Tantra is not exactly an everyday household word in most parts of the world. Yet, for the many who’ve heard bits and pieces about it, the word invariably evokes a reaction, usually one of curiosity. When I told friends about my latest writing assignment, I certainly received some raised eyebrows and requests. “You’ll let me know what you find out, won’t you?” I promised I would, and found myself much more excited about writing this than I would have anticipated.
Considering Tantra’s reputation as an ancient practice that can awaken one’s consciousness through sex, it is no wonder that my friends were curious. Couple this with claims to promote sensuality and creativity, release inhibitions, and break down self-imposed barriers and Tantra has a giant portion of my attention as well.
Historically, Tantra refers to sacred, 2000-year-old Hindu and Buddhist texts that provide lessons on subjects ranging from the sciences to spirituality and sexuality. In these ancient cultures, the sensual nature of spirituality was celebrated. Viewed as both a science and an art, sexuality was revered as a vehicle for spiritual advancement. One of the better known Hindu texts, the 2,000-year-old Kama Sutra, features teachings of sophisticated sexual techniques and positions.
Today in the West, Tantra is commonly associated with sex. It has become known as a way for couples to improve sexual skills and thereby heighten, intensify, and prolong sexual pleasure. In a course, one can certainly expect to learn advanced lovemaking techniques such as the art of kissing and touch, methods of pelvic movement, and internal muscular exercises. Instruction is also given about the male and female orgasm, including lessons on facilitating orgasms as well as how to give more pleasure with less effort.
Yet, the benefits of Tantra are not limited to perfecting explicitly erotic techniques. At its core, Tantra still remains a form of yoga and a spiritual path. Pursued in this way and with the right teachers, Tantra can become a powerful tool in building intimacy, communication, and passion between couples. In workshops, students learn meditations and breathing exercises to practice together. They are also taught about the chakras (the seven energy centers in the body) and how to move energy through them. In learning a very nurturing style of touch, couples begin helping one another to heal and awaken sexually as well as spiritually. Making love becomes a celebration of a very intimate connection.
Howard and Toddie Barbarosh of Kula, Hawaii, have been married for twenty-two years. They described their relationship prior to their study of Tantra as “good.” Howard remembers thinking, “Here I am at fifty-nine and something is missing. This is okay but something isn’t right.” Three Tantra retreats later with a fourth scheduled in a few months, he says, “This [Tantra] for me has made it right.”
Howard and Toddie attended the “The Art of Conscious Loving” vacation seminars on Maui taught by Tantra experts Charles and Caroline Muir. The Muirs explain, “We get so many couples that come to us and say ‘I love him’ or ‘I know I love her, but I’m not in love.'” They continue, “For most couples the chemistry can wear off in as little as two years. Our lives become a reality and we begin to spot the little things in that person that makes them human and upset us.” It is at this point that the Muirs frequently discover couples closing down sexually.
Dr. Johanina Wikoff, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Kama Sutra, and psychologist who teaches couples about Tantra, says, “The main things that bring couples to me are low sexual desire, lack of sexual desire, changes in sexual desire, or discrepancies in the partners’ desire for sexuality.” She sees issues with sexual desire purely as symptoms of deeper issues. Using an example of a relationship where the man is busy working all the time and the woman is craving, yet, not receiving attention, Dr. Wikoff says, “He may be trying to relate to her sexually and she may find herself turning off. It’s not just about sex. Sex is a metaphor. Sex isn’t just sex. It reflects everything in the relationship.”
The study of Tantra can show couples how to face the “rest” of the relationship by teaching them how to connect and be present with one another. Toddie sighs, “I didn’t have a clue that Tantra had to do with communication, connection, spirit and everything but just great sex. You learn yoga, meditation, and, yes, some techniques and skills for improving things that you do sexually, but what tantra really is has nothing to do with how well you move your hands or your body, it has to do with how well you connect with the person you are with.” Howard adds, “What we’ve learned, besides just making love, is how to take care of each other.”
Dr. Wikoff agrees, “Rather than wild sex in lots of positions, the emphasis of Tantra is on the connection. It’s not to say that sex can’t become hot and passionate and intense. It can! It can also be sweet and tender and meditative. And all that comes through the connection that a couple learns by being present.”
Caroline Muir adds, “I would say that most people don’t fully understand how important love is in life, nor do they understand how to receive the love that is available in their personal relationships. People must also learn to give the love so that it can be received by the other. There is an art form to all of this.” She continues, “With the divorce rate and the number of relationships people have in their lives, it is apparently time for this education to be available to everyone. So that’s our job.”
So what about sex, the subject which caught our attention in the first place? Through the study of Tantra, bad sex can become a thing of the past. Toddie remembers when a friend asked, “Well, what do you do when it is bad?” She answered, “I never have ‘bad!’ Every time is always the best ever. I haven’t had ‘bad’ in three years. For me, it doesn’t exist anymore.” For Toddie, sex has become a positive outflow of a conscious relationship. Howard adds, “It’s now a celebration of our relationship. It’s not an end in itself.”
The Muirs remind us that most of us weren’t given formal training on how to be great lovers. “We may come to discover that it is a subject that we are not naturally good at, yet, one that we can become better at with proper coaching,” says Charles. He continues, “People will spend years learning how to hit a golf ball, they will spend hours and hours learning how to develop a backhand, but they never even consider the concept of learning how to be a better lover. What are some of the tricks? What are some of the shortcuts? What are some of the ways to get through the obvious blocks that many people have in their ability to really experience pleasure and intimacy in a very deep way?”
Tantra is also known for its potential to help individuals who have suffered from a bad sexual experience. “We teach the skills of sexual healing, and that really does address the issues that both men and women have that they might be carrying around with them throughout the course of their lives – issues around sexual abuse, violation, abortion, or unconscious sex that left [the individual]emotionally or physically wounded in any way,” says Caroline.
Misconceptions abound about Tantra being a funky new age setting for orgies. Yet Howard emphasizes that this is not the type of Tantra that he and Toddie have studied. “Toddie and I have a committed, loving relationship,” he says. Toddie remembers having her own doubts. “Howard made me go to our first Tantra class. I was afraid that there were going to be like twenty Playboy bunnies and seventeen guys from GQ and I was going to be this middle-aged woman sitting there.” She remembers looking around the room and saying, “Hey, you all look just like me!”
“I would say that the majority of couples who come to us follow the more western tradition of monogamy,” says Charles. “We get students who are twenty-years-old and just starting their life in relationship and others who are in their seventies after forty to fifty years of relationship,” adds Caroline.
Like the rest of America, Toddie’s original conception of Tantra was, “so wrong.” “I wondered,” Toddie reflects, “how I ever got that opinion of it. Then I realized that you get that opinion from television and ads in the back of magazines, and from people who maybe went to something that isn’t this.”
When seeking a teacher, Charles and Caroline Muir recommend checking to see where they have studied, if they are certified, how long have they been teaching, and if they are educated in the yogic nature of Tantra. They also recommend asking whether there is any nudity in the classes. “There is never nudity in our seminars and we really don’t see a need for it,” says Caroline. Exercises are explained or demonstrated fully clothed in class and then students are given “homework” to practice in the privacy of their own rooms.
Howard and Toddie believe that studying Tantra is the best thing that has ever happened to them. “It, fortunately, turned out to be the best decision of our entire lives. Without a doubt, the most phenomenal experience of my entire life and the most life-changing,” says Toddie. Howard laughs, “At the end of the seminar she went around to everyone in that room and thanked them for the best week she had ever had in her life.” They both believe that even if you have a good relationship, Tantra can only make it better.
Describing her marriage before Tantra, Toddie hesitates, “It was comfortable, it was good, it was loving. It was sometimes fun. It had stress.” Describing her marriage now, her face lights up and she exclaims, “I think it’s fantastic, spectacular, joyful, easy, fulfilling, safe, cute.” Looking at Howard she says, “You went from terrific to stupendous. You went to the ‘Best Ever.'” Howard giggles. I look at him inquisitively. “It’s what we’re not saying,” he says with a grin.