Tantra Yoga Explained: A Beginner’s Guide To Tantric Philosophy & Practice

When we hear the word ‘tantra’, we often find ourselves associating it with sex or some form of sexuality – maybe a new, exciting way to spice up our love lives. Some Western interpretations of tantra have meant that it has become a deeply misunderstood practice and, although some tantric teachings do address sexuality, the main goal of following the tantric path is to liberate our energy and expand our consciousness.

Tantra yoga philosophy is based around the principles of non-duality, meaning that there is no separation or duality in life. It recognizes the interconnected and indivisible nature of all consciousness or, to describe it another way, the microcosm is the macrocosm. Ultimately, we are an inseparable part of the universe.

Practicing tantra yoga can help us to realize this through its emphasis on self-knowledge and internal connection.

In this article we will explore:

  • What Tantra Yoga Is
  • 6 Important Features Of Tantra Yoga
  • How To Practice Tantra Yoga
the mountains reflected in a lake

What is Tantra Yoga?

If we break the word ‘tantra’ down into its two parts, we can have a better understanding of what it actually means.

The first part of the word, tan, means ‘to expand’, whilst the latter, tra, connotes an instrument or technology. Hence the meaning of tantra is literally ‘an instrument of expansion’.

We can use this collection of teachings in our yoga practice to gain an intimate knowledge of our subtle/energetic body and release deep subconscious blocks. It is an invitation to explore our inner universe and at its most simple, tantra is simply being conscious.

5 Important features of tantra yoga

#1: Asana

Tantra sees the body as a tool for spiritual development and therefore asana helps to move blocked energy through our physical body and allow our prana (life force energy) to flow.

Through asana we develop a deeper awareness of the physical body that can help to reconnect us with our sense of self, which is crucial when we begin to work with the energetic body.

a man doing upward facing dog yoga pose with a plant in the background

#2: Kumbhaka

Kumbhaka is the retention of the breath that we often use in pranayama. Asana assists the flow of energy through the body and Kumbhaka helps us to contain it.

In tantra yoga, this can also refer to the retention of energy through the use of Bandhas (energy locks in the body).

Outside of our yoga practice, this may be reflected in the skillful use of our energy. For example, can we recognize that we are letting a certain situation take up too much of our headspace, or have we become more aware that we need to conserve our energy before we burn out?

Tantra places significance on carefully managing our energy, both on and off the mat.

#3: Mudra

In Sanskrit, mudra means ‘gesture’. We can create specific gestures with our hands in order to ease and direct the flow of energy. Common mudras are Gyana Mudra, bringing the tip of the thumbs and index fingers together, and Anjali Mudra, bringing the palms together in front of the heart space.

Tantra is deeply tied to working with the subtle body and mudra supports this by shifting our awareness and channeling new-found energy

arms and hands clasped in a tantra yoga mudra

#4: Nada

Nada Yoga is about the use of sound, acknowledging the influence that a vibration can have on our body and mind.

In Tantra, this does not necessarily have to be an audible sound, such as when we chant mantras or sing to devotional music, but can also be the visualization or mental repetition of the sound through mantra meditation.

#5: Deity embodiment

The main difference between tantra yoga and other forms of yoga is primarily the focus around ritual and the worship or invocation of deities.

Fundamental teachings in tantra view the creation, preservation and transformation of the entire universe (macrocosm) tied to two forces; Shiva and Shakti.

Tantra considers Shiva to be the consciousness or knowledge, whilst Shakti is the energy or force behind this – the manifestation of action.

We may think of them as Yin and Yang or polar opposites, but one cannot exist without the other.

When the polarities of these two energies come together, aided through the practice of tantra yoga, we can achieve deep transformation and self-realization.

Other pillars of tantra allow us to embody the deities, such as through chanting mantra or using specific mudras to invocate their energy.

With the focus on non-duality, the deities are not an external energy that we are calling in. Tantra helps us to recognize that we are also part of this singular, divine consciousness and identify that there are aspects of the divine within all of us.

We can also use Yantras to invocate deities. Yantras are a geometric pattern that are used as a tool for visualization and meditation. In Tantra, they are used to tap into deities and channel-specific energies to raise our consciousness.

a gold yantra used in tantra yoga with Brahma in the center
A Yantra with Brahma in the center

The History Of Tantra

Tantra is not as old as yoga itself, but it has certainly influenced many Eastern spiritual traditions and therefore had an influence on the yoga that we know today. To the best of our knowledge, tantra first appears around the 4th or 5th century Common Era (CE) whilst Hatha Yoga can be traced back to at least the 1 st century CE.

Although Yoga and Tantra are two different concepts, a tantra tends to interweave fairly seamlessly into yoga as they are both ultimately focused on liberation and self-actualization.

Up until the introduction of tantra into the East, yoga had been the focus of a small group of practitioners who lived outside of society in an aim to achieve liberation from the constant suffering of human life. However, it was the introduction of tantric philosophy that began to develop this idea of non-duality and teach practitioners to embrace the material world as a means of liberation in itself.

Tantric manuscripts started to portray the yogic body as having the entire cosmos contained within the body; following this is when we begin to see Hatha Yoga embracing tantric concepts.

Yoga began to be influenced by the idea that, precisely because we contain the entirety of universe within us, we do not need to seek enlightenment from an external source, or try to free ourselves from the human body as ancient yogis had, as we already have all of consciousness inside us.

a dancer reflected in the clouds

How To Practice Tantra

Tantra’s focus on embracing all material aspects of our life means it may well be one the most accessible and relevant spiritual paths for all of us living in modern society.

We are living in a time during which there are so many demands of us and it can sometimes feel hard to escape the speed and intensity of life. Sometimes this pace of life can feel draining; this is why we need a practice that focuses on preserving and restoring our energy as well as becoming aware of the subtle changes within us.

Although, there are many aspects of modern living that are extremely enjoyable and so, even better for those of us who want to keep participating in the material aspects of life, there is no need for us to renounce all of our worldly possessions and reject society in order to achieve self-actualization!

When we embrace the teachings of non-duality, we are able to discover a union with all aspects of life and a knowledge that allows us to overcome the sense of separation between the self and the world. This is a truly amazing experience and, when we follow tantric philosophy, it is a goal that is completely achievable within our lifetime.

The underlying message across Tantric Yoga is that we can use the body as way to relate to and find pleasure in the sacred nature and oneness of life because we already are the whole cosmos. We do not need to work to achieve an external concept of ‘enlightenment’ as already have everything inside us that we need to liberate ourselves.

When we get to know ourselves on a deeper, more intimate level, we become empowered to live in our own truth and more willing to flow with the constant fluctuations of life.

Although the field of Tantra is vast and we could spend a lifetime studying it as many have, it is much simpler to bring into our everyday lives than we might think.

a black and white photo of people holding hands

3 ways to include Tantra in our yoga practice and beyond

#1: Become conscious

Bring more awareness into your day. For example, we might want to set a reminder once every day or hour to stop and notice our breath. To simply become aware of our body breathing and notice how we are feeling is a very powerful practice.

This might also be during our yoga practice – how can we become more aware of what is happening in this very moment? Maybe we can notice the feeling of the mat on our hands or the way our clothes feel on our skin. This allows us to drop into the truth of each moment and prevents us from disconnecting from our self.

#2: Find pleasure in the ordinary

Tantra sees everything as sacred, so practice finding little moments of pleasure or joy in everyday activities such as washing your face or making a drink.

During yoga asana, try to really observe the sensations in the body and follow what feels good. Remember that the physical body is the greatest spiritual tool because we are physical manifestations of the universe and all of consciousness!

a family drinking coffee together

#3: Embrace contrast

As we all know, life has many ups and downs. This may start out as a hard practice but in order to feel intense joy and pleasure, we must also feel emotions like sadness or frustration.

This may show up as welcoming the sense of irritation that comes with not being able to achieve a certain asana or simply sitting with your emotions after a bad day at work.

When we are open to receiving the contrast of life, we also align with our truth. Tantra yoga truly helps us to welcome the entirety of our sometimes sad and often wonderful existence.

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves.

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