In this paper, I’ll mainly be talking about a practice called Orgasmic Meditation (OM). This is a mindful consciousness practice that has shown striking changes in the lives of its practitioners, including reduced depression, increased energy and vitality, increased connection with oneself and others, and mystical experiences comparable in effect to moderate doses of psilocybin given in research settings (e.g., see Daedone, 2012; Siegel & Emmert-Aronson, 2019; Prause, Siegle, & Coan, 2021). Briefly, OM is a mindful sexuality practice, where one person strokes another person’s clitoris for 15 minutes, with no goal other than to feel the sensations in each of their bodies. After the 15 minutes, they share a few words about the physical sensations they felt, and that ends the experience. Detailed explanations, including a clear list of steps and the reasons for each step are available elsewhere (Institute of OM, 2019).
While this practice has become much more widespread over the past 15 years, it has yet to become commonplace. Because of that, in addition to describing the ways that OM transcends sex, I will also be using an analogy of yoga and exercise. Much as OM is sometimes mischaracterized as sex, yoga is sometimes mischaracterized simply as exercise. In the following pages, we will delve into the similarities and differences.
Is Yoga Simply Exercise?
Despite being a health and wellness practice for approximately 5,000 years (Werner, 1977), yoga first gained notice in the western world in the mid 1800s (Besaw, 2014), and only grew in popularity over the course of the last 50 years. Current estimates suggest there are over 50 million yoga practitioners in the United States as of 2020, more than doubling from 20.4 million just eight years prior (Zuckerman, 2020).
At the same time, yoga has faced a great deal of resistance in the United States. Early yoga practitioners were deemed eccentric or even cultish. Even in the past 20 years various religions, including fundamentalist Christian and Muslim groups, have denigrated yoga, with the Catholic church warning Christians against yoga and other “New Age practices” in their 2003 report (Pontifical Council for Culture & Pontifical Council for Interreligious dialogue, 2003). Perhaps in part due to this, yoga teachers in the mid-1900s looked for ways of making the practice more mainstream, emphasizing the physical practices (e.g., exercise and stretching) and minimizing the meditative and spiritual aspects.
While this focus on the physical reduced some objections to yoga, it also reduced what yoga had to offer. An early study of yoga compared XX yoga study from duke XX yoga to aerobic exercise, on measures of aerobic capacity (e.g., VO2 max). While students engaging in exercise increased their VO2 max, the students engaging in yoga showed no change in aerobic capacity, even showing a non-significant decrease in VO2 max. In contrast, however, they reported improvements across a range of psychosocial variables, including sleep, energy, health, social relationships, family relationships, self-confidence, and life satisfaction. More recent studies comparing yoga and exercise have found physical gains in yoga (e.g., respiratory rate, peak flow, strength, and balance), though still no significant increase in vo2 max (Hovsepian et al., 2013; XX Wisconsin study).
While these studies focusing on the physical health benefits of yoga were broadly positive, though with some notable gaps (i.e., vo2 max), the psychosocial benefits of yoga have been consistent and strong. In an aptly named study “Is there more to yoga than exercise?” Smith and colleagues (2011) assigned participants with depression, anxiety, or stress to either a yoga or exercise group. Participants in both groups reported decreases in depression, but only the
participants in the yoga group reported decreases in anxiety and decreased salivary cortisol. Ross and Thomas’s (2010) meta-analysis examined 81 studies of yoga, 12 of which compared yoga and exercise. They summarized over 30 outcome variables, five of which found exercise to be more beneficial than yoga (calories expended, metabolic equivalents, positive affect, % of maximum predicted heartrate, and VO2 max), 22 of which found yoga to be more beneficial than exercise (e.g., balance, fatigue, flexibility, heartrate variability, kidney function, psychotic symptoms, sleep disturbance, social functioning, cortisol levels). Other outcomes were comparable between groups (e.g., fasting blood glucose, negative affect, quality of life, self-rated stress, total cholesterol).
In addition to the physical and mental health improvements seen in yoga practitioners, Bussing and colleagues (2012) examined the impact of yoga on spirituality. They examined participants beginning a two-year yoga teacher training. They found significant increases in compassion, lightheartedness, mindfulness, and, even religious orientation. The sample included people who identified as religious, spiritual, or neither, and ironically, given the above-noted concerns of the catholic church, even Christians who identified as religious experienced increases in their religious orientation following the teacher training.
It is clear that exercise is good for our bodies. There is even increasing evidence that exercise improves depression and anxiety. However, all of this can be said of yoga, and more. We see a practice that, despite significant initial resistance, improves physical health, mental health, social relationships, and spirituality.
Is Orgasmic Meditation Simply Sex?
While the structured, clearly defined practice of Orgasmic Meditation is a recent development, it draws upon traditions that, like yoga, date back thousands of years. While
principally a consciousness practice, any practice that includes genital stroking will naturally be compared with sex. While we discuss differences below, we begin with a brief review of attitudes around sexuality.
Social norms around sex have varied widely, from inclusion as a spiritual practice among Taoists in the Han dynasty (Wik & Wik, 2005) and procreation identified as the first mitzvah in the Torah in Jewish faiths to restrained or derogatory attitudes toward sexuality in Confucianism (Yuan, 2005), and prohibitions against sex outside of marriage across a range of religions. Current attitudes about sexuality vary widely as well. Despite the sex-positivity movement’s attempts to reduce shaming and non-consensual sexual behavior, and increase the availability of education about safe, healthy sexual practices, currently, 75% of states require high school sex education to include abstinence-only education, whereas barely 1/3 of states require information about contraception (The State of U.S Sex Education (Statistics & Facts – 2021), 2020).
Given this, it is to be expected that any discussion that hints of sexuality, including OM, may be challenging. As described above, OM is principally a consciousness practice, as evidenced by practitioners’ descriptions of it. Siegel and Emmert-Aronson (2019) studied 220 OM practitioners, and their views on OM, sex, fondling, and mindfulness. Participants strongly agreed with the statement “OM is a form of meditation” (4.69 on a 1-5 likert scale), and strongly disagreed with the statement “OM is a form of sex” (1.75 on a 1-5 likert scale). Similarly, 80.5% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that OM is more like meditation than sex, and only 15.5% thought that OM was more like sex than meditation. Of note, there was a significant interaction with OM experience, where participants who had OM’d more times felt more strongly that OM was more like meditation than sex (4.49/5 for those who had OM’d 500 or more times), whereas participants who were new to OM were more neutral about this comparison (3.64/5 for those who had OM’d 11-50 times).
Distinctions between OM and sex have also been shown through imaging studies. Newberg and colleagues (in preparation) utilized PET scanning to examine changes in brain activity for men and women while OMing, contrasted with a neutral comparison evaluation. Consistent with past imaging studies of meditation, they found significant decreases in the retrosplenial area, parahippocampal gyrus, and fusiform gyrus, along with significant increases in the supramarginal gyrus. In addition, in women they observed reductions in the inferior parietal lobe, which, along with the retrosplenial area and parahippocampus make up the default mode network, which has been shown to decrease in past studies of meditation. Additionally, changes in the parietal lobe are associated with feelings of transcendence, a loss of sense of the self, and a broader sense of connection.
In addition to these similarities between mindfulness and OM from imaging studies, Siegel and Emmert-Aronson (2021) found that participants reported strong experiences of transcendence and mysticism during OMs. In separate studies, participants completed the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire (MEQ) reporting on a particularly memorable OM, and reporting on the OM they had immediately prior to completing the questionnaire. When reporting on a particularly strong OM, participants reported moderate to strong experiences of mysticism, positive mood, transcendence, and ineffability; total MEQ score was 3.35, on a 0-5 Likert-type scale. Over 60% of participants experienced a “complete mystical experience” as defined by the MEQ. In the second study, OM partners each filled out the MEQ on the OM they had immediately prior. In this study participants also reported moderate experiences of mysticism, positive mood, transcendence, and ineffability; total MEQ score was 3.21. There was a strong relationship between MEQ total score and role (i.e., stroker or strokee), awg = .46, but a significantly stronger relationship between partners and MEQ total score, awg = .71, zdiff = 2.10, p = .04, demonstrating the greater impact of connection between the partners over the role a partner occupies.
Several early studies of OM suggest that it has impacts on interpersonal connection that are also distinct from sex. Prause, Siegle, and Coan (2021) found that both romantic partners and non-romantic partners experienced increases in closeness after an OM, but that this increase was greater for non-romantic partners than romantic partners. This conflicts with research on casual sexual encounters which may lead to increases in depression (Owen, Fincham, & Moore, 2011) and decreases in overall emotional health (Wesche, Claxton, & Waterman, 2020). Prause, Cohen, & Siegle (2021) examined changes in reported emotions after an OM, and found that positive emotions (amused, aroused, closeness and happy) increased significantly, and negative emotions (angry and anxious) decreased significantly. In addition, they examined the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on these outcomes and found that participants who reported higher levels of ACEs, particularly sexual abuse, experienced even greater changes in sexual arousal. This stands in contrast to common findings of negative impacts on arousal, such as sexual satisfaction decreasing and anxiety about sex increasing, in victims of sexual abuse (e.g., McCarthy & Maughan, 2010, Simon & Feiring, 2008, Bigras et al., 2017).
When it was first introduced to the western world, yoga was met with skepticism. It was even called dangerous by some religious institutions. However, as research proliferated, yoga’s benefits became clear, distinct from, and in addition to, benefits from exercise alone.
Similarly, research is beginning to demonstrate the benefits of Orgasmic Meditation, and the clear distinctions between OM and sex. This has been shown in a variety of ways, including participants’ descriptions of their experience, imaging studies demonstrating similarities between OM and meditation, OM’s elicitation of mystical experiences, studies of emotional closeness, and increased positive impacts of OM for those with higher levels of ACEs.
Any practice that involves genital stroking will naturally invite comparisons to sexual activity; however, the weight of the current evidence demonstrates that Orgasmic Meditation is experienced as meditation, activates neural pathways as meditation, and elicits emotional responses that are distinct from, and at times counter to, responses elicited by sex.
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