When you hear the phrase Tantric Yoga, do you imagine Sting and Trudy in impossible sex poses? There’s a lot of misinformation out there about Tantric Yoga: the Kama Sutra; that it’s a way to induce a nine-hour orgasm; and a pick-up scene for swingers who claim a “heightened spirituality”.
To clarify, let’s use a metaphor. Imagine yoga as a great tree, with branches spreading out from the trunk. Each branch is a kind of yoga:
- Hatha, yoga of the body and breath
- Bhakti, the yoga of devotion
- Karma, the yoga of action
- Jnana, the yoga of knowledge
- Raja, the yoga focusing on the eight limbs of yoga , and
- Tantra, the yoga of sacred ritual
Most physical yoga—Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Forrest, etc.—all extend out from the Hatha branch. There’s no hierarchy here; all branches are tools to help the practitioner reach a state of unending connection with the Divine (lower blood pressure, a calm nervous system, and a tight butt are just positive byproducts).
With that in mind, Tantra is a specific, yogic approach to life that involves a deep connection with the elements, Ayurveda (literally, “the science of life”, a system of holistic wellness and preventative health care), meditation, and ritual.
According to Sally Kempton’s Awakening Shakti, the word Tantra can be broken into two parts, tan, meaning “to expand or develop” and tra, which means “instrument,” and “to save, liberate or redeem.” Tantra also means to weave together. Tantra seeks to weave together the sacred and the mundane. Tantric elements exist not just in Indian traditions, but also have similarities in Buddhist, Taoist, Kabbalah and Gnostic Christianity traditions.
Tantra shares sacred texts with Hinduism, but you don’t need to be a Hindu, or any religion, to practice Tantra. Tantra teaches that reality is non-dual: the physical world around us, the individual, and what Kempton calls “‘transcendent reality’” aren’t separate from one another, but instead all exist as connected versions of each other.
The universe is a macrocosm to your own body’s microcosm. The divine is present in all things—Capital-D or lowercase-d as you see fit. Tantra doesn’t have anything to do with commandments, dietary restrictions, holy wars, or being saved by a great bearded white man who lives in the sky. It’s a philosophy that holds that the human body is the space wherein the divine dwells, and can be a vehicle for connection.
Tantra states that our bodies aren’t shells to be overcome and transcended; all of our physical and emotional experiences can become sacred. Writes Georg Feuerstein writes in Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy: “the body… is the field in which we grow and harvest our experiences, which may be positive or negative, painful or pleasant. While negative, painful experiences do not bring us immediate joy, they do so in the long run because—if we are wise—we relate to them rightly by regarding them as useful lessons.” A lovely meal, a lover’s embrace, a physical or emotional injury, even an evocative work of art—all of these can help us connect to that Reality.
In some Tantra traditions, these sacred experiences include sexual rituals. (Okay, kinksters, this is where sacred sex comes into play.) Followers engage in sexual practices as an embodiment of Shiva, the energy of consciousness, and Shakti, the energy of creation.
Because they’re often represented as masculine and feminine avatars, the fusion of these two divine qualities can result in metaphysical knockin’ boots. There is some sexual ritual involved, but don’t get it twisted. A night of passion that makes you howl like a wolf doesn’t mean that you’ve had a Tantric experience.
Feuerstein writes that Western texts espousing Tantric sexual practices and confusing Tantric bliss with orgasm are often missing the point. “These publications may conceivably be helpful to people looking for a more fulfilling or entertaining sex life, but… instead of awakening a person’s impulse to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, they tend to foster narcissism, self-delusion, and false hopes.”
The element that all schools of Tantra share in common is the Universal Shakti: the divine feminine, the source of all power in all reality. The power to create, to move to do and undo, lives in Shakti, the divine feminine that is the engine for all reality.
For clarity on this idea, I turn to Marcelyn Cole, a Tantric yoga teacher in Chicago. “Shakti, the Divine Goddess in the Tantric tradition, is the manifesting power,” she says. “It’s active, it makes things happen, it’s the force. Shiva, the more masculine, is the un-manifest, the potential. The power of manifestation is considered the power of the goddess.”
This might sound a little hetero or binary, but the idea beyond gender of the divine is that the conscious, potential stillness of Shiva and the active, dynamic energy of Shakti are present in all of us. “We all have both. We all have all of it. We need those in balance in order to be balanced people.”
In her classes, Cole works to provide students with experiences that include the elements—fire, water, earth, air and space—the seasons, the weather and Ayurvedic principles in order to help students achieve balance. Knowing your dosha, or Ayurveda constitution and doing practices with your dosha, the time of day, or year in mind can help you achieve balance.
Ayurveda says that we’re attracted to the foods, tastes, and practices that throw us further out of balance. (Blame that a.m. coffee craving on your Kapha nature, or your hot yoga addiction on your Pitta quality.) “Practice things depending on your constitution, and on the time of day or season. If it’s evening, do something that’s going to take you into a calmer state; if it’s morning, do something that’s going to wake you up. If you’re feeling sluggish or depressed, doing practices that are more enlivening; if you’re feeling anxious, expansive, overwhelmed, doing practices that are going to ground you.”
This sounds pretty esoteric, but Cole says they have a practical application that can heighten awareness and progression in daily life. “You can be powerful in the world with yourself and be spiritual. Tantra can help you get calm and connected and you become more compassionate, and use your power for good. We can be healthy, happy, powerful and spiritual. That’s what Tantra can do for people at its best.”
To try out a Tantric meditation on your own, check this meditation, excerpted from Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga by Sally Kempton:
Meditation: The Goddess as Your Own Body
This meditation is a way to recognize the omnipresent sacredness of the body by connecting it to the Goddess who is its source. With this meditation, you might want to read it through completely, then practice it. Or, you can record yourself reading it and play it back.
Find a place where you can sit quietly, without being disturbed, for at least fifteen minutes. Sit in a comfortable position, with your spine erect but not rigid. You may also practice this meditation lying on your back, perhaps on a mat on the floor, supporting your neck with a small pillow, and placing a pillow under your knees.
Close your eyes, and bring your awareness to your breath. Have the understanding that your breath is being breathed by a vast and loving presence, the Shakti of the life-force. Let yourself be breathed. This is the Goddess as the power of breath, the life-force of the universe, who breathes through every living thing.
Be aware now of the flesh and bones of your physical body. Consider that your skin is made of vibrating energy particles and that these energies are the goddess herself, vibrating as the skin of your body. Think of leaves, of bark, of the outer coverings of seeds, of the topsoil of the earth. Consider that all these are forms of skin and that they are made of energy—energy that is the essence of the Goddess.
Consider your bones. Consider how the solidity of your bones mirrors the solidity of rock, of earth. Consider the other fleshy elements in your body, the organs and fat, and recognize that they too are filled with energy, made of energy, made of particles of Shakti, which is the Goddess.
Consider your blood and the other fluids in your body. Consider the fact that three-fourths of your body is fluid. Consider also the rivers and oceans of the world. Realize that the fluids in your body and the waters of the world are made of energy and that this energy is the Goddess.
Consider the air you breathe, the air inside your lungs. Realize that the air is filled with particles of energy, particles of the Goddess. Be aware of the space inside your body, inside your cells, the space around you, the space within every object in your environment. Realize that space is energy, and that energy is the transformation of the Goddess in the physical world.
With your eyes closed, imaginatively recognize that your body is made of goddess energies. Look into your mind, and sense the thoughts and emotions rising and subsiding in your inner space. Realize that these too are subtle energy—fluid, ever-changing aspects of Shakti. Shakti has become your body and your mind. Shakti has become the world.
Meditate with the thought that the Goddess has become your body and mind. Meditate on the Goddess as the world. Recognize that all the movements, changes and shifts in this universe are movements of Shakti. Let yourself feel the rhythm of the breath. Allow yourself to be breathed by the energy, the Shakti in the atmosphere. Recognize that the energy that breathes you, the air that you breathe, the body and its energy, the thoughts that pass through your mind—all these are Shakti. Shakti is living your life.
Rest in this recognition.