What is Tantra?

If you have ever checked the about section on our website or else regularly read our pieces on yogic matters, you will have seen that we normally refer to Tantra as the tradition we follow as Hatha Yoga teachers. Now, given the stereotypical representation of Tantra in the media as something basically equivalent to a bunch of 'orgy-looking-super-sexy-stuff’ –think of the kamasutra of the yogis– we thought it would be wise to clear mainstream confusion on this topic by writing an entry on Tantra and what it is about. We did, after all, get a few weird messages on social media by people asking "if we provided partners when joining one our Tantric Hatha classes!"

Parvrtta Parsvakonasana - Revolved Side Angle Pose

Sexual practices are definitely a part (albeit small) of the techniques that Tantra as a tradition has to offer to sadhakas or practitioners that wish to engage in sexual intercourse and thus build up Ojas –a sort of ‘ambrosia of the yogis’ meant to enhance the health and youth of yogis so they can live longer and more spiritually fulfilling lives. But sex is by no means all that Tantra has to offer. Tantra or Tantrism, and thus Tantric Hatha and Tantric Kundalini, is the path in yoga that allows for sexual activity as opposed to other yogic traditions requiring their practitioners to give up ‘normal' life, seclude themselves in remote places (think caves), and be all about a life of renunciation –no social interactions, no sex.

It is in this regard that Tantra is a very appealing and contemporary form of yoga; particularly so for 21st-century practitioners who may not be so keen on the whole idea of giving up the benefits of a life of social gatherings and worldly pleasures. So you can think of it as something of an expanded form of Raja Yoga (or the 'royal path') that provides very detailed and profound explanations and techniques for us humans to succeed at this thing we call life.

The basics of Tantra

From the union of the Sanskrit words 'Tan’ –to accelerate– and 'Tra’ –beyond limitations–,Tantra means ‘to weave or expand’ and also ‘science or technique.’ Belonging to the Vedantic non-dual tradition, Tantra can be summarized in one line as a how-to method or 'science’ for the expansion of pranic energy that encompasses practices like asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi (see our post on the 8 Limbs of Yoga) as well as a zillion different techniques for these. So, essentially, it is a method for the evolution of the sadhaka through the cultivation and skillful redirectioning of life force through all the (in)visible layers of our being. The objective is no other than for (wo)man to attain realization through ‘enlightenment’ by harnessing the inherent potential (Kundalini energy) in our (meta)physical bodies. We bet it’s a lot clearer now, right? If not, click here!

Its origins are speculated to date back several millennia, though academics normally situate them somewhere between 500CE and 1500CE. Still, archaeological remains depicting men in yogic-looking postures and shiva-shaped figures have been unearthed in the Indus Valley (former Harappa, today’s Pakistan) as far back as 5000 years ago. Which is why we are sure that thinking of the notion of going to a cave to meditate seems much more reasonable now!

There are, of course, different schools of Tantra; from those engaging in so-called external rituals like the fire ceremonies (the Kaula school), to those engaging on internal ones only, like inner observation (the Samaya school), or the mixed approach (Mishra school). Regardless, these schools can either be more ‘orthodox’ –as in the Left-handed path or Varma Maga– or ‘non-orthodox’ –as in the Right-handed path or Dakshina Maga. And yes, we’re aware of the funny connotations of calling it ‘the left- or right- handed’ approach... Still, what does this mean? Basically that, in the ‘non-orthodox’ path (right), practitioners resort only to the energies in our body-minds that are not sexual in nature; whereas in the left-handed approach (orthodox), all energies, including sexual energies, are worked with. So, it’s all a question of how each of these two traditions work around the notion of ‘desire.’

Traditionally, though, sadhakas would only be able to embark on the left-handed path once enough mastery had been achieved over the non-orthodox one and dormant Kundalini-Shakti had been awakened. Which brings us to an exploration of things like Chakras, and Nadis, and clearing energy blockages within the body, and stopping the spinning of the mind, or igniting Kundalini through Sushumna that we have covered previously in a please-don’t-spook-me-with-this-type-of-language sort of post.

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So, Tantra for dummies. What is it for?

Put plainly, the ultimate goal of Tantra is to enable humans to live a life of heightened spiritual awareness and fulfillment in this lifetime, in this world. This means several things. Firstly, that Tantra recognizes that life is here now, and as such, the fulfillment of our worldly nature and needs is to be expected and even desired. This means that, engaging in joyful activities or pursuing pleasurable goals (even success) is ok as long as it is done ethically and in a balanced, non-harmful way –the type of way that generally contributes to the greater good.

Surely, when humans use their energies for self-knowledge and self-discovery, they bring great things into the world, things that reflect the true nature of their soul. And so, Tantra accepts and deploys ‘inherent desire’ –which is at the roots of any of the above-mentioned pursuits– because desire can be a very powerful tool when it comes to triggering and sustaining a person’s spiritual growth. And desire, of course, can also sometimes entail sex; but again, not exclusively.

Aside of this, Tantra also recognizes that Moksha or spiritual liberation –the goal all traditional schools of yoga seek– can take place in this lifetime (that is, for 'us’ in our current physical embodiment), or in a later one. Reincarnation is, for Tantricas, a real thing. So time is merely a way of perceiving how our immaterial essence or energy manifests or materializes in this plane. Once you accept this, you realize, then, that as long as we are in touch with our soul’s innermost motivations and living a life of heartfelt purpose and dedicated study –here, now, in this embodiment– when precisely liberation happens is secondary. It’ll take place once we are ready for it, and we'll be ready for it faster if we follow the ethical, physical, and spiritual practices that Tantra prescribes.

It is in this regard that Tantra's use of both Mantra and Yantra, aside of asana and pranayama, and its links with both Ayurveda and Yogic Science, becomes noteworthy; because all of these 'extra tools' greatly contribute to this path's extraordinary potential for radical development and enlightenment.

Our variety Tantric Hatha yoga or lineage, then, uses a combination of external and internal practices (following the Mishra approach mentioned before) such as asana, meditation, mantra, yantra, and ritual to increase our ability for concentration and stop the helpless roaming of our mind. But, since some of our previous (and future) posts sufficiently speak about the specifics of how to do precisely that, we’ll leave it at this for now. We will consider ourselves truly lucky today if we have demystified (if only a little) Tantra’s rampant misidentification with sex.

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