This newly popularized version of tantra is the Western "repackaging" of an honorable, even scholarly Eastern body of knowledge, according to Michael Witzel, PhD, professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University and managing editor of the International Journal of Tantric Studies. "As with yoga, what we get in the West is mostly gymnastics, just body exercises," he says with ill-concealed contempt. And yet there are seemingly sane people who claim to have gotten something valuable from such lessons. When 48-year-old Californian Tracy first went to a tantric workshop, her boyfriend observed that it was exactly what the rest of the country expected of anyone living in Northern California. "We're straight and normal people," says Tracy, a development director of a nonprofit organization. "We were in a fairly new relationship, a second-time-around relationship, and taking the course together sounded like a good way to establish the intimacy I was looking for. But it felt scary and really pushed me to some of my edges." Tracy and her boyfriend learned techniques such as "streaming energy" (one partner bends at the waist, head and arms hanging loosely, and begins to shake slightly, drawing energy up from feet to head as the other partner strokes her back) and "lion's play" (the partners put palms together, growl at each other, and pseudo-wrestle). "One goal of tantra is to spread sexual energy throughout the body," says Tracy. "I get to the point where I feel completely orgasmic, and it feels like it's coming from the genitals all the way up to my head. It's the opposite of rushing to orgasm."
After four years as workshop faithfuls, the couple often decides to have tantric dates, which start with "heart salutations": sitting across from each other, hands brought into prayer position, then leaning toward each other and breathing. "It's a sweet and simple way to mark that we're entering sacred space," says Tracy, who creates a tantric "temple" in their home, cleared of clutter, candles lit, sarongs hung on windows. "We don't ever have alcohol, because it's all about being present, but we might have feathers or chimes. We're attending to each of the senses." One of her favorite exercises is called the breath of love, which she ends with the classic tantric position called yab-yum, the man sitting cross-legged with the woman straddling his waist, her legs wrapped around him. "It doesn't actually involve sex at all," says Tracy, "but it feels more intimate than sex, which is saying something. First you imagine that you're breathing from your sex organs up to your heart; then you imagine a bowl of energy between the two of you that you're both filling up; then you share the energy, looking into each other's eyes and breathing into each other's mouths. At the end, the kissing is electric. There's no penetration, no genital stimulation, but I am so much more turned on than when having regular sex. You get so high, it's amazing."
One basic tantric tenet is that men can withhold ejaculation and prolong erection, and that seminal fluid contains drops of vital energy, the spending of which ages the body and dulls the senses. This premise accounts for the boom in Westernized tantra, according to Jonathan Margolis, author of O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm. In a chapter called "A Little Coitus Never Hoitus" (a witticism poached from Dorothy Parker), Margolis posits that hours and hours of lovemaking is more about male ego than female pleasure. The idea of a sexual marathon is fodder for a man's braggadocio—"an under-the-duvet power politics play," he writes, and "the long-lost cousin of Viagra," which is "thinly disguised as sensitivity to women." But from an informal scan of tantric sex websites, Margolis reports that the withheld orgasm is not as intense—"more like a quiet, 'held-in' sneeze than a full-blooded ker-chow."
Next: Heading to a tantric workshop in upstate New York