Truly, Slowly, Deeply
Men don't ejaculate, women do, and you have to learn to find your chakras. Tantric sex is not your average roll in the hay.
By Alicia Potter
JANUARY 20, 1998: In a scene from the Playboy video Tantric Lovemaking, a beautiful couple demonstrate the "total orgasm." They sit facing each other, the woman's legs wrapped around the man's waist, her hips barely gyrating. A golden light washes over the pair, and the woman throws back her blond head, her mouth a perfect O of ecstasy. They moan.
Yes, it looks like sex, and, yes, it sounds like sex. However, this isn't any ol' 20-minute flesh session. It's tantra, a complex marriage of yoga, meditation, ritual, and intercourse that originated in India in 3000 B.C. And, despite its dusty spiritual history, it's the absolute latest thing in getting laid.
The video's hypnotic voice-over explains the allure: "You'll feel a wave of energy engulfing both of you. As this intense wave of bliss washes over, you'll feel a sense of melding with your partner into a state of total unity. . . . It isn't just a moment of physical pleasure; it is an intense feeling of deep, loving connection with your partner, where opposites cease to exist, and your male and female energies flow together in complete harmony."
There's more. Tantric sex promises multiple orgasms for men, ejaculation for women, and a tangle of erotic positions. Encouraging couples to slow sex down through breathing techniques and erotic rituals, the video predicts that the ensuing sense of harmony will ooze into "your work, your family, and the world."
If that makes tantric sex sound like something aging hippies do between their unbleached hemp sheets, keep in mind that when MTV surveyed 14- to 25-year-olds to find out what subjects they'd like to learn about most, tantric sex topped the list. Meanwhile, Tantra.com, an online sex shop and tantra resource, reports that the number of hits its site receives per day has tripled to 15,000 in the last six months. Sales of Destiny Books' Great Book of Tantra have increased 30 percent in the last year.
"I had heard about tantric sex and was intrigued by it," says Jay, 37, who recently purchased a text on the subject at Trident Booksellers, on Newbury Street. "We all know the Western way of doing things -- you jerk this or lick that and you have an orgasm -- but when you approach sex spiritually, you're raising it to a more sensual level."
Is tantric sex the new big O? Or is it a big tease? Skeptics might scoff that it's just more incense-impaired New Age hokum. But there are those, including kiss-and-tell celebrities Woody Harrelson and Sting, who swear that tantra has revitalized their relationships.
Could an ancient spiritual ritual be changing sex as we know it?
It's difficult to dismiss something centuries old as a fad. Derived from a Sanskrit word meaning to "weave" or "extend," tantra was originally practiced by Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian Buddhists as a sacred act. It became their way of uniting the spirit with the flesh to attain enlightenment.
Not surprisingly, tantra conjures more talk of "energy" than a Boston Edison board meeting. It's based on the belief that energy flows through the body in much the same way that blood runs through veins and arteries. According to tantric philosophy, this energy connects the body's "chakras," or energy centers, most commonly thought to be at the base of the spine, the genitals, the stomach, the throat, the forehead, and the crown of the head.
By reaching high sexual arousal, tantriks, or practitioners of tantric sex, "open up the chakras," or move the energy up through these physical channels to create a sensation of oneness and ecstasy. In its most authentic form, tantra prohibits male ejaculation, which -- get this, guys -- it believes wastes sexual energy and robs the woman of her potential for multiple orgasms. However, women may, and are encouraged to, ejaculate through tantric techniques (see "Here She Comes Again" below).
How is tantric sex done? Very slowly, advise the books and videos. Aside from -- perhaps because of -- the nix on male ejaculation, the biggest difference in technique from "regular" sex is that tantra lasts longer. The average act of regular intercourse (not counting foreplay) is over in 10 minutes. For tantra practitioners, however, it's not unusual for lovemaking to last an hour or more.
Tantra fans report that longer-lasting sex equals longer-lasting relationships. For Anna Martí, 47, tantric sex emerged as a key to strengthening her marriage. "My husband and I came from very different backgrounds in relationship to our bodies and to sexuality," she says. "It came up very quickly when we were married that we were connected in many different ways, but our sex life was a source of pain and conflict."
She and her husband attended a spiritual sexuality workshop 13 years ago in Portland, Oregon (such workshops have yet to become common in New England, but they attract up to 150 couples per weekend on the West Coast and in Hawaii). There, they learned tantric techniques and philosophies and ways to express their sexual needs.
"Tantra opened my mind and heart to be more conscious about other areas of my life," says Martí, who now travels around the country as a sex counselor.
But what about the multiple orgasms? Did tantra improve her sex life?
"Absolutely," she says on a recent visit to Boston. "But more in the sense that it opened a door for us to try new things. It brought a higher level of communication to our relationship, so that we're each taking the initiative for our own eroticism."
Martí cautions that tantra isn't about learning a grab bag of sexual tricks; it's about bringing more compassion to the relationship. "You can rub a woman's clitoris until the cows come home, but if you're not totally engaged with your partner, you're not going to make much happen," she says.
The idea that tantra can help nurture long-term relationships makes it a seductive choice in the post-one-night-stand age. Couples in the '90s seem to be looking for reasons to stay together rather than reasons to play the field; a recent Details magazine survey found that 64 percent of men and 68 percent of women would prefer to tackle the problem of sexual boredom in their relationships rather than bail out.
So the revival of tantric sex is very different from its first go-round in America, during the sexually experimental '70s. Today's couples aren't hoping that making love will keep them from war; they're hoping making love will keep them together.
They're also turning East for inspiration. The New York Times Magazine recently reported that more and more Americans are looking beyond Judeo-Christian religions as a source of spirituality. Buddhism appears to be the fastest-growing Eastern religion, with an estimated 750,000 adherents living in the US. With Buddhist-themed films like Kundun and Seven Days in Tibet at the box office, it's not surprising that a Buddhist-influenced sex philosophy would be gaining a grip on the mainstream.
But certain ingrained Western attitudes toward sex pose obstacles to broad acceptance of tantra. As one perplexed male friend observed after borrowing a tantric how-to video: "No come shots."
Tantric sex is not about immediate gratification. It's a lot of work -- and that's even before you hit the sheets. By the time readers arrive at the second chapter of Margo Anand's 450-page The Art of Sexual Ecstasy (J.P. Tarcher, 1991), "Awakening Your Inner Lover," their outer lover may well be asleep. The vocabulary alone demands SAT-level prepping -- or at least a little bedroom Berlitz. In the tantra tradition, a vagina is called a yoni, meaning "sacred space"; the penis, the lingam, for "wand of light." Kundalini denotes life force and sexual energy.
Some of the terminology of spiritual sex might ring a little silly to cynical Western ears. Take the names of the sexual positions. There's "The Splitting of the Bamboo," "Fixing of a Nail," "The Fitting on of the Sock," and the painful-sounding "Pounding on the Spot." And forget about doggie style. Instead try "The Tail of the Ostrich," "The Elephant Posture," "Frog Fashion," and the less imaginatively named "Phoenix Playing in a Red Cave."
Given the time commitment, tantric sex is not for casual lovers. In The Art of Sexual Ecstasy, Anand warns readers up front that her book contains about 50 practice exercises; in all, they total 75 hours of activity. Indeed, novice tantriks must wait out several tides before "Riding the Wave of Bliss" (itself a seven-step process). First they must learn how to purify their bodies, create a "sacred space" for lovemaking, breathe correctly, heal their inhibitions, and harmonize their "inner man and inner woman."
That level of dedication -- and abstraction -- is enough to make some couples roll over and turn out the light. Says Sally, 28, an artist who abandoned her tantra research: "I thought I'd be really into it, but it just seemed so complicated."
Marketers of tantric products are sensing her frustration. As a result, the latest books and videos dispense with the goofier and more time-consuming foreplay rituals -- the dancing, the drumming, the affirmation chants. Books like Kay Parker's 64-page Pictorial Guide to Tantric Sex Positions cut straight to the chase; others blend in techniques from additional sacred-sex texts such as the Kamasutra and Taoist writings. Even ejaculation is forgiven. Call it "Tantra Lite."
Basically, Tantra Lite is a slowed-down, more attentive version of "regular sex," with some accouterments and verbiage thrown in. It heats up like this: the lovers slowly undress, then breathe deeply, gazing into each other's eyes. With palms touching, they concentrate on creating a flow of energy. They then share a ritual, such as bathing together, exchanging gifts, or giving each other a full-body massage. The lights stay on.
Foreplay is prolonged, with couples exploring each other's bodies "as if for the first time." They tell each other what they want and what feels good. Anything goes, from hair brushing and toe sucking to body painting and feather tickling; the emphasis is on the woman's full arousal (which usually takes at least 20 minutes, versus 5 to 10 minutes for a man). Oral sex -- notably 69 -- is especially popular, given its potential for "chakra alignment."
Other favored sexual positions include contortions in which chakras line up and the couple can look into each other's eyes. Men prolong their erections through slow, controlled thrusting; women experience multiple orgasms through vaginal massage and vaginal muscle-flexing. All the while, scented oil flows like a Himalayan river and "sound-making" abounds (noisy sex supposedly helps energy circulate).
Exotic as the scene might sound, a couple could probably learn this much tantra by watching a 90-minute video. It certainly doesn't require 40 pages of bedtime reading and a Buddhist initiation.
So what do Buddhists have to say about the simplification -- and commercialization -- of their sacred sex rituals? A lot. Laurence McKinney, 53, a Buddhist for 15 years, says, "It makes me feel the way a Harley Davidson aficionado does when he sees some suburban wanna-be on a $20,000 bike."
It's hard to imagine McKinney -- an intense, balding man given to wild gesticulation -- sitting still for two minutes, never mind having sex for two hours. But through Buddhist teachings, he has learned to maintain his erection for more than an hour and does not ejaculate except when masturbating. On average, he experiences four or five "full-body" orgasms per sexual experience -- that is, intense waves of rapture when his chakras align. His partner, Suki Cohen, 35, has enjoyed up to 20 orgasms in a single session of sex. "But it's usually four or five real bamboozlers and then some tremors," she says.
And just what does real tantric sex feel like? "It feels like you're climbing Mount Everest, because at each of your consort's orgasms, you get a new view of the world," says McKinney. "So you keep on going higher until both of you are floating in the nonmaterial world you always wanted to know. You get to the top, and somehow you are right where you started, but suddenly you are enlightened."
McKinney points out that it's more their deep devotion to Buddhism, not exotic rituals or back-bending positions, that allows him and Cohen to orbit in the sensual stratosphere. He mostly relies on Buddhist visualization techniques to focus his sexual energy, not on purifying baths, scented oils, or ritual gift-giving. Above all, for McKinney, tantra isn't about sex; it's about enlightenment.
McKinney doesn't see any harm in couples experimenting with Westernized versions of tantra, though he predicts the current Tantra Lite trend will fork into two directions. "There will be those couples who will take it to a broader philosophical level and understand that sex is a very powerful force to improve us and to answer some of our most important questions," he says. "Then there are those who will try the books and videotapes thinking they can replace spiritual sincerity with technique. Those couples will be disappointed."
Not necessarily, says Cambridge sex therapist Gina Ogden. To paraphrase Woody Allen, she believes that even bad tantric sex is good tantric sex.
"Tantra, even Tantra Lite, gives both men and women some techniques -- eye contact, sensual massage, breathing rituals -- to help them to slow down and get beyond goal-oriented sex," she says. "Men get beyond their penises and the urge to take over the woman's pleasure; women often take more initiative." True, if you wade through the New Age jargon and tolerate the creepy, ponytailed hosts of most tantric how-to videos, what's left is what Ogden considers the fundamentals of good sex: communication and variety.
Consequently, she views tantric sex as instrumental in improving Western lovemaking. "Our country is locked in a cultural missionary position," she says. "The explosion of tantra is really men and women saying, 'We don't want this dynamic.' "
Studies show that couples are struggling to reconcile their high expectations of sex -- expectations reinforced by the media and movies -- and their inability to express their sexual needs. Details magazine's survey found that 85 percent of respondents believed "perfect sex" exists. However, far fewer were having it: only 38 percent of men and 45 percent of women reported they were "very satisfied" with their sex lives. Many couples are banking on tantric techniques to help close the gap.
But tantra isn't just encouraging men and women to experiment with new sexual positions. It's also encouraging them to do something that's beyond kinky in Western society: link their spiritual impulses with their sexual impulses. One needs only consider the phrase virgin birth to understand what a cultural about-face this represents. Ogden recognizes that tantra's joining of the sexual and the spiritual may be an uneasy concept for a society in which religion and sex are more typically opposed than allied.
But, she maintains, our sexual liberation depends on uniting these two impulses. Above all, she stresses that partners should adopt the tantric view that sex is about worshipping each other.
"I can understand that it may sound flaky at first, but we must acknowledge romantic sex as a religious ritual involving wine, music, sex, candles, and flowers," she says. "There are similarities between sex and spirit that a lot of people don't realize. We've been taught for thousands of years to separate sex and the soul, the physical and the spiritual, and that never the twain shall meet."
She recommends that couples experiment, choose the techniques and traditions that interest them, and weave them into the rituals they already enjoy. However, she cautions: "Whatever you do, you must be open to the notion that the body doesn't stop at the skin. Sexual response is a process -- a union of mind, body, and soul -- and the connection we feel when this process is in full swing is a mind-expanding, body-blowing, heart-opening experience."
Ogden pauses, then puts it more simply for even the most dubious Westerner: "It's ecstasy."
Here she comes again
Spouting the truth about female ejaculationWhen Dorrie Lane was 18, she was fooling around with a guy in the back seat of a '68 Dodge Charger. When she reached orgasm, a clear, copious stream of liquid squirted from her urethra. It soaked the seat and infuriated her date, who accused her of peeing on him. The truth is, Dorrie Lane ejaculated.
A woman ejaculate? Yes. Contrary to what we learned (or didn't learn) in sex ed, men aren't the only ones who can cause a wet spot. With proper stimulation of the G spot, the spongy area located two inches in on the front wall of the vagina, women can ejaculate a thin, sweet-smelling fluid from ducts located around the urethra.
"It definitely does occur," says Mitchell Levine, a gynecologist/obstetrician at the Women Care clinic, in Arlington. "Many women get concerned that they're urinating, but this is actually a normal thing."
In fact, female ejaculation was documented in ancient China and India, and G-spot massage is a common tantric-sex technique. Tantric texts call the liquid produced amrita, or "sweet nectar." Like semen, it is a protein-based fluid, found to be chemically different from urine.
Dr. Levine reports that the experience of female ejaculation varies from woman to woman. Some dribble a small amount of fluid; others soak the sheets. Lane, who describes the experience as an intensely pleasurable feeling of release, often ejaculates three to six times during one session of sex.
It's estimated that about 10 percent of women ejaculate. But that number is iffy, considering most women are ashamed to admit they do it or don't even know the phenomenon exists.
"I was embarrassed," Lane recalls of her first time. "I didn't know what happened." She scoured medical and sexuality encyclopedias for an explanation but found nothing. Three decades later, one can scan The Complete Guide to Women's Health for information and the findings are, well, not so complete.
The hush-hush aura around the subject is enough to make a girl paranoid. And for good reason. Levine explains that sexuality in general, especially women's sexuality, does not receive much attention in medical school. In fact, one female gynecologist approached for this story declined comment, admitting, "I'd have to look up a bunch of stuff."
The G-spot itself has been a subject of controversy since its "discovery" in 1944 by gynecologist Ernst Grafenberg. In the '60s, sexologists Masters and Johnson announced that female orgasms occurred primarily through stimulation of the clitoris, not the vagina, where the G spot is found. The G Spot (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston), a 1982 book by Beverly Whipple, Alice Ladas, and John Perry, refuted this claim, providing ample evidence of the sensitive area's existence.
The debates rage on. Some feminists and doctors fear that widespread knowledge about female ejaculation will burden women with one more "trick" they must master in bed. "There is a danger that some women will learn about female ejaculation and feel that if they don't do it, then they're not fully orgasmic," Levine says.
But Lane, who now runs House o' Chicks, a San Francisco-based sex-education company, believes it's more important that women gain full awareness of their "birthright." She says, "When the medical community acknowledges women ejaculate, and put it into the books, more women are going to ejaculate."
The best reading, writhing, and tantra tricksTantra tradition recommends sharing a good belly laugh with your lover before sex as a way to nurture intimacy. Conveniently enough, a tantric how-to video or book might just do the trick; many of them are hysterically funny.
Pick the wrong video, and you're in for 60 minutes of a man and a woman with farmer tans screwing to sitar music on an Oriental rug. "I love to dance with my yoni," gushes the aqua-eyeshadowed hostess of one effort.
Despite some inevitable weirdness, both gay and straight couples can glean helpful information from these resources, especially instruction on breathing, prolonged erection, female ejaculation, erotic positions, and spiritual-sex history. Most combine tantric techniques with other Eastern rituals.
Here's a selection to get your kundalini flowing:
Alicia Potter is freelance writer living in Boston. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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