Tantra gives us a vision of taking the many colorful threads -- wisdom, spiritual techniques, creativity and consciousness -- and delicately weaving an exquisite rainbow loom. We may then use this loom to cloak our spirits in the bliss of the sensual human experience.
Tantra beckons us to connect more intimately with the body and breath so we further embody our own unique essence. Tantra is the merging of opposites: light and dark, feminine and masculine, sun and moon, heaven and earth. It's living in harmony within and without.
You whose drum is the pulse of creation,
You whose dance is the motion of all Worlds,
You who are more intimate than my very breath,
I am suffused with satisfaction.
My questions have led to fullness.
You have sung to me of the ways of Union
Of the Goddess with Her God,
Time and space, personal and impersonal,
Energy and form, finite and infinite.
You have sung the song
Of being at home in the universe.
Having said that, Goddess,
Radiant with delight,
Embraces her lover."
-Insight verse 161-162 of "The Radiance Sutras"
The Origins of Tantra Yoga
The "Tantra Sutras" are a number of classical ancient texts that refer to conversations between gods, goddesses and other deities. These texts serve as a guide for practicing esoteric techniques. Etymologically speaking, tan means “to stretch, extend, spread or shine,” and tra means “technique.” Sutras, which are different verses of these sacred texts, means “threads” (think, "suture").
(Here is A Guide to Hinduism's Leading Goddesses.)
Tantra is expressed within a wide array of different lineages and branches within many different cultures. Though the origin of Tantra is questionable, Jan Fries explains in his book, "Kali Kaula," that “The beginnings of Tantra were developed by people who did not belong in the mainstream. We know that there were early ‘Tantric cults’ around the middle of the first millennium C.E., but as next to none of their literature has survived we are very much in the dark regarding their origin and nature,” but "[b]y the fusion of Hindu and Buddhist methods, what we call ‘Tantra’ was born” (p. 120-122).
Shaktism, Shaivism and Vaishnavism are a few types of Hindu lineages of Tantra, while Vajrayana, Tantrayana and Mantrayana hail from Buddhist lineages. These lineages act as unique individual expressions of Tantra.
A yogi curious to delve into studies of Tantra may want to begin with the classical text written by Abhinavagupta of Shaivism, "Tantrāloka" ("To Throw Light on Tantra"). As well as the "Vijnana Bhairava Tantra" also of Shaivism, which is a compilation of meditations and breath works often translated into a series of poems in the English language (such as Lorin Roche's, "The Radiance Sutras").
Shiva and Shakti
Shiva and Shakti are the embodiment of God and Goddess who, in Hindu Tantric texts, personify infinite consciousness (Shiva) and the ever permeating creative energy (Shakti). Together, their love represents a sacred union of opposites in which true cosmic love is actualized.
Many believe Tantra is the unification of lovers. As Fries again explains, "In folk religion, the two are a divine couple whose lovemaking creates, maintains and destroys the multiverse" (p. 93). But, ultimately, Tantra is finding wholeness of the unification of Shiva and Shakti within our own being whilst letting go of gender identifications.
Shakti is the creative life force found in all cosmic and macrocosmic aspects of life; she is energy and consciousness expressed in form; she is the body and sensuality; she is the dark feminine, the moon, water, moist, cold and red like the womb; she is the left side of the body, the right side of the brain; she is the portal receiving energy; she is the formless and the infinitely mysterious void from which all life emerges. In Hindu mythology, Shakti takes form through more than 10 goddesses (Parvati, Durga, Kali, Saraswati, etc.), each playing out a particular role of the feminine form.
Shiva is the masculine, formless consciousness; pure and passive awareness; the sun, fire, heat, dry and white like sperm; he is the right side of the body, the left side of the brain; he is yang and penetrative energy.
The idea of Tantra is the merging of Shiva and Shakti within ourselves, enabling us to find wholeness of being. A wholeness which brings our focus to the grace, humility, compassion and joy that is expressed as love.
(More on Shiva and Shakti.)
Tantric practices include a weaving of mantra, mudra, asana, bandha and yantra, and are variant depending on the lineage and text from which they are born. Here, I will share a few personal beginner practices:
First, begin with a simple cat-cow flow. Focus on the waking and clearing of the sushumna nadi. It is important to clear the sushumna so the kundalini energy may rise up without blocking the central channel.
Next, sit in padmasana. Imagine a moon at the left side of the womb (ida nadi) for women and the left testicle for men, and a sun at the right side of the womb (pingala nadi) for women and the right testicle for men. As you exhale, imagine these two polar energies intertwining up your spine in a serpent-like pattern. As you inhale, imagine these energies drawing down your spine, in the same way, making their way from the muladhara to the sahasrara chakras and back again. This is a modified variation of a more advanced technique called shakti chalani.
Opening to Experience
Tantra is a beautifully ethereal and complex idea with never-ending interpretations. One verse of its texts can hold such a depth of wisdom, that one can take that verse and continue to dive deep into the essence of the idea for years; so is the infinite mystery of Tantra. The phenomena of Tantra itself is merely impossible to philosophize. The colorful loom you choose to weave is purely based off of your own experience.
Tantra invites us to sip slowly on the present moment so we may taste the many notes of nectar within the human experience. I invite you to jump with the wings of your heart wide open and enjoy the blissful ride.
"When we give love our tender attention, we are in the realm of Tantra."
–"The Radiance Sutras"