Rob and Kelly McKay grew up in the same small Southern town. His father was a military man; hers was a minister. Duty was an important word in both of their households, and it applied to just about everything—including sex.
“I grew up with the message that sex was a duty that a wife does for her husband,” Rob says. “That didn’t seem quite right, but I didn’t know anything different.”
“For a long time, I hadn’t been happy with our sex life,” Kelly admits. (Names and some biographical details have been changed to preserve subjects’ privacy.) “We were still pretty much repeating what we did 25 years ago when we were inexperienced kids. There wasn’t much for me to like.”
Then Kelly learned about tantric sex workshops from a friend. She didn’t immediately warm up to the idea, but she knew she wanted an intimate relationship with Rob that had more depth than duty.
“I didn’t just want sex,” she says. “I wanted to connect with my heart in a loving, sexual act. And a Tantra seminar seemed like the perfect place to learn.”
She signed them up for a workshop.
In search for a deeper connection
In the past, couples like Rob and Kelly might have sought a marriage counselor, consulted a sex therapist, or read up on the work of sex researchers Masters and Johnson to help them revitalize their love life. But an increasing number of couples (and singles, too) have turned to Tantra workshops in an effort to infuse more love and passion into their relationships.
The modern “sacred sexuality” movement draws its inspiration and techniques from the same ancient spiritual tradition of the Indian subcontinent that spawned most of the practices we now know as hatha yoga. These sacred sexuality teachings incorporate ideas and techniques from the human potential movement workshops that have been evolving since the ’60s, from pre-modern Taoist and Middle Eastern sexual teachings, from India’s extensive texts on the sexual arts (including the famous Kama Sutra), and from mainstream sex therapy.
Not everyone seeking a consciously spiritual approach to sex are motivated by sexual dissatisfaction. Rob and Kelly were looking for what many couples seek from a Tantric workshop—to reinvigorate their relationship, deepen their level of intimacy, and ultimately to have more satisfying sex. People like them, who already have satisfactory sex lives, may want an experience has the potential to provide them with deeper connection with each other.
See also: Is Partner Yoga the New Couples Therapy?
What is Tantra?
An internet search of the word “Tantra” reveals workshops, individual classes, even entire festivals that offer what couples like the McKays are looking for: a stronger intimate connection and deeper sensual pleasure. These experiences promise participants instruction in the arts of lovemaking and techniques that will help them achieve sexual intimacy.
When we hear the word Tantra, we’re usually talking about Tantric sex. But this “sexy” side of Tantra is a Westernized and often commercialized evolution of a centuries-old philosophy and practice that emerged from Asia. While some of those original spiritual and ritual practices included developing pathways to physical pleasure and heightened desire, Tantra was originally about awakening the chakras and achieving the ultimate bliss: connection to the divine.
Every school of yoga has its own particular process and practice for achieving spiritual growth and insight, and reaching a higher state of being. For Tantrikas, practitioners of Tantra, awakening and activating desire was one of many tools to achieve this bliss beyond the physical body.
Yogic practices are often associated with retreat, self study, and inward-looking practices. Practitioners seek silence and solitude to create space for the Divine to enter. Tantra does the opposite; it is a yoga of human connection. The practice promises contact with the divine through deeply intimate connection with one another.
Charles Muir, a long-time teacher of Tantric methods, says, “Relationship is the ultimate yoga. If you’re in a relationship, it is a yoga, a spiritual pathway. Relationship will bring up every lesson you need to learn.”
Tantric sex, then, uses sexual union as a gateway for spiritual enlightenment. The teachings claim to unite sex and spirituality in a transcendent mix that can transform sexual relationships into both physical ecstasy and a path to personal growth, liberation, and enlightenment.
History of Tantra
Tantra began to blossom as a movement within both Buddhism and Hinduism around A.D. 500, reaching its fullest flowering 500 to 700 years later. It challenged religious orthodoxy and idealistic notions of purity, and grew out of an impulse among the lower classes to claim ways of worship that were not dictated by the priestly castes.
Within Hinduism, Tantra countered the Vedic practices of the Brahmins, whose strict adherence to specific, dutifully performed rituals and standards of purity separated them from the lower castes. In Buddhist culture, “it grew out of a protest movement initially championed by lay people rather than monks and nuns,” says University of Richmond religious studies professor Miranda Shaw. Tantric practices confronted the rules and sometimes broke them.
The definition of Tantra
The word “Tantra” comes from a Sanskrit root that means “to weave,” but it also can imply spinning out, spreading, or putting forth. It can imply the weaving together of traditions into a holistic practice. Tantra’s earliest practitioners saw it as a comprehensive system for extending knowledge and wisdom—for realizing that the whole world is an interwoven entity.
Otherwise, the practice of Tantra is not easy to neatly define because it encompasses such a huge, varied, and sometimes contradictory range of beliefs and activities. There are a few aspects, however, that are fairly consistent across the various Tantric schools of thought and philosophical perspectives.
- Tantra focuses on spiritual freedom. Tantra is a collection of practical techniques for achieving liberation or enlightenment. Gavin Flood, professor of Hindu studies and comparative religion at Oxford University, says, “Tantra is about gaining liberation and power through meditation.” Practitioners were freeing themselves from religious and societal constrictions that were seen as necessary for a “proper” connection with Divine Power.
- Tantra is woman centered. In the Hindu Tantric view, the world arises from the erotic dance and union of the divine male (Shiva) and the divine female (Shakti). Shiva plants the seed, but Shakti provides the active energy that brings everything into being. The divine female energy is present in every person (male, female, and otherwise) as kundalini, the serpent energy that coils dormant at the base of the spine. Much of Tantric practice centers on awakening and channeling this energy. (Tantric Buddhism sees the male principle as the more active, but still emphasizes the importance of women and female energy far more than do other forms of Buddhism.)
- Tantrikas seek spiritual power. Certain kinds of Tantra emphasize developing siddhis—a term which can mean either “spiritual perfection” or “supernatural power.” Tantra practitioners who begin to comprehend the way the world is woven together, understand that they have power over their own bodies, and can also gain power over other aspects of the physical world. In Tantra, the body is seen as a microcosm of the whole universe.
Tantra is a complex and at times controversial body of knowledge; there may be debate around the origins, history, and practice. “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: 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.
Embodiment to Enlightenment
Indian spirituality tends to regard the world as an illusion and a trap. It has parallels in Judeo-Christian thought in the way it leans toward a distrust of the body and of the sensory pleasures the body desires. But Tantra insists that every natural creation in the world is the manifestation of divinity, therefore everything and every experience is potentially holy. This trait of Tantra is perhaps its crucial characteristic: Rather than regarding the body and its desires as something to be overcome and purified, Tantra sees the body as a vehicle for enlightenment.
Generations of yogis experimented with ways to prepare their bodies so they could carry the enormous energy of awakened kundalini. According to Georg Feuerstein, a noted yoga scholar and practitioner of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, “Hatha yoga grew straight out of the concern in Tantra for creating…a body that was totally under the control of the yogi.”
Tantra suggests 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.”
See also: YJTried It: White Tantric Yoga
So, how did Tantra turn sexy?
Some scholars and teachers of more traditional Tantric pathways criticize modern, Western interpretations of Tantra as having little in common with Tantra as practiced over the centuries in India, Nepal, and Tibet. It’s true that only a small proportion of Tantric texts deal with sexuality. Most focus on the use of mantras, worship of deities, and the creation of visual aids to meditation.
More conservative Tantric groups—those who practice what is known as “right-hand Tantra”— leaned in this direction, minimizing the most sex-focused practices and using them as spiritual metaphors rather than actual ritual practices.
Left-hand Tantrikas turned in the opposite direction. They rejected the traditional Indian tendency to categorize activities and experiences as either pure or impure. To them, all aspects of life were holy; nothing was out of bounds. In fact, physical experiences could be used as vehicles for enlightenment.
Some Tantric groups took it to extremes that would be considered shocking in their (and even our) day: holding their rituals in the charnel grounds, meditating atop corpses, smearing themselves with the ashes of the dead, eating and drinking from skulls, and eating meat and fish, consuming aphrodisiacs, alcohol, and other drugs. Engaging in ritual sexual intercourse was part of this practice—a way of raising, exploring, and moving heightened energies. Tantrikas didn’t just explore sex as a metaphor; they made it a crucial activity in their spiritual path.
To avoid attacks from the mainstream of Indian culture, these radical practitioners remained underground. Today, some tantric practices still tend to be shrouded in secrecy.
How Tantra came West
The 1989 publication of Margot Anand’s The Art of Sexual Ecstasy was considered a significant moment that brought Tantra onto the the cultural radar. But decades before Anand’s best-seller made Tantra a household word, it was being practiced among esoteric and spiritual-seekers.
In fact, Tantra took root in America a hundred years earlier, when Sylvais Hamati, a Vedic teacher from Kolkata, took on a young boy from Iowa as his student. The boy, Pierre Bernard, became the first American Tantrika, responsible for introducing Tantra in the U.S. Bernard studied under Hamati for almost 20 years: asana, pranayama, and meditation, as well as ethics, psychology, philosophy, religion, and science. He was also tutored in Sanskrit literature and “every authoritative Tantra Yoga Text,” according to Bernard’s biography by Robert Love.
When Bernard completed his training, he began to teach, developing a following among a set of wealthy, upper-class patrons who joined his Tantrik Order, taking vows of secrecy and loyalty. But the devotion of his students didn’t protect him and the group from attack, persecution, and prosecution. Their views were far outside the mainstream culture of the era.
Over time, other curious yoga teachers and leaders mined Eastern sexual and spiritual techniques and blended them with elements of Western sexology, psychotherapy, and New Age self-transformational techniques to evolve Tantra into the form we know today.
Among the best-known teachers of Western Tantra are yoga teacher Charles Muir and his wife Caroline, who have been instrumental in teaching the practice. After his first marriage, Muir began to reexamine his ways of relating with women, and, as he puts it, “was blessed with the teachings of a number of remarkable women” who initiated him into their knowledge of tantric sexuality. He started to study the ancient Tantric texts, and began including the teachings in his yoga workshops. By 1980, Muir made a full-time switch from hatha yoga teacher to tantric sexuality teacher, and has been conducting workshops ever since.
What to know about Tantra workshops
The weeklong workshop that Rob and Kelly McKay attended was facilitated by the Muirs. Called “The Art of Conscious Loving,” it was held at the Rio Caliente spa, about an hour outside Guadalajara, Mexico. On the first night, nine couples gathered in a circle. Tom, a psychologist, and his partner, Leslie, a social worker, sit entwined around each other. Stan and Liz, an outgoing pair of 67-year-olds from Southern California, chatter about their upcoming nuptials. “It’s the second for both of us,” Stan says, “But we’re telling people it’s our first real marriage.” Next to them Anja, a healer from Denmark, and her partner Merle, sit quietly with placid smiles. In contrast, Kelly’s back is turned like a wall toward Rob, who hunches as though he’s trying to take up as little space as possible.
Other couples include a retired government bureaucrat now doing volunteer work; several entrepreneurs, an architect, a secretary, a teacher, an accountant, and a disproportionate number of healers of various types—from a doctor who specializes in alternative/complementary medicine, the psychologist and the social worker, an art therapist, and four bodyworkers/energy healers.
Quite a few turn out to be committed to Eastern spiritual practices. The doctor practices Zen. Anja ran a yoga school for 17 years, then a school of esoteric energy healing. Merle, who runs a bodywork school, has practiced vipassana meditation for several years.
The group seems subdued and a bit tense, with a palpable undercurrent of nervous anticipation. On the whole, though, the couples seem quite reluctant to talk publicly about their sexual lives. But they have traveled from as far away as Hawaii and Denmark, dropped more than $3,000 per couple (plus airfare), and set aside a week of their time to be here. That represents a substantial investment of time, money, and energy to their relationships—and to the exploration of Tantra.
“This week,” Caroline Muir promises, “we’ll learn how to make sex be sacred again.”
What to Expect in a Tantra Workshop
Some Tantra workshops promise “an ancient and juicy practice” that will heighten sexual pleasure. Others promise to help you release stored emotions and come to a state of self realization. While many Tantra retreats are designed for couples, others can be done solo. One consistency is the release of chakra energy and the promise to leave in better touch with your inner being.
Charles Muir says that the Tantra he and Caroline teach is in the spirit of ancient practices, even if its outer form is different.
“We seek to awaken and integrate the dormant energy of the chakras, just as they did in ancient India,” he says. But he readily admits that modern Western Tantra may not look much like its ancient antecedents. But he points out that “like yoga, Tantra has been born again and again, age to age, based on people’s needs at the time.” His version of Tantra, he thinks, addresses major needs of our current place and time: restoring proper reverence for women and the feminine; finding an appropriate, beneficial outlet for male “warrior” energy; and healing the rift between men and women.
“You don’t need all the trappings of Indian culture and philosophy to experience the benefits of Tantra,” Muir says.
Tantric Sex by the Book
If you are looking to learn more about tantric sex—and maybe try some techniques—before you commit to an in-person workshop or retreat, there are dozens of books on the subject.
- Spiritual Sex
- The Art of Sexual Ecstasy
- Tantra: The Art of Conscious Loving
- Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century
- The Heart of Tantric Sex: A Unique Guide to Love and Sexual Fulfillment
- Tantric Orgasm for Women
Better than sex ed
The Muirs contrast the sexual education—or, more accurately, the lack of it—most Westerners receive to the more respectful, celebratory, and unconflicted attitudes they attribute to ancient Indian culture.
“We learn most of what we know about intimacy from those great fonts of wisdom and experience, dear old mom and dad,” Charles says. But it’s such a taboo subject, many people don’t discuss it in their families.
Outside our homes, we glean information—often misinformation—from the locker-room talk and slumber party whispers of our peers. We also absorb intensely mixed messages from the adults, religious institutions, and pop culture, including cues from music lyrics, video games, and television shows. “How can you not be confused,” asks Charles, “when you’re told both ‘Sex is dirty’ and ‘Save it for the one you love?'”
Overall, Charles says, we receive little information about the possible joys of sexual loving. And our ignorance not only leaves our intimate relationships lacking, it gets passed down to our children. For this reason, the Muirs urge workshop participants to consider that they’re not doing this work just for their own benefit, but also so they can bequeath a saner, healthier sexual legacy to their children and grandchildren.
Feuerstein believes that Neo-Tantra—his term for Western versions of Tantra that focus on sex and relationship—”can do a great deal of good for people who have been raised in an atmosphere that represses and denigrates pleasure,” and that “it provides meaning and hope for some of those who have outgrown guilt-ridden puritanism and conventional sexuality.”
See also: Heart Chakra Tune-up Practice
Making peace with your sexual past
Caroline Muir points out that many of us also approach adult sexuality scarred by childhood and adolescent experience of incest or other sexual abuse. When we finally find partners for our first sexual explorations, we may be fumbling in the dark with lovers as misinformed, ignorant, frightened, and scarred as ourselves.
“People come to me with all kinds of challenges around their sexuality,” says Conscious Sexuality Coach Leslie Grace. She works with people who experience sexual pain, numbness, shame, who have problems with orgasm, difficulty expressing their desires, or lack of desire, as well as those who want a more intimate experience with their partner.
Caroline holds up ancient cultures, especially that of India, as models of a healthier attitude. She points out that Indians revered sexuality as a holy gift from the creator, regarding sex as both a sacrament and an art form, celebrating it in their art, and teaching its secrets to their children. Sex was used not just to join two lovers, but as a meditation through which the lovers could unite with the divine energy of the universe.
Connecting mind, body, and energy
In the Muirs’ workshop, participants discuss and practice three interwoven topics: increasing energy and pleasure; increasing intimacy; and quieting the mind.
“We learn many techniques for increasing the energy and pleasure you can feel in your body,” Charles says. Many of the techniques will be what he calls White Tantra—practices that can be done individually, like asana, pranayama, repetition of mantras—while others will be Red Tantra—practices that involve joining your energy with a partner’s.
Techniques for fostering intimacy, Charles says, are designed to allow lovers to increase their ability to give and receive each other’s energy. He adds that workshop participants will discover that they don’t need to learn to do more; they simply need to surrender and allow themselves to be who they naturally are.
All these techniques culminate in the quieting of the mind, he says. Instead of habitually using the thinking mind, students will learn to cultivate the mind’s capacity for being completely quiet and receptive.
“Ultimately, Tantra is a meditation,” Charles notes. “In fact, orgasm is the only universally shared meditative experience, the one that cuts across all cultures. At the moment of orgasm, you’re not in your thinking brain, you’re in your receptive, being brain; when you’re completely absorbed in the present, you enter into timelessness.”
Sensual, sexual, and practical
During the week, the Muirs share information and exercises are explicitly sensual and sexual. Participants are given primers on touch, kissing, and oral sex. They learn how to use the breath to intensify and prolong orgasm and how to strengthen the pubic-coccygeal muscles to increase sexual pleasure.
A session directed at the men focuses on methods for delaying, heightening, and lengthening orgasm. Using hand puppets—an oversized, furry yoni and lingam (respectively, the Sanskrit names for female and male genitalia)—Charles and Caroline demonstrate how to use your hands to delight your partner, how to mutually pleasure each other using a man’s “soft-on” instead of a “hard-on,” and how to bring variety to intercourse by changing the speed, depth, and angle of penetration.
Inviting their students to gather around them, the Muirs conduct a graphic (though fully clothed) seminar on sexual positions. The demonstration includes guidance on how to use pillows to support an aching back, and how to gracefully segue from front to side to back entry positions, and from woman on top to man on top and back again, without ever losing contact and intimacy.
Tantric yoga & breathwork
Charles and Caroline also spend just as much time on techniques that are far less explicitly sexual. Almost every day, they lead the class through a half-hour or more of gentle hatha yoga.
The routines wouldn’t pose much physical challenge to any regular practitioner, but that’s not the Muirs’ focus. Instead, as in all the yogic techniques they teach, they emphasize awareness of the subtle energy body and the chakras. All the chakras, Charles says, contain dormant energy, consciousness, and intelligence, and the Tantra techniques he teaches aim to arouse and harness those latent energies.
He stresses that the goal in doing these asanas shouldn’t be to achieve any particular stretch or outward form, but instead “to recognize and reconcile yourself with your body just as it is.”
“These asanas are not exercises,” Caroline says. “They are poses: sacred geometries for awakening and becoming aware of energy.”
The workshop activities aim to awaken all the senses. The group intones various bija mantras, sacred “seed syllables” whose vibration is said to awaken each chakra. They visualize yantras, geometric diagrams that serve the same purpose. They practice mudras, potent hand gestures that create specific flows of energy. And they give instruction in pranayama (breathing techniques), ranging from simple, full breaths to more advanced practices, such as using bandhas (energetic “locks”) to contain and heighten energy in the body, or direct energy up to the space between the third eye and crown chakras by using the rapid forced exhalations of “breath of fire” (Kapalabhati).
They direct participants in breathing with a partner. First the class members practice simply coordinating and harmonizing their inhalations and exhalations. They go on to practice reciprocal breathing—in which each breathes in his or her partner’s energy as the partner exhales, and vice versa. Eventually, they use breath to link their bodies together in a circular flow of energy.
The sacred spot
The Muirs’ workshop pivots on the practice they call “sacred spot massage.” In this intimate ritual, conducted by each couple in the privacy of their own room, one partner will spend an entire evening offering the other their loving presence and touch with an aim to heal old wounds. In a hetero couple, women receive this attention first, to allow her to open more completely into her full sexual power. (Later in the week, the couples reverse roles.)
According to the Muirs, Tantra is based on the idea that women’s sexual arousal and orgasm can open them to channel ever increasing amounts of shakti, the basic energy of the universe, which both she and her partner can then tap into.
Men, on the other hand, are said to have a more limited, less renewable store of sexual energy, which is depleted every time they ejaculate. For men, the key is not so much opening up to sexual energy, but instead learning to contain and experience an ever greater degree of energy and ecstasy without dissipating it through ejaculation.
“The knowledge of women’s limitless sexual potential has been lost to our culture,” says Caroline. She and Charles insist not only that all women are endlessly, naturally multiorgasmic, but that all are capable of both explosive clitoral orgasms and deeper, longer, more wavelike vaginal orgasms that can be accompanied by female ejaculation.
A key to fully awakening a woman’s sexuality is loving massage of the “sacred spot,” a region of highly sensitive tissue located about two inches up the front wall of the vagina. (In Western sexology, this is the “G-spot,” named for Ernst Grafenberg, the gynecologist who first described it in Western medical literature.) Activation of this spot can bring the woman previously unknown pleasures.
But sacred spot massage can also unleash memories of sexual confusion, repression, pain, and abuse. Such memories may be repressed, but our bodies hold the memories—and especially in the tissues around our second chakra (the genital region), which Tantra regards as the wellspring of our energy. The pain surrounding these memories must be addressed and released, the Muirs believe, before we can experience all the joy of unfettered sexual energy.
While locating and massaging the g-spot has a reputation for bringing a woman to spasms of pleasure, the Muirs stress that sacred spot massage should never be undertaken with the goal of orgasmic fireworks. Instead, they say, sacred spot massage should be viewed as a process that invites a couple into greater vulnerability, trust, intimacy, and caring.
“Orgasms are part of a natural flow of events,” says Charles. “Don’t go after orgasms, but let them be signposts on the road to sexual wholeness.”
Male healing energy
When Charles takes the men off for their separate class, he concentrates on preparing them to serve as sexual healers. First, he coaches each man to honor his partner by making the whole evening a feast for their senses: Tidy and decorate the room. Build a fire. Gather flowers. Dress up. Prepare a special treat of food or drink. Draw a bath. Give a massage. Then, he urges, tell her the things you appreciate and love most about her. “Don’t hesitate to invite God—whatever meaning that may have for you—into the bedroom,” Charles tells them with a little grin as he sets up his punch line: “It makes for the best threesome!”
Most of all, Charles prepares each man to give his partner concentrated, loving attention—to remain present with whatever emotional experience comes up for her. “Real presence is far more important than physical technique,” he assures the men. “Get out of your head and into your heart. If difficult emotional stuff comes up for her, it’s not just her stuff; it belongs to both of you.”
Tantra for all
Because Tantra has traditionally focused on balancing the yin and yang energies, ancient texts refer mostly to male and female energy—and male and female bodies. But Tantric techniques can be used by people all along the gender identity spectrum.
“Everyone has some male/masculine/yang qualities and everyone has some female/feminine/yin qualities…. Bringing them together and balancing them before making love is not an exercise about gender, but rather an act of inner balancing and centering that helps us open ourselves to deeper intimacy,” says Barbara Carrellas, author of Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the 21st Century.
Trans and gender-nonconforming people, as well as people with any variety of sexual preferences and practices can engage in Tantra. Look for teachers who are open and educated about working with same-sex couples; there are also Tantra workshops or private sessions for people on the gender spectrum.
Because Tantra is more about connecting to your mind and body, this is not a practice that requires a partner at all. You can practice the techniques for your own individual pleasure.
Working with tantric energy
All of the practices and exercises in which workshop participants engage are steps toward awakening the kundalini. “There are cleansing (kriya) and breathing (pranayama) techniques, some yoga poses (asana) and meditation, which all serve to stoke a practitioner’s internal fire (agni) and release kundalini,” according to yoga instructor Phillipa Beck, writing in Culturally Modified. These steps are outlined in The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 15th century tantric text.
Feuerstein explains that in traditional Indian Tantra, adepts work on opening the fourth chakra (the heart) or the sixth chakra (the third eye, seat of intuitive wisdom) first. Opening the second chakra—the sexual center—comes later. “Only when the guru was sure the adept had established pure intention and strong control of energy was the enormous power of sexuality invoked,” he says.
According to Stryker, maithuna—the sexual techniques of Tantra’s left-hand path—were traditionally regarded as catalysts to awaken psychic energy. They were so powerful, however, that some schools even regarded them as shortcuts past more basic techniques like asana and pranayama. But right-hand paths, says Stryker, never saw sexual techniques as substitutes for the gradual, progressive use of asana, pranayama, and meditation. And he says that Tantric sex teachers must educate their students to realize that physical ecstasy is only a fraction of the gifts of Tantra.
Stryker points out that the Tantra he was taught delineates three distinct stages of ecstasy—physical, psychic, and spiritual. Without the guidance of an experienced Tantric guru, students may get stuck at this first stage.
Perhaps the greatest danger of Neo-Tantra is that practitioners think they’re having “spiritual” experiences when they are, at most, enjoying a blast of increased prana (life energy) or a pleasurable sensual experience. Feuerstein fears that by confusing physical pleasure with spiritual bliss, many Neo-Tantra practitioners may miss out on the deepest rewards of Tantra—the ecstasy of union.
Only in the second stage of ecstasy does a seeker achieve not just heightened sensory awareness, but also the necessary energy to change his or her life to align with an awareness of spirit. In the third stage, once the seeker has awakened the state of consciousness associated with each chakra and can apply the appropriate state to any situation, ecstasy becomes constant.
Margot Anand says, “Once you’ve opened your five senses, once you’ve brought all the levels of yourself into engagement with life, you may find yourself transformed. You may never be willing to go back to a life that doesn’t leave room for your creativity, your playfulness, your capacity for joy.”
See also: Sacral Chakra Tune-Up Practice
Choosing a Tantra teacher
Advocates of Tantra as it has been adapted for Western consumption, are passionate about its ability to change lives—and, by extension, the world. But enthusiasm is no substitute for experience, ethics, and a strong understanding of the power of the energy that is being moved.
Georg Feuerstein expresses concern that many teachers of Neo-Tantra have neither studied Tantric texts enough to understand the tradition clearly nor received “proper initiation by a competent Tantric guru.”
Feuerstein says he doesn’t believe gaps in Western Tantra teachers’ education place students in any serious danger. “Unless you are instructed by a true guru—in other words, a teacher who has succeeded in raising his or her own shakti—you aren’t likely to raise dangerous energies that could unbalance you physically or mentally,” he says.
But Rod Stryker, a teacher of right-hand Tantra who studied with masters in the practice, says there are concerns that students of Tantra should be aware of.
“The danger is that if someone’s nadis [the body’s energy channels] are not as open and clear as possible, the sexual techniques can create psychic turbulence and have a disintegrating effect,” Stryker says. “It’s very likely that people who go do a Tantra weekend have done very little of the foundational work of asana and pranayama. They may experience a lot of energy moving, but if they are neurotic and they start to awaken vital energy, they can wind up empowering their neuroses.”
Tantric sex teachers need to know how to avoid having this happen—or how to address it if it does.
“As a yoga teacher,” says Stryker, “I’ve worked with a lot of people—essentially, I’ve treated a lot of people—who were deeply scarred by the experience of trying to direct sexuality, cloaked as Tantra, as a tool of enlightenment.”
Keeping a safe space
Another potential danger Feuerstein sees is in Neo-Tantra practitioners who get caught up in egoistic motivations, rather than learning to transcend the ego. This can lead to inappropriate behavior, manipulation, or abuse.
A workshop leader should keep a mindful eye out for anything that might make a participant uncomfortable, but should certainly not be the perpetrator of psychic, physical, or emotional harm.
Writer Maya Melamed describes a “miserable experience” at a Tantra workshop where the workshop leader, ostensibly demonstrating a lesson, touched her without her consent. During the session, other activities also required touching and being touched by a stranger.
If you plan to attend a workshop or a private Tantra session, be clear about expectations. Will you or anyone else be demonstrating sexual techniques? Will you practice in private? Will you be expected to shed your clothing? If you are solo, will you be paired with someone? Ask questions and don’t be afraid to speak up if something is making you uncomfortable.
In addition to asking detailed questions about the class or workshop, Stryker suggests any Tantra student should examine their teachers with two questions in mind: “To what extent do the teachings live within the teacher and in their relationships? And to what extent do the teachings live in the lives of this teacher’s students?”
On the last morning of the Muir’s workshop, the participants gather to share their thoughts on the week. All the couples snuggle together, some holding hands, some smiling into each other’s eyes.
No one seems especially concerned with whether or not they’re on their way to enlightenment. They’re too busy basking in the benefits the week has brought them.
“I got all I had dreamed might be possible, and more,” says Merle. (Unable to resist the joke, someone ad-libs, “Plenty of bang for the buck, huh?”) Merle’s partner Anja describes the sacred spot massage as the happiest moment of her life. She and several others says the workshop renewed their commitment to their hatha yoga practice. Several other participants echo her determination to continue with yoga after returning home.
Stan, the 67-year-old grandfather and fiancé, reads a poem of appreciation for his partner that leaves almost everyone in tears. Matthew, the Zen-practicing doctor, says he sees all the workshop participants as “a vast, beautiful, green healing field of love,” with Charles and Caroline as the cultivators. And his partner Amy vows that she now knows, “Nothing is more important than learning how to love each other better.”
When Rob’s turn comes, his response is direct. “This week tore down walls that it took Kelly and me 25 years to build.”
Kelly says, “I’ve been on a healing journey for a long time, and I often thought I would have to leave Rob behind. This week I discovered I have a partner in healing.”
Former Yoga Journal editors Todd Jones and Nora Isaacs contributed to this report.