Honoring the Ancient Traditions of Yoga
Paying respect to traditions gives us a sense of our roots, our heritage and a sense of being. We follow tradition because for centuries our ancestors have followed the ways that encapsulate the meaning of life and how to be free of suffering caused by uncertainty and trudging down dark paths. But tradition has many faces. It doesn’t always capture the best of us. There are those who cling to traditions and refuse change, while there are those who fear traditions that are unfamiliar from their own. With the world being increasingly cross-cultural, traditions of all sorts are being exposed to many reaches of the earth. In their travel they are becoming transformed. Through their transformation, we have to find a bridge that allows for us to protect the integrity of the tradition within the roots of their purpose.
Yoga is one of these traditions. It’s origins are rooted in the soils of the Indus Valley, beneath the Himalayan Mountains, what is Northern India and Pakistan today. It’s traditions so ancient, that it’s claimed to have been practiced since the beginning of civilization. Through internationalism, the seeds of yoga have scattered, blown in the wind and spread to those who seek light. Yoga now touches upon the lives of people all over the world.
Yet the traditions of yoga have altered significantly, in their travels from South Asia. In the West, people flock to 40.6 degree Celsius rooms, to sweat it out in a session of Bikram’s hot yoga, or work their core in power vinyasa yoga classes that focus on asanas, or physical postures of yoga combined with fitness. The roots of yoga, the mantras, the Om, breathing techniques, pranayama, and the intentions of finding inner peace, and stilling the mind to single-pointed concentration in meditation are foregone in the mist of vanity to achieve one’s ideal body type.
When the tradition has diverted so far from its roots, then what do you call its modern variation? Is it time for the traditions to shift with the modern currents?
If you travel to the Himalayan regions of India or Nepal and take a yoga class, you will experience how the traditions have modernized in its birthplace. Classes are conducted with an opening mantra, an Om, and an intention, then proceeded by a series of asanas, or poses, followed by a lengthy savasana. Sometimes the class begins or concludes with pranayama, breathing exercises, and then a final meditation to use the benefits of the physical practice in stilling the body to ease into the mental practice. The local yoga instructors have been practicing as a part of their culture, their heritage. They probably woke up at 3 or 4am to do their own practice before the sun rose, and established their own equilibrium before teaching the class that you participate in. Your class isn’t glistening with brand names, like Lululemon or prAna. It’s simple. You might even find yourself on a rooftop, with the monsoon pounding it’s way in through the makeshift roof made of tarpaulin, spraying you occasionally with rain as you press into adho mukha svanasana, or downward facing dog. But you feel the wind on your face, and outside is a sea of green fields.
In the West, the yogic experience differs depending on where you practice and who you practice with. Classes are more focused on the anatomy, which is safer than in India where you’ll be put into headstands and shoulder stands without caution. Sometimes there are real gems out there, where you get the mix of modern Western and classical Eastern traditions. The class will begin with a centering, focus on the breath, an Om you can join into, a sequence of poses that gets your heart pumping while simultaneously bringing you into yourself and connecting to the core of your being. Then a calming savasana, and a final centering that reflects on the intentions of the class. These classes exist. The music played during class may not be a traditional method, but traditions can change, as long as the intention remains.
The next time you step into a yoga class, be mindful. Leave your ego at the door, and explore yourself in the ancient tradition of connecting the body and mind. Be aware of the poses that open up that connection, and go inward. The hand foot bond to the mat should be all that matters, not the mirror in the room, or the person next to you. Let go and chant Om – there’s a reason it’s called the eternal sound. Lose yourself in the history of movement and discover how it makes you feel. You will never know until you try. Yoga is a tradition of self-discovery through seeking this connection.
Finding Tradition through Intention
The origins of yoga comes from Sanskrit, to yoke, or union. This is the intention of the practice. It can be done through chanting, breathing, meditating, or physical movement. Whatever form of yoga you practice, if your intention is to create a union of the body and mind with the true nature of yourself, then you are following the roots of the yoga tradition. It doesn’t matter if you use modern music to carry you through your practice, if you laugh, sweat and shake, call the poses by their Sanskrit, or locally invented name, if your intention is pure then you are amongst the traditions of yoga. Find your path and allow yoga to become your teacher as you explore its roots, and find a tradition that remains alive and intact in each of us.
“By Yoga, Yoga must be known; Through Yoga, Yoga advances; He who cares for Yoga, In Yoga rests forever.” (Unknown source)
What is Tantra Yoga?
If the word Tantra conjures up scenes of sexuality, you’re not alone. The introduction of Tantric practices in the West has inadvertently become identified with a practice that’s laced with nudity, sexuality, and occasionally, promiscuity.
The truth is, Tantra may enhance your sex life, but only by deepening your connection to your energy and your body first. Although Tantric practices are founded on the principle of intimacy, intimacy is not purely physical. It’s the act of connecting so deeply that you feel as if you are getting a glimpse into your and perhaps another’s soul.
I’ve heard it described as “into me I see” based on the premise that we must gain an awareness of our true selves before we can forge the path of union with others.
What’s the point of Tantra Yoga?
The purpose of Tantra Yoga, is to further emotional wellbeing, aiding spiritual and physical health.
The exploration of the subtle energies within the body and their connection to the universe provide the opportunity to understand the purpose of life and the principles of union in new dimensions.
Rod Stryker, a prominent teacher of Tantra Yoga, describes the intention of Tantra Yoga, “(it) shows us what is blocking us from thriving and offers techniques that will help us attain spiritual and material prosperity.” Hence the goals of the Tantric practices are to enable us to prosper, to thrive and to merge the spiritual world and the material world into one.
What is Tantra Yoga?
The word Tantra means, “to weave or expand.” The root of the word yoga is “yuj” which means, “union.” Similar to some of the other 8 Forms of Yoga, Tantra Yoga blends elements of Raja, Bhakti, Karma, Kundalini, and Hatha practices. What distinguishes it from others is that it also weaves dynamics of other mystical practices as well such as: astrology, Ayurveda, crystals, and gemology to name a few. In utilizing these aspects, the Tantric practice aims to expand beyond perceived limitations of yogic philosophy and the asanas.
The comprehensive approach of Tantra Yoga incorporates conscious breathing practices, pranayama, and meditation, and may be practiced individually or in partnership with another. In both practices, the relationship between the micro (self) and the macro (others) is enhanced.
Vinyasa, as a moving meditation through postures, or asanas, also may be practiced partnering, as a blending of energies or as a sole practitioner. The aim is the same: to gain awareness of our strengths and weaknesses, the places where we resist union with ourselves and others, and cultivate the ability to consciously respond rather than unconsciously react to both our fears and desires. When that occurs, we reach a state of eternal bliss.
Five Tantra Yoga Practices
1. Peace Pose with Pranayam, Conscious Breathing
Begin in a cross-legged seated position, Sukhasana, or peace pose. Gaze down; if knees are higher than hip creases, sit on a yoga block or rolled up yoga mat to elevate the spine.
For solo practice, place hands in gyan mudra (also referred to as jnana mudra in some practices) with the tip of the index finger touching the tip of the thumb, extending out the other three fingers with the palms facing up and resting on knees or thighs. Gyan mudra, a yogic shape for the hands, is considered the prime mudra with many health and grounding benefits.
If practicing with a partner, sit back to back in peace pose, sukhasana. You’ll want to align your spines: start by scooting your seats as close to one another as possible. Option to use prithvi mudra, tips of the ring fingers touching the tips of the thumbs, remaining three fingers outstretched but relaxed. This mudra creates a circuitry igniting the heart meridian, or line of energy that extends from the ring fingers, extends up through the arms and confluences at heart center in both the front and backside of the chest.
Take five full breaths, focusing on smoothing out the length of the inhale to match the same length on the exhale.
2. Sun Salutations, Surya Namaskar
Start in mountain pose (tadasana/urdhva hastasana), standing at the top of your yoga mat. As an individual practice, you may like to practice facing a full-length mirror. In a partner practice, you could either practice facing one another or side by side. Bring palms to meet at heart center in anjali mudra (prayer gesture) or place one hand on your heart, and one on your partner’s heart. Take five deep breaths.
Extend arms overhead, mountain pose, then bow forward, keeping your heart open and gaze forward, and release your head into a forward fold (uttanasana). Bring hands to shins or thighs and lengthen through your spine for a halfway lift (ardha uttanasana). Repeat three times.
3. Modified Side Plank/ Partner Modified Side Plank Pose
Start in table pose, wrists aligned under shoulders, hands spread wide, and hips stacked over knees. For partner modified plank pose, you can lightly touch the crown of the head with one another while in table. Then extend your right shins behind you, toes curled under as you root right hand into the mat and open your chests towards one another.
For an individual practice, bring your left hand to rest over your heart as you stack your left shoulder over right so your heart is wide open. Your hips are also stacked creating a beautiful opening for what are considered our more vulnerable energetic centers: hips and hearts. In partner practice, connect left palms overhead. Enjoy five breaths. Return to table and then switch sides.
4. Partner Peace Pose, Entwined Sukhasana
Come into a loose, cross-legged position (typically the larger person in sukhasana first). Your partner then sits on your thighs and crosses their ankles behind your back. Touch your third eye centers (space between the eyebrows) as you both lengthen through your spines. You may choose to close your eyes or gaze lightly into each other’s eyes as you inhale and exhale through the nose. Take five breaths, allowing a natural synchronicity of breath, with your palms resting on the backside of your partner’s heart. Surrender to the intimate experience of both your and your partner’s heartbeat.
5. Child’s Pose (Balasana), Partner Child’s Pose
Bring your knees wide to the edges of your mat, fold forward resting your forehead on the mat, arms extended overhead but resting on the mat. (If knees are sensitive, you can place the folded edges of a blanket behind your knees before folding forward or rest your seat and perhaps forehead on yoga blocks.) If shoulders allow, bring your palms to touch in prayer, symbolic of union with all aspects of yourself.
For partner child’s pose, assume the same shape described above, with heads pointed towards one another. With arms outstretched, you can place your left palm down, and your palm up to connect with your partner’s palms. It’s said that our hands are an extension of our hearts. Envision your inhale emerging from your left palm, breathing in the essence of your partner, and exhaling through your right palm, sharing your essence with your partner.
For a more advanced practice, presuming both partners have healthy knees and spines, you may like to have one partner (typically the larger partner) stay in child’s pose, and the other, sit facing the opposite direction, on the low back of the partner in child’s pose. Slowly, keeping weight in your feet, begin to lower down, using the support of hands on the mat alongside the bottom partner’s hips. Eventually, lower your spine to align with the partner in child’s pose, and relax arms alongside, or extend your arms overhead, sliding palms underneath your partner’s palms.
Stay in close communication with your partner in child’s pose to ensure that each of the actions feels safe and available in their body.
Expand Your Capacity For Intimacy
If you’re practicing Tantra Yoga on your own or with a partner, you’re expanding your capacity for intimacy and union. With practice, we’re able to get up close and intimate with the beliefs and behaviors that hold us back from the intimacy we desire. In addition, Tantric techniques are provided to evolve beyond these barriers so that each and every one of us may thrive and prosper.