In the late '90s, when Kamala Devi graduated from the University of Arizona, she was dating a woman and had been an active member of a women's bisexual discussion group on campus. She'd also fallen in love with her yoga teacher, who happened to be man.
The lesbian community she'd identified with in college wasn't thrilled about that development, she said. "As embraced as bisexuality was, it wasn't that you could see a man and a woman. You had to choose."
Devi didn't choose. Instead, with the consent of her partners, she openly dated them both.
"It was scary, because that meant a de-identification with the lesbian identity, and I was estranged from a lot of the community."
That willingness to defy convention started an adventure that, years later, would lead the 38-year-old to own her own business in San Diego as a sex-and-relationships coach, as well as becoming a nationally recognized activist for polyamorous lifestyles.
As distinguished from swinging or partner-swapping, polyamory is the practice of having multiple intimate relationships. There are a number of variations, including a "triad" with three committed partners and "mono / poly," in which one partner is monogamous.
Her first experience with multiple committed partners was "confusing," Devi said. "It was also liberating. I had this experience of all my needs being met."
Shortly after college, she and her male partner moved to Hawaii where they joined an artist commune. Among other things, Devi worked as the director of the gay and lesbian pride festival in Honolulu.
"It was just a field of permission," she said. "People were experimenting and exploring. The environment was really ripe for non-conventional relating."
In an effort to represent a wide variety of lifestyles in the festival, Devi reached out to a local dominatrix, who ended up offering her work. For nine months, Devi worked as a dom, doling out lashes to rich businessmen and other clients.
"It was a profound experience for me, because what I realized is these men were getting healing, sexual healing," she said. "It was obvious when I put my hands on a client that I had a gift."
After two years, Devi took off traveling through Southeast Asia, Europe and China, where she continued to study yoga, as well as Hindu-derived teachings known as Tantra, which focus on meditative and sexual practices.
"It was the spiritual aspects that called me most," she said. "Maybe the hedonism was a little off-balance in my island exploration, and so I started to pursue the yogic and the Tantric path.
"It was looking for spiritual teaching that could contain the sexual," she added. "The early explorations didn't have spirituality as a context."
In her late 20s, she found herself at a Tantric event in San Diego, where she met her "beloved" of now 12 years, Michael McClure. Together they started teaching yoga and became active in the local poly community.
Working at a yoga studio in Coronado, Devi remembered holding a workshop where folks asked more questions about sex than yoga. Shortly after, she founded a business for women and couples: Kamala Devi Sex & Relationship Coach.
"Genuinely speaking, our work is to just allow people to express themselves sexually more, and they get healed," she said.
While such coaching existed in San Diego before Devi started her business, she said demand far outstripped supply.
"We have insufficient sex education," she said. "Sex is such a huge part of everybody's life, and it's as if you're supposed to pick things up from the locker room when you went to school or porn online. And these are really unsatisfactory sources of guidance."
Today, a lot of people come to Devi's business wanting to have more intense orgasms, but that's a misguided approach, she said.
"The journey begins when we aren't chasing the orgasm, when we recognize when there's no moment more connected and fulfilling than another moment, so we really drop into the presence in lovemaking, and that's a whole practice and paradigm shift," she said. "It's a de-association with the goal."
At the same time, with a "pod" of about a dozen lovers, Devi and her husband McClure over the last two years participated in a reality TV show on Showtime called Polyamory: Married and Dating .
The show follows a number of people as they grapple with the complications of being in a polyamorous relationship. Jealousy, confusion and hurt feelings are staple themes. However, openly discussing ethical boundaries and confronting one's own emotions is part of the practice and something that shouldn't be taken lightly, Devi said.
"If you try alternative relationships without community support, it's lonely and dangerous," she said. "The mainstreaming is flowing in one direction, and if you're going to go in a different direction, you can't do that alone."
Perhaps partly because of the show's heavy use of sex scenes, Devi gets a lot of questions about sex addiction and polyamory.
Similar to people in monogamous communities, some polyamorous folks engage in "sexual escapism," she said. "For people who are healing their wounds, their pain, and there's shame and their guilt, there's sometimes an indulgence, and they may lose sight of the wholeness."
However, many people benefit from having more sex, she said. "We live in such a sexually repressed culture that the norm is shame and fear. Anything that moves someone in the direction of more permission, more sexual flow is moving them towards their birthright."
Beyond her individual and couples coaching, Devi holds regular workshops on tantric orgasm and shamanic sexuality and directs the San Diego Tantric Theater. Annually, she puts together a four-day retreat called "Poly Palooza."
The polyamorous and Tantric community San Diego has grown over recent years, she said. "We're waking up to the idea that sexuality's no longer binary."