The word “tantra” can conjure some strange associations. When I first heard the word from a yoga instructor with a knowing smile about a decade ago, I imagined a sketchy male “guru” with a man-bun holding a seminar about the secrets of spiritual and sexual bliss in front of a room of eager, experimental couples—ones that were about to be duped.
The reality, as I later discovered, turned out to be a lot different. Americans are sorely misinformed about this Eastern tradition and its dissemination in the West, but it’s really not our fault. Like a game of telephone, tantra’s complexities have only deepened as this ancient scripture has traveled from continent to continent over centuries.
So where did tantra come from and what is it, exactly? It’s a belief system enshrined in a series of original Hindu and Buddhist texts written in India in approximately the 1st millennium CE. Tantra is a text and a tradition and a practice, and the term tantra is used to describe all three. At its core, tantra centers on union with the divine. If that sounds too woo, just think of it as a tool that can bring more intimacy into your life, whether you currently have a partner or not.
According to Barbara Carrellas, author of Urban Tantra, it’s foremost a practice of liberation—and it’s definitely not just about sex. (Although it can improve your sex life in myriad ways.) In fact, it was in one of Carrellas’ workshops that I had my first totally non-sexual, mind-blowing “energy orgasm.”
At its core, Tantra centers on union with the divine. If that sounds too woo, just think of it as a tool that can bring more intimacy into your life, whether you currently have a partner or not.
“Tantra is not couples therapy, nor is it exclusively for privileged, white, middle-aged, middle-class, apolitical, woo-woo, new-age workshop junkies,” Carrellas recently told me. She says it’s more concerned with “inner mystical experiences, spiritual growth, and personal empowerment.” Unlike other traditions that view the body as dangerous and sinful, tantra sees the body—and the pure pleasure it can produce—as a channel to the divine, rather than an impediment.
As hard as it is to wrap your brain around something so broad, ancient, and culturally removed from Americans’ relationship to sex, tantra can actually be fairly straightforward and practical. Like apps that promise to teach you to meditate, mastering some of these simple techniques gives you access to a transformative tool that can improve your sexual confidence and your relationships, both casual and otherwise.
Here, Carrellas lays out five tantric techniques that are perfect for beginners. Notice how many of them are first grounded in your relationship with your own body—only after you master them solo are you encouraged to take them to the next level with another human.
Want to have an “energy orgasm” of your own? Give one of these super-simple tantra practices a try.
1. Breathe deeply
According to Carrellas, “Breath is our single greatest source of energy and aliveness. Yet by the time we are adults, most of us are breathing just enough to stay alive.” (Not so sexy, right?) This simple breathing technique reconnects you to your five senses, helping you get centered, relaxed, and grounded enough to go deeper.
Start by taking a big breath and allow it to fill you from your genitals to the top of your head. Pay attention to your inhalation, and then slowly exhale. Notice how your body feels and how your senses of smell, touch, and hearing are different at the end of the breath. You may feel happier, lighter, and have the sense of taking up more space in the room.
Next, take a tiny breath, followed by another. Notice how small you feel when you breathe shallowly. Are you hunched over, with tight shoulders? Carrellas says that simply observing the breath, even in mundane moments, can teach us much about how it corresponds with our emotional state. When you’re feeling really good, you’re probably breathing deep and long, and vice versa. This is something you can test right now, wherever you are.
Next-level: Carrellas says that breath is “vitally important when you are trying to make a connection with another person.” She suggests matching your breath to a person with whom you want to connect. This doesn’t have to be in a sexual context, but it can greatly enhance and deepen a sexual connection. Try it over a coffee or a glass of wine with your next Tinder conquest—or later on in bed, if you should get lucky.
2. Practice eye gazing
With a hand mirror in one hand, look into your own non-dominant eye. (Your non-dominant eye correlates to handedness: if you’re right-handed, your left eye is the non-dominant eye.) First, take a moment to breathe. Then, as you gaze into your own eye, try to have a dialogue with yourself—out loud if you’re comfortable (and don’t have nosy roommates), or silently if that feels right.
Carrellas suggests using these “conversation starters” as guidelines:
I love you for . . .
I forgive you for . . .
If I really loved you, I would . . .
Because I really love you, I will . . .
You might start hysterically laughing or feel really trippy. But it’s truly a transformative, intimate practice—a kind of self therapy or relationship therapy, depending on whether you do it solo or with a partner.
Next-level: Once you’ve mastered this on your own, you can ask your partner to participate. Start from the beginning, staring into one another’s eyes, and see what comes up.
3. Find the “resilient edge of resistance”
In Urban Tantra, Carrellas says: “When we touch someone, we don’t just want to make any old kind of contact. We want to feel like we become the touch…When you touch the body, you want to touch deeply enough that the body pushes back just a little. If a muscle becomes rigid under your touch, you’ve gone too far. If the muscle feels flaccid, you haven’t gone far enough.”
This is how she defines the “resilient edge of resistance.” Here are a few exercises to help you find it and store it in your muscle memory.
Hug someone. What’s the fine line between tepid and smothering?
Test your resilient edge by doing a self-massage. Go slowly and work on each part of your body to see what you can take.
Next-level: If you want to explore this concept with a partner, Carrellas says, “Stillness is extremely powerful. Put your hands on someone so that you can feel both resilience and resistance. Embrace them with your hands.” Explain the concept of the “resilient edge of resistance” to your partner and get feedback.
Giving or receiving a hand massage is another simple way to test your edge. You can also give or get a full-body massage. Carrellas recommends slowing down and trying “three strokes for thirty.” She says it’s better to make three delicious strokes on the body precisely at the resilient edge of resistance than thirty strokes that are sloppy and unconscious.
4. Fake it ’til you feel it
Carrellas calls this technique FITYFI (Fake it ’til you feel it). FITYFI can help you create or increase sensation in your own body, even when you think you feel nothing.
To start, close your eyes and put all your focus on the little finger of your right hand. Imagine sending your breath to that finger. Visualize light from a hundred stars pouring into this little finger. Try to hear the sounds inside your finger. Can you feel the blood pulse there?
After you do this for a few minutes, tune into how the finger feels. Does it feel different than the rest of your fingers?
Next Level: You can totally try this on your genitals, while solo or with a partner—it’s pretty phenomenal.
5. Release your expectations
According to Carrellas, in tantra, there is no goal. She says that in this realm, “The climax may be huge and thunderingly loud. Or it may be a prolonged ecstatic state accompanied by the sensation of champagne bubbles dancing under your skin.” In order to fully feel it, it’s important to go into the experience with all your senses but with no need to intellectually process what’s happening.
You might experiment with this first while masturbating. Then, try it next time you’re in a sexual situation. Whether it’s the first time with a particular partner or the 150th, releasing expectations can considerably heighten the experience. You may find that it reduces self-judgment and helps you to fully relax, freeing your body and mind to experience bliss. We kind of need that now more than ever, don’t we?
Originally published March 20, 2018; updated August 27, 2018.
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