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.
In fact, what some people call ‘tantra’ in the West, which is based around sacred sexuality, is merely a homonym, with neo-tantra practices having no scriptural basis in classical Tantric and Indian texts.
The main goal of following the classic Tantric path is to liberate ourselves whilst being embodied.
Tantric yoga philosophy is based on 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; the divine lives within us and as us.
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
Please note that in this article we are discussing non-dual Tantra. Meaning, this view of Tantra is that everything is interconnected, divine, and stems from one, single point of Consciousness.
Whilst dualistic Tantra does exist (seeing yourself separate from God), the practices are the same. Though, they are used to different ends.
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.
Unlike other kinds of yoga you may be familiar with, such as Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, it was always a householder path, meaning you didn’t have to be a renunciate to follow it. Because of this, it’s non-transcendental (it doesn’t want to leave behind/transcend the body/world!).
It’s end goal is embodied liberation – jīvanmukti.
6 Important features of tantra yoga
Any practice that’s called yoga needs to work with the mind-body connection in some way.
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.
Meditation is a hugely important part of Tantra yoga as it trains our awareness – whether that’s to expand our awareness or focus it on a single point, both are incredibly useful.
What we’re aiming to do is come closer to the nature of the Self. To recognize oneself as part of the Whole, both Shiva and Shakti.
One particular meditation is to focus on kumbhaka. This 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.)
The retention is the space in between two breaths where, maybe just for a single millisecond, there is no breathing at all.
It is within this space that you can access the energy of Shiva: pure Consciousness and divine spaciousness.
In Tantra Yoga, mantras are considered to be divinely revealed and living beings, containing within them the nature of divinity herself.
Mantras may be used to cleanse or activate the subtle body, focus the mind, or embody the deities of the pantheon (see below). If you’re choosing to work with a particular diety, you can also use the mantra associated with them.
If you like, you can also find a Tantra teacher who can initiate you into the use of a particular mantra. As mantras are considered beings in and of themselves in this tradition, many believe they become more potent when given by a living being instead of taken from scripture.
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.
It places significance on carefully managing our energy, both on and off the mat.
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.
#6: Yantras & Deity worship
The main difference between Tantra yoga and other forms of yoga is primarily the focus around ritual and the worship or invocation of deities.
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.
The History Of Tantra
Tantra has certainly influenced many Eastern spiritual traditions and therefore had an influence on the yoga that we know today.
A leading expert on Kashmir Shaivism (Tantra), Alexis Sanderson, states that the second half of the 9th century saw the composition of the Śiva-sūtra and Spanda-kārikā (which are key Tantric texts).
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 through self-transcendence.
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.
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.
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!
#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.
More on tantra
This has barely scratched the surface on Tantra Yoga, and the practice and philosophy of Tantra itself has an abundance of teachings that will take you through life.
I highly recommend reading Tantra Illuminated by Hareesh Wallis.