These days, people hear talk of ‘tantra’ and immediately jump to associate sacred sexuality, the Kama Sutra, and the famed carvings on temples in India depicting wild, sensual acts. That might draw you in, or it may send you running in the other direction! In truth, this is only one small part of the whole — akin to hearing the word ‘car’ and thinking only of the steering wheel. When you put it that way, seems silly, right?
So what is tantra really all about?
The tantric path has a long and somewhat confusing history. The word itself means “weave” (tan) or, according to the Yoga Sutras, “principle or main”. It shows up in a number of ancient texts in the Hindu and Vedic traditions, but never in reference to a practice or ritual – just a descriptor of something else. So how does this translate into an entire lineage of practice, much less one now so closely associated with… sex?
Well, that’s the part that gets confusing. By the 10th century, an extensive body of writing had been done around Tantric practices, but nobody really knows who wrote them or why. Over time the practices and beliefs influenced and were influenced by, predominant Buddhist and Hindu theologies. That means there are many lines and sub-categories, like “Left Hand” and “Right Hand” tantra.
But let’s not get too complex here.
At the risk of oversimplifying, tantra is the belief that all aspects of life can be sacred when imbued with that intention.
Sounds pretty good right? So keep in mind that tantra was born in a time of heavy focus on renunciation and asceticism! You might imagine it as a response, an invitation not to label aspects of earthly experience as bad or evil, but instead to welcome them as part of the spirit’s experience in an earth-body. Tantra welcomes the physical, the sensuous, the playful, the full range of emotion, the sacredness of women, and so on: all the things that, it seems, were vilified in early religions experience.
If they think it’s evil, we’ll make it sacred.
So what does this mean in practice? You might encounter tantra yoga, which seeks to explore the full range of human experience: the physical, the energetic, mental/emotional, wisdom, and the bliss body. Through asana, sung or chanted mantra, mudras, and intentional work with the Chakra energy centers of the body, the practitioner is invited to use the physical sense experience as an intentional gateway to enlightenment and connection with the Divine. This stands in contrast to many wisdom traditions’ emphasis on transcending the physical — and for many, is a welcome change. After all, we have bodies: why fight them?
If sacred sexuality does indeed speak to you, you can expect to learn more than just sexual techniques or practices. In welcoming the entirety of human experience as sacred, sexuality is included as a gateway to experiencing the Divine. In the context of a retreat or workshop, this means re-learning or re-framing one’s relationship to sexuality in all its forms: coupled, as well as the creative energy within yourself. Prepare to have your concepts of intimacy broadened, deepened, and sanctified in ways you may not have ever imagined.
If everything in our experience can be attuned to a sacred vibration than just about anything can be a step on the path to enlightenment. In this way, tantra makes all of life into a spiritual journey to Divine connection.