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Orgy of Ohm: A DJ’s Report from a Conscious Sexuality Festival

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“Well, I watched an orgy. That was new.”

I’m out slurping ramen with a friend who has just asked about my trip to Dorset, England, where I attended the Osho Leela Conscious Sexuality Festival. “You can watch an orgy?” His face tightens slightly as he contemplates how to reconcile this. “So what do you do, jerk off in the corner?” I laugh. “OK, orgy was the wrong word. They call them ‘play parties.’ It’s less about carnal pleasure and more about the gift of giving pleasure to someone else and being present.”

A week ago, I would have not said this. I’d have probably assumed, like my dear friend, that any situation with multiple people getting it on was a bacchanalian quest for self-pleasure, that if you were viewing and not participating, you would indeed “jerk off in a corner” instead. But that was before I went to my first conscious sexuality festival.

Osho Leela’s Conscious Sexuality Festival is meant to be a holistic experience, a personal fine-tuning of sorts. For most participants, who dabble in practices like Kundalini yoga and Samaya tantra, it holds emotion-laden familiarity. But for me, it was a complete departure from my norm of eat, sleep (barely), party, repeat.

Despite my health being more closely in line with Absolutely Fabulous then fabulous abs, when I received the invitation to DJ the festival’s closing ceremony, I decided I had to do it, if only to satisfy my curiosity. My husband had doubts, but I pointed to their website, which mentions daily meditations, yoga… a sauna! I imagined myself in an English field, temporarily forgetting about election woes as I met the sun with a warrior pose. I bought cute workout clothes. I stocked up on books. I even brought my own supply of CORE Water, which packs a pH to match your body’s natural pH. To my health!

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The Osho Leela compound, an old stone house perfectly set at the end of a tree-lined path, is a two-hour train ride from London’s Paddington Station. Along the way, gray architecture and power lines gave way to scenery lifted from the pages of classic literature: sheep milled around hillsides; a thick mist clung to the ground. Upon cracking open the oversized front door, a woman immediately ushered me into the office to register my arrival and deliver a room key. (“But people generally don’t need to lock doors around here,” she noted.) There was a small black cat I snuggled with while I waited for everything to be collected. This is nice, I thought, looking around the quaint and orderly room. The cat purred softly against my leg.

Then came the waiver. It was mostly standard stuff—medical disclosures, privacy clauses… but also: “I accept that I am entirely responsible for my own physical [and] psychological health throughout.” Okay. “I’m happy to commit to the one hour sharing circle each day.” My heart starts thumping. “I agree to take precautions in any interpersonal connections I might make, such as using condoms with people with whom I am not in a monogamous relationship.” Oh my god.

A conscious sexuality festival, as I would soon find out, is not an easeful retreat. There are not lines of Lululemon-clad millennials practicing mediation, hoping their chants of ohm will temporarily drown the nagging demons of daily mundanity. In fact, the term is cousin to tantra, an ancient tradition that, thanks to Sting, morphed into a buzzword meaning daylong sexcapades. But as Osho Leela taught me, that’s a cut-rate interpretation.

There’s no elevator pitch for tantra. It is, after all, an ideology that spans centuries and cultures like Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. What can be said is that it speaks to an expression of divine energy that results from a connectedness between self and the universe. It is a complete awareness of being in the here and now.

Conscious sexuality builds on this tantric belief system but applies it to sexuality, an area of life that can hold feelings of negative pressure, repression or judgment. By practicing mindfulness and actively being present, you can take possession of your own power as an individual and share true connectedness with others. Yes, it’s a mouthful. It’s also a lot of feelsy jargon that can be hard to understand as an outsider.

Would I be getting closer to freedom this week, I wondered, or crossing some major lines?

I wore a thin, fragile smile as a resident helped me upstairs to my room. It turned out the paperwork was more of a formality; they’re not treating me as an attendee but as a de facto staff member. “Staff meeting in 10 minutes,” my helper said as he plunked down my things. “It’s next door, in the Love Lounge.” He gestured with a nod of his head and then exited, leaving me to stew in my own thoughts.

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The Love Lounge, as it turns out, is a room specially bedazzled by two of the festival’s tantric teachers. Deep, jewel-toned silks drape from the ceiling, the floor is entirely composed of plum-colored mattresses and metallic-threaded pillows are strewn throughout.

As I entered to join the teachers already sitting in a circle, the smell of incense wrapped around me. I quickly scanned the group. Lots of long hair, loose-flowing clothes and minimal makeup on the women. I’ve already got this wrong, I thought, and struggled to sit cross-legged in my skintight jeans.

The awkwardness I held soon vanished—these people radiated intangible warmth. They debated the tiny details of the festival’s opening ceremony with gravitas; nothing was too small to be handled with delicacy and concern. A full 20 minutes was spent on how people would write down and share their intention for the festival.

The week mirrored activities like this for the most part, seemingly innocuous and non-sexual exercises that, when put in practice, would create more meaningful connections and a stronger sense of self. Later that day, snugly sitting back-to-back in the opening ceremony with a stranger, I wrote on my piece of paper: “My intention is to learn practices that I can bring back home to be a better partner to my husband.” Fuck it, I thought. I’m in.

I questioned my gung-ho attitude 48 hours later, bedridden with massive cold-like symptoms. I miserably texted friends back home from my self-made cocoon and heard back: It’s the English weather! It’s the travel! That time difference gets you! The teachers at Osho Leela thought differently. Lucy, a woman with tender, doe-like eyes, caught me shuffling to the bathroom. “This is new for you?” she asked “Doing something like this?” I nodded. “It happens to a lot of people. They get sick their first time here.” She made me tea.

It’s a common phenomenon because in high-stress situations the heart rate and blood flow both increase, the lungs take in more air and parts of the immune system temporarily shut down as the body stops responding to the cortisol it’s pumping out. “Oh yeah,” a psychologist would later tell me. “It’s common for patients to call in sick when we’re starting to address deep issues.” I did not get sick from the weather. I got sick from the feelings.

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I had spent the previous day attending back-to-back workshops, beginning with… how to hug properly? There are several no-nos when it comes to delivering an authentic hug: no hearty slaps (the American, or “truck driver” hug), no tiny butterfly taps on the shoulders (the British hug) and no limp noodle arms (the “jellyfish”). Instead, you create eye contact and then wrap your arms fully around the other person. Lean into their body, unlock your knees and give a great big exhale. Let it linger. Don’t pull away. Side note: Extended eye contact feels weird.

I practiced my first real hug with one of the teachers. The exercise felt silly. It’s a hug. Whatever. But when the eye contact came, I unexpectedly felt self-conscious. As the actual physical contact followed—a big, swaddling wrap of arms—the stress flashed through my blood. Not immediately letting go after a hug is unnerving if you’re not used to it, especially with someone you’ve just met. After about 30 seconds, my mind was hyperventilating. Why is this going on so long? What is he thinking? Is it weird if I let go first?

I quickly realized we don’t touch others meaningfully often in life, even those closest to us, and these gentle, deliberate actions make me acutely aware at how stiff I am when I simply exist. I never paid much mind to the stiffness I carry in the corner of my jaw, but now, it felt like a rusty gate hinge. And at Osha Leela, others can sense it. “Just stop thinking, my dear,” I was told during an eye-gazing lesson, “Get out of your head.”

I thought back to my friendships at home, the nights spent chattering away and mildly bitching while we stare at our phones. How much do I really know about these people? Have we ever hugged the way I have hugged here?

After the workshops, there was group sharing. I never cry, but I was emotionally mowed down by the intimacy and trust I had to display, and in front of this group I barely know, I bawled. I talked about the ache I feel for my husband back home. I talked about my fear of vulnerability, my fear that relationships I once thought had depth were now seemingly inauthentic. It tumbled out of me until there was no more. The group reached out and waved their fingers at me, making a shhhhh noise like a rain stick. They acknowledged me with a “love shower.” That’s a thing they do here after sharing.

I was suddenly hyper-aware I was wearing socks. Who wears socks to an orgy?

This is why I got sick, and missed an entire day sniffling and hacking away in bed. I was used to the comfort of superficial relationships. Of everyone being “fam” when we only see each other at bars. I have friends I’ve clinked shot glasses with more times than we’ve hugged. I was not used to present, focused love.

After a day of recuperating, I was back in the saddle with workshops and before I was ready for it, the last night arrived. It was time for the finale.

DJing for a completely sober audience is not normal, and I’m used to my own sets beginning and ending with slugs of Jameson. There’s a general uncertainty within clubs about how to enjoy yourself if you aren’t on something. All the fuss, the lasers, the glitterati, can feel hollow and a million miles away when you’re sober and shoved around in the middle of an inebriated crowd. Here, no one had been dosed with more than a cup of black tea since we arrived. I had no idea what to expect. With a resigned sigh, I popped on my headphones. Instantly, the floor started shaking and I witnessed an evening of unbridled joy like I’ve never seen on display without the help of substances.

In a room soundtracked by thumping big-room house, teachers and students vigorously danced with fingertips stretched to the sky. And then one by one they left, though not to go to bed. Most relocated to the Love Lounge for their last few hours. Eventually I followed, knowing I couldn’t leave without seeing every piece of the festival.

The door to the Love Lounge opened and I was met with humidity. There were about 20 bodies; most in some state of nudity, writhing over one another like salamanders. It’s shocking at first glance, but I shook myself out of it and tiptoed around moving skin to take a post against a silken wall, legs drawn tightly into my chest.

Witnessing bodies like this for the first time is more curious than sexual; I watched with a studious gaze as hands slid along spines, tracing curves that were slick with sweat. It’s worth noting the room didn’t smell great. A moan escaped from the corner, followed by a second. Soon, there was a cacophony, a bellowing of pleasure that left me strangely feeling naked, though I was the only one in the room completely clothed. I was suddenly hyper-aware I was wearing socks. Who wears socks to an orgy? That was the last thought I had before skittering away to bed.

In the week that’s passed since I left Osho Leela, I feel lighter. I now put my phone away when talking with people. I deeply hug each of my friends when we see each other. I’m making good on that intention with my husband. I’m practicing yoga. I’m eating healthier and sticking with my CORE Water for workouts. I’ve been on an emotional high, so in awe of how fully everyone expressed themselves that I thought: “I want that for myself.” Turns out, the path to better sex doesn’t start with other people; it starts with yourself.

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