sacred sexuality

The Yoga of Community (Sangha)

The definition of “Yoga” is “Union”. In a traditional sense, it is the seeking of the “re-unification of the individual self with the One Universal Supreme Self”. Yoga is a path of Self-Discovery and self-improvement. There are a wide variety of practices that can benefit us in most any area of our lives when we know what they are and how to apply them.

In another sense, Yoga is really an exploration of our relationship to Self, to others, and to the world. We can come to see our limitations and strengths. We can use it to experience the fruits and rewards of self-discipline. We can observe and celebrate our own progress and growth.

The concept of “Union” also implies that something is being joined together, or “re-joined”. While the ultimate “Union” of Yoga is thought to be the final “union of the individual self with the Supreme Self”, the process of Yoga proceeds along a path of many smaller “union” points along the way.

In Tantra we talk about the re-unification of “Shiva” and “Shakti”. The Masculine and Feminine aspects of the unfolding universe. They are said to live within our own Self also. This isn’t really about gender, so much as it is about a set of principles. Like “yin and yang” from the Chinese philosophy, it points to a set of principles that can seem in opposition to eachother that must be understood, reconciled and re-integrated into an experience of wholeness.

While the final philosophical intention relates to the workings of the Self as “Consciousness”, this principle of Shiva and Shakti, or apparent opposites shows up everywhere in our life. We can understand it to be a metaphor for the Dualistic nature of life with all of its many sets of opposites: hot/cold, light/dark, good/bad, etc.

There is also a set of opposites that becomes quite important in our search. That is the notion of “self and other”. According to Yoga, all of our conflicts, challenges and suffering arise out of this dualistic experience, and especially that of “self and other”. It is our relationships with other aspects of life and other people that create the greatest sources of frustration, heart ache and conflict for most people. Yoga is an invitation to resolve those conflicts within our own Self.

From a young age, our interactions with others begin to teach us by conditioning and habit from our own experience what is “safe” within relationship to others. We may learn that discussing certain topics within our family or community is not acceptable, and thus we learn to avoid those topics, even if they are dear to our hearts. We may learn that it is not safe to express our emotions. We may try to tell someone about our hopes and dreams only to have them mocked, and so we decide they are not worthy of pursuing.

Over time, without even realizing it, we create an internal “monitoring system” that hides parts of us away from being seen by others. Hidden because past experience has shown these parts could be rejected, mocked, or misunderstood. And along with this “locking away” often comes an unconscious feeling that these parts of ourselves are not “good enough” or worthy of being honored. If they were rejected by others, then they must be “bad”.

Clearly everyone’s story is different, but life experience will show that even the most successful and confident people in the world will usually, at least at some point in their lives have some inner places that have been rejected based upon how they imagine others will react.

Because of these common life experiences, many people guard themselves in relationships. Sometimes we become so guarded that even in our closest relationships we can feel that sharing our feelings, hopes, dreams, desires, fantasies, etc is not safe in some or many areas of our inner world. For instance, we may tell others what we think they want to hear instead of being honest about our own thoughts and feelings. We may fail to share some dream we have because we assume it won’t be supported.

Certainly, the guarding makes sense. It was learned at a time when it was truly not safe. It was a proper defense mechanism then. And certainly there are still situations today that it would not be wise to share certain aspects of ourselves with specific people or groups or in specific situations. But sometimes we still feel that we can’t safely be ourselves in any situation. The result is that we aren’t even able to be truly comfortable with our own Self.

Because of this, some people never really know what a truly intimate supportive friendship or relationship can feel like. We become so used to living with things “unsaid”, that we can’t imagine what the freedom of a different type of relationship could offer. When we can find a safe, supportive friend or community, and we can begin to slowly and consciously share our hopes, dreams, fears, self-judgment, past experiences, etc with others and have them be seen, heard, supported and embraced as a part of who we are, a dramatic healing can take place. A renewed sense of self acceptance, confidence and joy can arise.

There is a notion in Yoga called “Sangha”. It originally was a term in Buddhism that referred to a community of Monks or spiritual seekers. A more modern interpretation, however, is a community of people who share any common vision and goal. That goal may simply be “to allow each person to discover and express their deepest Self, and to support and honor each person’s individual desires and needs for happiness and wholeness.”

There is true power in shared experience within a supportive Community, whether it is sharing the practices on the Yoga Mat, sharing discussions of how yoga benefits your life, or sharing of the deepest parts of our once hidden Self. For a practical purpose, it is also the ability to share with other like-minded people a set of philosophies, practices and goals that other circles of friends and relationships may not fully understand. However it shows up, “Sangha” is the sharing of a journey together within community which both honors and celebrates each individual’s unique expressions and personal goals, while also supporting a greater vision of consciously seeking and supporting the growth and wholeness of the community itself, however that may look for each person.

The “Sangha” by definition is usually a Conscious community where the rules and experience within it often run counter to common culture. It supports the undoing of our fears and allows each person to bring themselves into the light of self-accepting awareness. It allows a supportive environment to practice and explore the principles of more conscious living, healing and personal growth. It allows each person to have others who can celebrate their successes and growth with them. It allows a safe place to have our inner thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams heard and honored. It allows a conscious community support of learning how to be in healthy, supportive intimate relationships. It gives us the safe space to work through the fears of revealing ourselves more fully. We learn about true intimacy with Self and others, and how to set safe boundaries both within the acceptance of the Community and in the world outside that community.

We learn that our voice does matter. And that there are safe places to be ourselves. That when we share what is going on in us, that others are given a chance to respond in a way that can support us or bring clarification for our confusion. Without your voice being heard others don’t have the information to know what you need or simply to celebrate it with you. We learn that our opinion can matter. We learn that others often can relate to the experiences, thoughts and feelings that we are most afraid to share. We learn we are not alone. We learn that while there are unique things about us, that in many ways we are more similar to others than we realized. And when that happens, everyone can set aside the old game, and just celebrate the unfolding journey together.

Tantra is really much more about creating loving, honoring relationships with Self, others and the world than about “sex”. When we learn to experience the freedom of self-love, and self-acceptance, and have that reflected back to us my a lover, a friend or a community, then the protected places hidden within are given the freedom to come to the surface. When they are finally seen and acknowledged, the fear and the self-judgment can melt away, giving this part of ourselves freedom to open, to move and to express itself. This new movement is then reflected within the energy that we are seeking to cultivate and understand through the Tantric Kundalini practices.

I know for myself, finally having the chance to explore this kind of Conscious community support, where I could literally share anything I was thinking, feeling or had done, where I could safely ask any question that I thought would help me know myself better, and where many of the “superficial” ways of interacting could be set aside allowing for a deeper knowing of others, was an incredibly powerful part of my own healing journey. I learned that more often that not, what I was afraid to share, or the question I was afraid to ask was really about my own self-judgement. To reveal it and see that it was accepted, to feel that I was still honored gave me a reflected experience of the Love I deserved and should be giving my own Self. It was cleansing. And now that I understand the power of Conscious Community, my life is richer for it.

Like much of Yoga, the introduction to being in Conscious community can feel at first like a “practice”. We have to learn by doing it how to open into and navigate within it. But the more we practice, the more natural it becomes. The more it simply becomes reflected as an inner support of Self-Love and Self-acceptance that goes with you everywhere. You know that you are worthy of love, and that who you are is beautiful and should be seen by the world.

It is true that when we first begin to share in this way, that in can feel unsafe. But within a Conscious Community, there is an invitation to begin to push past the fear and, however slowly you need to go, intentionally share your “unedited” Self within the community. It is a healing experience for all involved.

Sometimes when we don’t have a reference for something by our own experience it can be hard to see or understand the value of the benefits, or the “risk to reward” ratio. Instead we just think “I don’t need that”, or “it doesn’t feel safe” or “it’s not for me.” I speak from direct experience to say “It is worth it.”

There is a quote I ran across that I think is true to my experience as well. “Anything I’ve ever done that ultimately was worthwhile… initially scared me to death.” – Betty Bender

I found that quote while trying to remember another quote that came to my mind, but I couldn’t remember the exact phrasing. I will leave you with the original quote that came to mind:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin

Yoga, Tantra and Spirituality in India and Modern Times

The first time I came to India, back in the Summer of 2007, I came with great expectations of India being a land of great spirituality. A place where everyone would be connected to their spiritual history and a deeper path of spirituality through yoga.

This, of course, was naive. What I quickly discovered, initially a shock and disappointment, was that the majority of the Indian people were connected to their cultural norm of religion, but, much like in the US, their true connection and devotion varied. Just like the many Christians who show up to churches only for Christmas and Easter, there are Indians who only observe major festivals. And their connection to the deeper meanings varies as well.

I was excited to go to the Temples and share in the spiritual connection that has become so important to my own personal path of Yoga. But instead of hundreds of contemplative people, savoring the bliss of the Divine, it was more like a cattle call of hundreds of people, quickly rushing through to offer something to the temple Priest, see the temple Idol, and then rush back to life.

While I can not say that it does not have meaning to them, I feel certain the level of connection it offers varies from person to person. Some doing the “cultural” norm, and others getting a greater connection from it. Just as in our own country we can meet people who have varying levels of faith, from “obligated” to go to church all the way to those who truly feel “spiritually fed” by their church.

It has since amazed me that many Indians I have meet in the US, born and raised in India, have no true knowledge of Yoga, Tantra or Ayurveda. It has been a surprise, but another place where my expectations have been revealed as false.

It has all been a process of acknowledging the reality of the diversity of our world, and also seeing the commonalities among people. Just growing up in India doesn’t automatically make you a great seeker of Self-Realization, although their culture does arguably have at least different, if not more, notions of magical and spiritual possibilities.

During this current trip to India, I have had the pleasure of meeting with a Tantric and Kashmiri Shaivism Scholar who has lived and worked in Varanasi for over 40 years. He has authored many well respected books on Kashmiri Shaivism, and translated many texts from Sanskrit into English. While his professional work is scholarly, he himself is also a devotee to a Kashmiri Shaivite Guru, and considers his personal spiritual path to be most important to him. I do not know without knowing the meaning, how many times I was asked direkt in Sweden on a travel trip.

In speaking with him, he helps reveal many of the other false thinkings we may have in the west about different Tantric and Yogic practices.

The Traditional approach to Tantra Yoga, which is deeply connected to Kashmiri Shaivism, is about developing the spiritual Self. It is about discovering the deep peace of the Self as Consciousness beyond the impermanent experience of the body and life, while at the same time honoring the Sacredness of the experience of Life.

It is a tradition which emphasizes the development of awareness and consciousness to discover the non-dual reality, the inner silence out of which all life experience arises.

In discussing Tantras history of Sexual practices, he said it is really hard to know how prevalent these practices really were. That they were done is most probable, but how many practitioners, we can’t say. Even the famous erotic temples, he says, have to be questioned as to whether the culture they were created in was simply a highly sexually permissive society, or whether there was a deeper spiritual intention behind it. There is much we do not know.

When I asked him how prevalent the erotic practices are in modern India, his response was “almost non-existent”, and then went on to say, “but most people don’t usually talk about their sex lives.” From other things I have read, I suspect that there are still some who practice, but they are more rare than not, and it is rather secretive.

He did, however convey one story of a friend of his who uses some of the Tantric erotic rituals. This friend had a female consort for ten years, and his sole reason for keeping her was to obtain a single drop of menstrual blood once a month for a Tantric ritual. Interestingly, she finally left him because she was unfulfilled in the relationship, thinking the he only wanted her for her menstrual blood.

The topic of the Kama Sutra also came up. This is often pointed to by many Western Tantric practitioners as a Tantric text, showing the value and power of the sexual practices historically. He says that the Kama Sutra was really just an ancient sex manual, that was primarily used by courtesans to become more refined. It was used to become a more pleasing partner, and to better fit into higher class society, which was their targeted clientele. Because of this, he says, many of the courtesans of that time were actually quite talented artists, musicians and the like, well educated in many aspects of life.

Despite many of the modern western teachings around Tantra as erotic practice, the history of Tantra uses/used the erotic practices in a highly ritualized context for very specific purposes. These purposes were/are to expand Consciousness and connect with the Divine.

To his way of seeing things, the Modern western Tantra has become a type of “sex therapy”. While he does not dismiss the possible benefits of this type of work, he does say that you will not find the current western practices described in the Tantric texts.

We also discussed the fascinating evolution of Yoga and Tantra, which is that all of these types of practices have evolved over time to meet the needs of the people. Places, such as the west, have taken pieces such as Asana (yoga postures), and called it “yoga”. The emphasis is on physical fitness rather than the original spiritual development that Traditional Yoga speaks of, but it meets the needs of the people.

The same has happened with Tantra in the West, with many variations from “spiritually veneered” sex to deeply healing and transformative practices. There are also, of course, other teachers and practitioners of Tantra in the West that focus more on the Traditional Tantric approaches of Kundalini Yoga, Meditation, etc.

He says these types of Hybrid modern yogas are also showing up in India, because of the popularity in the west. Many more indians are learning of Yoga as a physical fitness system along with basic Ayurveda for a healthy lifestyle.

It is interesting to note that while in the West, most people associate Tantra with eroticism and sex, in India Tantra is thought of as “magic”. It is based upon their cultural history with the subject, which traditionally emphasized understanding the workings of the energies of Creation in order to control or gain power over or through them. This led to practices of Mantras and various other remedies to heal illnesses, and to help fulfill worldly desires.

This type of thinking is still present in India today, and the cultural relationship with the Deities also reflects this. Most average Indian Hindus relate to various aspects of the Divine to help them get the things in life they want for worldly fulfillment. Examples would be Ganesha to help remove obstacles when starting a business, or Laxshmi to bring wealth and abundance. This is similar to the way many other cultures might relate to God through prayer as a request for desires to be fulfilled.

It is the lesser of the population that truly engages these forces for a more spiritually growth oriented purpose. Even the term “good Karma” has been used towards me on several occasions by self appointed guides and rickshaw drivers as a way of trying to get a larger tip or payments for their services. The implication, of course, being that the more I pay them, the more I will be blessed with good Karma. An interesting way to use this, from my perspective.

It is not my intention to diminish the importance of these things culturally in India. No matter the relationship to religion, be it “cultural obligation”, “superstition”, or “deeply spiritual”, I would imagine most people here would feel very strongly about their beliefs in whatever way they are engaging them. My intention is more to reveal the diversity of the Indian religious landscape and culture, in contrast with my preconceived notions, and perhaps similar notions by other non-Indian people, as well as the common desire for most people to seek their own version of happiness.

No matter how it is engaged, the culture of India has generated a primarily peaceful, friendly, and curious people, most of whom will go out of their way to help you, sometimes for a tip and often just because it is their nature. They generally value family, and treat their neighbors with respect. Their religious culture gives them a different perspective on death than in the west. And, most are happy with a more simple lifestyle than what the average westerner may be accustomed to. They celebrate life, and even the crowded, noisy and seemingly chaotic streets are like the lifeblood of their culture, reflecting their passion and their embracing of life.

While there are some cultural changes happening based upon Western influence, there is still a richness here that is wonderful to savor. In Varanasi, where I am now, one can experience the surprisingly gentle noise and madness of the city, and yet just a few kilometers away, on the banks of the Ganges, I am in a guest house which is so peaceful and relaxed. Even in the “rush” of the city, many people are just peacefully going about their day.

What fascinates me most about this, and the conversation with my new Tantra Scholar friend, is the confirmation of what I have also come to recognize, which is that the teachings of Yoga and Tantra, while rooted in scripture, have evolved over time to meet the needs of the people. Even the history of Yoginis evolving into Goddesses shares this flavor. Thousands of years ago, each village had their own Yogini that they honored and worshipped. As the news of a powerful Yogini would spread to neighboring villages, they too would come to worship her. If they had a powerful experience, they would tell another village. Over a course of hundreds and thousands of years, what started at literally hundreds of thousands of yoginis where narrowed down to a collection Goddesses which became commonly known throughout the country and the region. Today, we have Paravati, Kali, Durga, Laxshmi, Saraswati and several others which have become national and even internationally known, but it was not always this way.

This same type of thing has happened with Various Yoga and Tantric practices. Different practices would arise to meet a certain need. When the cultural needs changed, or when something more beneficial came along, things would fall away and something new would arise in its place. Systems were formed from various perspectives, all because they meet the needs of certain groups, or because a certain teacher saw it in that way. And the evolution of the Yogas and Tantras continues into Modern times. It arises to meet certain needs. And the core, deeper spiritual truths are there as a living, breathing reminder of where these practices came from historically and where they can take us if the Heart longs for a deeper spiritual experience.

Despite my previous great expectations, the larger reality is that all along this historical time line, there were probably only a relatively small group of people truly interested in “enlightenment”. The majority of people, much like today, were more interested in worldly happiness, success, family and good health.

In fact, the Vedic and Yogic teachings address these aspects of “Purpose” (Dharma), “Material Wealth” (Artha), and “Pleasure” (Kama) as being legitimate goals of life. So they should be celebrated and honored as the foundation of happiness. To this, the great Yogis also offered “Moksha” (Self-knowledge or Liberation), as the most important Goal in life. But they also acknowledged that for most, the foundations of happiness through the previous three goals would be needed to tread the path of Liberation.

As a living practice, I feel it is important for us to honor the past traditions, and take from them the deeper principles to help us attain the goals we want in life. I also think it is important to allow their deeper intentions to drive the practices, allowing them to evolve to meet the needs of modern day practitioners. The Practice of Yoga and Tantra is a flowing process of using the practices needed to achieve the growth needed at a particular stage of development. It was not designed, necessarily, to be rigid. Disciplined, yes, but not rigid.

Traditionally, a Yoga teacher would give a student only the practices he or she needed to get to the next stage of spiritual development. Once it served its purpose, a new practice would be introduced. Keeping that in mind, we can also allow our modern practices to evolve with our changing needs as we grow. And when we are ready for the next step, there is a rich history of practices to help us on our path. Whether it is for better health, aligning with life purpose, experience more joy and pleasure in life, or even spiritual growth, the challenge is choosing the right practice and approach for your personal needs, and this is where a Teacher can become indispensable.

I am excited to be part of this modern evolution of Yoga, and to continue to watch as it changes and grows over the remainder of my life. In order to allow it room to grow, we cannot be attached to the past, but I do strongly feel a firm foundation in the intentions of practice is important. If the intentions are understood, then most anything can become Yoga or Tantric Practice, and the personal practice can grow in any number of ways. Without understanding the intentions, you are not really able to direct your practice to a particular goal.

There is no need to re-invent the Yogic or Tantric wheel, so to speak. There are so many beneficial practices already laid out for us. At the same time, modern practitioners need to understand it is not a cookbook approach either. Each person is individual, and will have different experiences from the same practices, and different practices which are needed to progress.

If the birth place of Tantra and Yoga has evolved through many stages and different relationships with this great wisdom, then we can only expect our contact with this wisdom will evolve as well. As yoga and Tantra become more popular in the west, I hope more people will seek to understand the deeper traditions they come from. But we must remember as we explore them, that the scriptures, while full of wisdom, were created by those living the results of their practice. The great wisdom of yoga and Tantra in not locked in the past, but intended to be lived in the here and now. We must awaken the teachings now, through proper practice.

What are you thoughts on spiritual expectations of India, or on Modern day practices of Yoga and Tantra?

Modern Tantra and moving beyond Sexual Energy (Video)

Discusses Neo-Tantra, Sacred Sexuality or Western Tantra as a modern tool for erotic/sexual healing and relationship enhancement in context with the fuller Tradition of Tantra Yoga as a Spiritual Path.  Discover a deeper understanding of Sexual energy in the path of Tantra Yoga.

This is Part 2 of a 6 part video series on Tantra as a Spiritual Path.