Although the actual postures that we practice as “yoga” today cannot be traced back very far into history (if at all), the philosophical practice of yoga has developed out of many different historical and religious contexts.
One ingredient that gives flavor to the variable “stew” that is yoga today is tantra. I both love and hate watching peoples faces when I tell them that I have studied and am interested in tantric religions. It is amusing to watch emotions of shock and embarrassment move across their faces as they imagine what I studied. Unfortunately though, while the word “tantra” or “tantric” has become familiar to most people today, its meaning has been lost. Instead of associating the word with a philosophical or religious practice, scenes of “tantric sex workshops” whether imagined or from movies and TV shows like Sex and the City explode across one’s mind.
In actual fact, “correct” tantric practices have next to nothing in common with Samantha, Carrie, and Charlotte’s experience at the “tantric sex workshop” in Sex and the City.
In college, one of my favorite professors described tantra as very similar to homeopathic medicine. The practices of tantra explore the idea of fighting poison with poison–one’s own self should be so strong, any amount of poison or superficial pleasure would have no effect on the body or mind. The tantric practitioner does not strive to become close to god, he strives to become a god.
Westerners seem to love that some tantric practices involve the use of drugs and sex. For some, it seems like tantra makes it okay to use drugs to get high, or to have promiscuous sex. It is true that some tantric groups have historically used drugs and sex as tools for spiritual enlightenment. However, the goal was to be unaffected by these powerful forces. One would be able to take drugs and not feel high, a man would be able to have sex and not come to a physical orgasm.
In yoga, we use the physical postures to challenge the body to take on different shapes and forms, and work to keep our breath the same in these forms as when we are resting. As we move through different physical shapes, eventually we find that our mind, and our inner self stays the same. Without thinking consciously, as we move deeper through layers of the body, the yoga practitioner will eventually find that something rests underneath. And what rests underneath is so powerful that it stays the same, throughout all physical and mental challenges, throughout all of life, and perhaps also beyond life as we know it, after we leave our physical body behind.