Orgies, seven-hour sex sessions (blame Sting), lusty gurus… Tantra’s racy reputation has pushed aside its spiritual origins. Jane Alexander – hoping to overcome her lack of body confidence – stepped into a week-long retreat to find out what really goes on.
The word ‘tantra’ always raises eyebrows. In 1990 Sting casually mentioned seven-hour tantric sex sessions and that was it; nobody was interested in the spiritual goals of tantra any more. Nor that sex was originally just one of many tools in the search for enlightenment. Tantra was typecast as, well, a bit smutty. As I drove down winding Somerset lanes towards the week-long Living Tantra workshop, I didn’t have a clue what I was letting myself in for. I had signed up purely because the website promised ‘a sense of ease in your body’. These words struck a chord.
For as long as I can remember I have been at war with my body. Even as a child I never felt happy in my skin. My mother was very slim, very glamorous and very screwed up. She continually commented on my sticking-out tummy. When puberty struck, I skipped past the trainer-bra stage and went straight into a double D-cup bra. With my generous cleavage and skinny legs I felt painfully out of proportion. My mother was a keen advocate of dieting and put me on all the latest fashionable regimes, but now, firmly in my 50s, I’m still carrying that puppy fat. I also realise that I have punished, ignored and loathed my body for my entire life. Inevitably it has had a knock-on effect in my relationships. When I met the man I eventually married, I couldn’t believe that he liked my body. After 20 years together I still couldn’t leave the lights on when we had sex. We separated three years ago and it felt as though I’d thrown the off-switch on my sexuality once and for all.
How on earth did I imagine a tantra workshop was going to fix me? A wave of unease washed over me. ‘Welcome!’ said a young guy with red harem trousers. He ushered me into the retreat centre where a smiling woman handed me a waiver form to sign. My eyes snagged on one line: ‘I accept responsibility for my own personal and sexual safety throughout the course.’ There was mention of condoms. I blanched. This was tantra – what did I think was going to happen? Extreme tickling?
‘Did you bring your blindfold?’ asked the woman, tapping a copy of the ‘what to bring’ list. ‘Er, no. I must have missed that.’ I scuttled away to my room. It was small but at least it was somewhere to hide. After supper we filed into the group room. I looked around and felt relieved that my fellow participants came in various shapes and sizes, and spanned a broad age range – from 20s to 70s.
‘Welcome,’ said Jan Day, a tall, lithe woman clad in red (red is clearly a tantra ‘thing’). ‘Let’s start by saying a little bit about what you want from the workshop.’ Some hoped to heal old emotional wounds; others wanted their marriages to be deeper or their sex lives more fulfilling. My aim was modest; I wanted to like my body – even just a little bit.
As a relationship expert and coach, Jan has been leading workshops for the past 18 years. ‘This isn’t a dating agency,’ she said firmly. ‘And it’s not a training for orgies. She accepts that many people think tantra is all about sex – learning different positions and getting better orgasms – and warns that some tantra courses are indeed little more than an excuse for group sex, or for the tantric ‘guru’ to have sex with the students. Jan’s courses, however, are for those ‘who want to experience richer relationships, deeper intimacy and more authentic connection with others.’ Yes, sex is part of that but she explains it’s also about feeling at ease in your body, learning how to communicate your boundaries and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. She asked all the women to move to one end of the room and all the men to the other. ‘Now close your eyes. How do you feel as a woman? How do you feel as a man?’ Immediately I became aware of everything I hate about my body and how I hadn’t ever really felt like a woman my entire life.
That night I slept uneasily. I was more than challenged. The next morning the meeting room floor was lined with mattresses. I chose one at the far corner and put on my blindfold for meditation. We started by shaking our bodies loose. It’s a technique designed to calm our busy minds – and it works a treat. Once you’ve shaken out the body and released whatever emotions are rising up inside, sinking into deep meditation is a doddle.
I love meditation. Who needs a body when you can get lost inside your mind? Yet I wasn’t going to get away with it that easily. ‘Our aim is to get in touch with the body,’ said Jan. ‘For me, tantra is a path of spiritual growth that uses everything in life to learn and grow in consciousness.’ The basic concept of tantra is that every part of life is food for spiritual development – from the deepest meditation to washing the dishes. Although tantra has become known as the ‘yoga of sex’, it should more accurately be dubbed ‘the yoga of everything’.
We started small, working in groups of three or four. I stood in the middle of my group for the first touch exercise, feeling like a nervous animal, primed to run at the faintest sniff of danger. A woman stepped up and gently stroked my arm. It felt lovely. ‘Yes,’ I said. Then a man stepped forward; his fingers snagged my hair. ‘No,’ I said and he stepped back. ‘The aim is to find your boundaries,’ said Jan. ‘To explore what feels good and what doesn’t. You are in control and can express dislike or stop at any time.’
So far, so OK. The people in my group were kind, and my fear that tantra might be a hotbed of pervy gropers started to die down.
Jan pointed out that we can be incredibly cruel about our own bodies. ‘Imagine calling your best friend and telling her that her thighs are huge. Of course you wouldn’t do that, yet we will happily mock our own thighs. We are the only beings on the planet who are ashamed of our bodies. We should accept and love them.’
But that condom clause was stuck in my head and it was impossible to relax and enjoy each exercise (though some were lovely) because I was worried about what would be next.
What did come next completely threw me. Jan invited us to take off as many – or as few – clothes as we wished. I wriggled out of my leggings then froze. All around me, people were stripping off seemingly without a second thought. Difficult feelings welled up inside me. Panic. Shame. Guilt. Fear. Anger. Watching people appear so at ease in their bodies broke me. I started to cry. But as I batted away the tears I realised that not everyone was naked. Many were still wearing underwear, some were fully clothed, yet all were walking around seemingly without any guilt or shame. I was putting pressure on myself.
That night I barely slept. I’ve always pushed myself through fear. Despite my terror I once paraglided off a mountain, because everyone else was doing it. This wasn’t the right approach here. ‘Only do what feels right,’ Jan had told us repeatedly. I gave myself a good shake. Do I want to have sex with strangers? No. Do I want to be stroked by people with whom I feel comfortable? Perhaps. Do I want to take off all my clothes? Hell no! People pleasing was something I’d done all my life and it had to change.
The following day’s exercise was surreal. I sat on a mattress with two cushions representing my mother and father. The tears came easily as I remembered my father who had died when I was ten. Then my sorrow turned to anger as I picked up the cushion representing my mother. I was furious. I realised that my mother had been the only one allowed to be sexual in our house; that the negative messages I had about my body had all come from her. Was she jealous of my youthful body? Did I feel I should cover up so I didn’t threaten her? I wasn’t sure but I did know it wasn’t a normal, healthy way to bring up a little girl. I snatched up the cushion with a snarl and found myself biting it. Yes, I was chewing my mother as a cushion and it felt flipping fantastic.
That night I slept like a baby. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Over the next few days I realised that, for me, tantra wasn’t so much about sex but about finding my inner authenticity. It felt liberating.
I also realised how much I love touch – there is something totally delicious in being gently stroked knowing it will go just as far as you want and no further. On the last day I had my ‘initiation’. We had to pick three people who would ‘serve’ us. I chose two men and a woman who made me feel totally safe. Before the initiation ceremony began, I’d discussed with them where and how I wanted to be touched, and opted for a pretty tame game plan that involved lots of stroking and massage, and zero fondling, fiddling or f***ing.
I lay on a cosy nest of mattresses, clad only in a sarong, and started breathing in the precise way we’d been taught. Each in-breath was accompanied by a small pelvic tilt. As I breathed out, I let the base of my spine thump down into the mattress and it felt perfectly natural when my attendants started gently to stroke my body. The combination of touch, breathing and meditation took me into a deeply altered state and, at one point, I felt something inside me let go and surrender. I fell into an extraordinary place, outside time and space where I was totally, utterly me, an individual yet also supremely connected. Totally hippie dippy? Absolutely. Yet who cares when it felt so sublime?
Each initiation was different; some people chose to stay fully clothed and have minimal touch, others plumped for totally naked with heavy petting, some had penetrative sex and screaming orgasms to go with it. A few days ago, the thought that I’d be in a room with people having sex next to me would have been inconceivable. Today, I didn’t bat an eye. In fact, I was impressed and even a little envious.
I went home high as a kite, in love with everything and everyone. Colours seemed brighter, music more tuneful. People kept asking where I’d been and what I’d done. ‘You’re sort of shining,’ said one friend. ‘Whatever it is, I want some of it.’ When I explained it was tantra, friends assumed that I would be racing out to find a new relationship or seeking partners for plenty of casual sex. In fact, I realised I didn’t want a relationship. I needed time alone, fully immersed in my own life, fully appreciating my body and its innate sensuality. Tantra is not a quick fix and it won’t be for everyone. I can’t say I’m in love with my body but I am at least feeling a lot kinder towards it. Forget Sting. If this is tantra, I want more of it.
Sex or spirituality: What is tantra?
- The word tantra means ‘liberation through mental expansion’ – it teaches that we can become one with creation by joyously accepting everything in life.
- It is said to be the oldest Eastern tradition of spiritual philosophy and practice, originating more than 5,000 years ago in India.
- It is about sex. Sex is seen as a form of deep meditation and worship – it’s a way of merging with the divine. The theory goes that the universe was once blissfully united, symbolised by the endless joyous intercourse of the god Shiva and the goddess Shakti. Then the universe split and creation became divided. Tantra aims to reproduce that original divine union.
- It’s not just about sex. The basic tenet of tantra is that everything in life can help your spiritual development. Eating healthily and being kind to yourself and to others are tantra.
- Tantra practitioners use physical yoga, meditation and breathing techniques to reach into deeper states of awareness through the body
- Sex is taken very slowly. It involves the couple meditating on the yoni (vulva) and the lingam (penis) before the woman brings the man’s penis inside her. Once the man’s erection is solid, they sit still, staring into one another’s eyes, visualising the chakras (energy centres of the body) and sinking into mystical union. Ideally, you experience a full-body orgasm.
Ways to incorporate the benefits of tantra into your daily life:
- Honour your body. Stand naked in front of a full-length mirror and focus on the parts you like. Think of the amazing job your body does. Give yourself a massage with scented oils.
- Cultivate sensuality. Become aware of the taste of food, the scents and sounds around you.
- Practise connecting with your partner. Sit in front of each other, hold hands and breathe naturally. Now make eye contact and try to fall into sync with each other’s breathing.
Jan Day runs workshops and sessions in tantra; Jane attended Living Tantra 1; janday.com