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Once unlikely bedfellows, meditation and passion are the latest hot coupling. As a growing body of research suggests mindfulness has a Viagra-like effect on female sexual desire, WH reports on the trend you never saw coming
Sex and mindfulness are the sizzling new couple in town. Who knew?
AA bead of sweat courses down your midsection before disappearing between your legs. You dig your nails into the sheets and arch your back as the pleasure builds, beginning beneath your pelvis and coming in waves. This isn’t the start of bad clit-lit but the beginning of a movement that’s set to change the way you get it on forever.
Turns out sex is the latest activity to undergo a mindfulness makeover. Elevated from a bit-part role in your yoga class, the practice of training your mind to focus on the present is already informing eating, drinking and parenting techniques. But if the news that it’s infiltrated your bedroom arouses nothing but scepticism, know that a growing body of research claims mindfulness won’t just boost your sexual desire, it’s actually a vital precursor to it. To lay it bare, fail to take up mindful sex and your O-factor could be screwed. Definitely not ideal.
Slump and grind
Recent stats on the current state of our collective sex lives make for less-than-titillating reading. While more than half of South Australians are happily having sex at least once a week (you smug lot, you), and four in 10 Victorians are getting it on weekly, almost 90 per cent of those from NSW aren’t satisfied with their bedroom affairs at the moment.
Experts believe the problem begins in the brain. Professor Lucia O’sullivan, a social psychologist at the University of New Brunswick, conducted a study asking people why they felt they struggled with sexual pleasure. “The participants were tired, overwhelmed or stressed and their minds were racing too much to focus on or enjoy sex,” she explains. You don’t need a degree in psychology to see that the above is all to do with your mind. It seems that the Pavlovian response to notifications, a just-one-moreepisode Netflix obsession and a working set-up that encourages you to refresh your emails out of hours is shattering sex lives.
“The stress of the daily grind is more destructive to sexual response than a single major traumatic event,” says psychologist Dr Lori Brotto. “It lowers mood, and a negative mood has a much greater effect on sex than physiological factors, such as vaginal lubrication.” Case in point: the failure to get female Viagra off the ground.
Even when trials found that Viagra succeeded in sending blood to women’s pelvic regions, flow alone didn’t spur desire. The reason? Desire sparks in your brain before your bits. Neurological scans published in the journal Fertility
and Sterility found that women with low desire showed a lot of activity in the area of the brain responsible for making judgements. So instead of focusing on the sensations that are turning you on, the low-desire mind goes off on one of its un-jollies – scrutinising your performance (or your bedfellow’s) and then berating you for not being into it.
The mind gains
The good news? If the problem is quite literally all in the mind, so too is the solution. This is where mindful sex comes in. “Our common style is mind-filled sex – that goaloriented ‘I must orgasm’ mentality,” says holistic sex therapist Diana Richardson, whose TEDX talk The
Power of Mindful Sex has had more than 230,000 views since April.
“But there’s another style that uses the mind to be present in the body. You’re not lost in thought (read: monitoring your performance),
“The stress of the daily grind is more destructive to overall sexual response than a traumatic event”
you’re directing all your attention to your body – being in the here and now, without goals.”
Here’s the gist: the attention you’d usually waste on self-criticism or distraction (ever mentally filled your ASOS basket mid-bang?) gets redirected into observing what you feel inside your body. Before you start calling bullshit, the science is on side. Last December, German psychologist Dr Julia Velten, a specialist in sexual dysfunction, published research in The Journal
of Sex Research that confirmed the efficacy of mindfulness on sexual response. In her study, 41 women watched an erotic film and then completed either a mindfulness exercise – a six-minute body scan focusing on sensations in the body and genitals, continually refocusing when distracted – or a visualisation task imagining themselves in a forest. Women clicked an ‘arousometer’ (one for the Christmas list?) whenever they felt changes in arousal. The findings: being mindful is a bona fide turn-on, with the mindful group experiencing arousal – both subjective and physiological. “Sexual response will be triggered only when women pay attention to erotic stimulus and are not distracted by non-sexual thoughts,” says Velten.
For those after cold hard stats, Brotto – who has studied mindfulness as a treatment for female sexual dysfunction since 2002 and recently published a guide, Better Sex Through
Mindfulness – found that an eightweek mindfulness program can boost sexual satisfaction by 60 per cent. Desire for a partner can go from ‘almost never’ to ‘almost always’, orgasms are more intense and women no longer panic if they get distracted – they simply tune back into their sensations. Such is the sex-life-changing power of mindfulness that Brotto hails it as “the single most effective way of attaining sexual satisfaction”. When Brotto isn’t working through the waiting list of women desperate to join her workshops in Canada, she’s in the lab trying to unravel the exact mechanisms that make mindful sex so successful. She’s also researching mindfulness as a therapy for men with erectile dysfunction and prostate cancer.
The practice of harnessing the power of the mind-orgasm connection is making its way into couples therapy services too, as well as more specialist clinics. “Mindfulness is integral to sexualfunction interventions, such as for sexual pain, loss of desire and/ or lack of pleasure or orgasm,” says Dr John Helps, sexual health psychologist at St Mary’s Hospital in London. He runs ‘mindfulness for sex’ groups, teaches sex therapists across the country and believes that mindful sex could even help prevent some common sexual difficulties.
So, you’re meditating on the idea. But while you might have mastered using the Headspace app on your commute, taking the concept under the covers surely requires a whole new toolkit? Not so, says mindfulness practitioner Jessica
“Mindful sex doesn’t mean staring into your partner’s eyes – it can be dirty, exciting and even rough”
Graham. “Meditation can seem like a big and frightening commitment, but you don’t need a silent mind, just resolve to keep coming back to what you’re meditating on.” Success will also come with practice – you wouldn’t attempt an ironwoman after a single Sunday afternoon bike ride. “Mindful sex has no shortcut,” agrees Brotto. “You’re cultivating a muscle in the brain in the same way that solid gym time is required to cultivate muscles in the body.” For Brotto’s clients, practice comes in the form of weekly group sessions (that’s group meditation, not orgies) and daily 30-minute homework tasks, before taking their Jedifocused minds to bed, by which point they’ll be more in tune with their bodily sensations than your friend who always needs to wee.
You can also reap the sexual rewards from the comfort of your bedroom – and kitchen. As well as 15 minutes of daily practice with general mindfulness apps such as Headspace, Calm or Happify, Brotto suggests a tried-and-tested technique involving a box of sultanas (natch). Rather than the usual method of lobbing a handful in your mouth, with a few inevitably missing the target entirely, the aim of the exercise is to eat the sultanas one at a time, noting the textures, sensations and flavours in, erm, intimate detail. It teaches you just how much you can really feel when you begin to slow things down and focus. After examining the sultana, did you feel your mouth salivating in excitement at the thought of finally eating the thing? Now imagine the sultana is your partner. Train your mind to focus on the sensations of sex in this way and you can elevate the experience from average to extraordinary, using only your mind.
And you don’t have to be slow and steady to win the race. “Mindful
sex doesn’t mean staring into your partner’s eyes, whispering sweet nothings or being mushy; it can be dirty, fun, exciting and even rough,” adds Graham, who wrote
Good Sex: Getting Off Without
Checking Out with the intention of sharing her honest experiences of sex as a young woman. Because that’s the other headboard-sized hurdle in the way of better sex.
While we all like to think our smoked-salmon brunches come with a side order of orgasm chat, real life isn’t Sex and the City, and admitting the highlight of your sex life in the past week came 11 minutes into the latest episode of Outlander isn’t easy. “Oh, I was checked out [before],” says Graham. “I’d squeeze my eyes shut during sex, lost in my own mind, only able to ask for what I really wanted when I was drunk. I was way too familiar with the sound of myself faking an orgasm.”
Graham started teaching meditation in 2009 and when she started applying some of the mindfulness exercises to her sex life, she found it re-engineered her sexuality entirely. “It alerted me to the fact that, mentally, I was disappearing during sex; and I wanted a new kind of sex, passion and pleasure. By training my mind on my body and every sensation, I felt more. Feelings of pleasure became heightened and, with time, it helped me really tune into what actually aroused me. I began to feel more of a connection with my body and everything felt more sensitive. The more I got to know my body, the more I realised how much it could offer me.” She accepts the hippie stigma but urges us to look beyond it because, basically, “it’s just about being more present”.
It’s a simple sentiment that seems to have been missed during the phallic bananas of sex-ed class and the genital close-ups of porn. But with time, it begins to make sense. Turn your brain on first and your body will follow. May we suggest you start getting it om? WH