What is Tantra?

Tantra yoga may be the most often misunderstood path in all the yogic traditions. It has much to offer, and is a path that requires enormous devotion and discipline. At once explicitly sexual and deeply spiritual, tantra is a refutation of the body/mind split that pervades so much of western philosophy. As a celebration of the senses and the interdependence of male and female, tantra is both vēdic in origin and a departure from vēdic tradition.  Tantra is often mistakenly considered to be simply a sexual yoga, a type of āsana practice that gives one greater sexual pleasure or physical control. While all physical yoga practices strengthen the body, the focus of tantra is to use the body as a means of liberation. While sexuality is a part of tantra, there is much more to this ancient yogic path.


That the physical self is used as the way to enlightenment might seem to be the very same path as hatha yoga, using the practice of āsanas to lead to liberation. In some schools of thought, hatha is considered to be a kind of tantra yoga.  Consider also that tantra is closely related to kundalini, in the use of the body to channel power to the mind. While most philosophies of yogic thought consider the body as a vehicle for the mind and the spirit, in tantra, the body is the concrete representation of the mind and the spirit, therefore, true and complete liberation must take place in physical reality.


Tantra can be compared most easily to paganism, with its celebration of the reality of nature, as other schools of yoga can be compared to the Christian concept of paradise as a non-physical (or post-corporeal) state of being. The teachings of tantra consider the physical to be the highest level of the sacred, indeed the only way to achieve enlightenment.


Because tantra is both a Hindu and a Buddhist practice, it is seen as descendent of the Vedic teachings. While both Hinduism and Buddhism teach from the sutras, the tantric writings begin at a later point in time. Originally framed as yoga for a corrupt culture, tantra begins with the idea that enlightenment of the individual is so needed for the good of the world, it must be achieved by any means possible.  So, the use of wine, meat, and sex, all forbidden by most spiritual teachers, are central to the rituals of the tantrists.


The sexual aspect of tantra is a challenge to all spiritual teachings that portray sex as human flaw, a temptation to be avoided at all costs. In Tantric ritual, sexual union is used as a physical experience of divinity. This is seen as recreating the coupling of Shakti and Shiva, bringing delight and energy into creation, and balancing the universe. As each individual carries the aspect of the deity through the ritual, just as a Pentacostal Christian might be seized by the Holy Spirit during a service, or a Voodoo practitioner possessed by a specific loa during ritual, they have the physical experience of being the deity. Unlike the Pentacostal or Voodoo seekers, yogis are trained to be conscious and present, and so have full memory of the experience when the ritual is completed. By inverting the traditional means of seeking enlightenment- those seeking wisdom become those bestowing wisdom- liberation is attained.


There is the distinction between the right hand path of Tantra (dakshina-mārga) and the left hand path (vāma-mārga). The left hand path, which uses sexual ritual as a means of liberation, is the one that has many in the West viewing Tantra as a sexual practice, and contributes to many mistaken ideas and more than a bit of corruption. Reinterpretations of Tantra may be common, but without the clarity of a strict tradition, they are very unlikely to lead to enlightenment. Indeed, westerners who are told that they are using a tantric pratice without knowing what it is may find themselves in abusive situations with unscrupulous gurus.


The right hand path uses sex in a metaphorical way, just as the ritual of Catholic mass does not really involve drinking blood, but offers it as a part of the poetry of the liturgy. Bringing men and women together in spiritual partnership during ritual without physical connection, the focus is on the great reality of creation and the balance between male and female energies. Working with the concept of Shiva (masculine energy) and Shakti (feminine power) to bring pleasure and joy into balance in the physical world, right hand tantra works with the energy in and around the body, rather than the body itself.


The right and left distinctions are also identified with colors, white tantra as the right hand path, and red tantra as the left hand path.


Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein notes “Whether we are practitioners of Hindu or   Buddhist yoga, (or any other spiritual discipline) in order to enjoy…liberation, we all must cross the artificial boundaries between one tradition and another…this sense of boundary crossing lies at the heart of Tantra.”


An intricate and complex ritual practice is central to both Hindu and Buddhist tantric practice. These begin with


  1. guru-yoga (devotion to the teacher)
  2. Identification with a deity
  3. Mantra recitation (japa)
  4. Knowledge and control of nādī (energy channels in the body) and prāna (breath/life energy)
  5. Transformational rituals


While working with a guru is a method used in many yogic paths, choosing a deity here is the first part of choosing a mantra to work with. The kind of energy called forth is dependent on the individual and how the guru feels they should begin their practice.


While accepting the idea that the world offers both good and bad experiences, the Tantrists proclaim that this world is all there is, and as the reflection of the Creator, it is, to the trained adept, perfect. Like a hologram, seen from any perspective, that posits the entire image, the world is Creation, and indistinguishable from the Creator. When we break things down into distinctions of good and bad, we create confusion. In the practice of Tantra, we are encouraged to see them as two sides of the same coin. This is life as a great gift, each experience a treasure.


As Patanjali states, “Nature and intelligence exist only to serve the seer’s true purpose, emancipation.” By using the resources of the physical self to open to a greater awareness, the practice of tantra is about both total discipline and complete ecstasy.


In addition to observing the eight limbs of yoga (Patanjali’s process of ashtānga yoga- yama, niyama, āsana, prānāyāma, pratyāhāra, dhāranā, dhyāna, and Samādhi), Tantra includes a series of complimentary disciplines, seen as essential to the path. While these apply to the practice of Tantra as a philosophy, many also apply to the ritual itself, with a particular time and space being defined as sacred.


  1. Bhūta-shuddhi- purification- Not simply a purification of the body with preparatory cleansing and control of diet, tantric purification also means the cleansing of the space, cleansing of the mantra, and cleansing of any tools or images included in the discipline.
  2. Japa- The beginning practice is taken on as a prerequisite to the more advanced initiation, and requires extensive repetition of mantras to build focus and energy. A mantra is repeated at least one thousand times, with a repetition of one thousand and eight being noted as “supreme”.
  3. Yantra – The creation of a mandala as an altar to focus the energy of the sacred space. This is a specific type of design that represents a deity or an aspect of the universe, and is used to give protection and clarity to the practice.
  4. Nyasa – The infusion of the life force into the body (or a sacred tool) as a means of sanctifying the energy. Like the yantra, this is a ritual that is used to move the practice forward.
  5. Mudra- the use of specific hand gestures, they are considered a kind of ansana for the energy channels of the body.
  6. Pūja- Ritual worship of the chosen deity, which might include both prayer and fire sacrifice, and the offering of substances such as milk and honey.
  7. Guru-pūja- worship of the teacher, who is considered to be the embodiment of the divine, and a reflection of the empirical reality of enlightenment. This can also include a ceremonial gift to the guru,
  8. Yātra- pilgrimage to a sacred place.


So, while Tantra shares some practices with other schools of yoga (Mantra and mudra) and with other religions as well, (prayer and pilgrimage) it is almost entirely unique in its intricate and demanding discipline. As noted above, the more advanced levels of the practice do require a teacher. Tantra is an initiatory tradition, and one that requires the energy of other practitioners as well, and so there is a limit to how far one can advance in a solitary practice.  Just as the advanced practice of bhakti yoga requires a teacher, so true tantra requires a guru. No matter how many books you read or mantras you practice, without the right guru, it’s only esoteric knowledge, and not tantric practice. 


As Tantra is considered an “occult” practice of yoga, it is worthwhile to consider that occult is simply another word for “secret”, and does not refer to any darkness or corruption. Any philosophical or religious practice that requires initiation is secret by definition, and those who are initiates are forbidden from causally imparting information to outsiders. While more is now known about Tantra than ever before, thanks to the scholars and translators of the ancient texts, the West still has much to learn about this practice. As noted in the Chinese “Tao te Ching”, “The Tao that can be written is not the Tao”.  Only when knowledge is experienced as physical reality can it transform into wisdom.


So while Tantra does use sexual imagery and practices, its goal is far beyond mere sexual happiness. The liberation of the spirit through the discipline of the body, a very familiar yogic philosophy, can be brought to fruition through initiation in tantra.




  1. Sacred Sexuality, Georg Feuerstein, Jeremy Tarcher/Perigee Books
  2. Tantra, the Path of Ecstacy, Georg Feuerstein, Shambala
  3. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, BKS Iyenger, HarperCollins


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