The tantric healing modality is supposed to release tension through your vagina. But it was more like getting finger-banged by a stranger.
A man who was not my boyfriend, whom I had met for the first time a mere hour ago, was seated between my legs. Save for a pair of boxer briefs, he, too, was practically naked. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths while his coconut oil-coated hands fluttered down the length of my body, from my breasts to my abdomen to my crotch. He flirted with my panty line, inserting his fingers ever so slightly underneath the elastic, kneading the space where my thighs and groin meet.
It was a pleasurable feeling, albeit a foreign one. Though I’ve had massages in the past, I’d never had one like this. Except for during sex or at the gynecologist’s office, I’d never felt another person’s hands wander so intimately around my vagina — or as they say in tantra, my “yoni.”
“Your yoni is amazing,” he cood, sweeping his hands in circular motions around my hip bones. “And I love the way you are breathing and receiving.”
But after a few more swipes and pats atop my naked skin, he told me there was a problem. My yoni didn’t have enough “energy” in it. He cupped his hands around my vagina, almost in a protective gesture, and I could feel the trapped heat warming my insides.
“Yonis are very expressive,” he told me. “If you slow down and listen to them, they have a lot to say. And yours is like cool; it’s chilling. But I’m not getting a clear ‘Oh yeah, come on in. Let’s go explore,’ from your yoni.”
I was slightly disappointed when I heard this. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to feel the stimulative and pleasurable aspects of the massage, but more so that I wanted to see how far it would go — and what would happen once we got there.
“We can do some breathwork and some energy work to try and send more energy down there,” he suggested. “Does that sound good to you?”
With his hands still on top of my vagina, I nodded my head “yes.” And when he asked if it would be OK if he removed my underwear, I paused, and then nodded my head again.
So what is a yoni massage? I learned about them while researching massage techniques for back pain, and I was immediately intrigued. Apparently a lot of tension can be stored down in your nether regions, and through the use of steam, herbs, and touch, it can be released. The massages, which are tantric in nature, are often cathartic, and have proven popular among women who have experienced rape or sexual abuse.
I was curious to see if getting a vaginal massage would have any affect on me. Though I’ve never been a victim of assault, I’ve suffered through a lot of bullshit in my 29 years. I had cancer and chemotherapy treatment as a tween, clinical depression and PTSD in high school, and a pretty gnarly eating disorder up until the age of 23. Surely I had some residual trauma still stored in my body — and maybe it was in my vagina?
I decided to search online for a yoni massage therapist and was led to a Yelp page for a San Francisco, Calif., business called Awakening Bliss. Though the page, at the time, was bereft of reviews, there were photographs and a summary provided by Awakening Bliss’ owner Matt Sturm, a tall, lanky dude who appeared to be in his late-twenties to early-thirties. I didn’t get any creepy vibes from his photos, and I’m a pretty impetuous person in general, so I sent him an email introducing myself as a journalist, saying I was interested in learning more about yoni massages and perhaps doing a session.
Sturm got back to me within a few hours, writing that he would be “happy to collaborate” with me and do a free session. He suggested we chat on the phone first, and we set up a time to talk the following day.
“I came into tantra kind of by accident,” Sturm told me at the beginning of our conversation. Now 34, he’d discovered the religious practice while volunteering with his girlfriend in Thailand in 2015, and had been hooked ever since.
“I’d always felt like there was something more meaningful or spiritual about sex, but I’d never really known how to think about it or how to talk about it,” he said. “Then, when I found tantra, I was like yeah, it can really be sacred and intentional. So that just resonated with me on a really deep level.”
When he returned to San Francisco, Sturm began studying tantra in depth, completing both a yoga teacher training and tantra educator training program in Santa Cruz. A year later, he began teaching workshops and classes, and in the spring of 2017, he quit his solar industry finance job to focus on Awakening Bliss full time.
As someone who knows little about tantra, I wanted to know how big of a role sex played in his teachings.
From a spiritual standpoint, Sturm said it played only a small part. “But,” he added, “with regards to what I teach here in San Francisco, it’s like 80 percent. It’s a big part of it.”
I figured this meant that people boned in his classes, but I was wrong.
“It’s basically exercises and lectures for how to think about and how to approach sex, intimacy, relationships, desire, and how we connect, all couched in a framework of seeing ourselves as part of this bigger web of life,” he explained.
I was relieved. Tantra was turning out to be much more PG-rated than I’d imagined.
It took about 20 minutes for the conversation to shift to yoni massages, which — because they can be performed on both men and women — are also known as sacred spot massages. According to Sturm, they were developed in the “late 1970s by this guy, Charles Muir, who lives down in Santa Cruz” and they’re “basically a modality for sexual healing where one person holds space for another person.”
As a bisexual, Sturm does sessions for both genders — women receive “yoni massages” and men receive “lingam massages.” Most of his clients — who pay somewhere in the three-digits for a session — are between the ages of 30 and 40, and the oldest person he’s treated was 71.
For the most part, people seek sacred spot massages from Sturm because they are interested in healing, awakening, or learning something about their bodies. He claimed he’s helped women overcome painful past experiences like rape or the loss of a child, and he’s taught men how to achieve orgasm without ejaculating. Some clients have come to him as a means of easing back into sex after years of celibacy, while others have visited him in the hopes of experiencing an emotional catharsis.
“So much can come up during these sessions— old traumas, past wounds, the release of tension that has been held in the body,” Sturm said. “Sometimes people cry, and sometimes it’s a really pleasurable session that leaves them all jazzed up with all sorts of good juices and chemicals flowing and pumping in their brain.”
Although I wasn’t seeking a yoni massage to deal with any specific issues, there was one thing unique to my body that I figured I should mention. I told Sturm that I have vaginismus, a condition that makes it painful for me to put things up my vagina. Though I can still have sex, tampons hurt me and I’ve never used an internal vibrator. I wanted to know exactly how much touching would be going on down there if we had a session.
Sturm’s answer: “some.”
“Sacred spot massages can include hand-to-genital touch from the practitioner to the receiver,” he said.
“But what happens with your yoni is entirely up to you. I can provide some guidance. I can say, ‘Hey, how would it feel to check this out?’ But it’s always going to be me listening to you.”
By then I knew for sure that my vagina would be touched, and when Sturm explained another important aspect of sacred spot massage — “It’s not a goal-oriented modality” — I realized he was referring to orgasming.
Perhaps because I had already committed to doing it in my mind, I wasn’t even fazed when Sturm told me his two most important rules: “I always keep my underwear on and I don’t kiss anybody.”
Blame it on naivete or an overpowering surge of curiosity, but by the time we’d hung up, I’d agreed to let Sturm come over to my house the next day for a two-hour session.
I started getting nervous later that night. A man who I did not know and who had no reviews on Yelp knew my address and was coming over the next day to play with my nether regions. Even though Sturm sounded kind and like a legitimate hippy over the phone, he easily could have been a perv or creep in disguise.
Since my boyfriend couldn’t leave work for two hours in the middle of the day, I texted two friends, begging them to come over and hang out while Sturm did his session. Fortunately, one of them was free and agreed to come over. Unfortunately, she was my most Christian, conservative pal. She’s been married since her early twenties, and once, when I’d invited her to attend a Halloween dance thrown by witches, she’d demurred, confessing to a fear of ghosts, demons, and being possessed. So I kept my text message to her vague — “A guy is coming over to give me a massage and basically I want you to come over to my house as protection” — and she seemed fine with that.
On the day of the massage, I took a shower and dressed in a silk, tiger-striped kaftan, figuring that easy-to-take-off clothing would be best and not caring that I looked like a crazy lady from the ’70s.
Sturm arrived first, greeting me with a hearty “Hi!” He was wearing a purple linen tunic that looked like it could have been purchased at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, and sporting severely side-swept bangs. Tall and a lean in a yoga-honed way, Sturm had a toothy grin and when he smiled, feint lines appeared at the corners of his pale blue eyes, almost like whiskers.
He gave me a hug before stepping inside my house. As he was unloading jars of fractionated coconut oil for the massage and aloe vera for “lube” in the bedroom, my friend arrived. She’d brought a keyboard and headphones to entertain herself with, which was a relief because I hoped they would drown out any awkward noises she might hear from me.
I left her in the living room and returned to Sturm who suggested we start the session sitting cross-legged facing one another on the bed. Earlier, when we’d talked on the phone, Sturm had agreed to let me record the yoni massage as it happened, so it was at this point that I brought out my pocket-sized, plastic tool and turned it on.
“Hi,” he said as I folded my legs under me. “Make yourself comfy. This time is just for us to settle in with each other a little bit.”
Oblivious to what was about to go down, my dog Mischa climbed up the foam doggy stairs to my bed and laid down between the two of us. “Oh, hi. Come on in,” Sturm said, smiling.
Using breathing techniques and sweeping motions with our arms, we created a “bubble;” a space, Sturm said, where I was safe and where all of me was welcome. “Whatever comes up, whether it’s hard or good or yummy or rough, it’s part of the experience.”
Sturm then instructed me to help him fill up the bubble with intentions.
“Is there anything we’d like to call into this space together?” he asked.
“Um, what do people normally call in?” I asked, unsure of what to say.
“I’d like to call in acceptance,” Sturm said.
“OK. How about focusing? Relaxation?”
“Love that,” he said, enthusiastically. “We’re filling up this little bubble.”
Even though I normally could care less about mumbo-jumbo spiritual stuff like building a protective bubble, it wasn’t hard to go along with what Sturm was saying. He had an open face and an easy laugh, and I often found myself smiling back at him. He was focused and earnest in his actions — he dedicated the “fruits” of our session to the Hindu god Shiva, the universe, and the “benefit of all things” — but he was also relaxed enough to say things like, “Fuck yeah.” I was amused.
After leading me through a short, seated meditation focused specifically on deep breathing, Sturm turned on some celestial music with his phone, and asked if I was ready for the first part of the session: a back massage.
“You can have any amount of clothing on that you like,” he told me. “If you have bare skin, I can use oils. But I’m totally fine with doing it however you decide. And I usually work in my underwear. Is that OK for you?”
I’ve had massages before, so I was used to getting mostly-naked for them, and I had already been warned about Sturm’s predilection for working in boxers, so I told him that both were fine. But even though I’d disrobed for massages in the past, it was always alone and behind closed doors. This time was different as I was literally stripping in front of another person. For the first time in close to a year, I was almost completely naked in front of someone else besides my boyfriend. It felt both strange and thrilling, and I quickly scrambled on top of the bed, lying on my stomach to hide by breasts from view.
“I’m going to invite you to not only relax, but also to enjoy,” Sturm said, moistening his hands with coconut oil. “Really let yourself receive right now.”
Though light in pressure, the massage felt good. I must have drifted off because it seemed like no time had passed at all before Sturm instructed me to change position and lie on my back. I did as instructed, but kept my eyes closed. It felt awkward lying on my bed with my breasts exposed to a stranger, and even though I knew eye contact was a big part of tantra, I couldn’t keep them open. It was just too intimate.
Every now and then, Sturm interrupted the massage to utter words of encouragements or affirmations like, “You’re doing this” and “I love the way you’re breathing. The little ‘hmmms’ are adorable.”
I noticed that he avoided touching my breasts in the beginning, sweeping his hands in circular motions near, but not on them. Eventually, after massaging both arms and my neck, he returned to my breasts, cupping them in his hands and rubbing his thumbs over my nipples. I felt light-headed and tingly in my hands, due to the constant deep breaths I was taking, and at one point, I experienced sharp pains of hunger. When Sturm started feeling around my abdomen, inching ever closer to my vagina, I felt a sudden urge to pee that lasted for the rest of the session.
I can’t say that I was aroused — at least not psychologically — but I definitely felt “energy” moving around inside me. It was confusing because my body had gone from a place of deep relaxation during the massage to an alert awakening caused by the fondling. But I was committed to seeing this yoni massage through to the end, so when Sturm asked if he could remove my bottoms, I let him, lifting up my hips so that he could slide them off me.
That changed the mood drastically. Suddenly, the massage felt sexual and dirty and decidedly not spiritual. Little did I know it was about to get even more so.
Sturm placed his hand on my bare vagina, instructing me to take a succession of deep breaths and to release them with an audible sigh. “Breath down into your yoni,” he told me. “Let’s try and send more energy down there.”
Then he asked me a question I had not been expecting, one that would end up changing the course of the massage: “What is your favorite kind of sex?”
Instead of answering, I giggled, confused as to why he would ask me that.
He tried again: “Like, do you like it light, gentle, free? Or is it rough? Or sensual?”
Had I been thinking clearly, I would have answered more chastely, but instead I responded factually, as if I were taking a survey of some sort.
“Um, I like it rough,” I said. “Like, I like it when my boyfriend chokes me.”
Realizing that I was giving him the wrong impression lest he think I wanted him to throttle me during our yoni session, I added, “but with a sensual edge, I guess.”
“So how would it feel if I gave you a little bit of that energy?” Sturm replied. “Do you want to go there with me?”
I nodded my head, hoping that he somehow understood what I really meant. I could have spoken up or said something to make sure he knew I didn’t want to be literally banged around, but I kept quiet. I figured I was tough. I figured I could take it, whatever “it” would be.
With one hand, Sturm pinned me down, choking my neck at one point and shoving the side of my face into the pillow. With the other hand, he inserted his fingers into my vagina. As he fingered me, he leaned in close, pressing his face near mine, and I worried he was going to kiss me. He placed my hands on his thighs and I grabbed them as he straddled my body, the wooden bedframe hitting the wall noisily as if we were having sex. My breasts were bouncing up and down, and I was surprised to find myself moaning with pleasure as he thrust his fingers inside of me.
“Oh, there’s that yoni,” Sturm said eventually, his body sticky with sweat. “Now I feel her. Mmmm.”
I wondered if his dick was hard as he fingered me, and I have feeling that had I reached around to check, he wouldn’t have minded. But though I was panting and gyrating my hips, it wasn’t long before I was ready for the violent finger-banging to be over. Even though it felt not-terrible or physically painful, mentally I was dissociated — not aroused in the least and a bit too aware of how weird the whole situation was.
I was ready for Sturm to stop. I knew I would never reach orgasm no matter how long Sturm played with me. Not only is it really difficult for me to experience one, but it’s especially so with a guy I have no sexual history with or attraction to. And let’s not forget that my friend was next door, hearing everything.
“OK, OK, OK,” I said, in an attempt to get him to stop. “That’s good.”
He took the hint and stopped pumping his fingers. For the next few minutes, we did a series of breathing exercises and a short guided meditation, wherein I was told to let my body float, to “just let go.”
With my eyes closed, I had no idea where Sturm’s hands were. I was pretty sure I couldn’t feel them inside of me, but with all of the deep breathing and envisioning he was instructing me to do, I couldn’t be sure.
I let out a few more loud, audible exhales at Sturm’s behest, before he let me rest with my eyes closed for a minute.
“One more deep breath,” he said breaking the short silence. “Then I’m going to remove my fingers, OK?” It turned out, he’d had two of his digits inside of me the whole time.
When he pulled them out, it hurt and felt as uncomfortable as I knew it would. But, given my vaginismus, I was impressed that Sturm had been able to keep his fingers inside of me for so long without me knowing. ‘Was this progress?’ I wondered. ‘If I were to do more sessions with Sturm, might I be able to combat the discomfort I experience whenever things are put inside of me?’
I didn’t have time to dwell on that, because Sturm then laid down next to me to gab about the session.
“Wow, I’m sweating,” he said, flopping down next to me. “That was great though. I just had to understand.”
He was talking about my yoni. He said he’d learned a lot about it through our session, and proceeded to tell me about it.
“So, my perspective on your yoni is that loving, doting attention, she’s, like, fine with it, but it’s not going to get her all juicy and aroused,” Sturm said, telling me things I already knew about my body. “But then, once we brought that other energy in, she was like ‘Boop. I’m open. Let’s go.’ ”
Sturm told me I could improve in the future by keeping my eyes open and making more of a sound when I exhaled because “that can help take you there.” He also told me that at one point, “it seemed to [him] like [I was] pretty close to coming,” which bothered me. How would he know how my body felt inside, let alone what I look or sound like when I’m about to come? It seemed presumptuous to come to such a conclusion about someone you don’t even know, and it struck me as something a guy might say to his friends in the locker room.
I found my panties on the floor and slipped them back on, resuming the cross-legged position we had originally been in to start the session. We swept our arms in the air, symbolizing the closing of the bubble, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that the session was both over and that I could finally go pee. But before I could, Sturm had one last request: “Can I give you a hug?” I obliged.
Because his hands were dirty and he had sweat so much during session, Sturm then said he was going to go wash-up in the bathroom. For reasons I can’t explain, I told him he could take a shower if he wanted to, which he took me up on. I guess sometimes I act hospitable even though that’s far from how I’m feeling at the time.
While he was showering, I rendevouz-ed with my friend, who was in a hurry to leave, because she had a class to teach. But she stayed long enough to ask me one vital question: “Were you guys having sex? Because it sure sounded like it.”
Later, I was in a daze, unable to focus or do any work. I figured my body was just really relaxed — and I did feel exhausted, perhaps from all that deep breathing — but in retrospect, it’s possible I was in shock.
Even though I had given Sturm permission each and every time, I felt violated and tricked. Instead of being rejuvenating, my yoni massage had been stressful. For me, it had been less like getting a massage and more like hooking up.
Maybe I had been naive or too clueless about tantra to think it would be different. But by mirroring the kind of foreplay I liked, Sturm changed the experience from new and sacred to louche and vaguely familiar. And while there were more moments where it felt good, if I had wanted to get finger-banged, I could have just asked my boyfriend.
I didn’t feel any sort of emotional release from it, and I was left with weird feelings about what I had let happen on my bed. I started to wonder if yoni massages were maybe just sex acts shrouded in spirituality, conveniently labeled as “tantric.”
I wanted to get another opinion on this, so I contacted a local sex therapist and educator to see what her thoughts on yoni massages were. Put simply: She wasn’t convinced.
“There’s a lot of tantric exercises that don’t require people to get naked or have hands placed on their genitals,” Quandra Chaffers told me over the phone a few days later. “You can do a lot of that work in different ways.”
For more than 12 years, Chaffers has been working with sexual assault survivors, and she said she had a particularly tough time wrapping her head around the notion that yoni massages could be healing for women who’ve had those experiences. She worried that if trauma survivor were to have one, “they’re just going to get triggered and feel like they’re reliving their sexual assault.”
In fact, in her mind, even people without a fraught sexual past might have a hard time handling a yoni massage. When I told Chaffers that I felt weird and slightly guilty after getting mine, she wasn’t surprised.
“Even without trauma there’s a lot of ways in which your body stores memories,” she said. “And who knows what being touched in a very intimate way might unlock. You may be like, ‘I was never touched as a child. I didn’t expect for me to jump that way.’ ”
Ultimately, what concerned her the most about yoni massages wasn’t the people who are getting them — and whether they can emotionally handle the experience — but the masseuses themselves. Because the procedures are hush-hush and illicit, it’s not like the people doing the massages are certified or have any licenses. As a result, she was “very skeptical” of them.
“They’re just body-workers who are not held to the same standards as, say, a physician or a sex therapist. And that makes me worried, because who’s going to hold them accountable?”
A few days later, while wondering how long it would take for the bruises on my pelvic bone to heal, I remembered something Sturm had said during our phone conversation. Namely, that not every yoni massage is a success.
“Sessions can look so incredibly different,” he’d said. “Some are not the most mind-blowing or cathartic.”
Mine certainly hadn’t been, and I began to wonder how much I’d play a role in preventing that from happening. Maybe I’d had a not-so-amazing time because I had been too skeptical, too “in my head” that I couldn’t fully let myself be a part of it. Or maybe that’s bullshit and it was actually a very weird experience that of course would leave me feeling strange and confused. I wasn’t sure.
Plus, now that I’d spoken with Chaffers, I couldn’t stop thinking about the legality of what I had just experienced. Sure, Sturm might be going to people’s houses under the guise of tantra and emotional rehabilitation, but how does that differ from a prostitute giving a guy a handjob? No matter how you view it, both involve the exchange of money for sexual favors.
I sent Sturm an email inquiring about this, and he responded a day later.
“Sacred spot massage is in a legal gray zone,” Sturm wrote, giving me his approval to mention both his name and company in this article. “But unless there’s wrongdoing or someone gets hurt, the authorities don’t really bother with sexual healers who are genuinely approaching this work from a place of service. They have bigger issues to worry about.”
Still curious, I called the county sheriff’s department to get more answers. I spoke to a sergeant in the special victims unit who had never heard of a yoni massage before and had to look it up online. She clearly did not want to give me an opinion on the matter, dodging my questions on whether one would be considered legal or not. Her only advice was that I look up the definition of prostitution. She told me that might help me out.
It didn’t. Prostitution is defined as performing a sexual act in exchange for payment (which doesn’t just have to be money). But was tantric-finger-banging a sex act? And what exactly counts as a sex act anyways? Different sources cite different meanings. From what I could tell, it could mean going as far as having intercourse to merely experiencing “sexual gratification” with another person.
In the end, it didn’t really matter. I was less concerned about whether Sturm could get arrested, and more intent on finding out if what I’d experienced during our session was normal, or typical, for a yoni massage.
I discovered an 8-minute YouTube video called “I Paid For a Vagina Massage (Legally!)” that had been uploaded by a vlogger in Texas called Krunchy. With candor and an attention to detail, she recounted her first time getting a yoni massage, calling it “probably the biggest emotional roller coaster I have ever been on in my entire life.”
Like me, she had a male practitioner do her massage, but hers had been performed at an office, not in her bedroom. Her session also began with a regular back massage. But she also got a foot bath added in the mix and what sounded like a slightly more intense and spiritual experience than what I’d received from Sturm.
“He grabbed my face and told me that he knew everything about me and that there was nothing I could hide from him,” she said in her vlog. “I’m assuming this was one of his methods to get me to open up a little bit. Because I was failing miserably at that. I was so uncomfortable and that was so not what I expected.”
At the end of the session, they spooned. And Krunchy is not normally the spooning type. When she got home, she took “about five showers.”
“I felt dirty. And not in the way of like, ‘I’m a dirty whore,’ but just in the way of, ‘I got that close and intimate with somebody that I don’t fucking know.’ And that weirds me out,” she said.
I wanted to talk to Krunchy. That was exactly the way I had felt after my yoni massage, and to be honest, it was a relief to hear someone else say that.
When I reached her on the phone, it was August, almost eight months after she’d posted her video to YouTube. And by that point, her perspective on yoni massages had changed — which was not something I had been expecting.
“I get it a little more now,” she told me. “I’m a lot less confused about what’s happening now.”
It turned out that Krunchy went back to the yoni masseuse for another session. And then she went again the next month. And then again and again. All in all, she’d had seven $180 sessions with her masseuse.
During each one, they’d try something different or found new things to work on, like body worship or positivity. The sexual elements of the massages heightened over time, too. Krunchy said she and the masseuse never had sex, but that she had worn an urethral plug “a few times.”
And she was cool with that. In fact, there are a few things Krunchy is now cool with — or at least more cool with — thanks to the yoni massages. They have increased her sense of self-worth, emboldened her to date more, and made her sex life more enjoyable. Krunchy still doesn’t love cuddling, but admitted she wasn’t opposed to doing it with a guy she was hooking up with a few months back.
“After sex, what I experienced changed from complete dissociation because I’m trying to escape emotionally, to actually experiencing more of a high and feeling good about myself.”
Krunchy’s at a point now where the concept of a yoni massage doesn’t strike her as weird anymore.
“If you think about it, there are a lot of people that will go to a hair salon or a bar, and they’ll vent about all of their problems,” she said. “But is that bartender a psychologist? No. So you’re paying them for one service, but using them for a different one, too.”
From Krunchy’s standpoint, that makes sense. Though she was paying for a massage, she was also learning how to love her body and gain self-confidence.
I, on the other hand, am still not sure what I got from my massage (other than this article). As outgoing and adventurous as I think I am, the yoni massage helped me learn that I’ve got more limits to what I’m comfortable with then I’d realized. Letting a strange man put his fingers inside my vagina is one of them.
I could probably work on these issues by giving yoni massages another try, but I don’t think I will. I’d rather sort them out another way — and leave my clothes on next time.