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You've read about it. You've wondered about it. Hours and hours of kissing. Soul-melding eye contact. Transcendental sex... hey, I'll have what they're having! But what's involved? And what does a weekend workshop in the poconos have to do with the real thing? Aimee Lee Ball comes back with a firsthand report.
An urban legend with the ring of authenticity cites a survey in which tantric sex tops the list of subjects that most interest 14- to 25-year-olds—the prototype MTV generation. Me too, although I'm hardly MTV's target audience. Who wouldn't be curious about a practice that is alleged to foster staring into a beloved's eyes for hours and hours, kissing for hours and hours, making love for hours and hours?

It's not as if we don't already commit enough time and energy to sex in our society—we live in a sexually saturated culture; both Madison Avenue and Hollywood are truly obsessed with the subject—but much of what we read, observe, and experience in our bedrooms seems to be about performance, about attracting a partner and being "good in bed" and reaching some multiorgasmic goalpost. There is now on my desk a small library of books about tantric sex, and while the explicit detailing of intimate behavior might make our grandmothers blush (and might at first be confused with garden-variety porn), the practice of tantra (based on ancient Hindu and Buddhist scriptures) is supposed to facilitate a more meaningful intimacy, an actual spiritual connection between partners. Mark Epstein, MD, a New York City psychiatrist and the author of Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life—Insights from Buddhism and Psychotherapy, reframes this concept as the dropping of a veil between "self" and "other." Tantra is not just some postmodern Kama Sutra or postgraduate search for the G-spot, according to its aficionados. It is intended to develop the "awakened mind" of meditation in a sexual context. It is, although this sounds incredibly highfalutin, about finding aspects of the divinity in one's beloved.

I don't hang out in X-rated shops, but I doubt there's much pornography that talks about men and women transforming erotic energy into a refined state of consciousness. I don't get HBO either, so I learned only recently that Sex and the City (inevitably) seized upon the idea of tantra, veering perilously close to Hustler territory. The four main characters (hardly prudes) were embarrassed but crippled by the "inability to look away from a car crash" as they attended a tantric seminar and were instructed how to perform genital massage on a man "as if you are using an orange juicer." Mastery of the technique would make a man faithful, said the coach, "because once they go tantric, they don't go back."

There was nothing even remotely spiritual about this sordid display, but it's not hard to understand the impetus behind the desire for a legitimate tantric experience—the yearning for a passionate bond. The idea that tantra can dissolve the boundaries between two people, that through the body you can meet the essence of another person, is so attractive. The "real" tantra seems to be about connection, generosity, being in the present, and transcending sex as a competitive sport. But go searching for the spiritual dimension of sex, and you'll encounter a lot of gooey rhetoric. "It's the art of disappearing inside each other," says Margot Anand, of San Rafael, California, who uses the term SkyDancing for her tantric workshops. "Lovers are like two instruments before a concert: They have to learn how to be in tune; otherwise it will not be melodic. When a man and a woman practice tantra, they have the tools to go beyond ego, beyond gender, even beyond having a body, like navigating into space."

What exactly are the men and women doing? "Dancing, moving, breathing, visualizing, contracting and releasing the internal muscles, relaxing the pelvis, understanding sexual anatomy, confronting their shadows, learning how to scream, learning how to breathe from the sexual organs all the way to the heart, breathing in a circular fashion with each other, understanding successful communication. These are great secrets that transform couples' lives." Isn't all that muscle work just like Kegeling, taught by most gynecologists to maintain internal muscular strength? And isn't "communication" the key to all good coupleness, not only tantric?

Next: The basic tenets of tantra

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