Whether it’s in a yoga class or meditation session, mindfulness is a well-known technique for relieving stress. It turns out it can enhance women’s sexual desire, too.
With roots in Buddhism, mindfulness essentially means being fully aware of the present moment and accepting your thoughts, physical sensations, and the surrounding environment without judgment.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, is credited for bringing the concept to the North American mainstream.
Four decades on, mindfulness has been taught in schools, prisons, major corporations, hospitals, and beyond.
Vancouver sex researcher and clinical psychologist Lori Brotto, director of the UBC Sexual Health Laboratory, has studied and taught mindfulness extensively since 2003. The Canada Research Chair in Women’s Sexual Health, she treats various sexual concerns, including low sexual desire—a.k.a. loss of libido—which affects up to half of women at some point in their lives.
Causes of sexual dysfunction in women are complex, multifactorial, and often unclear, says Brotto, the author of Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire. Some medications diminish libido, as can certain physical and mental-health conditions, including depression.
For some women, sex is uncomfortable; for others, it’s unrewarding. Difficulty becoming or feeling aroused might be exacerbated over time, as anxiety builds about being able to respond sexually.
That can lead to a cycle: unsatisfying sex might lead some women to avoid it, and the more they avoid it, the less likely the body will remember arousal cues, making it even harder to become sexually excited.
Being mindful is more than an effective tool to reawaken and recharge sexual craving, Brotto says. Her research has found that mindfulness significantly improves sexual desire, arousal, orgasms, satisfaction, and mood in women seeking treatment for low libido. She describes it as transformational.
“In my opinion, sensational and satisfying sex is simply not possible without mindfulness,” Brotto says. “Mindfulness meditation trains the brain to stay in the here and now, fending off distractions and negative self-judgment. Attention and focus have been found to be mission critical for cultivating a sexual response and sexual desire. Skills such as mindfulness teach the brain to connect more completely with the body, allowing us to experience all of the sensations of sex.”
Breathing linked to sexual pleasure
With the brain being the most powerful sex organ, present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness benefits sexual relations in other ways. Evidence shows that mindfulness leads to better communication in couples. When people practise mindfulness, they become more attuned to a partner and feel more empathy for them, Brotto says.
One of the exercises Brotto and her team teach in small groups is “mindfulness of breath”, which involves guiding women to notice their breathing, including the individual sensations that make up each inhalation and exhalation.
Sitting comfortably with their eyes closed, women learn to pay attention to where they feel sensations in the body associated with breathing, such as at the belly, chest, and nose. They might also be guided to observe sounds associated with breathing, and any smells.
The exercise lasts about 20 minutes, allowing women to experience what happens when their mind gets pulled into different directions. When their attention wanders, they practise redirecting it back to the sensations associated with breathing.
“As your mind wanders or gets distracted, be kind to yourself and escort your mind back to noticing the breath,” Brotto says. “It is normal and expected for the mind to wander. Just refocus on the here and now.”
Better Sex Through Mindfulness includes other simple exercises women can do to build mindfulness into their daily lives, ultimately improving their sex lives. And healthy, satisfying sex is a crucial part of overall well-being.
Make sexual concerns a priority
While the practice of mindfulness has been proven to help boost desire, many women find it difficult, if not impossible, to meditate for 30 minutes or more every day. In today’s multitasking world, they say they just don’t have the time or energy.
“My response to that? Prioritize it,” Brotto says. “In the same way that we prioritize other important areas of our life, sex should also be prioritized and planned. By extension, when there are sexual concerns, we need to prioritize the time to make improvements to sex.
“This can be a struggle in today’s era of quick fixes and pill pushes; however, these are not found to be effective in the long term, and most countries do not have approved medications to tackle women’s waning libidos,” she says. “When you view mindful practices as contributing to a greater overall sense of your sexual self, while also having the benefits to mood, stress, and overall well-being, then it might make the prioritizing a bit smoother.”
Several resources exist to help women build mindfulness into their lives, Brotto notes. Several community centres offer groups; there are also apps like Headspace, Happify, Calm, and Buddhify.
Brotto maintains that it’s not acrobatics or stamina that makes for mind-blowing sex; it’s being fully present with each sensation without judgment.
“A fulfilling sex life is within reach,” Brotto says. “In fact, it is a mere breath away.”
This article was created in partnership with Womyns’ Ware, a sex-positive adult business that celebrates and empowers women's sexuality. Its retail store is at 896 Commercial Drive in Vancouver and it's also possible to shop at Womyns' Ware online.