The most common associations with the word tantra are either funky sex positions and endless love-making or funny exercises with breathwork, eye gazing and super-slow touch.
Many tantra teachers remember to mention that tantra is only about 5-10% sex and sexuality. But the focus tends to be on sexuality. Why? Maybe because it’s interesting to many and it sells.
According to Christopher Wallis, a Sanskrit scholar and a yogi, there are no references to sex or sexuality in traditional tantra – except for the Maithuna ritual, which is like a strictly orchestrated religious ceremony.
Some teachers say that there are sexual practices described in Kashmiri Shaivism teachings, but I have not yet gotten the chance to learn these. It is probable that they are kept secret like many esoteric teachings are, and only revealed to the initiated.
But can we find a link between traditional tantra and more body-sensual-sexual oriented neo-tantra?
The goal of tantra
The ultimate goal of tantra is to become aware of one’s own true nature, the True Self. All traditional tantric techniques help us to walk towards this goal. By practicing yoga asanas we can identify and let go of unnecessary tension and by reciting mantras we can purify the mind. We let go of whatever is not necessary.
In my recent article about tantric yoga I wrote about letting go:
Asana is about letting go. It’s about learning to relax,
learning to identify the tension in our bodies,
and choosing to let go of all that is not necessary – consciously.
If while doing these practices we believe we are somehow flawed or incomplete, this can actually hinder the natural expression of our true nature. That’s why traditional tantric yoga teaches that we are already Masters. Everything is here already.
The sensual exercises of neo-tantra
If you have ever attended a contemporary tantra workshop, sometimes called neo-tantra, you are probably familiar with eye-gazing, circulating energy and conscious touch exercises. These may be nice and even liberating, but is there really a point there? What can you get from these exercises?
For many, sexuality is an area of life where there’s a lot of tension: guilt, shame, abuse… Any exercise that is touching this area is likely to bring up some issues in the form of emotions or memories.
Normally the tantra workshops do not involve sex as such. There are many exercises that revolve around our ability and skill to relate to others, both in a physical and a non-physical way.
If we can do exercises that touch us deeply in a safe and supportive environment, we can fully feel the emotions they trigger and then choose to let go. It’s like reprogramming the brain: this event caused contraction when it happened, but now I’m different and the situation is different, so I don’t have to react in the same way.
Letting go does not necessarily happen all at once. Some issues can be very deep-rooted and our psyche has protected us by hiding them from our conscious awareness. Many of the emotions do not last for a very long time if we allow ourselves to feel them fully and do not cling to them with our mind. Try this next time you feel jealous or angry: really feel it, dive into it, allow it to be there fully. And don’t get caught in the stories in your head.
An example of a simple exercise that can trigger various responses: you’re facing your practice partner some meters away. One of you is standing steady, and another is approaching. The one standing gives hand signals about when to take a step or when to stop, or even to back off a bit. How does it feel when the other person is approaching you? How does it feel when you are told to stop? What happens if you do not get to meet your partner? Do you feel abandoned, rejected?
Almost any exercise can bring up things when done consciously and mindfully, given enough time. Someone can remind us of our ex-partner, or our parents. Or an exercise can remind of us of some past event that we had long forgotten.
The importance of sharing
In many tantra workshops that I have attended, there’s a sharing – either with your practice partner or with everyone in the group. You simply share your experience out loud.
I always advise sharing from the place of I. What did I experience? How did this feel to me? And if people drift to stories, I gently ask them to come back to their own experience or bodily feeling.
It may feel awkward to become visible, to take space and to share publicly like that, but it is really good for the purpose of letting go. Once you can share what you have felt and experienced, often the issue will start to lose its grip on your being – especially if you can connect with the feeling behind it.
If the facilitator is skillful and attentive, they can help you get to the core of the issue with simple coaching questions or by helping you to become more aware of what’s going on in your body. It’s nothing to be afraid of, but trust here is essential. The workshop space should be safe and confidential.
Intention and consecration
Setting an intention is equally important. Why do you want to do what you do? Setting an intention is like programming your unconscious mind to see things from a different perspective. If your intention is enjoying sensuous touch, that’s great. Just become aware of the why. And it’s a great intention to let go of all that’s no longer serving you!
I like to do a consecration before any event or session I organize. Simply put, in the consecration I offer the fruits and merits of the oncoming actions to the higher good. It’s the same when I do healing. There’s no way I can know what the other person needs, so I give up even trying to figure that out, and I offer the healing session to the Absolute. Then whatever happens is good – of course given I keep my ego and agenda out of the way.
In this way, I think that neo-tantra can serve a greater purpose than just pleasure. It can help us to become whole and to realize more of our true nature. It’s an interesting and fun way to explore your Self, and it’s definitely an easy step to take – compared to a full-on dedicated spiritual practice.
I think that this kind of practice can take you further on the path, but you may find that to realize the Absolute something more is needed. I don’t know for sure yet!
Here you can read my personal story: What I have learned through tantra.