When I went to my first San Francisco Yoga Journal conference in 2009, I mostly found myself wandering around the Hyatt confused, frustrated, physically exhausted, and waiting for lunch. This year, I returned with a strategy, a curriculum of sorts. I’d barely do any physical yoga at all; with that, I’ve become all too familiar. Instead, I’d begin my journey into yoga’s subtler aspects, its deeper mysteries. It was time for an introduction to Tantra.
Most people, if they’ve heard of Tantra at all, would say, “Oh, yeah, that’s that thing Sting and his wife do before they fuck.” Until pretty recently, I’d have said the exact same thing. And now, though I know far less about Tantra than I do about, say, the mechanics of the NBA Draft Lottery, I’ve begun to acquaint myself with some basic facts.
Essentially, Tantrism is a school of yoga that began to emerge around 800 A.D. in reaction to certain facets of Vedic orthodoxy. Yoga at that time had grown quite practical, rigid, and exclusionary, and Tantrism brought a mystical element to the proceedings, the possibility that yoga could be practiced by anyone, including, shockingly, women. Tantric practitioners saw yoga as a way to tap into the “divine energy” of the universe. Sometimes this was achieved through identification with traditional Hindu deities, but, since many of its practitioners were Buddhist, that pantheon didn’t always apply. Alternate paths to the divine included meditation, scholarship, mantra (either recited privately or sung with a group), and other, more complex “secret practices” that probably cost a lot of money.
The popular Western yoga form that most closely resembles traditional Tantric practice is kundalini, what with its chanting and its coiled-snake energies and all. But Tantra is actually a complex, variegated body of spiritual work that has only really begun to leach its way into contemporary yogic study. You’re more likely to find a class about paganism than one about Tantric yoga.
But at the Yoga Journal conference, which caters largely to extreme yoga weirdoes like me, Tantra can carry the day, as it seemed to this year. There were lectures in Tantric philosophy, courses on Tantric history, and intimations of larger things to come. I tuned in to some of those, and also took a class called The Art Of Tantric Meditation.
The class leader, Sally Kempton, was (and is) an extremely advanced meditation teacher, which either made it totally ironic or completely appropriate that the class took place in a thin-walled basement conference room in the middle of the convention’s noisy and crowded Yoga Marketplace. From the crackling walkie-talkies and guys who occasionally walked through the room whistling and wearing beige work shirts, I gauged that we were also directly adjacent to some sort of maintenance closet. It was noisy in there. We sat in straight-backed conference chairs, the color and consistency of old puke, and attempted to connect with the divine.
As any master teacher worth his or her cushion would, Sally Kempton told us to ignore the sounds. More accurately, she asked us to let the sounds penetrate our consciousness, notice them, meditate on them, and then let them go. The sounds were, like our breath, or bodies, our thoughts, and everything around us, part of a greater cosmic energy. I found myself somewhat distracted by the extraordinarily hot woman sitting to my left, so close that our knees were almost touching, though the distraction had less to do with the fact of her extraordinary hotness than with the fact that she kept fidgeting with her cell phone by pulling it in and out of a plastic Bakugan backpack. Why, I wondered, did this woman have such a backpack, and how could I incorporate the backpack into the Tantric idea that all physical things are really just a condensed form of “divine light”, or sound vibration? This was a difficult question that our teacher wouldn’t be able to answer, because there was no way in hell I would ask.
In any case, we did many different meditations over the course of two hours, including one where Kempton taught us an interesting technique to intensify and then expel negative emotions. Then arrived the moment of truth, the money shot, so to speak. The teacher announced that we would now do a sexual energy meditation.
In traditional Tantrism, sexual-energy rites were practiced by obscure sects as a kind of clan initiation, and had very little to do with mainstream belief. In contemporary interpretations, they’re a way for middle-aged hipsters to blend their Shiva and Shakti energies together into a series of million-dollar orgasms. What we did in that basement conference room was neither obscure nor wealth generating, but it definitely felt good.
The teacher said: Imagine something extremely sexually arousing. I initially thought of Lynda Carter, circa 1976, but that seemed like kind of a cliché, so instead I concocted a few other scenarios that I won’t share with you right now. Regardless, as she instructed, a warm feeling, almost like intense light, began to emanate from my genital center. No, it wasn’t a boner. Don’t be perverted. This was a higher sensation that transcended mere sexual pleasure.
Then she told us to take that divine feeling and move it through our bodies, starting in our toes, and then into our ankles, and then our calves, and then our legs, and then our thighs, and traveling upward through various meridians and chakras. Getting to such a place wasn’t so hard, really. I’d been meditating all morning, even all weekend, and my mind was primed. As I sat there in that shitty chair in that shitty room with its shitty carpet, a strange kind of semi-ecstasy permeated my every pore. My body began to involuntarily shudder with pleasure.
Next to me, the hot woman with the Bakugan backpack went “OHHHHHHHHHH!” Then the woman sitting next to me on the other side, in a slightly lower tone, went, “MMMMMMMMM!” Not wanting to be left out, I murmured a deep, low, “AHHHHHHHH!” The room had reached a state of Samadhi, where our individual selves had dissolved into a greater cosmic consciousness, probably fueled (though not in my case, I swear), by fantasies of having sex with George Clooney.
Then it was over, and our teacher released us into a room where entrepreneurs were selling stretchy pants and massage balls. A few hours later, after I’d gone to The Ferry Building to quite wisely invest $3.50 on a mixed “meat cone” from Boccalone, I returned to the conference to attend a lecture on the future of Tantra in the West. On the way there, I ran into the woman who’d been seated to my left.
“So, that workshop…” I said.
“Yeah, that was kinda weird,” she said, without looking me in the eye. “What’s up?”
And then she walked away, spastically and hurriedly, carrying the secrets of the Tantra in her Bakugan backpack.