Everything You Need To Know About Traditional Tantra Yoga
Contrary to what you might assume, tantric yoga has nothing to do with tantric sex—at least in the contemporary, Western sense of it. Traditional tantra yoga isn't sexual, but it is deeply tied to the concept of pleasure and learning to become truly in tune with your body.
What is tantric yoga?
Tantric yoga is a form of yoga practice that's aligned with tantra, an ancient spiritual practice originating in India, Tibet, and other parts of Asia. Tantra is often associated with tantric sex, which is the a sensual, spiritual form of sex. But these sexual practices are actually just one part of tantra and are actually more accurately described as neotantra. Tantra means "to weave" in Sanskrit, and classical tantra all about reaching spiritual enlightenment through connecting with your energy. This traditional understanding of tantra is the heart of tantric yoga.
What happens during traditional tantra yoga.
I’d trained as a yoga teacher in the Western tradition, but it wasn’t until I lived in an Indian ashram and practiced traditional tantra yoga that I truly came to my deepest understanding and expression of what yoga is.
In the shala (a Sanskrit word meaning "home") in India, tantra yoga classes started with students lying on the floor, eyes closed. We would wait until the teacher came into the room, only knowing to start by listening to their words from the back of the room. They did not introduce themselves, nor did they explain anything about what was going to happen, or how to execute the asanas. They simply spoke the words—many of them unfamiliar to me.
At first I was confused and a little angry because I didn’t know what was going on. I had to look at the other students to see what some of the asanas were. Over time I began to find peace in the voice resonating from the back of the room. I found freedom in being able to close my eyes and focus fully on my practice without the distraction of a teacher’s cues.
What I learned over time was that this form of yoga is more a moving meditation than a physical workout. Traditional tantra yoga focuses on internal connection and reflection, with physical flexibility, strength, and prior knowledge of the postures taking a backseat to the primary intention of self-knowledge and empowerment.
Eventually I was able to find in each asana exactly what my body needed, because no one was telling me how to do it or how long to do it. I found strength in this freedom and came to consider this form of yoga far more powerful than what I'd personally experienced in the West.
Tantric yoga vs. mainstream yoga.
I stayed at that ashram for quite a while, eventually becoming certified to teach this style of traditional tantra yoga. I am now back in my Western home, where practicing yoga usually means racing through traffic, running into a studio at the last minute, and performing whatever sequence at whatever pace our teacher has chosen.
Upon returning to mainstream yoga classes, I was confronted by how much emphasis is placed on the teacher. The teacher stands at the front of the room, introduces themselves, and leads you through a sequence of poses that they created paired with a playlist that they made. There is nothing wrong with this kind of practice. Yoga is about taking the journey that you need, and no one else can tell you what that is.
But having experienced another kind of yoga, I found myself asking, “Is this really my practice? Do I feel empowered by following, or do I need to cultivate personal freedom and strength in a different way?”
When I lead tantra yoga classes, I am there to support and gently guide my students. I help them rediscover their personal power and freedom and receive all the pleasure that yoga has to offer. The role of a tantric yoga instructor is to encourage you to discover what feels good to you in each moment of your practice and trust that.
In tantric yoga, your instructor is tasked with creating a space in which you can truly connect with yourself—mind, body, and spirit. A longtime student of mine once said, “I love coming to tantra, because I don’t have to do yoga; I can just be yoga.” That is exactly the point.
In tantra classes, the teacher urges you to relax and simply listen. As the teacher, I will lead you into a yogic state—moving body and breath. From that point, there is no right or wrong. We will guide you in proper alignment and form if a posture might injure you, but we honor the agency of each practitioner to choose what is best for them.
The true purpose of yoga, at its core, is to facilitate meditation. Pattabhi Jois, the father of yoga, said that “The moving asanas are only a way to quiet the body for meditation.” Traditional Tantra is a moving meditation. We believe that once you release the belief that you can’t put your legs behind your head, you’ll find you actually can.
How to practice tantric yoga.
1. Quiet the mental chatter.
Tantric yoga will lead to the dissolution of any mental and physical barriers to growth.
What are you thinking about before going into a backbend? “My wrists hurt; I’m not strong enough; I’m too old.” What are you feeling? Panic? Fear? Pain?
Tantric yoga is about quieting this mental chatter to allow students to flow into challenging asanas with ease. Personal empowerment is one of tantric yoga’s greatest gifts. If we can help our students trust their own intuition, they will become their own greatest teacher.
2. Learn to be comfortable with silence.
Traditional tantra yoga classes are not taught with music. We believe in the importance of being at ease in the sounds of silence. In a world with endless distractions, the yoga studio should be a sanctuary of contemplation and relaxation. I’ve been practicing yoga for 20 years and teaching for 10. I know that when I hear a song I really like on a playlist, I will be removed from my practice. I begin to flow to the beat of the music rather than the flow of my breath and the sensations of my body.
3. Put aside flexibility or physical fitness as the end goal.
Instead, those things will be natural results of becoming intimately aware of and connected to our minds and bodies. One of my teachers says that “our bodies can do everything they have ever learned. We just need to get out of their way.” We have evolved to keep our bodies in flight-or-fight mode, because we throw stressor after stressor at them. We’ve gotten to the point where we feel like we have to justify or apologize for relaxing. We force ourselves ourselves to keep moving, creating, spending, and using our energy until we simply cannot anymore.
Forcing ourselves to keep running on empty means our bodies start to use up our reserves. That’s what makes us tense, stiff, depressed, and anxious. Traditional tantra yoga classes are designed to facilitate total relaxation. Once we find a way to release the tension in our bodies and minds, we will reach new heights and depths in our practice and in our lives.
4. Lean into pleasure.
Tantric yoga will prime your mind and body to receive and experience pleasure. But note, we're not talking about sexual pleasure here. (Though, separately, there are some more sexual tantric yoga poses for couples and regular yoga poses for better sex, if that's what you're into.)
Pleasure is often associated with sex, because pleasure is a feeling of enjoyable sensation in the body. But tantric principles state that all things in life should give you pleasure. Everything you do should give you pleasure. Therefore if you are in a class where the teacher is insisting that you stay or come out of an asana before your body has received all the pleasure it can, then you are not in control of your reality. And if you are not in control of your reality, who is?
5. Follow your own path.
Tantric yoga will help you unlearn the conditioning you've faced all your life. In the West, we are taught at a very young age to fall in line, to speak only when called on, to move only when permission has been granted. We are taught to color within the lines, not to deviate from the rest of the group. Traditional tantra yoga helps us access the strength within us to follow our own paths.
By tapping into the subconscious we can rediscover our true selves. When we know our true selves, we can live our best lives. We must breathe and release the conditioning that keeps us from our true pleasure. We must learn to stand on our own and take back our lives.
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