Of all the glow ups that have happened over the past decade or so (special shout outs to the U.S. Women’s Soccer team, K-Pop, and the Queer Eye reboot), meditation deserves a spot among the most notable. According to a 2018 study published by the Center for Disease Control, the number of Americans who reported meditating at least once over the course of a year has more than tripled since 2012, increasing from 4 percent to more than 14 percent of adults. Well-heeled businesses dedicated exclusively to the practice of meditation are popping up in hip neighborhoods all across the country, and new mindfulness apps seem to surface with about the same regularity as movies starring Adam Driver (there’s even an app that curses like a sailor through each guided session, if that’s what you find relaxing).

Defined broadly by the CDC as “the act of engaging in mental exercise to reach a heightened level of spiritual awareness or mindfulness,” meditation allows individuals to reestablish the connection between mind and body and, as the lingo goes, to “be present” and “live in the moment.” A vast number of studies have shown meditation to provide relief across a wide range of conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression, and even physical ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and psoriasis. More than ever, people are seeking out wellness practices previously considered “unconventional” by traditional Western medicine.

...meditation allows individuals to reestablish the connection between mind and body and, as the lingo goes, to “be present” and “live in the moment.”

And as its popularity has grown, we’ve started to understand the benefits of meditation in entirely new ways: A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that women who practiced meditation exhibited higher levels of sexual function and desire than women who didn’t. And while the study’s findings didn’t aim to establish correlation based on the frequency or duration of meditation practices, the overall conclusion was that essentially any amount of practice had the potential to yield positive results: “These findings suggest that, compared to women with no meditation experience, women who meditate to any extent have, on average, improved sexual function associated with better overall mental health,” writes Iulia Dascalu and Lori A. Brotto, co-authors of the study.

Hitting “pause” before you play

So, what is it about the act of closing your eyes and focusing on the breath that can lead to a more fulfilling sex life? Dr. Janet Brito, a Hawaii-based psychologist and sex therapist who has incorporated meditation in the treatment of her patients, asserts that it’s not about a direct relationship between the act of meditation and sex so much as a general increase in mindfulness and sensory awareness that can yield positive results.

“Meditation helps people to pause, and, with intention, to focus on what is front of them,” says Brito, and in the context of sex, that means sexual pleasure and connection. “These tenets help clients to then be more aware of their own pleasure zones, increase access to their bodily responses, and learn more about what feels good to them in order for them to teach their partners.”

In other words, the act of chanting om isn’t necessarily going to affect your orgasm in a direct way, but the sense of focus you experience afterward can be a huge boon to harnessing desire and sensation in a way that makes sex a lot more om my goodness.

In other words, the act of chanting om isn’t necessarily going to affect your orgasm in a direct way, but the sense of focus you experience afterward can be a huge boon to harnessing desire and sensation in a way that makes sex a lot more om my goodness.

Beyond breathing: pleasure vs. performance

While the study covers the positive byproducts of mindfulness as they relate to sexual function and desire, meditation is also increasingly being incorporated into the repertoire of sex therapy techniques. At a time when one out of every eight women worldwide experiences sexual dysfunction related to personal distress, it’s becoming a tool that can be used to address the psychological and emotional barriers that prevent individuals from fully enjoying sex or intimacy.

“Many people feel anxious about engaging in sexual activities for fear they won’t perform correctly or fear they won’t please their partner due to negative body image, history of trauma, or relationship conflicts,” says Dr. Brito. “The goal is to introduce clients to an aspect of sexuality where pleasure is the most important thing, versus subscribing to a performance-based approach to sexuality. Meditation helps folks to reduce this performance anxiety by helping them focus on the present moment, be curious, and be non-judgmental.”

Taking all of that into account, the orchid scene from 40 Days and 40 Nights suddenly seems so much more believable.

"Meditation helps folks to reduce this performance anxiety by helping them focus on the present moment, be curious, and be non-judgmental."

“Orgasm is off the table.”

These techniques, while in vogue again, aren’t necessarily new. The idea of using meditation-like techniques to return our focus to pleasure versus the end-goal of an orgasm dates at least as far back as the seminal work of sex researchers Virginia Johnson and William Masters in the 1960s, when they introduced a technique called sensate focus therapy. The practice guides patients into focusing on sensory perception and sensuality, rather than actual sex acts—a format, one might conclude, that very much resembles the work of increasing mindfulness and bodily awareness through meditation.

It's an approach Dr. Brito implements as part of her meditation therapy for clients and it begins with guiding them, either as individuals or as couples, in a plan to engage in “mindful touch” at least twice a week to start.

Initially, contact is intended to be made without involving genitals. “Orgasm is off the table,” she notes. “It’s not about performance. It’s all about pleasure and being mindful.” As clients progress, genital touching and mutual touching for couples is introduced, with the final stage being outer or intercourse.

“It’s not about performance. It’s all about pleasure and being mindful.”

Sex is rooted in a vast range of lived experiences and possibly even genetics, and thus, the results of sensate focus therapy and other forms of meditation therapy can vary widely. But Dr. Brito notes that when it is successful, her clients have reported increased awareness of their bodies and sensations; a greater sense of relaxation during sex; less “spectatoring” (i.e. seeing yourself from a third-person perspective during sex); increased intimacy with partners; a greater sense of playfulness; and overall, increased sexual satisfaction.

A beginner’s guide to (sexier) meditation

Perhaps one of the greatest appeals of meditation is its broad accessibility; in its most essential form, all you need is your breath and the intention to focus. Guided sessions on popular apps like Headspace and Calm abound, and of course, there’s a dedicated breathing series and a whole range of pleasure-focused guided sessions on Dipsea. As the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy study suggests, it’s all helpful. And whether you’re considering a meditation practice for overall wellness purposes or more specifically as a means to improve your sex life, the objective remains the same: Strive to be present and non-judgmental. Even if it’s just for a couple of minutes a day.

Perhaps one of the greatest appeals of meditation is its broad accessibility; in its most essential form, all you need is your breath and the intention to focus.

Lastly, as the popularity of meditation continues to rise and traditional practices are adapted to accommodate an evolving culture, Dr. Brito notes that it’s important to know how, where, and with whom you’re seeking guidance.

“Trust yourself and listen to your inner voice. If it sounds too promising, and claims to provide X results if you give X amount of money, do additional research and consult a trusted friend or therapist in order to help you explore the risks and benefits. Don’t ever do something against your will.” And as with all things related to sex: “Consent is key.”