In the 1960’s, the practice of Tantric sex became popular in some Western circles. But the spiritual aspects of Tantra were often lost on Western practitioners. Yet, like those who practice yoga for their body and come away with a heightened sense of spirituality, Tantra can help infuse both heat and meaning into your sex life.
In the West, information about sex is everywhere; there are plenty of books, magazines and manuals that will walk you through step-by-step processes of how to make sex better, last longer, and perform increasingly creative positions. Yet, by focusing so much on the mechanics of sex, the potential for a much deeper level of sharing can get lost in the gymnastics.
In the East, people have practiced Tantra for thousands of years. The approach to Tantric sex is quite different than Western sex; although there are plenty of instructions given to improve sexual performance and pleasure, the emphasis is also on developing unity between the couple.
Is this the “missing element?”
“Tantra” is a Hindu word that roughly translates to “weave” or “thread.” Even strict interpretations of Tantra yield many schools of thought as to the origin of the word. In general, Tantra is a yoga tradition that reveres the sexual union as an opportunity for spiritual harmony. Within the various schools of yoga that have adopted Tantric methods there is a range of philosophies and practices. Some yogis simply approached sexuality with the quest for unity that guided much of their lives. Others literally worshiped their “lingams”, or penises. Shrines still exist today in India that portray the genitals of the gods as objects of reverence, although Muslims and Europeans coming through India deemed them to be sacrilegious and destroyed many of them.
Tantra views sex, as the union of male and female, as a perfect symbol for the union of important energies, and of the union of God and the soul. Mantras and elaborate caressing are part of the sexual act, which can last for hours. Semen is a symbol of life force, and as such, men are able to retain their semen or get it back from the sacred “fire” of the “yoni”, or vagina. Although there are various theories as to where Tantric practices began, most historians agree that their origin is probably China. However, Tantric practice was most often practiced by certain Hindu sects in India, although it also influenced Buddhist and Jainist sects as well.
Are you surprised that sexual practices encouraging men to keep from ejaculating for hours while maintaining pleasurable caressing and intercourse have cross-cultural appeal?
A glance at various Internet sites, sexual aids catalogues, and the many books on the subject suggests that, at the very least, Westerners hope Tantra will enhance their sex lives. This, of course, is nothing new. Western men have long been enticed by the stereotype of the exotic sexual appetites associated with Asian females. Women may be interested to know that, while sex researchers in Western culture find that most men ejaculate just minutes into the sex act, Taoist and Tantric practitioners say that the minimum goal is 30 minutes and an ideal achievement is two hours.
The search for meaning
In the emphasis on hours of lovemaking and enhanced orgasm, the spiritual aspect of Tantra is often lost, just as the meditative and spiritual aspects of yoga are often lost in the “power yoga” classes at the gym. Yet Tantra offers a chance to infuse meaning into sexual activity, which can be difficult to find in our culture. Most modern Christian religions, at least in the dominant Western cultures of Europe and America, believe that the purpose of sex is procreation. Residual puritanism has keep sex associated with shame. The notion of spirituality in sex to many is an anomaly– perhaps even blasphemous.
In fact, European attitudes toward sex have influenced Muslim, Jewish, and even Hindu notions of sexuality. The ascetism that led Gandhi to refrain from sex with his wife was due to Victorian notions of purity and decency brought by England to its Indian colony, according to Geoffrey Parrinder, author of Sexual Morality in the World’s Religions. And none other than Dr. Ruth Westheimer laments the European prudishness that she says has robbed Judaism of its ancient mixing of spirituality and sexual intimacy.
“In the Jewish tradition, there are hints, incentives, and even legislation for orgasms” for both men and women, she writes in her book, Heavenly Sex. “In the Jewish marriage ceremony, sexual satisfaction is part of the contract.”
Despite our culture of guilt and shame, despite the bad experiences of lonely sex and the lonely experiences of bad sex, people are searching for–and many are finding–spirituality in their sexuality, according to sex therapist and researcher Gina Ogden, Ph.D. When she began her surveys of women several years ago, Ogden noticed that women who enjoyed sex described it in almost religious terms. As she has continued her research, Ogden has come to believe that people with fulfilling sex lives have incorporated an aspect of spirituality.
“Women who have great sex are using value-laden words, in a positive way, to describe their sexual experiences,” Ogden says. “They’re using a language of meaning. If you go out and ask a hundred women to describe sexual ecstasy, or to describe sex they would describe as ‘hot’, they will start talking about what it means to them.”
This suggests that even our culture provides room in the bed for spirituality. Ogden, who counsels women and couples who have troubled or empty sex lives, agrees. She says that trying techniques like Tantra can help couples revive what may have become an old routine or help unburden people who feel shamed by sex. “Tantra offers some real specifics,” she says. “It helps you realize, for example, that “you can make eye contact with each other”.
Ultimately, whether it’s via Tantra or something else, the people who find fulfillment in sex are are probably those who find a way to infuse their sexual experiences with meaning. “When people ask me what women are saying, ‘it’s that there’s more to sex than intercourse’,” Ogden says. “Body, mind, heart, soul. Our sexuality, our sexual response, begins long before we get into the bedroom and continues long after.”
Incorporating Tantra into your own life
So what can Westerners really get out of Tantric sex? The most ancient sex manuals from various cultures acknowledge that stoking the fires of passion within a long-term relationship can be a challenge. Like the ancient manuals, current ones can help bored or reticent couples. Tantric sex practice involves using various positions during lovemaking, as well as caressing activities like nibbling and kissing. (There are also instructions for masturbation). Perhaps most important for Westerners, Tantric practice slows things down. For couples trapped in the missionary position, just experimenting with new techniques can bring new pleasures.
Anyone interested in exploring Tantra from a book should take a careful look at the many available. Find one that fits your comfort level (how do you feel about graphic photographs?) and your style (do you want to call your penis a “lingam” or your vagina a “yoni”?). But watch out: although many of the sex manuals on Tantra seem helpful, others are silly at best. At worst, a few simply change the vocabulary of the very step-by-step, goal-oriented, “was-it- good-for-you?” approach to sex that robs so many Western couples of sexual ecstasy.
Illustrations or photographs can be helpful in trying to figure out new positions and, as an added bonus, can be arousing. The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, translated by Sir Richard Burton, isn’t usually illustrated but remains a great read after all these years. It’s not technically a Tantric manual, although it is a Hindu text. It is a treatise on social conduct as well as on love, sex, and eroticism that reads much like a 15-century-old The Rules for men.
But aside from instructions, perhaps the most important element that Western couples can gain from Tantra is a new understanding of how to integrate the sacred into sexual expression.