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Tantra came to the West with the New Age caravansary in the late '60s. Even on the Indian subcontinent, the name was applied to a vast array of practices and schools: some Hindu, some Buddhist, some highly ritualized and focused on kundalini energy yoga or visualizations of deities like Shiva and Shakti, some involving physical sex rites. In the U.S., beginning in the '70s, an Indian guru known as Bhagwan Rajneesh and later as Osho promulgated a highly influential brand of so-called neo-tantra, which introduced the idea of tantric healing by the withholding of ejaculation, and advocated the directness of tantric practices as useful for the shallow, easily distracted Western mind. Westerners, especially in California, agreed, and the legend of Sting's seven-hour sex sessions was born.
Katya Salkinder, a licensed psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and Reiki healer, is a follower of Osho. She uses breath work and meditation in her Soho sessions, helping people work through "emotional blockages" to promote the free flow of sexual energy through the chakras. A sexologist, she treats people with dysfunctions such as premature ejaculation, and offers techniques for the attainment of extended full-body orgasms. She has taught all over the country and the world, and finds that students in New York present unique difficulties. "The most common view of tantra is connected with uninhibited sex, the Kama Sutra, free love," she says. "People, especially New Yorkers, often don't have the patience to go deeply and reach the level where they can take their clothes off. They want to take their clothes off immediatelyinstant gratification."
Salkinder has led a monthly tantra group for the past two years, where students find emotional release and generate energy through dance and breathing exercises involving the "PC pump," contractions of the pelvic floor muscle. "There are many more men in my group in New York," she says. "It's a very male city. It's tough to open up here, and it's especially difficult for women. Men have more interest in sexuality, but then as they go deeper they understand this is not about sex per se, it's about hearts. But the majority of people in New York don't have time for that."
Johnson and Michaels have found the same characteristics in New York tantra students, although their teaching in workshops, at conferences, and through an online course is very different in its emphasis. They use little movement in their classes and de-emphasize massage"There is no such thing as tantric massage," Michaels saysand instead focus on a rigorous course of breath work, meditation, chanting, and puja, a type of Hindu devotional ritual. Their "initiated Kriya yoga" practices aim to lay a spiritual foundation for bringing the heightened awareness and pleasure of sex into everyday life.
"Something that's happened in the last 30 years or so, as tantra's become popular in the West, is the idea of it as a healing modalitypsychotherapy," Michaels says. "We have the idea that if you're going to practice tantra, you should have gotten to a place of emotional health. That's not to say that the practices can't be therapeutic, but we really like to encourage people not to do the whole psychology trip, and to learn how to meditate, to do the practices, and allow change to happen. Rather than"
"Searching out old problems and trying to unblock a chakra or something," Johnson finishes. The two, married since 2000, effortlessly model the tantric tradition that invokes the beloved as an incarnation of the divine. As they're explaining a basic technique, tratak or "eyegaze," they hold eye contact with the rapt expression of newlyweds. However, they and other teachers make clear that tantra can be practiced by single people with equally satisfying results. In fact, in January they'll be leading an event for singles in New Yorktantric speed dating, as unlikely as that sounds. It will be tailored, of course, to the special needs of their audience.
"New York students are surprisingly conservative," says Michaels. "And there's a somewhat greater desire for really quick results." "If they can learn it in a two-hour class, they're happy," adds Johnson. "But if you send them home and say, here are the tools, go use them, it's like, 'Uhh, I don't have time for that.' "
Body Electric, a California spiritual and erotic massage school celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2004, generally asks for a bit more of people's time. Their four-day-long New Year's event for men at Easton Mountain Retreat, three hours north of New York, requires the completion of their introductory course, "Celebrating the Body Erotic." Body Electric runs single-sex (largely gay) and coed retreats that use breath, visualization, meditation, and massage, including erotic massage in groups. "There's a lot of erotic wounding going on in our culture. It's not OK to have genitals," says Collin Brown, the school's director. Like Salkinder, Brown believes in the healing power of the sexuality-spirituality connection; unlike Salkinder, Michaels, and Johnson, he doesn't apply the term tantra to Body Electric's practice.
"One of the ideas we hold strongly is that people don't have to have a lot of esoteric knowledge to have big energy experiences in their bodies," says Brown. "We don't tell people it's 'tantra.' We use ritual to connect to the sacred, however one thinks of that connection."
Some of the people in New York who do use the term tantra do so in questionable ways. "Certainly the concept of sacred prostitution is not antithetical to the tantric approach," says Michaels, careful to make the point that no one has the authority to sanction a legitimate use of the term. "But the problem in this society is that a lot of people say they're doing tantra as a way of marketing prostitution." In Manhattan, an establishment known as White Lotus East offers the services of three different "Goddesses," pictured nude in various poses on its website, for rose-petal baths and genital massage, described in well-lubricated detail with plenty of references to chakras, lingams, and yonis (the last two are terms for penis and vagina from the Kama Sutra).
Tantra also translates as "tool for expansion." Those who choose, by whatever means, to bind together their searches for sensual delight, true love, and spiritual truth may fall prey to disappointment in all three areas. But, those who share in the practice agree, their circle of possibilities is certain to widen.
PATRICIA JOHNSON AND MARK MICHAELS 914-962-7328, firstname.lastname@example.org, tantrapm.com "Introduction to Tantra for Couples" will be held January 6 from 7:30 to 9. "Tantra and Dating," an event for spiritually minded singles, will be held January 7 in New York City, sponsored by Metro Event Planners. For more information or to register, call 1.888.89.EVENT
ONGOING TANTRA INTERACTIVE GROUP the third Wednesday of every month in Soho.
BODY ELECTRIC bodyelectric.org
TANTRA.COM a good introductory site
SHIVASHAKTI.COM a comprehensive site with information on the basic tantra traditions
TANTRA MAGAZINE tantramagazine.com