One night Vasugupta, a great sage believed to have lived during the latter half of the eighth century, had a dream in which Lord Shiva appeared. Shiva instructed the sage to visit a nearby mountain called Mahadevgiri, where he would find 77 sutras (verses) under a rock. When he awoke, Vasagupta did as he was told. He found the sutras—they revealed a path to samadhi (spiritual liberation) through a philosophy and a powerful practice of meditation that, together, were known as Tantra—and began to teach them to others.
According to a branch of Tantra called Kashmir Shaivism, that is how one of their central texts, the Shiva Sutras, came about. But great debate surrounds the origins, history, and practice of the complex and at times controversial body of knowledge known as Tantra. "There are widely different Tantric texts," says meditation teacher Sally Kempton, "and different philosophical positions taken by Tantrikas," or practitioners of Tantra. One core aspect of Tantric philosophy that's taught in the West, however, remains consistent: That aspect is nondualism, or the idea that one's true essence (alternatively known as the transcendental Self, pure awareness, or the Divine) exists in every particle of the universe.
In the nondualist belief system, there is no separation between the material world and the spiritual realm. Although as humans we perceive duality all around us—good and bad, male and female, hot and cold—these are illusions created by the ego when, in fact, all opposites are contained in the same universal consciousness. For Tantrikas, that means that everything you do and all that you sense, ranging from pain to pleasure and anything in between, is really a manifestation of the Divine and can be a means to bring you closer to your own divinity. "In Tantra, the world is not something to escape from or overcome, but rather, even the mundane or seemingly negative events in day-to-day life are actually beautiful and auspicious," says Pure Yoga founder Rod Stryker, a teacher in the Tantric tradition of Sri Vidya. "Rather than looking for samadhi, or liberation from the world, Tantra teaches that liberation is possible in the world."
Until as recently as a hundred years ago, Tantra was a practice that was shrouded in mystery because it was passed down orally from teacher to initiated student. Some of the streams are highly secretive, and many Hindu Tantric texts haven't even been translated into English. But the second half of the 20th century brought a group of dedicated teachers who started to make the teachings better known, such as Swami Lakshmanjoo, thought by some to be the reincarnation of the famous 10th-century Tantric master Abhinava Gupta. Meanwhile Swamis Muktananda and Chidvilasananda spread their approaches to Tantra through the Siddha Yoga tradition in the West. Today their students—like Stryker, Kempton, and John Friend (along with other popular Western teachers like Swami Chetananda and John Hughes)—are fervently leading a Tantric renaissance in the West, and translations of influential texts such as Spanda Karika, Vijnana Bhairava, and the Shiva Sutras have become widely available in English.
Although most modern yogis won't get initiated into a secret lineage or practice the subtler aspects of Tantra, the essence of the philosophy remains relevant for 21st-century life. In fact, many teachers find that incorporating Tantra into their teaching is empowering and inspiring for Western students who are trying to live a spiritual life.
Tantra is not a philosophy that requires a modern-day householder to renounce the world by giving up family, job, possessions, and pleasures. Instead, it emphasizes personal experimentation and experience as a way to move forward on the path to self-realization.
A Brief History
If you hear about Tantra in your yoga class, you're probably learning about Hindu Tantra. (There is also a Buddhist stream, known as Vajrayana Buddhism). Within Hindu Tantra, there are hundreds of branches, schools, and lineages. Some of the better known are Kashmir Shaivism, an umbrella term for several schools that originated in South India; the Kaula School, which views the body as a vehicle for liberation; Shakta traditions that worship the feminine; and radical "left-handed" schools like the modern-day Neo-Tantra School, which has given Tantra its reputation for sex-enhancing rituals.
At the heart of most of these schools lies the idea of awakening kundalini, thought to be a feminine, dynamic energy in the form of a serpent lying dormant at the base of the spine. Many of the ancient Tantric practices focused on bringing that dormant energy to life by moving it upward, through the seven chakra (energy centers) in the body. The majority of students today focus less on a full kundalini awakening and instead concentrate on bringing the subtle body (also known as the "energy body") into a state of balance.
Like much else in yoga's history, Tantra's origins are still debated. Some scholars believe that it began in the Indus Valley (Pakistan and northwestern India) between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago, when the earliest yoga texts, the Vedas, were written. But Tantra did not come into common practice until the fourth century, after Patanjali's classical yoga flourished.
Why did Tantra come about in the first place? Renowned yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein believes it was a response to a period of spiritual decline, also known as Kali Yuga, or the Dark Age, that is still in progress today. According to this theory, powerful measures were needed to counteract the many obstacles to spiritual liberation, such as greed, dishonesty, physical and emotional illness, attachment to worldly things, and complacency. Tantra's comprehensive array of practices, which include asana and Pranayama as well as mantra (chanting), pujas (deity worship), kriyas (cleansing practices), mudras (seals), and mandalas and yantras (circular or geometric patterns used to develop concentration), offered just that. Also, Tantra wasn't exclusively practiced by the noble Brahman class. It gained power and momentum by being available to all types of people—men and women, Brahmans and laypeople, could all be initiated.
One yoga scholar, Richard Rosen, explains Tantra's emergence as simply a response to a confluence of cultural forces: "People were trying out new things because the old things were no longer working. Energy, especially feminine energy, was percolating in the collective unconscious, and it found an outlet at a certain time in history to express itself."
A Divine Tapestry
One common philosophical thread runs through the intricately woven tapestry of Tantra lineages, schools, and streams: The belief that everything is divine. "Tantra believes that there is literally no particle of reality that isn't capable of revealing ecstasy and that everything that exists is full of light and awareness," says Kempton, who is from the Siddha Yoga lineage. This idea is radically different from those of the other two schools of Indian philosophy that you might hear about in yoga class: Patanjali's classical yoga (also known as ashtanga yoga, or the eight limbs of yoga), and Advaita Vedanta. Most scholars agree that Patanjali was dualist and therefore believed that the divine, spiritual realm was separate from the everyday world. Vedantists, like Tantrikas, are nondualist, but they perceive the world as an illusion.
Anusara founder John Friend, also from the Siddha Yoga lineage, uses the analogy of watching a sunset to differentiate between the three streams: A classicalist might quiet the mind and withdraw his senses to gain freedom from the material world and access the spiritual. A Vedantist regards the sunset as being part of the spiritual world but believes that seeing it as a sunset is an illusion. A Tantrika recognizes the sunset for what it is in the regular world but sees it as part of the divine whole. What's more, she fully delights in the experience while it lasts. "You really appreciate the beauty of the light and the gorgeous colors," Friend says. "It's a practice of deepening sensitivity."
Although they differ, these traditions certainly overlap: "It [Tantra] profoundly influenced the outlook and practices of many non-Tantric traditions, such as Vedanta," writes Georg Feuerstein in Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. "Often practitioners of those traditions have been unaware of that influence and might even be offended at the suggestion that they engage in typically Tantric practices."
Our Bodies, Our Selves
Another difference between Tantra and classical yoga is Tantra's body-positive view. Since the body exists in the material world, the classical yoga viewpoint is that it is inferior to the transcendental Self or spirit. Tantra views the body as a manifestation of spirit. By making the body pure and strong through asana and by uniting the universe of opposites within your body, it can become a vehicle for ending suffering and attaining liberation. "For the first time, the body became a temple rather than being the albatross around the Self's neck," Rosen says. Friend agrees. "As soon as you like your body, it's pretty much Tantric," he says. "You see the beauty and the Divine in it."
Unfortunately, Tantra's loving embrace of the body and the existence of "left-handed" schools that use ritual sexual practices have led many to equate Tantra with sex. The fact is, Tantra's attitude toward sex falls in line with its main philosophy that every aspect of life is a gateway to the Universal—if done in a healthy way with the right intention.
"The point is not just eat, drink, and be merry, with no consequences, but it's having a moment-to-moment response to the energy," says yoga teacher Shiva Rea. She uses the example of chocolate: It can be eaten addictively, but if someone offers it to you at the right time, it's an "absolute alchemical and divine experience invoked with meaning." The same idea can also be applied to sex: When it's done with the right intention—the intention of uniting opposite energies—it can be used to express joy and unity.
Teaching Tantra Today
The main way to make the body a vehicle for liberation is to practice asana. Modern yoga teachers who practice Tantra employ different approaches, but the bottom line is always the same: Hatha practice helps develop awareness of the subtle body and then works toward balancing the body's energy to create more physical and mental ease. To this end, Stryker creates asana sequences that focus on refining, balancing, and enlivening the energy landscape of his students. He follows this with pranayama, visualization, and chanting, which he says flows almost effortlessly once the energy has shifted. "Breathing becomes refined, and if everything comes together, the alchemy of the different elements creates Tantra. Then we start to see the world in all its glory," he says.
In his teaching, Friend places importance on learning the Anusara Yoga Universal Principles of Alignment, which teach students to properly align their muscles and bones in the poses. Friend believes that finding the correct physical alignment in asanas allows energy to flow more freely and ultimately promotes creativity and freedom both on and off the mat. "Instead of trying to control or subjugate the body, you try to align it with the bigger flow of the universe, so that you can experience bliss." Friend is also known for incorporating a positive, loving, and heart-centered approach. He encourages his teachers to remember that the body is divine—no matter how stiff or out of shape—so that they can celebrate each student. "We can really find the good and the beauty in each person right from the beginning," he says.
Rea's study of the Kashmir Shaivite school called Spanda—which means "vibration" and focuses on the idea that the universe is constantly pulsing or vibrating rather than static— has greatly influenced the way she teaches asanas. "Pulsation is not bound by ideas but has its own organic intelligence," she says. "The way I teach is an expression of this pulsation, so it's literally the experience of thawing out poses and allowing organic movement and breath to become the guiding force of the yoga practice." It is the idea of this constant pulsation that led Rea to create Trance Dance, a freeform mixture of dance and yoga that she teaches around the world.
The theme of energy transformation weaves through many of the Tantric practices, including meditation. According to Kempton, one of the core Tantric insights is that a word, an idea, or a thought can be a pathway to the fundamental energy of your being. Using this idea, she teaches her students how to work with the energy of a thought. "Instead of trying to eliminate thoughts, you learn how to feel the energetic pulsation within a thought," Kempton says. "As you become more attentive to the feeling space created by a thought, the field of your mind becomes more refined, until it becomes pure awareness."
Tantra meditation emphasizes an active approach; instead of observing your thoughts, you focus on visualizations or silently chant mantras. Many Tantric practitioners also choose a deity to embody as a way of focusing the mind.
It's a Beautiful Life
In addition to asana, pranayama, and meditation, today's teachers believe that you can tease out aspects of the Tantric philosophy to help live daily life to the fullest. The ancient texts gave detailed advice on how to walk, save money, cook, set a table, and pick flowers with the greatest amount of joy and connection to spirit. This approach makes it possible to maintain a spiritual practice while living in the world.
Tantra's nondualist approach, with its emphasis on the oneness of all things, can be especially helpful during polarized times. "Tantra is a systematic way of transforming and transmuting our dualistic tendencies," Kempton says. Take the current war in Iraq: While a natural tendency is to choose one camp or the other, Tantra allows you to both hold an antiwar view and the possibility that another view might have merit. From that place of nonattachment you can analyze things from a unified viewpoint, understanding that we are all part of the tapestry, trying to come to a sense of unity. "Tantra doesn't tell you not to fight or argue," says Kempton. "It says, 'Fight if you need to, argue if you need to. But do it within a context of understanding that we are all part of the same fabric.'"
Ultimately, the teachers popularizing Tantra's ideas in the West like Kempton, Friend, and Stryker see Tantra as the next step in America's spiritual evolution. It's a philosophy that makes sense for the many Westerners who have the privilege of living a comfortable life without worrying about basic survival. "We find ourselves asking, 'Now what?'" says Friend. "Now we can actually turn our attention to living life fully." According to Friend, spiritual practice need not be austere and dry, but should instead be filled with joy.
"That's very radical," Kempton points out. "Many Eastern traditions seem to regard bliss as something slightly childish that you are supposed to get beyond in your spiritual life. Tantra says that bliss isn't just good—bliss is God. It's an intrinsic quality of reality." Stryker agrees. "Tantra's core idea is very distinct from other spiritual traditions, which say our goal is to cloister ourselves away from the world because it is the domain of suffering, sin, and illusion," he says. "Tantra is a quite unique, powerful, and meaningful stance to take. It's a bold statement to say that in light of so much suffering, disaster, and fear, the world is actually a beautiful place."
A former editor at Yoga Journal, Nora Isaacs is a freelance magazine writer, ghostwriter, and book editor in San Francisco. She is the author of Women in Overdrive.