacharya includes bodily phenomena that are normally overshadowed by explosive sexuality It does not exclude a return to genital sexuality, but offers, Sovatsky says, an erotic sensitivity that brings its own extraordinary and even revolutionary pleasure. He quotes the eminent French historian, Michel Foucault, as hoping for release from the "austere monarchy" of genital sexuality, for being free (as it were) to visit Versailles without being in thrall to it.

Advanced Spiritual Intimacy is like an attic trunk packed with treasure-garments, with gowns and capes that must perhaps be shaken out and worn, gotten accustomed to, before their full value is revealed. One crux in the author's love-life came after he practiced brahmacharya for more than several months and then had sex with a partner. His reaction was "hmmm." At that point he slipped back into the yogic practices, which, as he writes, can be done either solo or with a partner. This in turn led eventually to the ecstatic lines found in Your Perfect Lips.

If you can get past an automatic disbelief that anything can possibly be more satisfying than the forms of love-making common today, you may find yourself drawn into a different world. Sovatsky himself has been touched by many worlds, from attending Princeton College to studying at (and serving on the board of) the East-oriented California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, from serving as co-president of the mainly Western group called The Association for Transpersonal Psychology to teaching workshops in Russia and helping to organize a conference in India, from working as a psychotherapist to chanting in the Bay Area kirtan group "Axis Mundi."

Having attended neo-tantra classes taught by Margot Anand, I found some of the exercises given by Sovatsky to be familiar. One big difference is that while Anand encouraged couples in her workshops to go back to their private rooms and "practice," by which she meant have sex, Sovatsky suggests that his readers and clients go deeply into energetic engagement over a long period before cutting it off with a genital climax. Where Anand describes sexual energy as a source of spiritual attainment, Sovatsky sees it not only as a road to bliss but also, during certain periods, as a possible distraction.

If a reader decides to take a holiday from genital sex, Sovatsky recommends a minimum duration of at least three months "without sex or masturbation or hot movies." He continues: "As moralistic as this sounds, it won't remain that way, as ars erotica experiences will come to allure you, 'seduce' you, thrill and transfix you in both utter tranquility and uplifting energy."

It's always a challenge to try to initiate people into an exotic culture, one that follows different rules than ours and seeks different goals. Sovatsky is clearly frustrated by what he calls "studio yoga," which he feels often stops at suppleness training, as meditation can, in corporate hands, devolve into stress management.

Perhaps his most accessible material, apart from parts of the poetry that are rhapsodic rather than pedagogic, comes from his clinical work, his elucidation of "intimate spaces" (chapter 8 of Advanced Spiritual Intimacy), advice about how to communicate (chapter 9), and about how to expand a relationship (chapter 10), or, if it's relevant, a talk to teens (part of chapter 7). In short, Sovatsky's wisdom as a psychotherapist is easier to assimilate than the theory of yoga. Perhaps a good place to begin is "why you might choose brahmacharya" (found in chapter 4).

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