What is Tantra?

“Didn’t Sting do it for six hours a night?” seems to be most people’s response when they are asked about Tantra. But what is “IT”? Tantra originated in India over 1,500 years ago, although no one knows when for sure, and some say it has been around for much longer. Originally Tantra is so named after a set of writings called the tantras and was based on a dominant philosophy / religion of the time known as Shaivism. It comes from the Sanskrit words “tanoti”, meaning “to expand” and “trayati”, meaning “liberation”. It also gets translated as “the way”, “transformation” and “weaving”. Modern Tantra practised in the West today has little similarity with the original, having become almost a separate discipline under the same name.

There are many schools of thought on Tantra, including Shiva Tantra, Tantra yoga, Tantric Buddhism, Taoist Tantra and the more modern “neotantra”, made famous in the West by such teachers as Osho. This article looks at the latter.

There are many misconceptions about modern Tantra today. First of all, it is not all about sex: although Tantric sex is a part of Tantra, it is only a small part of a much wider and deeper philosophy of life. It is not a religion, it does not have to be done with a partner, it is not only for heterosexuals, and you don’t need to study for years to ‘get it right’.

Central to the Tantra philosophy is celebrating the physical body and seeing the divine in everyone and everything. The lifestyle therefore involves eating in a healthy way and exercising in order to keep the body in good shape, and thinking in a positive and appreciative way about self, others, and the world we live in. Therefore Tantra helps to increase self-esteem through encouraging a positive self-image, and promotes kindness to other people, creatures and the Earth.

The practices include increasing awareness and ‘being in the now’ through meditation and being fully present by noticing what we feel, smell, taste, see, hear and think at all times. Using all of our senses allows us to expand our consciousness and explore all aspects of our being. Dynamic meditations are also part of the process where movement is used as well as stillness. Movement and dance are integral elements of Tantra; dance helps to connect with our body and awaken sexual energy.

Breath is a central and fundamental part of Tantra practice. It is considered the single most powerful tool for transformation. Deep, relaxed breathing helps to energise the physical body. Breath is considered the gateway to the soul, or the divine and is the only function in the body that can be done fully consciously or fully unconsciously: it thus has the ability to link the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Focusing on the breath helps to awaken the senses, brings one into the ‘now’ and helps to receive pleasure. By breathing deeply during sexual activity, feelings of enjoyment can more easily flow through the whole body. Breathing together with a partner helps to harmonise the two beings. There are many different types of breath which can be learnt and practiced in Tantra, including Circular Breathing and Chakra Breathing, and specific breaths such as the Breath of Fire and the Heart Breath, among many others.

In Tantra practice, the participants start by creating a sacred space, which is beautiful and comfortable. They may then start with an opening ceremony, and end with a closing ceremony, which could be a simple greeting such as ‘Namaste’ (A Sanskrit term often translated as “the God in me sees the God in you”.) The middle part may be very diverse, including the participants doing some connecting exercises such as eye gazing, meditation or chanting, massage, erotic massage, yoni (Sanskrit word for female genitalia) or lingam (Sanskrit word for male genitalia) massage, and sex. The so-called ritual can be very simple or complex, and can include all, some, or none of the above. In Neotantra generally practiced in the West, there is no way to get it ‘wrong’.

Massage is a fun part of Tantra and can be part of the foreplay, or something done by itself. It can be less or more erotic. Yoni and lingam massages can both be done as part of sexual healing for the receiving participant, to heal any past traumas or feelings of shame and guilt which may surround sexual experiences. Such feelings are very common in our culture, and loving massages carried out in a safe space can help to start to release and transmute some of those emotions, opening us up for greater happiness in our lives, and greater orgasmic potential!

Tantric practice helps to improve communication skills as practitioners learn to set boundaries, ask for what they want and learn the ability to say ‘no’ to something which they would not like to experience. Self-exploration and self-pleasuring are encouraged for both men and women. Orgasm is seen as a healing force and men can learn to separate orgasm from ejaculation by practising certain breathing and physical exercises, and performing them during lovemaking. Some of the more advanced techniques include building up the sexual energy and moving it around the body which can lead to an increase in health, wellbeing and longevity.

Tantra can teach us a vast range of things about ourselves and our bodies which we have not yet discovered. Sex and pleasure are often taboo subjects in our culture, as a result of which young people can turn to pornography or Hollywood films for visual information on ‘how to do it’. This means that many may never be shown the experience of setting a beautiful space and learning to love and respect themselves first before jumping into relationships. This respect can lead to longer lasting wellbeing, happiness and connection with themselves or with their chosen partner.

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