Venus Takes A Refresher Course:
A Neo-Tantra Workshopby catherine yronwode
The illustration on this page is a vulva insignia from an occult order
from the pages of the Lucky W Amulet Archive;
image courtesy Rufus Camphausen.
Contemporary "tantra workshops" do not exist for the purpose of teaching tantra yoga per se. The teachers who run them typically do not draw heavily from either the Hindu or Buddhist Tantra scriptures, or from Taoist Sexual Alchemy texts, but they may inconcorporate some imagery or breathing exercises passed along from classical Indian sources, or an adaptation of one of the more famous tantric rituals. Essentially New Age in focus, these workshops often feature dreamy music, "rainbow light" imagery, and guided meditations. They are generally held in exotic or beautiful tourist destination spots such as Hawaii, California, or Florida, and the cost may run to well over 300 dollars per person per weekend.
The desired goals of the teachers who conduct neo-tantra workshops may be either mundane or far-reaching, but they are most often centered in the here-and-now. "Moksha" or liberation from future rebirth, although a typical concern of Hindu tantrism, is generally not mentioned in these workshops at all. Instead, the "rekindling of love" between couples may be emphasized, or there may be concerted attempts to help students "heal past sexual traumas" auch as rape, sexual abuse, and incest. One common goal of these teachers seems to be to communicate to students a method to achieve transpersonal ecstasy through a form of sex-mysticism or sex-positive bodywork, and as such this may be of great value to some attendees. The "weekend get-a-way" structure can also have a liberating effect on some married couples, especially those whose lives are burdened by long hours of work or child-care.
What follows is a description of my attendence at one such workshop, which may either intrigue you or repel you, depending on what you seek, and how you define the word "tantra."
In 1995, during a period when i was single, i was invited to attend one of Lori's Grace's three day neo-tantric workshops by a man of my age whom i had met two weeks earlier. He had advertised in a local free paper's personals ad section that he was looking for a tantrika with whom to attend these classes and we met and decided to undertake the venture together. I have practiced the 19th century American techniques of karezza and studied tantra yoga and sex-magic since 1977, so i was familiar with the bodywork and symbolism Lori would be teaching.
In Vedic tantra there are two streams of thought, called "left hand" and "right hand" paths. The left hand path is antinomian: it encourages breaking of class, dietary, and caste laws as a way to "open" the self to new experience) and to transcend mundanity, and, for important from a potential participant's point of view, allows for orgiastic rituals. The right hand path is more inward: it stresses meditation, chanting, and worship, and it does not promote orgiastic experiences in groups.
From what i had previously heard from participants who have attended "weekend workshop" style neo-tantra courses taught by Americans in the U.S., the old Indian division between left and right hand paths is still evident in New Age style neo-tantra. One major divergence of style, i was told, is between the practices promoted by Charles and Caroline Muir on the one hand, and Lori Grace on the other.
I have not attended neo-tantra workshops taught by the Muirs, but i have spoken with those who have. They say that the Muir's workshops are historical and lecture-oriented in teaching style, while Lori's are more ecstatic. The Muirs apparently do not give "hands on" demonstrations; Lori uses a demonstrative approach (with the consent of participants established every step of the way) which can become quite intimate, depending upon the group's dynamics. The Muirs refer to the Northern Indian style as well as to Tibetan and Taoist tantra yoga; Lori attempts to recreate the Southern Indian tradition, with New Age overtones.
Karezza, my chosen path, is a system of non-denominational spritual sexuality originally developed by the Chicago gynecologist Dr. Alice Bunker Stockham in the 1880s. Stockham studied tantra yoga first-hand in India, so karezza owes some of its bodywork techniques to Hindu traditions, but it contains no left hand path antinomian group-ecstacy aspects. Stockham taught karezza to monogamous couples, and she herself was in a monogamous relationship. She disparaged the polygamous left hand path temple rituals practiced in Southern India. Also, although she was aware of the tantra-like "Male Continence" orgasm-control techniques developed by her contemporary, the American writer and philosopher John Humphrey Noyes, she did not approve of the "free love" polygamous lifestyle practiced in Noyes' Oneida Community. In other words, as expounded by Stockham, karezza does not include having dyadic intercourse in the company of other couples or having intercourse in groups of more than a dyad.)
Being a student of karezza, i had never made love in a group setting developed along Southern Indian left hand path lines. Therefore, i strongly feared that Lori, with her emphasis on the Southern tradition, would insist on some sort of group grope or orgy and that i would have to run screaming from the room. I want to make it clear that my fears were groundless. There was a lot of group hugging and smiling, but no one infringed in any way on my personal boundaries or on the dyadic boundaries my partner and i established. The entire experience really felt very safe.
The class took place in Tiburon, California, right on the San Francisco Bay. The cost was $300 per person. I initially thought this was very expensive, but once i was there, i saw that i received good value for the money, both in terms of what was taught and in terms of the accomodations and food, which were spectacular.
There were 44 paired participants in attendance, plus at least a dozen teachers, facilitators, and assistants. Of the pairs, 11 were couples (husbands and wives or training partners such as my friend and i) and 11 were singles who had come in the hope of being paired with a compatible partner during the weekend. Ages ranged from 25 to 60, with most in their 40s. Ethnic groups included Asian, Jewish, European, and Pacific Islander. All types of bodies were represented, from very thin to obese, and from trim and muscular to flabby and out of condition.
We parked down in Corte Madera and were bussed up a hill to Lori's estate. (She is an heiress of incredible wealth.) Lodging was in private rooms built onto the edges of her enormous, secluded, nudity-permitted three-level redwood-deck palace in Tiburon, overlooking the Bay. Stone slab paths led down the slope of the hill to the beach. The entire property was landscaped with flowering perennials, laid out in an informal, natural way. Each private room had a clear view across the water to the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. There were garden hot tubs and hot showers flowing from rock walls as if from natural springs. Every couple was entitled to one extra-curricular bodywork session with masseurs who were brought in for the occasion. It was luxury exemplified -- with one "karma yoga" consideration: every participant had to sign up for a chore such as cleaning toilets or scrubbing down the several kitchenettes.
On Friday evening we met, were taught the ground rules, and warmed up with some circular Sufi dancing. Then we had a short session of learning to stand in a grounded position, followed by dyadic sharing of light touch and eye gazing. After that, we danced some more, and got to know each other.
Saturday began with warm-up dancing and a recap of grounded standing. Then Lori and two helpers, Patti and Phil, gave us training in establishing boundaries.
Lori and Patti demonstrated how to ask for permission to touch another, to touch only where one is permitted, and to ask again for permission before going on to the next form of touch. We followed their examples.
Then Lori and Phil modelled how to say "no!" and how to say "yes!" When it came our turn to practice these techniques, what i thought was a childish level of psychological work brought out amazing results in some of the participants, including tears and rage. We broke into groups to share our feelings, and at least a third of the women spoke of having been raped. I realized that i would defend to the death my "no!" but would not fight to the death to assert my "yes!"
For our mid-day bodywork session, my training partner and i had chosen "Tantric Couples Massage," strictly because it sounded the most interesting. It was a wonderful full body (non sexual) massage, perforned on both of us at the same time as we lay head to toe holding hands on a huge canopy bed. The massage was given by Lennie and Terumi, a husband and wife who have their timing down to a fine art, and really created a beautiful slow dance as they did the bodywork, crossing hand over hand as they took turns massaging both of us.
After lunch Lori gave a preliminary lecture on the Vedic tradition of tantra yoga with references to the 20th century psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich. Although she teaches people in couples, she made no mention of karezza or other 19th century American monogamous traditions such as Magnetation, the Better Way, Zugassent's Discovery, the Anseiratic Mysteries, Passive Coition, Bosom Love, etc. Nor did she mention the polygamous Male Continence system of the Oneida Community. I thought this oversight was unfortunate, because Lori's students might be led to think that we must look to another culture, specifically an "exotic" one, to find knowledge of these techniques and acceptance of this form of worship. The truth is, while karezza, tantra yoga, magnetation, and the like are culture-specific in origin, sacred sex itself belongs to no single culture and the techniques and spiritual insights it engenders are continually rediscovered within ourselves in every era and every social stratum. They are part of our human birthright.
Lori's talk also touched on an area that was of concern to some participants: the Vedic tradition of incarnations, by which tantrikas take on the roles, attributes, personae, and even divinity of gods and goddesses.
This seems to be a big problem for some of her Westerner students. Many of us have low self esteem and suffer from an acute self-consciousness about physical defects, blemishes, or aging -- all of which seem to belie the concept of personal divinity. Many of us were raised in the Judeo-Christian paradigm and subconsciously consider personal incarnation of deity to be tantamount to blasphemy.
For people of the former type, she noted that it may take overwhelming sensory beauty, dozens of songs, guided meditations, and hypnotic repetitions of the affirmation that we are gods and goddesses for us to see divine loveliness in ourselves without fear of being ridiculed or condemned.
For people of the latter type, who feel that neo-tantric spirituality is "sexual fantasy" or "a costume party," she approached the problem by a different route: She said that we must step back from our cultural paradigm and realize that we are embarking on a discovery of another RELIGION -- a sincere, ages-old religion, for which people have built temples, and even bled and died. Tantra, she said, is a religion in which the Beloved is seen to be an incarnation of the divine. Telling a tantrika that his or her sweetie is not a god or goddess is like telling a Roman Catholic that the host and wine do not transubstantiate into the flesh and blood of Jesus.
(An aside: Even karezza, a non-religious form of spiritual sex which was conceived as compatible with Protestant Christianity, acknowledges the "divine spark" in the self and the beloved. Southern Indian Vedic tantra, with no cultural limitations on multiple incarnations of deity, simply goes the whole nine yards: You are holy. You are divine. You are Shiva, the cosmic dancer, He whom all beings adore. Everything you touch is made sacred by your touch. You are Sakti, Parvati, Durga, Candi, Kali, She of many names and many incarnations, to whom all beings owe their life and death. Your every loving gesture is a blessing to the Universe. Our union, the Union of Shiva and Sakti, sanctifies all of Creation. Our union is the essence of Creation.)
After the lecture, Lori demonstrated and we then practiced breathing patterns appropriate to various states of arousal (mild to moderate) and lay on the floor with knees up for a long session of gentle pelvic rocking coordinated to our breathing. It was like a gym class or hatha yoga course, except that the subject was the muscles of the genitals, anus, and abdomen. I was amazed to realize that many people could not perform this simple exercise at all, and that others could not do it without beginning to cry. For instance, one woman began babbling about gynecological exams and "numbness" -- i understood then why Lori had mentioned Reich at the outset.
We finished the pelvic rocking with small group discussions about our feelings, did another dyadic eye gazing and chakra touch exercise with our partners, and joined in a circular Sufi dance. At this time Lori asked the singles to please speak to each other about forming pairs for the evening to come. She also instructed all singles to practice safe sex and she told them that protective devices would be supplied free of charge. As far as i know, each of the singles did receive a partner.
Then, on Saturday night -- the "Tantric Feast." Oh my!
We were not served dinner, but were told to bathe ourselves and to dress "as gods and goddesses" in filmy, satiny, easily removable finery. We were told to bring a small wrapped gift for our patrner. At nine p.m. we met upstairs were we were blindfolded and led in pairs down the many flights of steps, as attendents whispered joyful welcomes to us, calling us beautiful gods and goddesses entering a temple.
Still blindfolded, we were censed with sage smoke and brought into the temple room, where we were seated on reclining cushiony things in pairs, just touching each other's hands at first. The blindfolds stayed on, and then the ceremony began. A soft, slow raga was playing. The room was warm with body heat. We were stroked with ostrich feathers by silent attendents, hand fed bite-sized taste treats (alternating sweet and savoury), played to with cymbals and flutes, stroked with rabbit furs, given finger and toe massages. We began to touch each other between the sensory experiences, at first stopping each time an attendent stoked us or rang a bell or told us we were holy beings or gave us banana chunks in chocolate sauce, but eventually forgetting all of that and openly caressing each other, stroking each other's chests and genitals as the attendents came by, as we were sprinkled with mist-like drops of water, fed miniature quiche lorraines, told we were beautiful, fed peach slices in whipped cream, feather-stroked, and censed with perfumes for TWO HOURS, blindfolded the whole time, playing with our partners, kissing, caressing, fucking, touched with feathers, fed dolmas, held by unseen hands, softly smoothed with fur, and all the time, all the time, touching, sucking, fingering, and fucking each other and hearing all about us the sounds of other lovers breathing and groaning with pleasure.
And then, at midnight, the blindfolds came off and we saw the room lit by a hundred votive altar candles, the attendents costumed as geniies, angels, even naked except for glitter dust, the floor covered with entwined naked couples, the mirrored walls reflecting repeated images of all of us touching and caressing our partners, the music speeding up, the incense heavy... and...it was....well, the word STUNNING comes to mind. We were then told to present our gifts to our partners as if to a god or goddess. There was a short moment of prayer to each other then, and a song, and the evening ended.
Needless to say, after this ceremony, we went to our rooms quite ready to practice more pelvic rocking.
The next day, having loosened up a bit (to put it mildly), we attended more classes. By this time even the most prudish couples were naked and no longer embarrassed. The morning opened with a Sufi dance. We were then each given a questionnaire covering sexually transmitted diseases and told to take our partners' medical history. Lori's brief lecture on safe sex practices followed. (Logically, however, it should have come before the singles chose partners for the feast!)
After a bit of chanting, the real work of the morning began.
First we lay beside our partners on our backs, knees up, as Lori taught us to visualize kundalini enegry moving up our bodies while we touched various chakra points. This inclded genital self-touching, but only of the mildest sort. After we worked up a charge, we were told to turn onto our sides, facing our partners, and look into their eyes. I think i was not alone in noticing how this raised the sexual energy level of the participants. We discharged the energy by touching each other's heart chakras and breathing in unison.
Next we watched Lennie and Terumi perform a simple, impromptu ceremony to establish a sacred space in which to make love. They used four candles and four large leaf fronds to set the corners, and they exchanged simple gifts of fire and flowers which they placed on their impromptu altar.
We were instructed to go to our rooms and get the personal power objects we had been told to bring to the workshop, augmenting them with a few natural items collected otdoors if necessary. Each couple then used these articles to establish a private, four-cornered sacred space on the floor mats.
The women lay down and Lennie led the male "givers" in body massage, hand stimulation of the clitoris, and location of the G-spot of their ecstatic partners while Terumi led the female "receivers" in techniques of breathing during high states of arousal to prolong the pre-orgasmic waves the men were inducing.
After a break for lunch, we returned to our sacred spaces and Terumi led the female "givers" in body massages and hand stimulation of the penis, as well as a gentle digital prostate exam (!) of their partners while Lennie led the male "receivers" in techniques of breathing during high states of arousal to prolong pre-orgasm while being thus pleasured.
We took a short break to go to our rooms and each bring back the gift we had been asked to have ready to present to the altar. When we returned, we all sat and watched as Lori and Phil demonstrated the major positions of intercourse as shown in the Kama Sutra, while they explained how breathing techniques, chakra touching, and visualization are integrated at high levels of mutual arousal.
Lori then talked the group through a guided session of eye gazing, touch, and breathing during intercourse. At this point i understood fully why Lennie and Terumi had guided us through the creation of our own separate dyadic sacred spaces. Multiple dozens of naked couples writhed around the floor practicing the classic Vedic positions of intercourse, each couple as spiritually "safe" as if in complete privacy. All the tinkly New Age music in Marin County could not drown our cries of delight.
When this was brought to a gentle close, Lori gave a brief lecture about the forms of tantric altars found in India, Bali, and Tibet, asked us to pray together in pairs for a mutual wish, and to collect our offerings and approach the altar in pairs (as, believe it or not, a Protestant-sounding hymn called "Come to the Altar" was played, which made me chuckle). We left our offerings, and did another slow Sufi circle dance together.
The day wrapped up with a question and answer session about male control of ejaculation, moderated by Lennie and Phil. Lori spoke also of specific methods used by women to control their orgasm reflex. We had one more dance together, hugged and embraced, got dressed, said goodbye, and were driven down the mountain to our cars.
I think you would have enjoyed it. I know that i sure did.
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