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Tantra Yoga – Pleasure And Desire

Tantra Yoga – Pleasure And Desire


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Tantra Yoga – Pleasure And Desire
Tantra is primarily concerned with inner, mystical experiences,contrary to popular notions that it is the Yoga of Sex or a form ofcouples’ therapy. In Tantra, all mundane activities areopportunities to experience the divine, especially when they areapproached with consciousness and intention. While Tantra is a deeplypersonal path in this sense, the inner journey should generate theawareness that everything is connected; in fact, the word Tantra isoften translated as web or weaving, implying a weaving together withall that is. Moments of strong desire and intense pleasure areopportunities to experience this sense of connection directly.

In Tantric cosmology, the entire universe vibrates with pleasure anddesire; Tantrics understand the ever-unfolding process of creation inexplicitly sexual terms – the attraction and union of maleand female polarities, “Shiva” and “Shakti” in the Hindu Tantrictradition. Thus, in Tantra, the experience of pleasure on amicrocosmic, individual level, evokes the universal process. At peakmoments of pleasure, the practitioner has an opportunity to experiencemerger, a state of union (or Yoga) with all that is.

This attitude toward pleasure is made explicit in the VijnanabhairavaTantra, an 8th Century C.E. Kashmir Shaivite text and one of the mostimportant Tantric scriptures: “On the occasion of great delight beingobtained. . .one should meditate on the delight itself and becomeabsorbed in it, then his mind will become identified with it.”[i] Otherverses emphasize that desire pervades the universe and that a personcan attain an understanding of the ultimate reality by contemplatingdesire itself, rather than the object of that desire.

American culture in particular is permeated by an extraordinaryambivalence about pleasure and desire. Desire drives marketing andconsumerism with the idea that pleasure can be found in the nextpurchase; of course, the pleasure is fleeting. As it recedes, it isreplaced by desire for another item in a never-ending cycle. Sexualityis one of the main lubricants that keep this wheel in motion. We areconditioned to believe that we will be healthier, happier, morebeautiful, that we will attract that gorgeous man or woman in the ad,if we just make the right purchases. While this observation is not new,it is important and too easily forgotten, given the pervasiveness ofconsumerist messages.

At the same time, our society, largely but not exclusively due to theinfluence of Christianity, tends to view the body and its pleasures assuspect, at best, and evil, at worst. Eastern religious traditions havetheir own sexual taboos and pleasure denying attitudes, albeit withouta punitive, judgmental deity or the belief in eternal damnation. Thereseems to be a correlation between the rise of institutional religionand the denial of the body, and this makes sense. If the naturalactivities of daily life are defined in negative terms, people begin toview themselves as flawed or worse; this makes them more willing tosurrender their autonomy and obey the demands of an institutionalizedsystem – religious, social, political, military or economic.

Our Puritan heritage still has a profound impact on our social mores.The Puritans saw wealth as a sign of God’s favor and believedthat any form of non-marital sexual activity or desire was a pathway todamnation, since Satan could exploit the body to steal the soul. Themarketing of sex notwithstanding, America remains a sex-negative,anhedonic (pleasure-challenged) culture that values work and material”success” above all else. While many European societies are moreaccepting of pleasure, the legacy of 2000 years of messages that negateor seek to control sexuality and enjoyment is difficult to escape.

Where is the possibility of freedom? We are all caught between theconflicting messages of hedonism as a marketing tool and theomnipresent cultural theme that tells us enjoyment leads to damnation.Some may overreact and convince themselves that self-indulgence is aform of resistance, but they often remain caught in the cycle. Othersmay capitulate and snuff out their desires in any one of a myriad ofways.

Tantra provides several ways out of this apparent dilemma. By bringingawareness to desire and pleasure, by making a study of what truly makesus feel the vibration of life within us and around us, we can begin tofunction with more autonomy. We may never totally free ourselves fromthe cultural constructs that shape us, but if we bring awareness to ouractions, recognize those constructs as nothing more than that andcommit ourselves to exploring desire and pleasure, deliberately andconsciously, we can begin to find ways to get off the wheel.

In practical terms, this means developing new ways of approachingdesire and pleasure. Desire is a powerful force that can motivate andinspire. Suppressing it entails suppressing our fundamental humanity,and most people pay a heavy price for doing this. The problem is notwith desire itself but with attachment to outcomes, so as a first step,it is important to cultivate an attitude of non-attachment. Toparaphrase the Vijnanabhairava Tantra, we should not focus on theobject of desire. Instead, we must bring our awareness to the desireitself and recognize it as an energy that is both within and all aroundus. Armed with this understanding, it is possible to become a littlefreer, whether or not we pursue a particular object of our desire.

Next, it is important to recognize the sacredness of desire (includingsexual desire). Bhagavan Das taught us that when you feel an eroticcharge, you can gaze upon the person who awakens it and view thatperson with reverence and awe, while mentally repeating a mantra ofgratitude and praise, such as Om Namah Shivayah (Praise Shiva) or JaiMa (Praise the Goddess), or whatever form of praise feels appropriate.

The conscious pursuit of pleasure as a spiritual path requiresawareness. People generally understand pleasure either in purelyinstinctual terms or as it is culturally constructed. Few of us givemuch thought to what truly brings us pleasure, both erotically and inmore general terms. By discovering and cultivating the true sources ofyour own pleasure, you can begin to free yourself from limiting ideasand conditioned responses. The simplest way to begin this explorationis to make a list of the things that give you pleasure and then toexamine the items on the list, identifying the qualities of each oneand looking for patterns, connections and themes.

Once you have developed an understanding of what we call your PleasurePalette, you can begin to cultivate a sense of reverence in the contextof pleasure. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with seeking pleasurefor its own sake, but the experience of pleasure is much richer when itis both understood and fully appreciated. This is true for anyexperience, from eating ice cream to feeling the breeze on the skin. Inthe context of sexuality, the awareness of what brings you to the peakof ecstasy can be translated into reverence for your partner and forthe experience itself.

The erotic spark exists wherever pleasure and desire are found. Itarises as a reminder that everything is divine. Recognizing this andcultivating reverence can transform you; people will feel it andreciprocate, energetically. The benefits will come back to you andmultiply, leaving you more open to others, more creative, moreconfident and sexy, and less constricted by mental boundaries, whatevertheir origin.

Copyright 2006, Mark Michaels & Patricia Johnson

[i] Jaideva Singh, The Yoga of Delight, Wonder, and Astonishment: ATranslation of the Vijnanabhairava (Albany: State University Of NewYork Press, 1991), p. 68

Mark Michaels (Swami Umeshanand Saraswati) and Patricia Johnson (DeviVeenanand) are a devoted married couple who have been teaching Tantraand Kriya Yoga together since 1999. Their popular workshops have beenfeatured in several publications, including the Village Voice, NOWmagazine, and Breathe magazine. The two seek to combine a traditional,lineage-based approach with thebest contemporary, Neo-Tantric methods. Their approach includes breathwork, meditation, chanting, and puja (a type of Hindu devotionalritual), and their “initiated Kriya yoga” practices aim to lay aspiritual foundation for bringing the heightened awareness and pleasureof sex into everyday life. They are senior students of Dr. John Mumford(Swami AnandakapilaSaraswati) and have been named lineage holders of the OM-KaraKriya® system for the Americas and Europe. Sunyata, coauthor ofThe Jewel in the Lotus, named Michaels his lineage holder in 2001.Michaels and Johnson have studied Bhakti Yoga with Bhagavan Das andTantra with Dr. Rudy Ballentine, and they have been featured in Dr.Judy Kuriansky’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tantric Sex.