26 July 2010

what is tantra?

"Tantra" is a word that gets thrown around a lot in yoga circles. It's a word that many American yogis have become familiar with via Sting who claims that he can get it on for hours because of tantric sex (see the comments that follow in YogaDork's post.)

I don't think there is anyone who has done as great a disservice to tantric yoga as Sting because of his comments. The whole sex thang is about 1% of what tantric yoga is about. Once Sting and tantra were on Oprah you knew it was going to be all downhill after that. IMO, if this culture's attitude about sex wasn't so f*cked up in the first place (pun intended), there wouldn't be all the giggle-snorts with the mere mention of the word "tantra." ("Oh yeah, you mean THE SEX!!" slobber, slobber...)

Then there is John Friend who is sometimes referred to as "Tantra Lite." In the NY Times article about him that is burning up the yoga blogosphere it states:

"Friend’s “dharma talks” — short sermons — are based largely on simplified tantric principles (not, he stresses, the ones relating to tantric sex): students learn that they are divine beings, that goodness always lies within, that by opening to God’s will — opening to grace, Friend calls it — 'you actually become vastly more powerful than the limited person that you usually identify with.'"

What I don’t understand is when people talk about Anusara yoga’s concepts such as “opening to grace”, etc.. I have heard more than a few yoga teachers say that they never heard those concepts before in their trainings and I really have to question that.

Isn’t all yoga about “opening to grace”? Isn't all yoga about moving beyond our limitations? Isn’t all yoga about opening the heart, surrendering, giving it up to something greater outside ourselves? At least for me it is and always has been. John Friend isn’t the first teacher to talk about such things, he did not invent these concepts, he merely repackaged them for mass consumption.

When I hear a yoga teacher say that they've never heard such things before it makes me even more thankful for my non-Anusara inspired teachers and how they taught and what they taught me. I've been blessed to have the teachers I've had.

Mark Whitwell says, "asana is hatha yoga, the non dual tantra of direct intimacy with Reality that is nothing but nurturing."

All yoga is nurturing. No one specific brand, no trademarks, just do YOUR YOGA.

So what is tantra? In his book Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses, David Frawley writes that "Tantra can best be defined as an energetic approach to the spiritual path, using various techniques including mantra, ritual, pranayama, and meditation. It contains a devotional approach emphasizing the worship of the Goddess and her Lord, Shiva. It contains a way of knowledge, directing us to Self-realization and the realization of the Absolute. As such it is a complex yet integral system for the development of consciousness which has something for all those who are seeking the truth."

In my training "tantra" was never separate from hatha yoga. The word is a combination of "tanoti" and "trayati". Tanoti means "to expand, to stretch, to extend" and trayati means "to liberate or free". Therefore tantra (tan+tra) means to expand one's experience and awareness of everything, to extend the frontiers of apprehension beyond the material, thereby attaining spiritual knowledge and liberation.

Isn't that YOGA, no matter what brand name it is?

I learned that "tantra" means "to weave." Through weaving in certain breath and meditation techniques, we train up our system to become more sensitive to the subtle forces of prana or the vital life force. Through learning to control the prana in yoga you learn to control the mind.

Isn't that YOGA, no matter who trademarked it?

Taking a deep breath....SO......

What inspired this post was a Facebook discussion that followed the above photo. It is a photo I took at the Kumbh Mela of a baba whose arm has atrophied from his austerity, his extreme tapas. My caption to the photo was "no Tantra Lite at the Mela!" because the sadhus I met at the Mela were the real deal, the down and dirty tantric yogis.

Taking part in the Facebook discussion are Carol, blisschick, and Baba Rampuri, who's about as real of a yogi deal as you can get.

Talk amongst yourselves and leave a comment if you are inspired.....


"blisschick: and the point of that would be...[i.e., the frozen arm]

Carol: Would actually really like it if someone could explain to me: What is this form of Tantra about, and what if any relationship does it have to anything that we call Tantra in this country?

L-S: these sadhus are devotees of Shiva and the upraised arm is a form of mortification or austerity, it's tapas. it's a way of showing extreme detachment from the body, transcending the body. other sadhus might stand day and night,... even while sleeping, or they sit in one place and stay sitting there, till they die.

Baba Rampuri: Wonderful photo! It is Naga Baba Amar Bharti Ji in this photo, he is a Naga Sannyasi, and a very close friend for many years. He is an "Urdhvabahu" meaning "raised arm", but this is a description not a sect. One of the main things distinguishing traditional yoga from American yoga is austerities, "tapas." It is a powerful means of obtaining knowledge and power. In one way, it's an extreme form of focusing will power, almost like saying, "Nothing is going to stop me in my quest! Not pain, not discomfort, not the attraction of the world, not even death! I don't need food, water, nor even air!" When I make disciples, and some of you know that we have 5 gurus, I always choose Amar Bharti Ji to join me as one of the five.

L-S: Carol, what is tantra in this country? In America, hasn't the phrase been mutilated, people taking a sensationalist approach encompassing only thinking about "sacred sexuality," with little reference to its true practice as a path to enlightenment? for me, hatha yoga IS tantra yoga because there is philosophy, meditation, and mantra and other practices. don't forget there is also Buddhist tantra in the Mahayana tradition.

of course American yogis aren't going to perform austerities like the Urdhabahu baba (who blessed me with his other hand!), or cover their bodies with ash and sit in cremation grounds to try to transcend their worldly attachment to life.

Baba Rampuri: Carol, these days Tantra means anything you want it to. In the West, it's normally a marketing tag for something to do with new age sexuality, or at best, new age psychology. In India, at it's worst, it is thought of as black magic. Yoga, as practiced in the West, has nothing whatsoever to do with Tantra as it is practiced in its high and low forms in India. At it's best, Tantra is the teaching that Shiva gives to Parvati regarding knowledge and immortality. The practice of this involves the connection of Sacred Speech with Knowledge and the corresponding withdrawal from the illusory perception of the world.

Carol: thank you so much, Linda-Sama & Baba Rampuri! I feel so fortunate to wake up & find so many answers to my question. If you are interested, here is a link to a Yoga Journal article that I think captures how I commonly hear Tantra described in the American yoga community:

blisschick: It seems very much to me like a denial of the GIFT of this life. If transcending the body were meant to be a spiritual goal, why are we given bodies at all to begin with? (I know these statements will simply be perceived as me not getting it but I find this bothersome. I choose YES and this seems like a giant NO.)

Baba Rampuri: Christine, you are right, if it is his purpose to transcend his body, which it is not. He is pushing the envelope. He is using an extreme practice to get quick results. He is using his body in a way to acquire knowledge.

L-S: thanks for the clarification....I used the wrong word in "transcending"...yes, we have these bodies to use as vehicles for enlightenment (as the Buddha also taught about the "fathom-long body"), but these austerities (to me) show a non-attachment to the body, i.e., "non-attachment" being different from "transcending."

Carol, I scanned the YJ article and will read it more deeply later...but as for tantra in the US...I have heard people say that they never heard of the tantric concepts or even the word tantra before they studied with John Friend.

I find that a bit hard to believe. I don't know about anyone else, but I became familiar with tantric concepts from India from my teachers early in my yoga training. so I agree with Baba when he says that it seems that "tantra" can mean almost anything in American yoga. I also think many of the concepts have to be distilled in a different way for westerners. I mean, I've been to studios where the mere picture of Durga or Shiva on the wall makes people are they going to handle tantric ideas if a teacher talks about them?

blisschick, to me, tantric yoga is about "sacred body-fearless mind". Buddha taught that the path to enlightenment is in this body, watching body/breath, watching the feelings/felt senses, watching those mind objects that are our thoughts, and embodying the dharma, the ultimate truth of reality which is impermanence. those are the four foundations of mindfulness, and that is how we can use our body, use the physical asana practice to realize deep truths."


Anonymous said...

That NY Time's Friend article totally turned me off. I thought the writer did an excellent job of "showing" him to us -- constantly texting on his cell phone, never present to other people until he would think of something to "preach" about (out of the context of a class, even), and apparently going through assistants like kleenex.

If that is the face of "big" yoga, what the?!? Makes me sick.

What really blows my mind is that so many people don't see through it! But then that happens locally and on a small scale, too, right? Who said that -- there's a sucker born every minute. ;)

Linda-Sama said...

from a reader, emailed to me:

"From the glossary of "Rain of Wisdom" (the great songs of the Kagyu gurus):

'Tantra means "continuity" [like the warp and woof of a fabric] and refers to continuity throughout the ground, path and fruition of the journey. Continuity of ground means that the basic nature...remains like the sky, encompassing everything from sentient beings to buddhas - untainted by habitual patterns...For the practitioner, it means that body, speech and mind, in all their confused and wakeful manifestations, are included in the path.

Path tantra means applying skillful means to overcome basic ego..Fruition tantra means finally realizing who and what you are. You realize your being as one with the body, speech and mind of the tathagatas. That is, you realize the ground that was continuously there from the beginning.'"

See, not a word about sex, 4 hour orgasms or Sting to be found!"

Thank you, K, and I love this:
"you realize the ground that was continuously there from the beginning"

Linda-Sama said...

christine, you are only the second person I am aware of since the article came out who says this.

frankly, I think it's a damn shame that people are afraid, for lack of a better word, to come out and say what they think. people are automatically called "haters".

I think it's a good and HEALTHY thing to look behind the facade and to question, just like looking behind the curtain at the Wizard of Oz. Even Buddha said to question his teachings.

Blind devotion does neither a guru nor a student any good.

Bob Weisenberg said...

Thank you, all. I enjoyed reading this.

One of the reasons I personally like the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita is that, by my reading at least, it is determinedly against this sort of desecration of the body and extreme renunciation that is revered in some other types of Yoga, as shown here.

To me, nondual means the body is sacred, too, and needs to be treated as divine, just as much as the spirit, because there is no difference between the body and the spirit in the end. It's all Brahman as far as I can tell.

(Linda, please don't print this if it's too provocative. I'm just expressing my own point of view here, not questioning anyone else's.)


Bob W.

Linda-Sama said...

not all sadhus are this extreme. see my other photos on facebook from "India 2010."

Anonymous said...

Bob!'ve expressed what I could not. Thank you.

Linda, Really? People aren't talking about the FREAKISHNESS of it all!?!? But, like you, I tend to "get in trouble" because there is no editor between mouth and brain. (HA) Also, I LOVE your Wizard of Oz comparison -- exactly what comes to mind when reading that piece. The dinner scene where all the employees are actually anxious around him? That makes me so nervous as someone raised by abusers. I always think people who work in circumstances like that are just abused children looking for more abuse as adults. Sad.

Linda-Sama said...

christine, I hear what you're saying. I have said kinda sorta the same thing about the devotion to Ana Forrest.

I took a workshop with her, albeit a long time ago, where she was downright mean and abusive, IMO. I hear she has softened up some. But I remember thinking that there must be a certain type of person who "needs" to be around that type of energy. as I say, that was then, maybe she has changed (I hope so.)

Linda-Sama said...

bob, it's a good idea to loosen up on the western mindset when viewing such things in India.

to some people the Kumbh Mela might seem like one big freak show when one sees naked Shiva babas covered in ash lifting blocks of stone with their penises (yes, really.)

Or the goat sacrifices in the Kali temple in Kolkata which I find abhorrent and fortunately did not see in action, but nevertheless I got such a blast of shakti when I walked into the temple I was almost knocked down.

while you might call it "desecration" of the body, others look at it as just another form of tapas, one of the niyamas. it just is.

I met this baba, was blessed by him, and he was pretty happy guy despite that arm. so things are always in the eye of the beholder, especially in Ma India. from my experience in India, I wouldn't question whether this sadhu considers the body "sacred" by his tapas.

you and I wouldn't do it, but I don't see this sadhu's devotion to yoga as any less or weirder than mine. it's just different. kinda like the same rabid devotion to some American yoga gurus. it's different from mine.

Buddha also performed austerities before he discovered the Middle Path.

Anonymous said...

To me, when I think of tantra, I think of the teachings of the text the Vigyana Bhairava Tantra - I took a course on it at an ashram in Wales some years ago and I loved the meditative techniques they taught - see a bit more here:

There is a whole text and we just did some of the meditative techniques from particular verses but it was so interesting. And the swami who teaches it is really helpful - I think he was working on producing a guided translation (which may be out by now).


Anonymous said...

Here's another link which explains more on that text:


Anonymous said...

Great minds think alike! I have a draft post on what it's like to be a western student of Tantra... real Tantra, not this lite business or getting ones rocks off and calling it Tantra business.

I'd say Hatha yoga asana is a part of Tantra, but it's certainly not all of it. In the same way that the sadhu with the upraised arm is a part of Tantra but not all of it.

My own Guru says that while the body of teachings and practices of Tantra are vast, most sadhakas will only ever need to learn/use a small portion of them.

People should not look at that photo of the baba and say "oh, but if that's Tantra, then it is scary and wrong". It is HIS expression of his true nature, and if other people can relate to that, cool. If not, don't worry about it.

Keeping his arm raised up like that doesn't mean he has no regard for the sacredness of his body. In the same way that the ultimate expression of Tantra sees no difference between life and death, or between champagne and feces, we need to learn to look beyond our own cultural preferences and taboos in order to see the non-dual reality clearly.

I agree with what Linda said: "Blind devotion does neither a guru nor a student any good."

BUT, here's the thing... a guru can not control the student's perception of them. In my own experience of a relationship with my guru as well as observing others in my school, it's so easy for students to project whatever fantasy they like on their guru.

It can take a long time to break down one's delusions in relation to the Self as well as other people. Especially if you have the desire for a father or mother, or lover or saviour of some kind. Because every half-way fantastic person you meet will be the next one you project your fantasies onto.

A real Tantrik guru will try to bring all of that down around you, and let me tell you how much that is NOT fun at all.

Tantra is not all prettiness and light. In fact, you've gotta really dig in if you want to get anywhere. And don't expect it to be easy because it won't be, even if it looks like it might be...

Tantra is a lot of things, but most of them are things you won't find in any "school of Tantra" in the US, with the exception of a few.

Unknown said...

Linda, thank you for this post. I knew little about tantra before I began my teacher training (from an anusara-certified teacher), but it was not in teacher training where it was discussed. I saw the word somewhere and knew that it must mean more than sacred sex, and I was right. I then began to study more, and have read some great information about it. And yes, hatha yoga is tantra, and John Friend just took yoga philosophy (for lack of a better word) and mass-marketed it. Like you, I had amazing, amazing teachers long before I even heard of Anusara. They brought intention, grace, heart, love, etc. into their teaching, and I do not think any of them were trained by John Friend's folks. That being said, having been trained by someone who studied in his living room with him, I like a lot of what he teaches, though not all of it. Like so many ideas, it is another tool, a way of expressing deeper truths to certain people. But let's just hope he never attempts to trademark the idea of grace. Thank you for this thought-provoking piece. Namaste!

Linda-Sama said...

"the sadhu with the upraised arm is a part of Tantra but not all of it."

absolutely. that's why I said in my comment to Bob that the Mela may look like a freak show to some, but to me, for me, it was the absolute expression of sacred joy.

"People should not look at that photo of the baba and say "oh, but if that's Tantra, then it is scary and wrong". It is HIS expression of his true nature, and if other people can relate to that, cool. If not, don't worry about it."

exactly! again, as I said to Bob, it's just different, try not to bring your cultural preferences to India because basically, it ain't gonna work. India will turn you inside out and freak you out. I've seen that happen, you'll run away screaming.....

"Keeping his arm raised up like that doesn't mean he has no regard for the sacredness of his body...we need to learn to look beyond our own cultural preferences and taboos in order to see the non-dual reality clearly."

as you say, great minds think alike! ;)

thanks for commenting, svasti, as someone who has a guru. while I do not (yet), the guru-student relationship does not give this western yogini pause.

@rebecca, as someone who is familiar with Anusara "philosophy", thanks for reading and commenting!

Linda-Sama said...

@Angela, thanks! the website you linked looks great....

Baba said...

What an excellent blog, Linda! It's past time that someone points out the obvious. Well done.

Defining Tantra etymologically only tells us about our own thinking, not something as esoteric as Tantra. Etymology lacks context. Imagine never seeing or hearing of "hamburger," and trying to understand what it is by breaking down the word, itself. Is it someone from Hamburg? or something to do with a town (burg) and pigs (ham), or are we talking about ham as in hamlet and all that implies? And we can take this much further. By the time it becomes a Big Mac, and we try to understand these words without context, we couldn't be more lost. Experience gives context, and Authority articulates this.

Tantra is scary! It is a very sophisticated, complex approach to self-knowledge that requires an enormous commitment and practice. It is also intimately connected with Indian culture, which is yet another context that cannot be ignored.

Sacred Speech is the basis for Tantra. Speech has been examined, described, and commented upon for 1000's of years in India. It was discovered in the West a couple of hundred years ago. It has been common in India to break Speech down into its irreducible elements, for millenia, and use this to connect with the world. We know nothing about this in the West, and yet, before even understanding the basics of Tantra, we're ready to represent it, teach it, write about it, & market it. Yes, it's a powerful word, whatever it means.

I see as much connection between Tantra and Modern Hatha Yoga as I do between hamburgers and Shakespeare. While Tantra does have to do with our physical bodies, it is in the sense of our bodies as a fulcrum between the Macro and Microcosms. The practice is not physical, it’s not about body function, movements, ordinary things, but in identifying its constituent parts in a very conscious and mindful invocation of the personalities of nature, what we call Gods and Goddesses. These are not symbols. These are identifiable marks, signs, flags, and cyphers of nature, Her speech and signatures that cannot be reduced, replaced, or substituted for.

This requires an intimacy not available through belief and philosophy, nor through technique, per se. By Sacred Speech, I am NOT referring to Sanskrit or to mantras. It’s not based on speculation or even rational thinking, but on discipleship. The Tantric Tradition begins when Shiva instructs his consort Parvati in the Art of Immortality. The Tantric Tradition remains to this day, but still in the form of a very rigorous discipleship under the guidance of an Authority. That is Tantra.

Yoga, “connecting,” is about self-knowledge, and since it is “subject” and “object” that are connected, self-knowledge means all knowledge.

There are countless legitimate paths for the pursuit of self-knowledge. Modern paths based on new principles such as science, and alternative thinking and experimentation are completely legitimate and are a response to the context of the times in which we live. Sometimes more so than traditional paths.

There is also value in taking words from other languages and cultures, but when we do, it would serve us well to remember we have something precious, meaning rare in our expressive content and potential knowledge, and even though we may not fully understand the meaning, by changing the meaning we may lose great value, sometimes, forever.

Goddess bless you all!

Baba Rampuri

Bob Weisenberg said...

Beautifully said, Baba Rampuri.

This is why I never use the term "Tantra" in any of my writing. I feel comfortable using the more general term "Yoga", as used in the Gita, but never "Tantra", both because it means something much far more specific and religious in India, and because it is subject to instant misinterpretation anytime it's used in the West.

Clearly anything I write is a modern interpretation of my intensive direct experience with the Gita, the Upanishads, and the Yoga Sutra, and my own personal practice of modern Yoga. It has nothing to do with the authentic lineage based tradition of Yoga and Tantra in India, which can only be taught by someone who has that kind of experience and knowledge.

What I love about your outlook is that you embrace all paths, just as the Gita itself does.

Bob Weisenberg

Bob Weisenberg said...

Just out of curiosity, as a point of information, how are gentlemen like this viewed by the various parts of Indian society?

Bob Weisenberg

Rui Umezawa said...

Linda, while I have enjoyed all the posts on this blog that I've read, I must say I found this one the most interesting -- challenging, even.

I feel I know you well enough now to confess that I find the practice depicted in the photo quite absurd. However, I also get where you're coming from. Using a term with which I am more familiar, this is his Dao. No one else's. Who am I to judge when my own practice would appear as bizarre to most people.

I also get that I am in no position to presume what spiritual insights this practice can provide (as if practice alone can provide insight, but you know what I mean). Yet, if someone tells me jumping off a bridge will bring about satori, I know well enough not to do it. So where do these two truths meet, if they meet at all?

Like I said, challenging. I think I get what you're saying, but I still don't get what I'm seeing.

Final word: I just don't know what I don't know.

Linda-Sama said...

@bob: the same way any other members of any society would think: some would see something weird, some would see a holy man, some would just say it is what it is.

@rui: there are many things in India that can freak people out, believe me! me? I just go with the is what it is.

Rui Umezawa said...

Thanks for your response, Linda.

>>I just go with the flow

Ah, yes.... The wisdom of the Wayfinders. If you haven't yet, please check out this post on The Spirit Age when you have time:

Thanks for the reminder. Things have settled more in my mind.

All the best,

Baba Rampuri said...

Thank you, Bob.

Gentlemen like Amar Bharti Ji are usually viewed with fear and wonder in Indian Society. But there are also many Indian societies, most notably rural and urban. Amar Bharti is not part of the modern world and is largely viewed as part of a freak show in modern Indian urban society. But in rural society, he is approached with fear, as one might approach the big boss asking for a raise, they come to him for his blessings which they know are powerful, after all his yoga is marked with extreme austerities, giving him a badge of authority not issued by man or any of his organizations.

We must be careful to recognize cultural context, and not superimpose our own values, which may be wonderful values. And although, in this age, Yoga has been somewhat universalized, its origin comes from Indian culture, so we must keep an open inquisitive mind on the content.

Baba Rampuri said...

In this age many of us see the world through a Speech of Consumption, and this can result in some confusion about Amar Bharti Baba.

He's not selling anything. Not ideology, ideas, philosophy, sadhana, practice, techniques, technology, or anything else.

He's not proselytizing, recruiting, advertising, nor converting. He doesn't want you to do what he does, think like he does, believe in him, or join up with him. If you want to honor him with 500 rupees, go ahead, no problem. If you just want blessings, get them and have a cup of tea.

He doesn't take from the world, but gives most of his waking hours, asking for nothing in return. He sits, speaks with whoever might come, and gives blessings to those who want them. Otherwise, he really doesn't give a damn! I know, I know him well over many years.

We don't have too many models of that in our Western culture. But, my friends, these are kind of people we call "yogis" for 1000's of years in India. Don't be distracted or seduced by imagery that has something else besides marketing as its raison d'etre.

Linda-Sama said...

as you say, Baba, Indians might look upon these yogis "with fear and wonder" as would anyone else in any other society, or see him as a freak or doing something horrendous to his body and dismiss it. but as you say...

"We must be careful to recognize cultural context, and not superimpose our own values"

that is the best advice to give any traveler to India and it is also what I tell people.

I tell would be India travelers to go with an open mind and heart and Ma India will bless them in ways that can't be explained.

Baba Rampuri said...

Bravo, Linda.

I tell people the same thing. Observe everything, but don't come to any conclusions.

The same can be said of the spiritual journey.

Love and Light,


Bob Weisenberg said...

Thanks for your informative replies, Baba and Linda.

Bob W.