Most people in the West misinterpret what the Tantra yoga is about. Here are 5 ways Westernization has affected this yoga style.
During the year I spent working on my yoga practice in Thailand I came into contact with some amazing teachers.
Many of them were eager to engage in lengthy conversations about yoga practice, the current state of the “yoga industry” and how that industry has, in their view, changed yoga in general and Tantra yoga in particular.
Being 26 and a relative newcomer to yoga, I found myself surprised at some of the things I heard (particularly from the few Indian yogis I met).
After a few such conversations, I began to take notes and in this post, I’m going to relate 5 things I learned about how Westernization has affected tantra yoga.
Popular Perception vs Reality
I had always viewed the spread of yoga practice in the West as a good thing, something that might help realign the Western, material mindset. However, it seems that as yoga has spread throughout Europe and the Americas, rather than altering the consumer mindset, the consumer mindset has actually altered yoga. Yoga is now “exotic”, “cool”, “trippy” and, maybe most offensive to many Hindus, “sexy.” I have to agree with my teachers because while I occasionally hear the word “spiritual” bandied about a yoga class, it’s often in the context of a consumer buzzword rather than a way of life. That said here are my 5 ways Westernization has changed tantra yoga.
1. Where’s the Tantra?
Unfortunately, many tantra classes today – particularly those slapped together in a hurry to cash in Eat Pray Love – don’t get much right about “Tantra” except the spelling. Tantra practice is a multidimensional system of spiritual beliefs of which yoga is a part; not an end unto itself. Tantra encompasses Shamanic beliefs, Sakta worship, and the Tantric texts as well as yogic practices. As such any Tantra yoga class that focuses solely on Tantra asanas is inauthentic in the view of many of my teachers.
2. The Sexualization of Tantra
In the contemporary Western culture when you say the term “tantric yoga,” those who recognize the term are likely to say it’s a way to have sex for hours. A movement called “Neotantra” that focuses almost exclusively on sexual techniques has found many adherents in the West. In reality, however, overt sexuality has always been a minor component of authentic tantra yoga, practiced by a small minority of Hindu tantra sects. And even for many of these the sexual component is more symbolic than literal.
3. The Loss of Philosophical Foundations
Many Hindus are concerned about the appropriation of yogic elements in the service of secular society. To these concerned individuals, the traditional emphasis on tantra yoga as a spiritual tool has been subsumed by the drive to profit from a hot trend. One teacher in particular summed up the problem by pointing out that in the contemporary Western view tantra yoga is a physical system that includes an optional spiritual component. While in truth Tantra Yoga is a spiritual system that utilizes a physical component.
4. The Misuse of “Asana”
One thing that I heard repeatedly from various teachers is how the word “asana” has been misinterpreted through Westernization. “Asana” itself means “posture”, (“pose” to the modern mind) yet many Westerners now use the words “asana” and “yoga” interchangeably. As one told me “You wouldn’t call a ‘steering wheel’ a ‘car’. The steering wheel, while important, is just one component of the car. It’s the same with yoga. Asana is not yoga. Only a small part of yoga.”
5. The Commercialization of Sacred Objects
Many traditional yoga teachers find this to be one of the most disturbing aspects of the Westernization of tantra yoga. They see Buddha statues, reproduction of sacred scriptures, crystals and other sacred objects being used for purely decorative purposes and/or used to convince potential students that the studio is legit. However, sacred objects are neither decoration nor toys. They are to be properly respected and displayed. Something like a Buddha statue sitting on a toilet tank is deeply offensive to any true yogi.
There is no doubt that Western appropriation has had a negative effect on the dissemination of the true message of tantra yoga. As such, if you have an abiding interest in tantric practice you’ll want to attend an established tantra school that emphasizes the holistic nature of the practice, rather than one that says it can teach you how to have great sex or develop a 6-pack to die for.