Tantra: The Next Wave in Yoga?
Some years ago, an article by Nora Isaccs in Yoga Journal predicted that Tantra would be the “next evolution” in yoga. With the popularity of books such as the Radiance Sutras by Lorin Roche; a poetic interpretation of an old Tantric meditation text from the Middle Ages, and the proliferation of workshops, writings, podcasts and videos by Tantric scholars Douglas Brooks, Sally Kempton, Christopher Wallis, and many others, Tantric philosophy, yoga, and meditation practices are indeed becoming increasingly popular. What is Tantra’s relationship to yoga? What is Tantra? What are its roots? How relevant is this ancient tradition for modern yogis?
Yoga and Tantra: A Contentious Relationship
Many students of yoga, especially those undergoing yoga teacher training, are introduced to the Yoga Sutras. It is commonly believed that this text, composed by Patanjali between 200 BCE and 200 AD, represent the culmination of the ancient yoga tradition’s spiritual quest. These so-called Classical Yoga teachings, most scholars believe, are the confluence of a long and complex development that emerged from yoga’s archaic beginnings in the Vedas about 3000 years earlier.
But not everyone agrees with this timeline of the history of yoga, nor that yoga is mostly a Vedic practice. Adopted by Yoga Journal and most Western yogis as the “official” starting point of yoga, this idea has been promoted by the prolific writings of yoga scholars such as Georg Feuerstein and David Frawley. Since their most prominent book promoting this version of yoga history, In Search of the Cradle of Human Civilization, was funded by the fundamentalist Hindutva movement in India, a controversial movement promoting Hindu nationalism and much of the current research into yoga history and practice, it should not come as a surprise that not all agree with these ideas.
Discussing the history of yoga, a practice promoting health and tranquility, is indeed sometimes a contentious affair. Contrary ideas about the origins of yoga brings up heated arguments in chat rooms, on blogs and on Facebook, between scholars and practitioners, between Indians and Westerners, between modern posture yogis and more traditional yogis. The interconnection between Tantra and yoga is one of the reasons behind the contentions.
What is Tantra?
The Sanskrit word Tantra has many meanings. Etymologically, Tantric scholar Christopher Wallis writes that the Sanskrit root word tan means to propagate, expand on, liberate, and that tra means to save or protect. Indigenous Sanskrit scholar and Tantric guru Shrii Shrii Ananadamurtii breaks up the root words similarly, but gives them a slightly different meaning. His interpretation of tan is to liberate us from tra, from limitations, from bondage. Tantra, then, can be described as a path of liberation and expansion from bondage.
The word Tantra is also used to describe a system, practice, or science. India’s earliest philosophy, Samkhya, is therefore often referred to as Kapilasya Tantra—the system of Kapila, named after the man who developed the Samkhya philosophy. Similarly, even Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, are sometimes also referred to as Tantra, and in Ayurveda, many of the various healing systems are also termed Tantra.
So, if we strip away the various philosophies of yoga and look at what yoga is in practical terms, then what emerges at the core is Tantra as a practical system of religion and spirituality, a system of physical and mental transformation, a practice promoting healing and liberation of the human body and mind. In the book a History of the Tantric Religion, N. N. Bhattacharyya writes that Tantra grew out of early shamanism, a system which developed from the early worship of the linga and yoni to the metaphysical concepts of Purusha and Prakrti in Samkhya, or Shiva and Shakti in Tantra, representing the polarities of nature, the male and female principles of creation. The practice of yoga, in which the human body was “the abode of all the mysteries of the universe” emerged from these worshippers of the duality of creation. This non-Vedic system, where some groups worshipped Shakti and others Shiva, Bhattacharyya points out, represent the origins of yoga.
Bhattacharyya also points out the deep rift between early Vedic and Tantric cultures, which stems from the religious and racial clash of peoples, between the invading Vedic Aryans and the indigenous peoples of India. He also points out that many Vedic Brahmins, even though they over time would take up yoga, could “not give up their Brahminical prejudices despite their conversion to Tantrism.” They instead attempted “to demonstrate the Vedic origin of Tantra, and so they often twisted Vedic passages to suit their own purpose.” Such attempts also influenced the first modern writers of yoga and Tantra, including Sir John Woodroffe, Gopinath Kaviraj, and most of the contemporary writers on yoga have followed suit, to wrongly attribute the origin of yoga and Tantra to the Vedas.
Bhattacharyya is not alone in pointing out this conflict in yogic history, between the Vedic culture and the Shaiva Tantric culture of India. These views are also expressed in many indigenous texts, especially in the various Puranas, in Tantric texts not yet translated to English, and are also common in the more contemporary writings of R. P. Chanda, Alain Danielou, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, C. Chakravarti, and many other writers on the religious history of India. This conflict is still going on today and is reflected in the denial of Hindutva nationalists in accepting the genetic science behind the Aryan invasion into India in ancient times, and the idea that early yoga and Tantra were not initially developed by the Vedic Aryans who came to India from the outside, but rather by the indigenous Indians, the followers of Shiva.
The Importance of Tantra in Yoga History
Some contemporary Western scholars, including Georg Feuerstein, are also reminding us that Tantra played an important role in shaping the origins of yoga as we know it today, that it is important to distinguish between “Vedic and Tantric” strands of Indian culture. Contemporary Tantric teacher Anandamurtii claimed that the roots of the controversy over ancient Indian history, and thus the roots of yoga, lies at the heart of the ancient conflict between the Vedic Aryans and the Shaiva culture of the Dravidians; a struggle, he reminds us, that is depicted in the famous epic battles in the Mahabharata and the stories of the Ramayana, a conflict which, in cultural, political, religious and economic terms, has continued into our times.
In summary, the clash of ideas in the yoga community is largely represented by these two worldviews: one that claims yoga originated in the Vedic system and one that believes it is of Tantric origin. There is also disagreement between those scholars who, based on certain textual evidences, claim Tantra is 1500 years old and those indigenous gurus and practitioners, as well as some scholars, who claim the tradition stems from the much older Shaiva culture of India, which is perhaps as old as 6-7000 years.
The history of yoga, it appears, is not so black and white. Tantra may not be just 1500 years old, as based on textual evidence, and ancient yoga did not just originate in the Vedas. In reality, the history of India and the history of yoga is a lot more complex. According to Anandamurtii and other scholars, both yogic and Indian history are a mixture of both the Vedic and the Tantric cultural strands. According to the genetic evidence of Dr. Spencer Wells, the Vedic Aryans migrated to India about 5000 BCE. Since that time, a cultural blending—which very much symbolizes the history of humanity itself—took place over thousands of years of migration, invasion, warfare, and assimilation.
Contrary to the genetic evidence suggesting a migration of Aryan settlers in India as early as 5000 BCE, the orthodox Hindutva movement, supported by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, disputes this evidence, hailing it as Euro-centric bias. Dr. Spencer Wells, the Stanford educated scientist who discovered this fact, however, refuses to take part in this controversy, however, a debate which he considers religious in nature. And that is exactly how Anandamurtii, N. N. Bhattacarya and others have characterized this issue: a dispute over historical trends, between the people’s history of India, as told by the oral Shaiva Tantric tradition and the Puranas, and the same history as seen through the eyes of Vedic scholars and popular yoga writers such as David Frawley.
Tantra, no matter when or where we think the tradition originated, is undoubtedly the source of most of what we think of as yoga today, including Hatha Yoga, or posture yoga. Not surprisingly, New York Times science writer William Broad acknowledges in his book The Science of Yoga; that yoga originated in Tantra. Similarly, Bhattacharyya points out that Atharvaveda, one of the four Vedic canons, includes many Tantric passages and instructions adopted from the Tantric system of yoga.
Whether we think of yoga as only the practice of postures, or the whole plethora of yogic practices—from the ethical tenets of yama and niyama to meditation, from pranayama to chakra visualizations—Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, today hailed as the main text on yoga philosophy, contains a lot more Tantric wisdom than religious insights drawn from the ancient Vedas.
Tantra: The People’s Religion and the Parallel Tradition
As in most other places where religion and the power of empires were linked, the Vedic hegemony was based on a schism of class, caste and socio-economic status. Historian N. N. Bhattacarya says of this phenomenon that “the Vedas came to be looked upon as a symbol of spiritual knowledge, a very sacred and unchallengeable tradition… and a strong taboo for the ordinary people. It reached to the extent that if a Sudra [low caste] ventured to go through the Vedas to acquire knowledge of his own profession he was liable to receive punishment.” He further states that what “was denied in the Vedic tradition, was naturally filled by the Tantras, which appeared as a parallel tradition.”
Most importantly, perhaps, Bhattacarya emphasizes that to understand the history of Tantra and thus yoga, we cannot solely rely on the “official” texts, which most western scholars today proclaim as the main source of yogic practice and history. “In the quest for the foundation and early development of Tantrism,” he writes, “we have to depend more on the parallel tradition itself as manifested in numerous non-Brahmanical and heterodox, scientific, and technological treatises, regional, tribal, proletarian and popular cults, beliefs, and practices and on the broad background of the history of Indian thought in general, rather than on surviving Tantric texts themselves which, valuable though they are in many respects, are in their present form burdened with superimposed elements and thus bear only a parochial and limited significance.” These superimposed elements come from the Brahmanical tradition, from the upper caste society, from priests and pundits whom we today would most likely term orthodox, or even fundamentalist.
It is also notable that the scholars, gurus and practitioners of this parallel tradition, often referred to as the poor people’s religion of India, rejected both the caste system and the patriarchy. So, while women were prohibited to teach the Vedas, in the Tantric tradition, women and people from the lower castes were embraced as teachers and practitioners. One more notable difference between the Vedic and the Tantric system, Bhattacaryya writes, is that in Tantra “external formalities in regard to the spiritual quest” was rejected. He also notes that many of the main teachers of the Tantric tradition, including the two most famous ones from the Natha sects in the Middle Ages, Matsyendranatha and Goraksanatha, came “from the lower section of society.”
One example of this cultural conflict between those who write the history of India from a Brahmanical and Vedic perspective, and those who write from a Tantric perspective can be seen in each perspective’s understanding of the origin of Ayurveda. It is commonly understood by yoga students in the West that Ayurveda is a Vedic science, as that is how it has been taught by books written by David Frawley and others. Both Anandamurtii and Bhattacaryya, however, note that Ayurveda and medical alchemy in general has been an integral part of Tantra. “Indian medical sciences,” writes Bhattacrayya, “as revealed in the Carakasamhita (the main text book of Ayurveda) is basically Tantric.” He continues by pointing out that much of Western academic understanding of Tantra and Yoga is based on texts from the Common Era, while the Carakasamhita and other Tantric texts contains “information from the earlier Tantric tradition,” from long before the Christian Era. In fact, at one point this important Ayurvedic text was also called Agnivesa Tantra. Anandamurtii suggests that the roots of Tantra goes even further back into human prehistory and claims that both Yoga and Ayurveda hail from the Tantric teachings of Sadashiva, who allegedly lived several thousand years before Christ.
Even though it is difficult to pin point any exact date for the origin of Tantra, it is important to acknowledge that many indigenous scholars and teachers of Tantra in India do not adhere to the same historical timeline or have the same understanding of the roots of yoga as Western scholars toda—that Tantra started with the advent of the Tantric texts from the Middle Ages. To them, the Vedic and Tantric traditions are much older and are both separate, or parallel traditions, and of these two Tantra is the main source of both yoga and Ayurveda.
Tantra: A Bridge Between Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga
Most yoga scholars draw a distinct separation between Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the teachings of the Tantric texts, basically claiming that Patanjali’s Asthanga Yoga and Tantra are entirely different schools of yoga. But not everyone draws such a distinct separation between the two systems, especially not the indigenous teachers of the tradition.
When I learned Tantric meditation practices in India in the early 80s, I was taught techniques that are central to Patanjali’s work. In his Yoga Sutras, the goal of yoga practice is inner peace, or, as he put it, “the cessation of the fluctuations of mental propensities.” To reach this goal of spiritual tranquility, also termed Samadhi, he described the eight limbed path of Asthanga Yoga.
Ashtanga yoga was exactly what I was taught in the name of Tantra in India and Nepal. I was also told that Samadhi is the goal of Tantric meditation. Through oral transmission from my teachers, I was given detailed practices that are only philosophically or symbolically explained in the Yoga Sutras. Perhaps because so many scholars do not have practical experience with the traditions behind the texts and the philosophy, there is a tendency to separate Tantric practice from the philosophy of yoga. But as it is often said in Tantra circles: yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.
In the comprehensive system outlined in the Yoga Sutras, which is also found in texts of a much earlier origin, yoga postures, or asanas, form only one of the eight parts. These are: yama and niyama (ethics), asanas (yoga exercises), pranayama (breathing exercises, prathyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (spiritual peace).
According to teachers and writers such as Shrii Shrii Ananadamurtii, Alain Danielou and Lalan Prasad Singh, this system, also termed Raja Yoga or Kriya Yoga, emerged from the ancient Tantric Shaiva tradition, and philosophically from Samkhya, the main religious and philosophical traditions of yoga in ancient India. It is also popularly believed in India that the techniques behind the eightfold path, and especially the Tantric teachings of mantra, kundalini and chakras, originated in antiquity with the legendary Shiva, the King of Yoga and the original teacher of Tantra. Many indigenous teachers of Ayurveda in Nepal and India will therefore address Shiva as the Father of Ayurveda.
It is this system of yoga—the asana practice, the sense withdrawal techniques, the breathing exercises, the concentration and meditation techniques, which underlie the practices behind Patanjali’s philosophy. In the book Laya Yoga by Shyam Sundar Goswami, which Georg Feuerstein hails as “the last word on the chakras and the kundalini,” Goswami explains that both Vedic and Tantric yoga has eight stages, the same eight limbs outlined in the form of Asthanga Yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Goswami further explains that there are four main forms of Tantric yoga practice: Laya Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga.
Therefore, the distinct lines between the various forms of Yoga and Tantra are artificial. Because, at their very roots, Tantra and Yoga are intertwined, even synonymous paths that has meandered through time, eventually forming one single trunk. A large trunk we today simply call yoga. But if we call the same trunk Tantra, that would be equally accurate.
In many of the Hatha Yoga texts of the Middle Ages, when most scholars think Tantra developed, it is said that Hatha Yoga should be practiced with Raja Yoga. In other words, the practice of a more holistic yoga combines posture yoga with meditation practice, or all the eight limbs of Raja Yoga as taught in Patanjali’s and other texts. When Yogananda came to the shores of the United States in the 1920s, he taught yoga as a combination of Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga, a style which he, like Patanjali, called Kriya Yoga. This eight-limbed style of yoga is what Anandamurtii and other yogi scholars in India sometimes call Ashtanga Yoga and sometimes Tantra Yoga.
When B.K.S. Iyengar, Patthabi Jois, and T. K .V. Desikachar introduced yoga to the world a few decades after Yogananda, as students of Krishnamacarya, the father of modern posture yoga, however, their emphasis was mainly on the physical side of yoga, the practice of various modified forms of Hatha Yoga. And from that time onward, most people have associated yoga with the numerous Indian and Western schools of modern posture yoga. But, as explained above, the historical roots of yoga run much deeper and longer than that.
Tantra and Vedanta
The yoga tradition is a confluence of many metamorphosed paths, and it is often difficult to know where one path of yoga started and where it merged with another. There is also much debate about which practices are Tantric or Vedantic, or if a certain philosophical idea is from Samkhya, from the Yoga Sutras, Tantra, or Vedanta, or even whether it is a Hindu or Buddhist practice or idea. I think of it this way: the practical path of Tantra are the many expressions of yoga we find throughout history, and the various philosophies of yoga—Vedanta, Samkhya, the Yoga Sutras, Kashmir Tantra, and Bengal Tantra—are philosophical, cultural and psychological expressions created by various Tantric yogis. Some of these philosophies are nondual and others are dualistic.
I therefore like to think of Yoga, Veda, Tantra, even Ayurveda, as simultaneous and interlacing paths—a religious, cultural, scientific, medical, and philosophical tapestry woven together over time. Broadly speaking, the main practical and yogic colors of this tapestry are woven from the threads of Tantra while the more religious strands stem from the four Vedas and the more subtle philosophical ones from Vedanta and Classical Yoga. But there is also a sublimely rich philosophical tradition in Tantra, especially in Kashmir Tantra, as well as in contemporary time through the composition of new Tantric sutras by teachers such as Anandamurtii.
The majority of the posture and meditation practices we essentially think of as yoga have their direct or indirect roots in Tantra—the asana practice, the mantra meditations, the yantra and chakra systems, and the basic philosophical idea of Indian philosophy, that the world is a composite of two forces—energy and consciousness, Purusha and Prakrti, or Shiva and Shakti. The latter idea is a fundamental ontological vision in most all of Indian yoga philosophy, from Samkhya to the Yoga Sutras to the various schools in the renaissance period of Tantra in the Middle Ages.
In nondual Tantra, such as in the Tantra philosophy of Abhinava Gupta and the contemporary Anandamurtii, we see the blossoming of an ecological philosophy that appeals to us modern seekers in its simplistic and deep brilliance: the idea that Spirit, the Divine Brahma, has two expressions, namely Shiva and Shakti, or consciousness and energy. This nondual embrace is an exquisite and unique gift of Tantric spirituality.
Tantra’s Life-affirming Essence
We cannot separate Tantra from the heart of the various, ancient yogic paths and their particular history. The practice of Tantra can loosely be characterized as the universal human quest for union with the Divine Source, a quest which is also found in all the other world’s wisdom traditions.
Personally, I was drawn to Tantra, because of its wholesome practices and philosophy. Vedanta, on the other hand, with its more abstract philosophy, seemed too detached, ascetic and otherworldly to me. I was attracted to the Tantric embrace of both unity and duality, both wholeness and opposites.
While classical Vedanta sees the world as an illusion, in Tantra this world of opposites is real but dissolves in Brahma, in Spirit, the underlying being of all reality. And while Vedanta desires a world of detachment from the world, Tantra sees the inner essence of all life and all things as bliss and love, and that the way out of the world’s entanglements is not to retreat from it but to engage with it as an expression of Brahma. To love the world. And, if necessary, to change the world. That is why Tantra is often called the path of ecstasy, or the path of love. That is why Tantra is so appealing to the environmentalist and spiritual activist in me.
Tantra’s Contemporary Appeal
I think Tantra appeals to many modern yogis because of its notion that everything is Divine. This essential realization—that every form, particle, or atom of this universe has an inherent capacity to reveal the sacred; that everything is, at its core, God; that is the essence of Tantra.
Tantra appeals to us because of its alchemical use of energy, its promise to transform desire into bliss, and violence into peace. For the Tantric, all dualities, all conflicts and opposites, all forms and energies are different expressions of Brahma, and the goal of life is to ultimately dissolve in a state of nondual unity and peace. Tantra attracts the mystic in us for its adherence to nondualism; its ability to see the oneness of everything. It is perhaps this holistic and practical attitude—that Divinity is everywhere and that sacredness can be realized anywhere—that makes Tantra so appealing to us yogis in the contemporary world.
The Next Wave: Tantric Meditation in the Yoga Studios?
There were hardly any yoga studios in Europe and the US in the early 1980s when I went to India to study Tantra. Today, yoga studios are nearly as common as bakeries in many cities around the world. In these studios, various styles of posture yoga is performed, from Vinyasa to Yin, from Power to Ashtanga, from Iyengar to Jivamukti. There are also studios offering Chocolate Yoga, Wine Yoga, even Beer Yoga. But there are very few studios offering courses on meditation, especially yogic or Tantric meditation. But I believe this is about to change.
Gaia is currently offering a series of Tantric videos with Christopher Wallis featuring “micro meditations” from the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, the text Lorin Roche made popular as the Radiance Sutras. In many yoga studios all over the world, classes end with not just chanting Om and saying Namaste with folded hands, but also with yogic meditation.
These are all signs of a holistic tapestry being woven together from all the integrated strands of wisdom that Tantric yoga has to offer. In other words, we are presently witnessing a second reemergence of Tantra. And this time, not only in India, it is truly a global reemergence. As Westerners develop a thirst for what Tantric yoga has to offer, they will discover the vast richness of meditation practices the tradition contains. They will discover that there is more to meditation than mindfulness practices.
As Buddhist teacher Miles Neale says, «the health and relaxation that folks are experiencing is just the beginning…. a prelude for a much greater learning process. Yoga and meditation are capable of taking us to the moon. But if we stay at the level of Frozen Yoga and McMindfulness, it is like we are using a rocket launcher to light a candle.»
Meditation teacher Dennis Hunter echo Neale’s point by stating that “mindfulness meditation is trending these days, and is practiced everywhere from the yoga studio to the board room. But the great meditative traditions tell us that mindfulness is only a starting point. Once the mind has been tamed and trained through mindfulness, then true meditation and self-inquiry can actually begin.”
The thirst for a deeper and fuller yoga experience has begun and the human longing for more transcendence will not end with Beer Yoga, nor with Chocolate Yoga. The human thirst for inner balance, for deeper soul and ecstatic spirituality is what authentic yoga has always been about, and that thirst is reflected in the next wave in yoga, and it will lead many modern yogis toward the Tantric practices of meditation and chanting that underlie all of yoga philosophy like a cool, subterranean flow of water.
Tantric Meditation Practices
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali explains that the last of the ten tenets of yama and niyama, the ethics of yoga, is Ishvarapranidhana, the practice of meditating on the Divine with love and devotion. This devotional concentration is very much at the heart of Tantric meditation, as the embrace of longing, of love as a spiritual practice. Patanjali furthermore says in the Yoga Sutras that Samadhi (the highest state of meditation) is attained by love for God or the Divine (Ishavarapranidhanad va).
In simple terms, Tantric meditation, as partly outlined in the Yoga Sutras, consists of the following practices: Pranayama, or breathing exercises, sometimes with the use of a mantra; pratyahara, or sense withdrawal, which usually consists of various visualization practices to withdraw the mind form the outside world, from the body, and then finally from thoughts; dharana, or concentration on a chakra, is a practice which consists of intense focus on a chakra in or above the heart, combined with pranayama, silent mantra recitation and often a visualization; dhyana, or flow meditation, consists of a visualization practice without mantra that results in a real or envisioned merger in higher consciousness, in the experience of samadhi, the goal of yoga.
Proficiency in all of these meditation practices are gained through systematic, daily practice over a long period of time, and during the individual sessions when a deep, synchronized and spontaneous flow arises, when breath, mantra, meaning of the mantra, and visualizations are united in an experience of inner yoga, of union with inner consciousness.
Many scholars point out that the Yoga Sutras cannot be a Tantric text because Patanjali does not mention kundalini, the “serpent power” said to reside at the bottom of the spine, and a central aspect of Tantra. But, as we have seen above, Patanjali does include many other Tantric aspects in his famous text. Kundalini is, however, mentioned in many of the Upanishads, as amply illustrated in the writings of Shyam Sundar Goswami, thus again illustrating how Tantric teachings are scattered all throughout the yogic and Vedic texts.
In addition to the practices briefly described above, there are in Tantric yoga various chakra meditations which aims at harmonizing and strengthening the body’s energy centers, and thereby also the glandular endocrine system, through the recitation of root sounds and various visualizations of geometric forms and colors.
What is the main difference between secular mindfulness meditation and yogic or Tantric meditation? The objective of mindfulness practices are to become more relaxed, peaceful, happy, and centererd. Spiritual meditation, especially yogic and Tantric meditation are often more complex to practice, and also add the infusion of spiritual vizualizations or ideations during practice, to enable an experience of oneness, of union with the goal, which, according to Patanjali and all the Tantric texts is to experience Samadhi, spiritual union with the Divine, with Ishvara. Thus Patanjali calls this Tantric practice «to have devotion for Ishvara.»
Spiritual meditation is about seeing and feeling the divine in everything, in our body, our breath, our mantra, our chakra. As poet/sage Kabir said, “The divine is the breath inside your breath.” Or, as Hafiz says in this poetic image: while meditating “become the hole in the flute that Christ’s breath flows through.” In this line, Hafiz exemplify the universality of all yogic, Tantric and spiritual practice—that meditation is the union between visualization, sound, concentration, and breath.
During the practice of pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana in Raja Yoga, Rajadhiraja Yoga, or Tantra Yoga, these spiritual metaphors inspire the yogi practitioner to go deeper in sadhana. Such lessons, however, are not an integral part of “secular” mindfulness practice.
Tantra and Yoga are One Path
There are obviously many paths of yoga. Contemporary Vinyasa is not exactly the same practice as the yoga outlined in the Hathapradipika of the Middle Ages. As thoroughly documented in the book Roots of Yoga by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, there have been many expressions of yoga throughout the ages, many paths, many teachers.
With that I agree, but I do not agree with the many eminent scholars who insist on separating Yoga and Tantra as if they are two distinctly different paths. Broadly speaking, Yoga and Tantra are, in their varied forms of practice and philosophy, expressions of a singular path for the cultivation and advancement of the body, mind, and spirit.
As I have shown above, academia, mainly due to lack of engagement as practitioners within the traditions they study, is often drawing an artificial boundary between yoga and Tantra. Yogic and Tantric culture has existed throughout the ages, and academic studies are often not reflecting the cultural and practical context in which these traditions flourished, a culture in which most teachings were oral and transmitted by teacher to student, most often without textual references at all.
To date everything in yogic and Tantric history according to texts is much like trying to date the origin of shamanism according to the time when the first Western book on the subject was written, or to date the Cherokee language according to the time when Sequoyah wrote the Cherokee alphabet in 1810. Obviously both shamanism and the Cherokee language are hundreds, if not thousands, of years older. Similarly, Yoga and Tantra existed in oral form, carefully preserved in the form of sutras, for thousands of years before they were written down as texts. Indeed, one of the main purposes of the sutra tradition was to create a system that was easy to submit to memory.
The teachings in the Yoga Sutras are thus much older than the text itself. Moreover, they represent the author’s own philosophical point of view, and often do not express or explain the yogic or Tantric practices underlying the ideas. Similarly, the various teachings in the Tantric texts from the Middle Ages are also much older and represent individual paths or gurus’ idiosyncratic values and specific points of view. More importantly, since the yogic or Tantric techniques were held in secret and often not taught directly in the texts, it is best, if possible, to obtain knowledge from within the oral tradition itself, from a guru, or a teacher to learn how to practice the teachings the texts refer to.
Yoga and Tantra are like the two wings of the same bird. Broadly speaking, they have the same function and the same goal—to harmonize body, mind and spirit and through meditation to transcend the body and mind and enjoy union with the Divine within. I would not be surprised if tomorrow, as part of the evolution of everything yoga, that what we now practice as yogis and yoginis, will also be referred to as Tantra.
Abhayananda, S., The History of Mysticism, ATMA Books, Olympia, Washington, 1998
Anandamitra, Acarya, The Spiritual Philosophy of Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, A Commentary on Ananda Sutram, Ananda Marga Publications, Kolkata, 1998
Anandamurtii, Shrii Shrii, Discourses on Tantra, Volume 2, Ananda Marga Publications, Kolkata, 1994
Ibid., Yoga Sadhana: The Spiritual Practice of Yoga, Ananda Marga Publications, Kolkata, 2010
Bhattacharyya, N. N., The History of the Tantric Religion, Manohar Publishing, New Delhi
Bjonnes, Ramesh, Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening, Hay House, New Delhi, India, 2014
Ibid., Tantra and Veda: The Untold Story, article published on www.integralworld.net
Danielou, Alain, While the Gods Play, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 1987
Ibid., A Brief History of India, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 1994
Ibid., Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, Inner Tradition, Rochester, Vermont, 2006
Feuerstein, Georg, The Yoga Tradition, Hohm Press, Chino Valley, 2001
Ibid., Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, Shambhala, Boston, 1998
Ibid., In Search of the Cradle of Human Civilization, Quest Books, Wheaton, IL, 1995
Hunter, Dennis, quote from his website www.dennishuntermeditation.com
Neale, Miles, Frozen Yoga and McMindfulness, and interview published in Lion’s Roar, December 15, 2010
Roche, Lorin, The Radiance Sutras, Sounds True, Boulder, CO, 2016
Goswami, Shyam Sundar, Layayoga: The Definitive Guide to the Chakras and Kundalini, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 1999
Singh, Lalan Prasad, Tantra: Its Mystic and Scientific Basis, Concept Publishing, New Delhi, 1976
Singleton, Mark, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Yoga, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2010
Mallinson, James and Singleton, Mark, The Roots of Yoga, Penguin Classics, UK, 2017
Wallis, Christopher, Tantra Illuminated, Mattamayura Press, Petaluma, 2012
Wells, Spencer, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, Princeton Science Library, Princeton, NJ, 2017