What is Tantra?
by Gary Kraftsow
Traditional Yoga is very different than the modern incarnation of Yoga in the west; so too traditional Tantra very different than the modern incarnation of Tantra in the west. The purpose of this reflection is to make known some of these differences.
Yoga in the current public mind is, for the most part, a system of exercise oriented towards mastery of the body. At its best, this contemporary understanding teaches anatomical alignment principles though posture (asana), achieved through consistent practice, with attention focused on those details and in some measure deepened respiratory rhythms. In time, the body gains increased structural integrity, and the mind increased focus. In contemporary settings, often these teachings and practices are accompanied by discussions of basic Yoga philosophy oriented towards healthy lifestyle, positive attitudes, and social responsibility.
Traditional Yoga is an integrated system of teachings and practices oriented towards the reduction and ultimate elimination of the symptoms and causes of suffering; the recognition of the purpose of life; the achievement of happiness in the present moment; and, depending on the language used in specific traditions, Self or God realization. The teachings and practices about posture (asana) and breathing (pranayama) are not fundamentally about anatomical integrity or physiological well-being, but rather are conceived of as preparatory practices for meditation through which we are able to gain the discrimination and insight that will lead us beyond attachment and identification and help us awaken to who we truly are.
Tantra in the current public mind is often associated with “conscious relationship” and “sacred-sexuality”. At its best, this contemporary understanding teaches that conscious relationship means moving beyond our sense of separateness, and realizing our essential oneness. It teaches us that others are not who we think they are, and that if we want to make deeper connections we must be able to empty ourselves of those concepts and really listen to know who they are. These teachings point out that our conditioning limits our potential to achieve fulfillment. In the service of fulfillment, many contemporary Tantric teachings and practices focus on human sexuality with the goals of improving mutual satisfaction and deepening sexual experience.
Traditional Tantra is a system of Yogic philosophy, practices and rituals oriented towards worldly achievement and/or spiritual liberation. Tantric teachings aim to help the practitioner tap, increase and harness his/her energy (prana sakti), with the aim of mastering the complex web of life that extends from our subtlest thoughts and feelings, to the intricate workings of our physical bodies, to all the forces of nature that surround us. In the service of this goal, the ancients evolved a macro-cosmology of gods and goddesses, and a micro-cosmology of chakras, pranas, nadis, and bindus. Using these symbols as a conceptual framework, Tantric practitioners aim to transform the inner dimensions of mood, thought, behavior, and personality to actualize their highest potentials, symbolized in the qualities of the gods and goddesses. In addition to the traditional use of asana, pranayama and meditation, tantra employs special practices that distinguish it from traditional Yoga, including bandha, mudra, kriya, nyasa as well as a particular way of using mantra and yantra. One branch of Tantra also utilized ritualized sexuality in the context of other practices. The use of these sexual practices is not about learning to have better sex, deeper orgasms, or even more fulfilling relationships, but rather transformation, realization, actualization, and deification.