Tantra is often mistaken for a solely sexual practice, which hugely underplays this powerful and ancient guide for living.
Tantra is an ancient Indie tradition with influences extending into Hinduism and Buddhism. There are numerous texts that form the Tantric tradition and much dispute over its origin, some people find Tantric theories in The Vedas, the oldest Hindu texts dating back to the second millenium BCE, others say the tradition was only fully formed around 500 CE.
Only a small portion of the Tantric tradition encompasses sexual practices but because of the emergence of a popular understanding in recent decades that confuses Tantric bliss with orgasmic pleasure, it is probably best known today for sex.
“The most common distortion is to present Tantra Yoga as a mere discipline of ritualized or sacred sex. In the popular mind, Tantra has become equivalent to sex. Nothing could be farther from the truth!” writes Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein in Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy.
Though the celebrity of Tantric sexual practices offers a warped view of the ideology – it does help us understand one of the core values of Tantra: that everything in the material world can offer us a connection to higher awareness.
Hence sexual practices (with the right intention) can be a gateway to enlightenment. But since everything is divine, it is also possible to attain liberation, or enlightenment in the worst social and moral conditions – you have to find beauty in the dirt as well as the flower. This is why a controversial group of Tantrics devotees called the Aghori live in cemeteries and use human skulls in their practices.
This theory, called non-duality, means that there is no separation between the material world and the spiritual realm. Our true essence exists in every particle of the universe.
Whereas the opposite (duality) is key in other philosophies that influence the schools of yoga widely practiced today – where we need to ascend beyond the material world to experience bliss.
In Hatha Yoga, which comes from the Tantric lineage, we use various tools (breathing practices, postures, mantra, meditation, mudra, bandha) to clear and align energy systems in the body. The ultimate goal of this practice is to prepare the body for a spiritual awakening, called Kundalini, which is described as waking the coiled serpent at the base of the spine.
Not all Hatha Yoga practitioners are aiming for a Kundalini awakening, many just work to balance out the energy systems and experience a connection with the body and mind.
What appeals to many people (including me) in the Tantric outlook is the idea that the intrinsic nature of reality is pure bliss and that with a refined practice we can experience it for ourselves.