Time for Tantra?
by Grace Welker
“What do you think tantra is?” I begin asking friends and family in the days before the April 2010 Yoga Journal Conference in Boston, where I’ll be taking three days of workshops on tantra. Most shrug and say, “I have no idea.” A few ask, “Isn’t it sexual practices?” A few others, mostly yogis, say, “Well, I don’t really know, but I’m sure it’s more than just sexual practices.” I pack up my yoga mat and laptop and set off to find out—and to write an article about what I learn. How hard could that be?
Answering the question “What is tantra?,” it turns out, is similar to answering the question “What is love?” I quickly discover that tantra is not a single, coherent system, that the distinctions between tantra and yoga can be blurry, and that its practices can be contradictory and are often shrouded in mystery.
On Friday morning, about 100 of us gather in a large room at the Sheraton Hotel for a daylong tantra intensive. I strike up a conversation with Wendy, a quiet engineer from Boston, and Linda, an enthusiastic Anusara Yoga teacher from Colorado, who shares with us that the scholar Douglas Brooks described tantra as “how you engage with the world.”
Throughout the day and over the course of the weekend, I have the opportunity to study with the best-known teachers of tantra in the West: Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Rod Stryker, and Alan Finger. I come to understand that tantra is one of the root sources for understanding what it means to be a human being. At the risk of drastically oversimplifying a tradition that predates yoga by several thousands of years, these are the primary tenets of tantra:
- The worldly and the spiritual are not separate. In tantra, worldly enjoyments are not to be shunned. A fundamental teaching repeated several times throughout the weekend is: “What is here is everywhere. What is not here is nowhere.” As Alan Finger put it, “Every cell in your brain reflects a star in the cosmos.”
- There is great value in worldly power. In tantra, mastery is the ability to move from matter (all the things of the physical world, which are by nature impermanent, including our bodies) to consciousness (which is by nature unchanging), and then bring that back to impact and effect change in the material world.
- The underlying reality of existence is feminine (shakti); this divine feminine force resides in our bodies at the base of the spine and is known as kundalini—tantric practices are designed to awaken this infinitely intelligent, creative, evolutionary energy.
- We are all born with certain limitations. Through tantra, we engage in a process of transformation that, as I heard Gary Kraftsow once put it, “metabolizes dysfunction in body, mind, and speech.”
- The body is the living shrine, and each chakra (energy center) a sacred temple. In other words, to access the Divine, investigate inside.
If some or all of this sounds a lot like yoga, it did to me as well. Panditji, as he is often called, told us in a keynote talk on Saturday that the differences between the two really emerged only in the past 50 years, primarily because of an increased focus on asana as yoga hit the West and required yogis to teach more systematically in response to the needs of Western students with Western minds.
To complicate matters, however, there are numerous tantric paths, and some paths completely contradict others. The bottom line? The particulars of an individual path are less important than the tantra at the core of it (just as the unique aspects of any one couple’s relationship are less important than the love that binds them together).
So, what does all of this have to do with yoga practice?
Tantra offers many practices and technologies. Some are simple; many are complex and highly ritualized (In a Saturday session with Alan, for example, we repeated a particular breath 27 times, then made a particular mudra, working with the bandhas, and a visualization; and then again nine times; you get the idea). Most require a qualified and skillful teacher. All ultimately focus on the awakening and subsequent harnessing of kundalini shakti energy. On Friday, Rod tells us that his first teacher described tantra as “the science of skillful energy management.”
Among the practices of tantra yoga, mantras play an important role. These sacred sounds were traditionally given to students by their teachers (if, like me, you don’t have a guru handy, So hum is a good choice, as is Om). Tantric yoga also includes visualizations, mudras (hand gestures), and breath practices (pranayama), many of which, I notice, tend toward the forceful or intense, such as kapalabhati and bhastrika (If you don’t know what these are, don’t worry—Rod assured us that tantra is all about the mystery).
The physical postures, or asanas, are often practiced in combination with pranayama and bandhas (internal energy locks) and their focus is on the spine, the central channel of energy. All of the teachers point out that the ancients made no reference to standing postures—although tantric yoga in the West can and does include them. In a Saturday session with Rod, we chant Om and move the sound up and down our spines as we come into Triangle Pose, as we hold the pose, and again when we’re sitting in meditation after Savasana. Whether it is this practice or the cumulative effect of two days immersed in tantra, tears start spontaneously streaming down my face, unaccompanied by sadness or despair. The feeling borders on ecstasy. After the class, I ask Rod about the tears. He smiles and says, “That’s the kundalini.”
So, is it time for tantra?
In his Saturday keynote talk, Panditji expressed excitement about the way yoga has evolved in the West. Telling the tale of yoga’s growth here since the 1960s, he noted that profound and diverse methods of asana have developed. “The U.S. is blessed with seeking, and finding, freedom in everything, including yoga.” He then asked where yoga will be in 10 or 15 years. Clearly, yoga therapy and the use of yogic approaches in addressing physical and psychological health and wellness will be important. But what else?
He shared his belief that integrating the knowledge and practices of kundalini can address our most pressing issue. “Through kundalini practices,” he explained, “Western yogis can discover why we are alive in the first place.”
Since the conference, the most obvious change for me is that I’ve been weaving more mantra (an internal So on the inhale and Hum on the exhale) into my practice as well as agni sara (a little more mystery for some of you). The more subtle but really important difference is that I no longer feel guilty about not being more devoted to seeking enlightenment. Ever since I came to yoga, I’ve been more drawn to deepening engagement with the worldly, coming down off the mountain, than to transcending desire and getting off the wheel of life. Tantra is a philosophy that seems to validate my natural way.
Oh, and about the sex.
Some tantric paths do indeed include sexual practices. The pop star Sting had a lot to do with introducing the West to the notion of tantric sexuality, when he boasted of the ability to achieve multiple orgasms. In a later interview, he clarified what he meant by tantra: “It’s about ritualizing a period of the day with your partner; it can be looking at each other, touching each other, running a bath, a massage, deeper levels of connection. Sex is only the surface. Tantra is much too complex for me to discuss. But it’s about reconnecting with the world of the spirit through everyday things.”
And, I would add, about reconnecting with everyday things through the world of spirit.
Grace Welker is a writer and yogini living in New York’s Hudson Valley.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in June 2010 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.