Here's the lowdown on tantra - without the esoteric jargon.
Written by a yoga teacher, spiritual healer and sacred sexuality coach teaching gay tantra / neo-tantra.
#1 - Tantra is nuanced and has different lineages.
The word tantra does not just have one translation. Some lineages state that tantra means "to weave" or "interconnect", others say it means "to expand". The multiple definitions or translations of the very word tantra do well to represent the varieties of approaches and lineages that tantra has. It's fruitless to try and find a single interpretation of tantra. Tantra, like yoga (and I'll touch on the differences soon), offers varied experiences and focuses based on the school of thought practicing it.
#2 - Tantra is ancient.
Tantra originates in ancient India, around the middle of the first millenium CE. It is an ancient practice that can't be accurately traced back to one particular date of origin or one particular thought leader. Tantric lineages spread through Hinduism into Buddhism, Jainism and beyond.
#3 - Tantra is a spiritual practice, first and foremost.
The (simplified) aims of tantric enthusiasts are to unify themselves with the oneness of spirit/ the universe/ creator. Tantric practice IS spiritual practice, and even the more infamous sexuality practices exist to unify the practitioners with their spiritual selves.
One of the most common tantric practices is mantra. Mantras are repeated sounds and phrases (chanting "ohmmmm" is an example of mantra). Tantric mantra typically focusses on the worship of deities. In traditional tantric practices deities receive high importance as symbols of the ultimate truth or ultimate spiritual wisdom.
Other tantric practices include, but are not limited to: yoga, mudra (creating gestures with the body such as the hands), puja (ritual), bhakti (worship of the divine), and sexual practice.
#4 - Yes, that's right - sexual practice.
Before we get into it, it's important to note that some tantric disciplines/ lineages do not use sexual practice at all, and in most cases the sexual practices compose somewhere between 5-10% of the tantric system.
When tantra was introduced and popularised into western culture in the late 1800s, many of the ancient practices and principles were lost or minimised. From this period we see the rise of neo-tantra which emphasises the sacred sexuality components of the wider tantric system. Neo-tantra can be a hugely helpful system, and shouldn't be poopoo'd as "not tantra", however it's important to acknowledge that it forgets the wider practices and fundamental philosophies that ground tantra into the spiritual system that it is. To strip the spiritual component out of tantra, and market it as tantra, is false.
I would strongly guide anyone curious or interested in tantra to steer clear of tantric 'guru's', coaches or teachers who focus solely on the sexual aspects of tantra and don't aim to bring you into connection with spirit. Those practices are using the term "tantra" in a misguided way. The risk here is that the student falls into pleasure and egotistical pursuits without grounding themselves in the spiritual fundamentals which underpin the practice. This can exacerbate hedonistic tendencies and take the student further away from the spiritual oneness/ connection which tantra exists to support in the first place.
When infused with spirit, the embodiment and transcendental experiences of tantric intimacy and tantric sexual practice are wildly therapeutic, connecting and cosmic. Human sexual energy IS creation energy and when wielded with intention and loving-intent, can magnify and amplify the connectedness, pleasure and joy one experiences. Ultimately, when infused with spirit, sexual energy merges into something cosmic and unifying. It can lead to experiences of 'enlightenment' or moving beyond the typical reality that humans experience.
If you're interested in exploring a guided online tantric-yoga class, in the comfort of your own home, you might wish to learn more about this 60 min video class here.
#5 - Tantra vs Yoga
Although yoga is far more popularised in western cultures than tantra, I would argue that it is often as equally misunderstood. Yoga is not just instagram ready pretzel poses, gymnastics and stretching. Yoga is a deep system of movement, breathwork, meditation, mudra, mantra and spiritual practice. To turn your back on these components of the yoga system, is to essentially disregard the truth of what yoga is.
Like tantra, yoga's aim is to connect to the divine in union. To move beyond thought and the mind, into the cosmic - into a consciousness that is beyond individuality and connected into something more.
In my years as a spiritual teacher, yoga teacher, and sacred sexuality coach I would summarise the difference between tantra and yoga as this:
Yoga aims to reach the enlightened state by moving BEYOND the body & mind. Tantra aims to reach the enlightened state by moving INTO the body & mind.
Yoga uses its techniques and practices to gradually move the student away from the physical and closer and closer to the subtle. It transitions the student beyond the body, beyond the mind, and into the cosmic. Tantra aims to do the same, but in the opposite way. Tantra goes into the body deeper than our typical everyday human experiences take us. It dives deeper into sound and vibration (through mantra) and deeper into sex and pleasure (through conscious, intentional sexual practice) to use the body as a sacred mechanism and tool to access the divine. Ultimately, yoga and tantras similarities and goals share more commonalities than differences.
#6 Is Tantra for Me?
It could be. I would encourage anyone reading this to trust their inner pull and investigate curiously if you feel like there could be wisdom in tantra for you. I know students of tantra who have diligently devoted themselves to the practice and who have had profound life changes as a result. Even dappling in neo-tantra and the sexual aspect of tantra will, at the very least (and assuming your teacher respects the spiritual philosophy of tantra), expand what you see as possible in the realms of sex and pleasure. My hope would be that gradually, tantric practices will integrate you. Integrate your spirit, your body, your mind and your sex. To integrate is to unite.
Got more questions? Let me know in the comments below and I'll do my best to answer them.
Andreas is a yoga teacher, spiritual healer and sacred sexuality practitioner. He works in both group and 1:1 classes online, all over the world. You can read more about his work and offerings here.