Tantra Yoga: an ancient mystery in a modern guise - Retreat Relax Release

Tantra Yoga: an ancient mystery in a modern guise

Is all Yoga Tantric?

Tantra. One of the most frequently used, yet least well understood, words in modern spiritual practice. Only yesterday, I attended the grand opening of a new yoga centre in Canggu, here in beautiful Bali. Leading the inaugural class, the teacher asked those of us in the room whether we were aware that we were all Tantra Yoga practitioners. A few of us nodded our assent, but the majority seemed to have little idea what he could be talking about. Tantra? That’s the thing where Sting has sex for four hours, right?

To explain the connection between ancient Tantra and modern yoga, I’ll need to take you on a whistle stop tour of the history of the former. I’ll make it as brief, and as engaging, as I can, and I’ll draw heavily on Christopher Wallis’s seminal treatise on the subject, Tantra Illuminated.

A brief history of Tantra

As Wallis explains it, Tantric religious practices formed the basis of much of what we now know as Hinduism, and were divided into two broad schools: dualism (the right-handed path), which theorised that God was an external presence requiring offerings, prayers, and devotion, and non-dualism (the left-handed path), whose practitioners believed in God as an all-pervasive presence, inherent in us all.

As you might imagine, in an ancient Indian culture where the caste system was strict and unyielding, non-dualism was a controversial influence. If God’s presence illuminates us all, then it has the potential to shine as brightly in the lowliest street sweeper as it does in the most exalted Brahmin. Brahmins, for some reason, objected strongly to this belief, and the left-handed path gradually diminished in influence, remaining only in isolated pockets and the occasional wandering sadhu.

Dualism became the foundation of most of the world’s major religions, and its footprint can easily be recognised today in, for example, the doctrine of original sin, which holds that we are all sinners, perfectible only through the grace of an external God. Non-dualism largely faded into obscurity, although it can still be glimpsed in places where mysticism is practiced and understood.

Śaktipāta: the inspiration for Tantra – and yoga

What does this mean for the average modern yoga practitioner? Well, despite the decline of non-dualistic Tantra practices, the philosophical basis of what we usually think of as yoga today has quite a lot in common with the philosophical basis of Tantric practices from millennia ago.

Most notably, Wallis lists nine grades of śaktipāta (‘Descent of Grace’, or ‘Influx of God’s Power’), which prepare those who receive them for a life of spiritual practice. These śaktipāta experiences range from extraordinarily powerful (the highest grade is so profound that the recipient reaches total God-realisation instantly, with the corresponding result that the physical body drops dead) to relatively mild (the lowest three grades, according to Wallis, are received “by one whose desire for enjoyment is stronger than for liberation”).

The modern yogi: liberation and enjoyment

Taken as a whole, these nine grades describe an entire spectrum of spiritual aspiration, from the achingly intense to the exceptionally casual. Wallis is at pains to point out that, while the effects of receiving these nine grades of śaktipāta differ wildly, none are intrinsically better than the others. They simply indicate the particular mix of desire for liberation and desire for enjoyment present in the aspirant who receives them.

Is this beginning to sound familiar? If you look around the average yoga class nowadays, you’ll probably notice a broad range of people, some of whom seem to have made yoga a fulcrum of their lives, others who may be curious or casual practitioners, and everyone in between. All of them, including you, can probably be placed somewhere on the spectrum of grades of śaktipāta Wallis describes, depending upon the intensity and devotion of their practice.

In this way, modern yoga can be perceived as a contemporary incarnation of non-dual Tantra Yoga. It’s a flexible, universal approach to spiritual practice that attracts people seeking to marry the enjoyment of life with the quest for liberation. It relies little on institutions and convention, and more on creativity and seeking the divine in each one of us. I can’t reveal whether it enables you to have sex for four hours, though. You’ll have to ask Sting about that.

2 comments

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  • Blossom

    Reply

    As a beginner I am still very much learning about the history of yoga and it is already becoming a part of my daily routine. I can definitely see how modern day yoga has a similar philosophical basis as Tantric practices.

    Admittedly I was thinking along the lines of your Sting reference when I heard the word Tantric haha.

    Thanks again Robert for an informative post.

    • Jen

      Reply

      Robert, thanks for the mini-history lesson on tantric yoga … Informative but not overwhelming:)

      Yes, I did think it was all about sex. Sorry.

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