Detail image for January 2023 Let's Talk About Sex story.

Commonly known for its association with sex and pleasure, our columnist uncovers the real deal about tantra.

Written by Erin Riedel, LCSW | Illustration by Branden Barker

The curtains are drawn. The candles are lit. Enya is playing in the background. Two people sit naked, face-to-face, their legs wrapped around each other’s waists, their hands on each other’s hearts. Their eyes are locked, their breaths are synchronized, and never-ending full-body orgasms are mere moments away.

This is what you believe tantra is, right?

Well, actually, it isn’t. While all of that can be a part of tantra, you may be surprised to learn that those things – and sex in general – aren’t what tantra is about at all. Yes, there are tantric practices that include sex. But, contrary to how it’s often presented in popular culture, the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a small – and optional – part of tantra. At its core, tantra is a spiritual path toward growth and enlightenment.

If you’re hoping for one of those articles that gives you tantric tips to try with your partner, I’m sorry to disappoint. This may well be one of the least sexy sex columns ever. What this primer on tantra may do, however, is start you on a path to greater self-knowledge and attunement with your body – which can benefit your sex life and other areas of your life, too.

Let’s start by getting clear on our terminology. While in western popular culture we often say “tantra” when referring to tantric sexual practices, tantra is actually a much broader, and not explicitly sexual, set of spiritual practices. Tantra originated in Hindu and Buddhist spiritual traditions, likely in the seventh or eighth centuries. Tantra is comprised of a set of practices to bring people in contact with the divine energy within their bodies via movement, chanting, breathing, and meditation. But over the last thousand years or so, tantra has largely become divorced from its spiritual origins, especially in the west.

“When we look at the way tantra is taught in the Western world, it’s more about sexual pleasure and fulfillment,” says Lucia Gabriela, a relationship coach and tantra facilitator. “But in the Eastern world, it’s really more of a spiritual practice, a connection with the self and body, and an awakening of the energies of the body.”

The word tantra, in fact, is Sanskrit for weaving – the weaving of the body, mind, and spirit. While this can be done with a partner, the focus of tantra is on integrating body, mind, and spirit within oneself, and with a greater universal energy. That means that tantra is a practice that anyone can explore, partnered or not. “The journey will be very unique to each individual,” says Lucia. “It’s whatever your soul is inviting you into.”

While you’ll find plenty of books, websites, and other resources that describe tantric sexual practices to try with a partner, this is likely not the best place to start. Much as it’s difficult to form a healthy romantic relationship if you haven’t worked on your own issues, it’s difficult to successfully – and safely – engage in tantric sex with a partner if you haven’t yet gotten your own energetic house in order. “To heal,” notes Lucia, “we must do our inner work. We must face our shadows and our darkness. We need to know who we are.” If you have a history of trauma or other unresolved emotional wounds, jumping head-first into tantric sex can result in unpleasant and even harmful experiences. Tantra can be a path toward healing, but tantric sex is an advanced practice best left to experienced tantric practitioners.

So where should you start if you’re interested in exploring tantra? “The core of tantra is breath and movement,” says Lucia Gabriela. If that reminds you of another practice – yoga – that’s not a coincidence. Tantra yoga is a form of yoga that places special emphasis on becoming deeply connected with the body, focusing more on an intuitive and meditative experience of movement than on mastering any particular pose. Tantra yoga is one of the most accessible ways to get started with tantra, as many studios now offer tantra yoga classes.

If you’re ready to explore tantra more deeply as a spiritual – and potentially sexual – practice, you should do so with caution, says Lucia Gabriela. She suggests that the tantric-curious look for the following qualities in an instructor:

  • Transparency. Explore a potential facilitator’s online presence and see how much information they offer about what they do. “Look for a practitioner who will show their face online,” says Lucia. “If they won’t, they’re hiding something.”  
  • Humility. A good tantra facilitator is open to being questioned and challenged and can admit when they’re wrong. “A real teacher won’t have a program with the intent to program you,” Lucia notes. 
  • Trauma awareness. Tantra can be very triggering of unresolved issues, especially if you have a history of trauma. Find a facilitator who knows what to do if tantra starts to take you in an unpleasant direction. 
  • In-person instruction. When possible, it’s best to share physical space with your instructor and fellow students. “Tantra is a weaving together of everyone’s energies,” says Lucia, and this happens most powerfully in person.

While tantra is not a quick fix for boredom in the bedroom, it can be a deeply rewarding and sensual practice all on its own. And with time and patience, you may yet find those full-body orgasms, too.

Erin Riedel, LCSW, is a therapist in private practice who specializes in working with sexual minorities.