For most modern westerners, Tantra consists mainly of techniques which can be used to slow down the buildup of sexual energy in the body. By using breathing exercises, meditations, mental focus and yoga postures or asanas it is possible to delay orgasm in both sexes or, in men, bypass ejaculation altogether. This can, of course, enhance the experience for both partners and leads to increased intimacy. Or, at least, that is the claim.
But there is far more to Tantra than that.
Tantra became associated exclusively -- and incorrectly -- with sex during Victorian times when British colonists in India and Tibet discovered that a man could learn to delay ejaculation long enough to bring his partner (or partners!) maximum pleasure before he is spent. A man so trained would be considered highly desirable as a sex partner and would, presumably, never lack for enthusiastic female companionship.
This desire for increased sexual prowess combined with Victorian prudishness made tantra a kind of forbidden fruit, a study that was pursued amid the strictest of secrecy lest the sensibilities of those in authority be scandalized. People wishing to rebel against the strict sexual mores of their day would often pursue it along with other eastern philosophies, disguising the more erotic aspects of it under the guise of ‘spiritual enlightenment.’
Eventually, Tantrism itself became a western construct, much like Yoga. The methods and practices were seen primarily as ways to enhance physical health and wellbeing while the spiritual aspects were ignored or disregarded and the more heathen aspects of it dismissed as merely symbolic or metaphorical. In this way, westerners seeking mind/body unity and free flow of energy can achieve considerable benefit without abandoning their Christian faith, however unorthodox or lukewarm that faith might be.
Tantra, of course, teaches much more than just the control of sexual reflexes. Tantra comes from a root word meaning ‘to weave.’ It encompasses an entire web of practices that can be used to foster the divine within one’s own body by reconciling the dualities of mind-body, spirit-matter and male-female to achieve a sense of unity within one’s self.
However, it is in the act of actual sexual union between two people that constitutes the most profound feature of Tantra. Here, we get into the more ‘heathen’ aspects of the practice. Of course, using sex in service to religion is very much a part of eastern religions and physical sex as part of religious ritual is not considered immoral as it is in the Christian West. Sex is a natural part of life that goes beyond procreation. It is considered a path to spiritual journey and fulfillment.
In Tantric sexual union, the woman embodies the positive creative force personified by the goddess Shakti, the consort of Shiva, god of creation and destruction. In Tantric philosophy, Shiva was passive, inert and unable to act until he was joined to Shakti, who served as his awakener and initiator. This is what makes the act of sex into a religious ritual. Through the union of a man and a woman, the God and Goddess can unite and create the world anew.
But, tantra isn’t the only form of sex magic in the West. See part two of this series.