Tantric traditions, which emerged around the 5th century CE, were born from Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain religious frameworks. Tantra encompasses a wide variety of practices which are united by their common sacred texts, the Tantras. Although it is difficult to pinpoint one comprehensive Tantric theme, Tantrism is often understood as a spiritual quest for salvation and enlightenment. Mental liberation is a common thread of the philosophy. As Tantrism itself was derived from yogic and meditative practices, this enlightenment is achieved through mindfulness, bodily experiences, and inner divine sexuality.
Although Tantra flourished in India from 320-650 AD1, the Modern Western world has recently revived and reinterpreted the traditional Indian and Buddhist practices in a New Age variation referred to as Neotantra. Neotantras’s reputation is highly variable; for some it represents indulgent voodoo, while for others it is a liberating spiritual path. For its followers, it combines yoga and sexuality to access previously untapped spiritual energy.
Origins of Tantra
The word “Tantra” comes from the ancient Hindu language Sanskrit and can be roughly translated as “web” or “to weave together.” It is a system of living aimed at unifying the contradictory aspects of one’s self, such as masculinity and femininity or dark and light. As one unifies their opposing internal forces through tantric practices, they hasten their journey towards enlightenment. These practices include yoga, meditation, deity worship, holistic health, Ayurvedic medicine, and a spiritual, full-body immersion into sex.2
Tantric sex is an ancient Eastern spiritual practice. Like yoga or Zen, it is practiced for the purpose of enlightenment–and the philosophy transcends the bedroom into all aspects of life. Tantra and its modern, primarily sex-focused counterpart, Neotantra, teach that lovemaking, when entered into with awareness, is a gateway to both sexual and spiritual transcendence. In the Tantric tradition, intercourse and orgasm combine to produce spiritual awareness at its peak. The moment when Shiva–male energy–and Shakti–female energy–come into a sexual union is believed to be the highest point of enlightenment.2
In Tantra, there are two paths: the right-hand and left-hand path. Practitioners of the left-hand path incorporate sex into their rituals, while right-hand practitioners only symbolically incorporate sex into their rituals. The more sexually explicit left-hand path gets its name from the traditional association of the left hand with the devil; it is often denounced as pagan and hedonistic. But defenders of left-hand tantra attribute this scorn to cultural pressures of morality. Rather than rejecting sex as impure, Tantra embraces it as a sacred quality of the human experience.5
Traditionally, Tantric sexual rituals were a means of appealing to the gods. Both male and female sexual emissions were thought of as sacred nectar and regarded as the essence of life in Indian medicine. As the understanding of the human body became more sophisticated and the connection between these emissions and pregnancy were better understood, they became associated with great power. Bodily fluids, such as semen and menstrual blood, were believed to be the food of choice for many Tantric divinities and were offered ritualistically as a form of sacrifice. Tantric sexual ceremonies were an integral aspect of the left-hand Tantric path to spiritual perfection. Along with the ritualistic importance of sexual fluids, the orgasm was also valued as a divine altered state. The experience of orgasm is believed to be an escape from the burden of self-consciousness.
Tantric sex is a deeply spiritual, meditative, spontaneous, and intimate form of lovemaking. Tantra is said to teach participants how to prolong the act of making love through channeling, rather than dissipating, potent orgasmic energies. These channeled energies flow throughout the body, raising the level of sexual consciousness. There is no goal in Tantric sex; the participant aims only to increase bodily awareness and to be spiritually present in a perfect and harmonious union with their partner. Tantra is not concerned with using one’s partner for sexual gratification. Instead, Tantric partners provide each other with vital energies that continue to build even after the sexual act is completed.3
People who practice Tantra are called Tantrikas. They view sexual energy as a divine, all-encompassing life force that sleeps within the individual, permeates the universe, and affects everything they do from birth to death. As sexual beings, humans have the ability to raise that energy within themselves and use it to directly experience alternate or mystical states of consciousness. In effect, Tantrikas become “gods” and “goddesses,” their bodies transformed into temples of male and female divinity.3
In fourth-century India, traditional Tantrikas spent many years under the guidance of a spiritual teacher, engaged in elaborate yogic rituals to purify and master their bodies and minds. These practices were intended to awaken the powerful psychic energies through which the adept could enter into higher states of consciousness. Through the sacred act of love, they sought to merge the dual nature of their sexualities into an ecstatic union.3
The Tantra vision is one of wholeness and embracing everything. Their belief is that every experience, pleasant or unpleasant, can teach a person to become more aware of who they are and how they can expand their mental and physical capacities. For instance, feeling sexual frustration is not viewed negatively in Tantra but rather as an inspiration for reflection.
It provides an opportunity to examine one’s personal sexual convictions and motivations. Through self-inspection, a better sense of how to improve your sex life can develop. Ideally, these improvements can transfer to all other aspects of life and allow you to lead a more fulfilling existence.
The Tantric Life Source
In Tantra, when the masculine and feminine polarities merge, a new dimension of awareness becomes available: the sense of the sacred. When the sacredness of sexual union is felt, it is possible to experience a connection to the life force itself, the source of creation. This connection lifts human consciousness beyond the physical plane into a much greater field of power and energy. There, the mind is removed from the immediate, concrete moment and filled with an unfamiliar sensation of absolute comprehension and acceptance. Then, it is believed the participant will feel linked, through their partner, to everything that lives and loves.3
The modern, Western variation of tantric thought is known as Neotantra. Despite the wholistic nature of traditional Tantra, Neotantra focuses on the left-hand path of tantra and is often perceived to be a sexual philosophy. But Neotantra is not purely sexual. Its influence on Europe began with the Crusades, the religious wars between Christians and Muslims that occurred between the 11th and 13th century. Through these wars, Europe was exposed to Tantric ideas. They were particularly taken with the idea of merging polar opposites in Shiva-Shakti, or sexual intercourse, to transform consciousness. This concept was a significant influence on European alchemy, which in turn influenced the psychologic principles introduced by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Despite minimal popular awareness of its influence, Tantra has had a significant bearing on Western thought.5
Tantric thought acknowledges three legitimate objectives for sex: reproduction, pleasure, and samadhi, a Sanskrit word referring to a stillness of mind and a consciousness completely absorbed by the present. Tantra views sexual union as a means of achieving its ultimate goal to escape ignorance and illusion. Desire, or kama, is understood to be a universal solvent which allows the two opposite essences to converge and form a new whole. This new whole represents the connection to all things in an ecstatic union. In this union, the practitioner escapes objectivity in favor of a new awareness of wholeness.5
Sexual Preference and Neotantra
The art of Tantra teaches followers to revere their sexual partners and to transform the act of sex into a sacrament of love. Tantra places no moral judgment on sexual preferences. The focus is not on whom sexual acts are engaged but rather on how they are performed. Hence, Tantra can be practiced by anyone who is attracted to this path.3
Tantra and Gender Equality
Because Tantra encourages wholeness, it embraces opposites, seeing them as complements instead of contradictions. Therefore, the concepts of masculinity and femininity are not strictly divided by a gender gap but are viewed as two polarities that meet and merge in every human being. Tantra recognizes that each human being, man, woman, or otherwise, possesses both masculine and feminine qualities. This means that by removing gender stereotypes, people can explore their sexual identities, honoring a polarity within themselves that has been largely ignored.3
In Tantra, the male is encouraged to explore his vulnerable “feminine” traits. He can slip out from beneath the weight of his masculine responsibilities and relax. He can take his time during sex, make love without a specific goal, and allow himself to receive pleasure while his partner initiates. The female then is free to explore her traditionally masculine dimensions by recognizing that she is capable of dynamic leadership in lovemaking, taking initiative, creating new ways of guiding and teaching, and pleasuring both herself and her partner. The male does not give up his masculinity nor does the woman abandon her femininity. They simply expand their personalities to include masculine and feminine elements.3
It is generally believed that females are capable of having three types of orgasms—clitoral, vaginal, and blended–and males experience a single, more general type of orgasm. Tantra introduces a different type of orgasm available to both males and females–the “energy” or “heart” orgasm. Tantra preaches being “in your heart” at all times, meaning that you are aware of the positivity and erotic energy inside of yourself. The teachings suggest that it is possible to transform these blissful feelings into a full-body orgasmic state of being. Initially, Tantrikas experience this form of orgasm after prolonged sessions of tantric lovemaking, but with practice, they are able to bring themselves to this state using nothing but breathing and focus. No physical touch or ejaculation is necessary in this orgasmic phenomenon, often referred to as “thinking off.” This solo sexual experience can be incorporated into lovemaking with a partner, so the different types of orgasms merge, and the couple is able to transcend all previously experienced pinnacles of pleasure.2
Neotantric Techniques of Intimacy
Neotantra emphasizes the interconnected nature of mind, breath, and sexuality. According to practitioners, harnessing the power of these forces can bring a liberating form of mindfulness. If you are interested in trying out the practice, you may want to incorporate some of the following elements of tantric sex into your own bedroom. Suggested by Mark Michaels and Patricia Johnson, authors of Great Sex Made Simple: Tantric Tips to Deepen Intimacy and Heighten Pleasure, these behaviors are reputed to foster a deeper and more pleasurable connection with your partner and yourself.
Focus on Breath and Touch – People often “check out” mentally during sex; they perform methodically and unconsciously or become distracted worrying about their partner’s pleasure, or even daily chores and stressors. By focusing on deep breathing, the sensations of your partner’s touches, and your partner’s reactions, you keep yourself present in the moment and allow yourself to get the most out of the experience.4
Separate Giving and Receiving – Instead of trying to simultaneously pleasure your partner and enjoy being pleasured, give yourself over completely to the active and submissive roles involved in sex. Michaels and Johnson propose beginning with kisses. Allow your partner to explore your mouth with his or her tongue for a few minutes, and fully surrender to the experience. Then switch. Immerse yourself completely in the act of kissing your partner. You may find it enjoyable to devote all of your attention to each activity and sensation.4
Massage and Meditate – Take an hour or so to exchange full-body massages with your partner. They can include some genital stimulation but not intercourse. Focus on fully giving and receiving. Try Michael’s and Johnson’s form of meditation with your partner: stand chest-to-chest (or heart-to-heart) with one hand on your partner’s lower back and the other between their shoulder blades. Have them hold you in the same way. Remain in this position for five minutes and focus on syncing your breathing with each other. By connecting in these non-sexual ways, you and your partner may be able to find new sources of pleasure and better understand how to interact both inside and outside of the bedroom.4
Break taboos - In medieval India, there were many taboos surrounding sexual acts and gender roles. Tantra encouraged breaking these taboos and stepping out of the realm of comfort and cultural norms. Openly and honestly discuss your personal sexual taboos with your partner — and then agree to break them! You do not need to experiment with anything too far out of your comfort zone at first. Just try out something that seems foreign or daunting but has piqued your interest, whether it is role play, light bondage, sensory deprivation, or oral sex. The idea is to become more adaptable and adventurous, and to surrender any inhibitions you may have about appearing incompetent or unattractive to your partner.4
Tantra is not a belief or a faith, nor are Tanrikas all gurus who have devoted their lives to the study of an enlightened lifestyle. Tantra is simply a way of living and acting, and it can be practiced by any person. By incorporating the Tantric philosophies of openness, wholeness, and connection into your sex life–and all other aspects of your life–you can maximize your pleasure and deepen the bonds that you share with others and yourself.
1. Michaels, Axel. Hinduism: Past and Present. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.
2. Heumann, Suzie. “What is Tantra?” Tantra.com. LLL Media Group, Inc, 2013. Accessed 8 Jan 2015.
3. LaCroix, Nitya. The Art of Tantric Sex. London: DK Adult, 2006.
4. Michaels, Mark, and Patricia Johnson. Great Sex Made Simple: Tantric Tips to Deepen Intimacy and Heighten Pleasure. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2012.
5. Hurley, Leigh, and Phillip Hurley. Tantra, Yoga of Ecstasy: The Sadhaka’s Guide to Kundalini and the Left-Hand Path. Maithuna Publications, 2012.
Last Updated November 27, 2018.