Ancient practices of the Far East are creeping into Western bedrooms -- and gaining a lot of attention from Western sex therapists. The ideas and exercises of tantra -- a sexual practice and philosophy found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism -- help enhance sexual experience and deepen emotional connections. Much of tantra will be familiar if you've ever heard what Western sex therapists teach.
"It took me a while to realize this," says Ray Stubbs, PhD, a longtime devotee of tantra and author of The Essential Tantra. "What I studied in Western sexology, and what I was studying with a Tibetan lama at the very same time, were very similar concepts, but because the language was different and the framework was different, I didn't think of them as being the same. And one day I had this realization: Oh, they're talking about the same thing."
Beverly Whipple, PhD, the sex therapist and neurophysiologist whose 1982 book coined the term "G-spot," says she uses tantra in her workshops today. "I help people to see that the genitals are not our only focus," she says.
Basically, tantric sex is about enhancing the sexual experience by expanding your senses, as well as by deepening the connection between you and your partner.
When the famed sex researchers Masters and Johnson began to teach techniques for improving people's sex lives, they were often rephrasing what was written in a set of Hindu texts called the Tantras (tantra, in Sanskrit, means something like "interwoven") around 300 A.D. "In Masters and Johnson's terminology, it's moving from sexuality as 'performance or demand' to really an enhanced experience of the full aspects of sexual, sensual expression," Stubbs says.
What it's not about, modern tantric teachers say, is copulating in convoluted sex positions. It's fun to look at illustrations in the Kama Sutra, but for most of us, the more gymnastic positions would be no fun to imitate.
Many Roads Lead To Rome
How, exactly, do you do tantra? It depends on whom you listen to. Popular books on tantra written in English are adaptations of the ancient Eastern rituals and philosophy, and interpretations vary among authors. Sometimes what they describe would bear little resemblance to the original rituals, because what worked for people in India 1,700 years ago may not necessarily work for Americans now.
For example, in Stubbs' book, he details techniques of sensual massage and how to perform a "Secret Garden" ritual with your partner, which involves a bath, whipped cream, and chilled champagne. In Tantra: The Art of Conscious Loving, authors Charles and Caroline Muir discuss techniques of G-spot stimulation, kissing, and oral sex, in addition to ways to improve communication between partners.
Other sex manuals that aren't specifically tantric also teach these things. But you will find ideas in books on tantra that are not in TheJoy of Sex, or Nina Hartley's educational videos.
If you're interested in learning tantric practices, you have to realize that it's not just about sex. Despite similarities to modern Western sex therapy, tantric sex is ultimately supposed to be a way to spiritual enlightenment, not an end in itself. And in some forms of tantric practice, you can't ignore the spiritual stuff and skip to the how-to.
Taoist sexual yoga, or sexual chi kung (or qigong) is a form of tantra that teaches men to cultivate sexual energy to enhance their sexual prowess, and couples to improve their experience by sharing energy. You cannot be a skeptic and practice this. You have to believe that a mystical life force, called chi, flows through your body, and that it can be manipulated to effects such as multiple orgasms and long sessions of lovemaking.
"I can have sex for an hour, sometimes an hour and a half, and then I want to rest and have some more later -- and this is without having an orgasm," says Eric Yudelove, author of Taoist Yoga and Sexual Energy. "Very often we'll start early and go into the wee hours of the morning. It works very well."
Whipple teaches methods of achieving the same result, but in a different way. Instead of talking about chi and chakras, she teaches Kegel exercises, also called PC muscle exercises. By strengthening the muscles of the pelvic floor, men are better able to control ejaculation, allowing them to have multiple orgasms, and women can do the same.
Maybe this all sounds too heavy for you. It's a lot of work for pleasure. And perhaps neither you nor your lover wants to have sex for hours at a time. "That doesn't mean that quickies are not OK," Stubbs says. "Quickies are great. But if all you eat is fast food, it might give you a heart attack, and not a whole lot of satisfaction."
He stresses that practicing tantra is a way of life, although "it almost sounds like the latest fad," he says. But he doesn't mind that tantra is being assimilated by pop culture, or even if people pursue it like the latest diet or exercise trend. "At least people are starting to explore the possibility," he says.