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: http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/2240.

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 uncomfortable…how 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.”


where the ordinary meets the extraordinary

My regular readers know that I attended the Kumbh Mela in Hardiwar in February for 9 days. I bathed in the Ganges on Mahashivaratri. While I was not at the Mela towards the end in March and April when there were millions more people than in February, I certainly don’t feel as if I missed anything. I was there on a very auspicious day and it was wondrous and indeed, extraordinary. I hope that my karma is such that I can return to the Maha Kumbh in Haridwar 12 years from now. Who knows? I would be almost 70, hari om….

Baba Rampuri shared this video with me. It shows the initiations of a “blue-eyed” yogi and a yogini.

Rampuri’s book Autobiography of a Sadhu has been republished, and I read it in 2005 when it came out under the title Baba: Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Yogi. I found it a fascinating account of the naga baba life from a western perspective.

In this video the initiation is being done in the naga babas’ camp. I walked through the camp twice during the Mela and was blessed by this sadhu:

He is an Urdhabahu Sadhu, a sadhu who keeps an arm up until it atrophies, the physical manifestation of tapas and bhakti. Most of the men and women in the camps are tantric yogis.

Where the ordinary world meets the extraordinary world…..

after bathing in the the Ganges

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the yogini cult — JAI MA!

The other day I read a misinformed comment on another blog about ancient yoga in India. The commenter said, in essence, that classical yoga would not have been taught to women because of India’s patriarchal society, that yoga in ancient times was for men only. I shook my head.

For one thing, I don’t think it’s a good thing to make such sweeping statements about Indian culture unless you’ve been there, more than once. Even then it would be hard to generalize. For another thing, it’s simply not true.

Krishnamacharyga taught Indra Devi. He was a strict Brahmin, but he taught vedic chanting to women believing that it was women who would carry on the vedic chant tradition, not men.

A difficult book to find, the Yogayajnavalyka Samhita written by the sage Yajnavalkya, is one of the oldest texts on yoga. It is a dialogue between the sage Yajnavalkya and his wife Gargi, who was considered one of the most learned women of those times. Gargi poses questions to her husband on how to reach the highest truth. The manuscript, translated by Krishnamacharya and then later translated into English by his son, Desikachar, is dedicated to “all great women.”

Yajnavalkya is considered one of the most important teachers in the Vedic tradition. His works are so vast that it can only be compared to those of the Veda Vyasa. He contributed to the Vedas through the Sukla Yajur Veda and the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. His wife Gargi is mentioned in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad as “a scholar in all the sastra-s”, as one of the women seekers of truth, and one who was very proficient in logic.

The only asanas mentioned in the book are: svastiknasana; gomukhasana; padmasana; virasana; simhasana; bhadrasana; muktasana; and mayurasana — because that one “removes all internal diseases and even the effect of poison.” You will note that all poses except peacock pose are seated poses.

So as for the statement about how yoga was only for men in the ancient times…uh, no. I think it behooves any yoga scholar or historian to move beyond what is traditionally taught and to investigate the rich yogini tradition of ancient India. Remember that there is both shiva-shakti, the lingam and the yoni.

I had read about the Temple of the 64 Yoginis (also called the Temple of the 64 Dakinis) in Hirapur, a village outside Bhubaneswar in the state of Orissa, and I knew I had to see it. These small temples were for tantric practices, for the acquisition of siddhis or “supernatural powers.” Yogini worship was seen predominately between 800 and 1300 AD.

From The Hindu:

“The cult of 64 yoginis as well as its occult and secret practices and philosophy are methodised by Matsyendranath (8th to 10th century AD) in his magnum opus, Kaulajnananimaya. He is associated with religious movements of medieval India and is revered in neighbouring countries like Nepal and Tibet.

The number of yoginis differ from one source to another but 64 appears to have been generally accepted. The principal yoginis, also known as Mother-Goddesses, are Brahmani, Mahesvari, Vaishnavi, Kaumari, Varahi, Indrani and Chamunda who according to the myths were created to the drink blood of demons….

A circular wall, hardly 2 metres in height, containing 64 niches within its inner circumference encompass this hypaethral yogini shrine. All except one of these contain an image of a yogini goddess. Some of them are delineated with voluptuous bodies, some with horrific shrunken features, still others with animal heads.”

I did not take any photos as sometimes I don’t feel right about doing that, depending on the temple. I wanted to experience things without being behind a lens. When we arrived we were told the significance of each yogini and then a puja was done for us. We were the only visitors and it was very special for me — I felt the energy of the little Kali behind me. Unlike the huge Tamil Nadu temples I am so familiar with, there are no soaring spires here. Thousands of years ago this was the beating heart of a primeval society, open to the elements but hidden from outsiders. Dedicated to worship of the Mother Goddess in all her forms, I felt safe. In one niche there was a female Ganesha, the yogini Ganesani. There were many others such a yogini with the face of a bear, and others wearing garlands of human heads or holding different weapons. There were also the familiar goddesses such as Lakshmi and Chamundi. The yoginis were regarded with both fear and awe.

An image of Shiva is also found here and there is a square slab that the priest told me is believed to have been used by wandering tantriks as a sacrificial altar. I climbed on top and immediately felt the urge to dance, the same way I wanted to dance when I felt the energy in the Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata. Something about those charnal grounds….

I’ve recently learned about the above book and I will definitely buy it to learn more about these powerful yoginis. “It appears that the worship of the Yoginis… was one of the significant, though less familiar, cults practiced by the Saktas who believed in the supremacy of Sakti or Power concentrated in the person of the Great Goddess.”