I recently realized that the benefits I get from practicing yoga—peace, energy, strength—I also get from another activity: BDSM. With yoga, when I hit the mat, nothing else matters. I am no longer a student, I don’t have homework or responsibilities. I just go through the motions, shift poses as I breathe in and out, move my body, push it further. In BDSM, I identify as a “bottom,” which means that in a scene—the space and scenario in which my partner and I play—I’m not necessarily submissive, but I am on the receiving end of pain and/or sensations. BDSM is a vital force in my life, part of my sexual identity, though not always sexual. It’s something I need on a regular basis, much like exercise. 

According to a research team studying the science of BDSM at Northern Illinois University, it makes sense that yoga and bottoming have similar benefits, especially when it comes to altered states of consciousness. NIU’s team, led by professor of social and evolutionary psychology, Dr. Brad Sagarin, had participants put into pairs for a scene with one person topping and the other bottoming. Using questionnaires, cognitive testing (specifically the Stroop test), and saliva samples to measure the stress hormone cortisol before and after the scenes, Sagarin’s team concluded that both tops and bottoms enter into (different) altered states of consciousness.

For tops, this state is called “flow” (or here, topspace). Kathryn Klement, a doctoral candidate in the social psychology program at NIU, says, “In topspace, individuals feel like they are in the moment and [aware of their] next steps. While people in subspace report feeling sort of dreamy and out of it, people in topspace are very focused and driven.”

While flow is an altered state of consciousness, it doesn’t affect one’s cognitive functioning as much as a bottom's state of altered consciousness, called “transient hypofrontality” (here, subspace). Arne Dietrich originally proposed the transient hypofrontality hypothesis and investigated it as runner’s high. He suggested it was possibly analogous to meditation, and other mind states, such dreaming, hypnosis, and various drug highs. Klement explains that “when we engage in certain activities, our brain has to redirect bloodflow to certain parts based on priorities.” She added that the theory of transient hypofrontality suggests that “during this altered state, there is reduced bloodflow to the part of the brain which handles a lot of executive function, like working memory, attention, and temporal integration.”

This state was also reflected when researchers found that bottoms' cortisol levels went up during the scene (as their bodies responded to stress), but their self-reported levels of stress went down. “This is why,” Klement says, “people in such an altered state report effects of time distortion, disinhibition from social constraints, and changes in focused attention.” Other subjective experiences of subspace include reduction of pain; feelings of floating, peacefulness, living in the here and now; and little active decision making.

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Yoga is energizing. My breathing carries my body from one asana, or pose, to the next as I go through one sequence into another and on and on. Breathe in: arms up. Breathe out: arms down. This is meditative; I’m able to let my mind shut down and think of nothing but my movement, breathing, and muscles. When I practice, I become meditative and my body trusts me. When I finish, I’m refreshed. My body is both calm and exhausted in a good way.

During a scene, I go through a similar process, though not with an instructor, but a partner who administers pain and sensation. My favorite method of delivery is impact play—spanking, flogging, etc. I trust my partner to see me approaching my limits and start out slowly with light sensation. I focus on nothing except the scene. Every few minutes, he checks in, asks if I want to escalate. This process repeats itself until the flogging gets more intense. I push my body harder and harder; I enjoy this sensation. I am in awe of how much my body can handle, how strong I am. My skin burns and the pain becomes almost too much. I take a deep breath in and as I exhale, I relax every muscle in my body, knowing that if my body is tense, the pain is worse. He knows this and on my exhale, he flogs me. Breathe in: prepare. Breathe out: accept. When I accept, I become aware of how much I am letting go and slip into subspace—where my awareness then wanes.

Breathe in: prepare. Breathe out: accept. 

This is when these activities, yoga and bottoming, are most similar. I experience that transient hypofrontality where time doesn’t exist, pain is less noticeable, and I feel peaceful. I’m not the only one who feels this connection. I spoke to people on FetLife, a social networking site for kinksters. One user, Elaine, said, “Yoga can help you prepare your body to bottom for bondage, but the BDSM usually doesn't help you do yoga. I say ‘usually’ because I have, on occasion, asked people to tie me up and use my restraints to VERY carefully stretch me.” Another user, Sean, said he enjoys the “calming effect of giving up control and the unexpected surprise of not knowing what will be directed next by the person in charge.”

BDSM is my new yoga. Yoga is a solitary practice in which one attempts to move gracefully from asana to asana, to clear the mind with focused breath, and push the body. BDSM looks violent from the outside, but it offers me the same benefits of escape, empowerment, and serenity. Both of these activities are about giving up control over your body and letting someone else guide it into an altered state of consciousness. Everything else disappears. BDSM isn’t going to replace my exercise routine; they aren’t exactly alike. After yoga I’m more likely to finish with toned muscles, and after a scene, bruises. One of those I can show off, the other, not so much.