Tantra is a Sanskrit word that means “tool for stretching” or “instrument of expansion”. In the last couple of decades, the term Tantra has made its way into the pop culture lexicon. From Tantra Restaurant, an upscale restaurant and lounge in Miami’s South Beach, to Tantra Salon, a small hair salon in suburban Philadelphia, the allure of this mysterious practice is evident.
Tantra is not a religion; there is no dogma, no institution. It is a practice; a way of being.
Thanks, in part, to a provocative (and drunken) 1993 Q magazine interview with Sting and Bob Geldof (Sting talks about it in a recent interview with The Guardian), there’s been a fascination with tantric sex, also commonly referred to as “sacred sex”.
Despite the hype, sex is merely one facet of this complex and esoteric spiritual philosophy. Tantra encompasses the use of chakras (the energy centers of the body), mantra (Sanskrit chants), asana (yoga postures), pranayama (rhythmic breathing) and ritual ceremony to address concepts such as the weaving of light and shadow, paradox, and reverence for the body as a pathway to the Divine.
There have been many books written on the history, philosophy and practice of Tantra. Attempting to define or describe the various lineages, traditions, and rituals in this space would be a gross simplification and an injustice to a beautifully rich and nuanced tradition.
A lifetime could be spent studying and mastering Tantra. In a world in which there continues to be a pervasive disconnection between spirituality and sexuality, it serves to look to this ancient practice to explore where the two might meet.
One of the most common Tantra practices is called Yab Yum, or “Father Mother”. Yab Yum leans on the energetic gender polarity of a man and woman as it manifests in sexual union (intercourse.) The man sits with his legs crossed (Easy Pose or “Criss-Cross Applesauce”) and the woman sits facing him on his lap with her legs wrapped around his torso and lower back. Together, they represent Shiva and Shakti, the complementary divine masculine and feminine energies.
If all of this is still sounding obscure and cryptic, well…it is. Part of the very essence of Tantra is that it works with that which cannot—and should not—be articulated. We live in a culture that worships the intellect. We process and rationalize emotions in an attempt to make our experience of life neat and tidy.
In relationships, we define our needs and negotiate their fulfillment.
This is all for good reason; most of us live fast-paced, hyper-stimulated, goal-oriented lives. We contain our emotional life so we can reason our way through our busy day. But the byproduct of this is separateness and alienation—from ourselves, from each other and ultimately from God (in whatever way you choose to describe it.)
The intellect is a beautiful servant but a terrible master. Intellect is the power tool of our separateness. The intuitive, compassionate heart is the doorway to our unity.” —Ram Dass
In this spirit, a Yab Yum practice provides an opportunity to flip the paradigm and allow our energetic and emotional selves, our “compassionate hearts,” to express themselves, thereby cultivating integration in ourselves, and a connection with each other.
To begin a Yab Yum practice, I recommend moving through these three phases to cultivate a safe space and to encourage energetic intimacy to build slowly. Each “sit” should be 20 minutes long. Set a timer so that you can surrender all thoughts of time and space and get lost in the practice. Move to the next phase when it is mutually agreeable.
Phase I: Starting Knee-to-Knee
Both partners sit in Easy Pose facing each other with knees gently touching. Place your hands on each other’s knees, or forearms. Gaze into each other’s eyes without looking away. Spend a few minutes slowing and synchronizing your breath. Silently negotiate a rhythm that is comfortable for both of you. Pause at the top of each inhalation and at the bottom of each exhalation, creating a moment of mutual stillness. Notice what happens as you become more and more present to each other and to yourselves.
Phase II: Scooching Closer
Both partners open up their legs and the woman sits as close as she can to her partner, draping her legs over his and around his lower back. Place your hands on each other’s shoulders, or waist. Another option is to place one hand on each other’s heart. Match breath in the same way as Phase I. Notice what happens as you move closer and deepen the practice.
Phase III: Climbing Into His Lap
This is the classic Yab Yum position, and the first two phases primed the canvas for what happens now. The woman moves fully into her partner’s lap while he sits in Easy Pose. Begin face-to-face with foreheads touching and arms comfortably around each other. Eyes should be closed; the eye-gazing is replaced by increased physical touch, while you continue to focus on the breath as the main point of connection.
Notice the quality of the energy now. What does it feel like? Where in your body do you feel it? Let it move freely. Let your bodies embrace fully.
At this point, the woman’s feminine energy, her creative life force, her kundalini is rising. She is a vessel, a channel for the divine feminine in the form of sexual energy. The man’s role is to sit solidly in his masculinity and hold a container strong enough to support her as she allows it to overtake her, dissolving into bliss.
As you dance with this energy between you, you many notice that your egos, your ideas about who you are, your personalities, have vanished. You are united as complementary aspects in the union of divine masculine and feminine, a fractal embodiment of the universe.
Whether you are using Yab Yum as a prelude to sex, or as a practice in and of itself, it is important to allow the natural and organic rise of sexual energy. Our typical idea of masculinity as an aggressive force which pursues, controls and conquers doesn’t apply here. Kundalini energy (which is rooted in the sacrum, or base of the spine) can be shy. It cannot be coaxed by force. Imagine a snake curled up in a hole.
Gently wake it and charm it from the woman’s sacrum, up the spine. Begin by using the timer to contain and pace the energy. As you become more and more adept at surrendering to each other, yourselves and the mystical divine connection, lose the timer and let the spirit carry you away.
Sometimes the feelings which arise are not at all sexual in nature. This practice has a way of making us feel seen in a way that we rarely do in the course of our daily lives. The safety of this space often opens the floodgates of pent up emotions, like sadness or shame.
Allow whatever comes forth, without judgment. Welcome the opportunity to fall apart as someone holds a container for you. If your partner is moved by emotion, simply hold steady while they release their feelings. Resist the urge to comfort, which can encourage the containment or suppression of emotion.
Being a compassionate witness can affect a deep healing, as well as a loving bond.
It can be difficult to figure out where to fix your gaze. Try starting by focusing on the space between your partner’s eyes, or their “third eye”. As you relax into the practice, transfer your gaze to one of their eyes. Every so often switch to their other eye. You will relax into a rhythm that feels comfortable.
Easy Pose is often challenging for men. Especially for a length of time with weight on top of them. The most common complaint is irritation of the ankle bones against the floor. Sitting on soft blanket or pillow will help. For men with especially tight hips, placing pillows under the knees to raise them slightly and ease the stretch.
If it’s simply not possible for the man to sit, he can lie flat with the woman straddling him with their bodies perpendicular to each other. Bottom line: Use whatever pillows and props you need to make it work for you. Honor yourselves and each other by listening to and supporting your bodies in whatever way makes sense and feels good.
Set the Stage.
Dim the lights. Light some candles. Turn off the devices. Traditionally, Tantra rituals begin with ceremonial bathing. You might indulge in giving each other a loving sponge bath before you sit together.
Selected carefully, music can be a wonderful enhancement to a Yab Yum practice. Choose non-lyrical or purely instrumental, ambient music. Recognizable language will be counterproductive to the process of getting out of your heads and making a strong heart-based energetic connection. I often play music with Sanskrit chants or vocals in a language I don’t understand. My favorites include: Desert God, Field of Worlds and Mirrors, and Aqua Vista, all by Vic Hennegan; and DownTemple Dub by Desert Dwellers.
Although the mythology and symbolism of Yab Yum is gender-based, it’s an equally great practice for same-sex couples. Play with the masculine and feminine energies as they express themselves in the physical postures by alternating who sits on top. You may discover something new in the exploration of these dynamics in terms of how they show up between you and what they might offer in your partnership.