Yoni. Vagina. Pussy. Lady parts. Cunt. Frida… as in Kahlo... I’m sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat in the hills of rural Tuscany as a group of women take it in turns to offer up what they call their genitals. There’s a background hum of crickets and it smells like lavender and that specific sunbaked earth smell you only get on holiday. Although much of the week at Villa Lena, a 19th-century farmhouse turned artist residence and boutique hotel, is spent focusing on the breath, posture and how to relax, this isn’t your typical yoga retreat. I’m here to learn how to have better orgasms.
"The idea to focus on the female orgasm came out of conversations I’d had with friends," says Gabrielle Hales, 33, founder of Secret Yoga Club, which merges yoga and meditation with creative disciplines such as art, dance and sound. "Even though so many of my friends are super open-minded and enjoy their bodies and love talking about feminism, it wasn’t translating into enjoying their sex lives. Many women aren’t confident exploring their own bodies, some thought they would never orgasm, or didn’t feel able to ask their partner for what they wanted."
"Exploring yourself in this way takes time and confidence – and it can be really challenging if you have feelings of shame around your sexuality, or if you don’t have a good relationship with your body – but if you can commit to spending that time on yourself, it’s a really incredible thing. There are so many benefits to having regular orgasms – they boost your immune system, improve your skin, help you sleep and activate your dopamine system, which is the empowering hormone that gives you focus and motivation."
Our group – 18 women of all different ages and races – breaks into smaller circles to discuss our own sexual history and how we experience ourselves sexually. We then learn about the arousal paths and brain receptors that allow the female body to orgasm, as well as the things which can prevent it, such as negative self-talk. We do a lot of breathing exercises – one I’ll take home involves inhaling and imagining a thread of gold light moving down from your navel, past your 'Frida', back up your spine to the top of your skull, and then exhaling from the roof of your mouth back to your navel. It’s a 'hands-off' workshop (so no yoni massage, thank god) but 'homework' is encouraged.
Carolyn Cowan is a sex therapist and Kundalini yoga teacher who teaches Secret Yoga Club’s two-day workshops in London on the female arousal cycle. "I see a lot of cis-gendered women in their early 20s who are having really bad sex," she says. "Often it’s down to anxiety and the stress response, which can inhibit the pathways between your genitals and your brain which allow your body to respond to pleasure. But I also see women in their 50s and 60s, some of whom have never had an orgasm. Three in 10 women don’t orgasm and only 27% of women orgasm through penetration, so in a group of 20 women, three or four of them will have never had an orgasm before. It’s not talked about and it is a problem – there are a lot of women who are faking it."
Part of this is down to a mismatch in arousal cycles in a heterosexual relationship. Carolyn points out that the male arousal cycle is typically about three minutes. A woman’s – outside of the erotic charge of having just met someone – is between 30 minutes and an hour and a half. Carolyn’s workshops cover consent – "How would you like to be touched for three minutes?" – feeling safe, an exploration of the body (again all hands-off during class) and what she calls 'interjects'. "These are statements that get in the way of having an orgasm: 'I can’t come', 'I’m not wet enough'," says Carolyn. "We look at the cultural and religious bias about fearing the genitals, vaginismus – a female pain disorder where the pelvic floor contracts, gender dysphoria... all these things come up."
Gabrielle says that training yourself to be present in your body, feeling relaxed and communicating with your partner about what feels good are the key pillars to better sex. "A lot of women don’t know that it’s okay to spend time on themselves," she says. "So if you’re in a couple, or even on your own, just spending 20 minutes exploring each other’s bodies, stroking each other slowly and finding what it is that you find pleasurable, can be hugely useful. I think we’ve been lied to in porn and sex scenes in films about how long it takes for a woman to come."
Carolyn agrees that the proliferation of porn has had a huge impact on our insecurity around sex, and our expectations of it. "A lot of women think 'Am I doing this right?' 'Does my body look okay?' and that means you’re constantly checking, you’re disassociated from your body and you’re not relaxed," she says. "The genitals they choose for porn are bleached, they have makeup on, they might have had surgery, they’re on drugs… so a woman might think 'Why are my labia brown' but actually the more aroused you get, the darker it gets." Gabriella praises the female-driven erotic website XConfessions.com for showing sex with a diverse range of bodies and situations.
One of the big takeaways for me is that there are lots of different types of orgasm. "You can have a clitoral orgasm, vaginal, cervical, anal, a breath orgasm," says Cowan. "A breath orgasm is where you create super high levels of oxygen in the body." Learning what actually happens during an orgasm itself is fascinating. "For 45 minutes after your orgasm your cervix pulsates and they think this might be to pick up the sperm," says Carolyn. "Your pelvic floor opens, your vagina inflates and your womb and your bladder are pulled out of the way – which is where female ejaculation comes in. If you pee after you’ve been aroused it will smell different, which is said to be fluid leaving the prostate." I have to admit I didn’t even know women had a prostate (google 'skene gland' – it’s an education).
At the end of my week at Villa Lena I feel refreshed, renewed and eager to try out some of the tools I’ve learned. Including the literal ones in the goodie bag. Secret Yoga Club feels like a very safe, non-judgmental place for women to share and learn from each other. What’s not to like about a week of good company, good food and hopefully better sex? I’m left with the overwhelming feeling that it’s crazy we don’t talk more openly about the Big O – whether that’s in sex ed classes at school or with our friends and partners. But it’s never too late to start.