There is a heated conversation about tantra going on in the press, partly due to the unfolding drama within the Anusara community, and partly in response to the recent article by William J. Broad in the New York Times in which he makes the dubious claim that yoga began as a sex cult. While I think it is good that yoga is so much in the public eye right now, I worry that some of the misunderstandings might discredit yoga. Tantra is a subject that is very close to my heart. My father was initiated as Kavi Yogiraj into a tantric lineage when I was a child, and my extended family consisted of tantric masters that visited our ashram in South Africa to live and to teach. As the yogiraj of ISHTA Yoga, a thriving lineage that draws heavily on the teachings of tantra that I grew up with, and having taught these practices for over 50 years, I feel a responsibility to talk about the issue of what tantra is and is not from this grounded perspective.
Yoga, tantric or otherwise, is a set of practices that help us expand our consciousness to connect with the universal intelligence and then to bring that experience into life so that we live in the world in a liberated state. While all yoga draws on the same sources, each school or lineage has its own set of practices and interpretations handed down from teacher to student in a very specific way, making it almost impossible for the modern yogi or scholar to tweeze out all of the influences let alone the specific provenance of the various practices. Some contemporary schools have been interested in creating yoga as an institution that can be branded, replicated globally, and sold for profit. But yoga, the real living practice, has always been more like an organism that grows organically and can only survive if it is grounded in the kind of relationship between teacher and student that fosters the direct transmission of what we call the shakti, or living energy, of this ancient wisdom tradition.
There is archaeological evidence that yoga has existed for at least 4,000 to 5,000 years. Tantra is considered to have developed within the various schools of yoga in the early medieval period as a reaction to the conservatism of the Brahmins, or priests, who advocated celibacy and retreat from worldly life in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and as a way to allow householders to practice yoga. The word tantra is a combination of the Sanskrit words tanoti, or expansion, and trayati, or liberation. Together they mean that through tantra we expand our consciousness to connect with the intelligence that governs our universe and then we weave that experience back into our everyday living. Tantra, like all yoga, embraces transcendence, or that experience of oneness. But it also puts an emphasis on living in this world and applying the experience of connection that you get from your practice to dealing with your karma on this plane of existence. Householder schools have existed side by side with the tradition of yogic monks for centuries if not millenia, and there is always this debate about whether we can practice yoga and still live in the world as a human with all our imperfections.
The tantric answer to this question of being embodied on this plane of existence as a human is to embrace the fact that we are perfect in our imperfections. These so-called imperfections are what we’re becoming aware of through our practice, and by becoming aware of them it allows us to grow beyond them. Sometimes, in our rush to transcend our human urges and desires, we may push them deeper into the unconscious, where they are bound to do the most damage. Our egos are built on unconscious belief patterns that in Sanskrit are called avidya, and part of the practice of yoga is to loosen the hold our belief patterns have on us. So, in tantra, rather than use strict discipline to avoid our weaknesses, we use training and discrimination in dealing with our human tendencies as the basis of our practice. If we have trouble being moderate in our eating, we practice eating one potato chip rather than banning potato chips from our diet.
The more intense the urge or tendency, the more difficult will be the challenge to bring it to consciousness. So working with the sexual energy may be a part of the practice for some advanced yogis. But that is far from saying that it is always part of the practice, or that hatha yoga began as a sex cult. Hatha yoga does sensitize us to the physical body, and it can generate physical energy, including the sexual energy. But it is not about whipping the libido into a frenzy. It is about moving energy that may be stuck and at the same time calming energy that may be aggravated to create balance. I’m not sure where or when tantra became conflated with sexual practices, but I guess sex sells in any culture and in all eras. We need to understand that the tantric practices are about understanding and mastering our own energy and that 99.99% of these practices have nothing to do with sex. Because all of this is so difficult to actually do, we need to apply steady and prolonged practice, beginning with practices like lengthening and controlling the breath, or visualizing energy in the spine as we do in the ISHTA diksha.
From the perspective of a tantric yoga practice, the sexual energy is important because it is part of human nature, and all humans have it because we need to procreate and evolve like anything else on this earth. Add to this that the act of sex requires that we let go our egos, even if only for a moment, so it can be useful as a tool in a practice that values making the unconscious conscious. But because it is so primal, it is also a place where our unconscious patterns manifest. Sexual relationships are not bad in themselves. They are inevitable because we are human, and they contribute to our growth. When we attempt to ban sex from our lives because we think it will make us more spiritual or enlightened, the sexual energy still has to express itself, and in the hands of someone that is less than a master, it can become covert. Then the problems come about when abusive patterns show up in relationships, especially where there are imbalances of power and status.
There is also a big difference between a swami and a guru or yogiraj. A swami is like a priest who has taken a public vow of celibacy. A guru, or teacher, is someone who has been initiated into a yogic lineage. All swamis are gurus, but not all gurus are swamis. Swamis having sex with devotees is never okay, not because sex is bad, but because it is a transgression of a vow and violates the trust of the devotee. Teachers having sex with students is not okay unless and until that relationship has been consensually transformed from a teacher-student relationship into a partnership relationship. The abuse of power by any authority figure should never be condoned in any circumstances.
It is so important to remember that releasing belief patterns is a delicate process that varies so much from person to person depending on their karma. Whether it involves sexual energy, eating patterns, emotional difficulties, illness, or any other area of human experience, it requires the help and supervision of a trusted mentor or guide. In Sanskrit, guru means “dispeller of darkness” or the one who helps us to become more conscious. Sisya means “disciple” or a student who brings to the relationship respect, commitment, and devotion. There needs to be an organic growth and a transparency to the development of the guru-sisya relationship because without such a strong foundation, the student cannot develop the trust and steadiness needed to master the subtleties of the practice, and the guru’s mastery may get stuck in ego. I hope that teachers and students of yoga will be able to keep coming back to this foundation so that the incredible light of yoga can continue to shine.