The practice of Tantra yoga is one of such detail and discipline, that those setting out on the path must be aware of the obstacles they will meet. To undertake a spiritual practice as demanding as Tantra is not a thing done lightly, and the individual must know the challenges inherent in the work.
Warnings are spread throughout yogic literature that the wrong practice, or practice done incorrectly, can indeed cause harm to the body and the spirit. No one would undertake to run in a marathon without taking stock of their health, and spending time training, and building on discipline. While long distance running is an excellent physical discipline, it is not the ideal path for everyone, or sports events would have no sprinters, no jumpers and no javelin throwers. So in yoga, a seeker will always be encouraged to experiment with different styles and philosophies to find the one best suited for their own needs.
The main reason that tantra has been so misunderstood is that it seems to be hedonistic indulgence rather than yogic discipline. The sexual ritual of red tantra seems an invitation to an orgy rather than an ashram. So, tantra sometimes attracts people who have no interest in yoga or discipline, but who are simply looking for sex. The popular cult of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was based on his own misinterpretation of tantra. His statement that “Yoga is suppression with awareness, Tantra is indulgence with awareness.” Rajneesh had no connection to any true tantric linage, but claimed to have achieved enlightenment on his own, and presented his personal philosophy as if it were an accepted form of tantra. As a credo of permissiveness, it attracted many with the false promise that they were on a spiritual path. His followers suffered an enormous sense of betrayal and disillusionment when it all came unraveled in the end. This is why a guru needs to have a guru of his own to have studied and served. Without an authentic lineage, there can be no assurance that a teacher has the strict sense of ethics so important to proper use of ritual.
Indiscipline of the senses, one of the classic challenges in any form of yoga, is a great difficulty on the tantric path. While there is a focus on the physical reality as the tangible experience of samādhi, it requires discipline and focus not to allow the physical delights of the practice to become simply physical delights. There are many tales told of aspiring yogis who became distracted during a ritual, their senses overwhelmed by the beauty, and had to begin their tantric work again at the beginning. There are specific tasks of “penance” to ameliorate errors committed during ritual, each of them a ritual unto itself.
The use of mantra as an essential part of beginning the practice leads to sensory discipline before moving forward on the path. Teachers recommend thousands of repetitions of mantra to train the mind to maintain the focus. Great command of the senses is required for a serious Tantric practice. This is an obstacle that will return again and again if the yogi is not dedicated to the path. Patanjali notes that the “the mantra “OM” is to be repeated constantly, with great feeling, realizing its full significance.”
This is the discipline that can keep the senses aligned with intention, and on the path of progress. After long practice, the more complex mantras specific to tantra can be employed for the same purpose. Once the use of mantra becomes second nature, the task of sensual discipline is well mastered.
The challenge of doubt comes up in every philosophy and religious practice known to humanity, and many feel that it is a part of human nature. Would there be such a need for so many exhortations to have faith if we were not all naturally inclined to doubt? But doubt is a specific problem in Tantra, mostly for the reasons that Tantra is often misunderstood. A discipline that requires you to accept and cherish things that have been previously seen as forbidden – meat, alcohol, sex- can give great strength to doubt. How can this be a spiritual discipline that involves so much pleasure? This is the paradox that Tantra embraces. As the inverse of the Christian prayer “…lead us not into temptation…”, Tantra asks you to walk into temptation with your mind and your senses in your own control, and to move through rituals of sensual pleasure while holding yourself in center.
While any yogic practitioner may have periods of doubt, if doubt becomes constant, one should seek spiritual guidance. Using the practice of Dhāranā, or concentration, one uses a mandala to focus the mind and settle the senses into place where doubt can be put to rest. Speaking with a guru, and committing to a sangha can also ease doubt, as Tantra is not a solitary practice and requires the support and interaction of others.
The Bhagavad-Gita has much to say on the subject of doubt, as it is Arjuna’s doubt that forces him to pause before the field of battle and ask Krishna why he should make war against those he considers family.
“Dejected, filled with a strange pity,
he said this “Krishna, I see my kinsmen
gathered here, wanting war.
My limbs sink,
my mouth is parched,
my body trembles,
the hair bristles on my flesh.
My magic bow slips
from my hand, my skin burns,
I cannot stand still,
My mind reels.”
Throughout the text, Krishna exhorts Arjuna to leave doubt behind, to know that he is doing the right thing, all the while answering Arjuna’s questions, and putting his fears to rest. Arjuna’s doubts are completely reasonable, and his questions are of the kind that millions of people have asked, all focused on the most basic doubt- Am I doing the right thing? In the practice of Tantra, doubt must be put to rest before any advanced practice can begin.
While the lack of perseverance is another mental obstruction that can challenge any path, in Tantra it is particularly difficult. The Tantric path is so rigorous, and so intricate, that without real dedication, it cannot lead to enlightenment. Still, some seekers have stepped off the path, and found their way back. But when stepping off, it must be remembered that you are giving up all you have achieved so far, back to the beginning. Sometimes this can be a positive thing. If a seeker feels less than complete with the beginning stages of the work, it can be a chance to reaffirm the practice, like taking a class over again to get a better understanding of the material. But more often, it is simply an unwillingness to accept the challenges of moving forward. Some may cease to persevere in the realization that this is not the right path for their spiritual growth. But without dedication, nothing can be accomplished. There is a saying in the practice of hatha yoga that a day lost from practice sets one three days behind. To keep from falling back, one must move forward.
Backsliding is a reflection of spiritual crisis. If the life you had before you began your practice is so hard to let go of that you find yourself returning to it, perhaps you are not ready to take on the commitment. The more involved and committed you are, the more your actions and intentions must be exact and correct, or those working with you will suffer. Devoted followers of many religions know of the backsliding that can occur as one goes through the motions without the intention, creating a ritual that looks authentic, but feels empty. A yogi may seem to be keeping within the focus of practice- but if the heart is elsewhere, the practice is hollow.
“…all yogic practices are interconnected, and one step penetrates the other, the main aim being always the concentration of the mind. While the original purpose of asana was to assist the meditative efforts of the yogin …(there is the) additional function of serving as a means of strengthening the physical body for strenuous mental exercises…this change was introduced by those following the Tanric path. ”
The obstacles to surmount in the pursuit of Tantra are really the pursuit of the path itself. It requires study and practice, physical and mental discipline, the courage to seek and choose a guru, commitment to a sangha, commitment to a deity, deep cleansing on both a personal and situational level, understanding of ritual, repetition of mantra and an opening to worship as a tangible rite. When the desire to experience bliss is strong enough, then all of these obstacles can be overcome.
- Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Iyengar, HarperCollins
- Bhagavad-Gita, Miller, Bantam
- Essence of Yoga, Feuerstein and Miller, Inner Traditions
- Tantra, the Path of Ecstasy, Feuerstein, Shambala
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