Tantra's Place In History...
Updated: Jan 19
Nau mai and welcome to the first in a series of mini-essays.
Over the next few months, I'll be sharing history, philosophy, methodology, wisdom and knowledge on these pages for the 'readers' amongst us.
If you are a Yoga geek, bookmark this page, there are lots of golden nuggets to come.
If you are considering the 150 Hour Tantrik Hatha training in June/July 2021, these essays will provide an insight into the Tantrik Worldview (Santati) and a taster of the course content.
Read on, Yoga lovers for a stripped back timeline of Yoga history and some context on where Tantra fits in.....
Thousands of years ago, a group of seekers left the first cities and retreated to the forests and jungles to set up ashrams.
Dissatisfied with the way humanity was heading, these seekers wanted quiet places where they could sit, meditate and contemplate the great metaphysical questions that humankind were just beginning to consider.
These seekers were called the Śramana - the "strivers for truth".
They disagreed with the new development of 'city life' and they disliked the rise of economy and classism. City life was shortening the typical life-span, introducing new illnesses and steering humans away from a life in alignment with nature.
The Śramana were also (and especially) concerned with death because they observed corpses, disease and the end-of-life on an everyday basis.
In today's modern world, we are typically sheltered from the whole process of death whereas in ancient times, corpses, the dead and pyre cremation were a very visible part of everyday life. The Śramana struggled with the true meaning of life when the end seemed so inevitable.
So, they left the cities for the jungle, became social outcasts, formed their quiet ashrams and sat in meditation pondering the question:
“Is there a meaning to human life sufficiently profound to make living seem worthwhile, even in the face of death?”
They discovered that the unfocussed mind behaves erratically bringing about an experience called 'stress'. In this state of stress, connection to The Great Mystery - which was still a new frontier of exploration - was beyond reach.
Another discovery: the Śramana worked out that the body and mind were connected, or more precisely, one and the same. They called this 'the bodymind' and began to experiment with it.
Remember that these Yogis were the pioneers of the spiritual path, total innovators in human experience. Everything that we know about spiritual journeying and take for granted now, the Śramana were discovering through experimentation and sometimes one experiment would be a whole lifetime of work.
In their search for answers, they took up severe practices of restraint, also called tapas.
They experimented with celibacy; fasting; cold water exposure (yes! long before Wim Hof); hanging upside-down from trees or holding the arms up overhead for years at a time.
By practicing tapas, the Śramana worked to weaken the body in order to weaken the turnings of the mind.
The idea was that if the mind was silent, they could reach and maintain a deeper connection with Source energy.
All of their methods were motionless and psycho-spiritual. There were no āsana, no prānāyama except Nadi Shodhana. This is what the system Yoga consisted of for hundreds of years.
In the meantime, the families of these outcasts begged their sons and daughters (yes, there were women practicing) to return to the cities and families to carry out their familial duties.
But the seekers knew that being 'on-the-path' required prāna and that this energy is more abundant in youth. So they remained renunciates - forgoing their worldly life to walk the spiritual path.
Around 450CE, Tantra, the practice of spirituality for the householder emerged and infused itself into all sects, delineations and groups throughout India.
(Of course, Tantra had been developing for a long time prior to this but it is around this time that we see evidence of Tantra in the texts).
Humanity was crying out for some balance between progression and spiritual authenticity. Tantra struck that balance by bringing spiritual practice back from the ashrams and into the home.
The true beauty of Tantra was how it allowed each person to stay with their family and their specific set of beliefs... and be spiritual.
So Tantra developed as a bridge between the renunciates - who had done all of the hard work to explore spiritual practice - and the householder, who had to stay in the village for whatever reason.
Due to how widespread Tantra became, we sometimes hear it described as the 'Pan-Indian Religion'.
Meaning: no matter which belief system or faith you adhered to, Tantrik practices could be taken.
And still, at this point, there is no āsana, no vinyasa, no flow, no Yoga sequences.
Finally, the evolution of practice asked the Yogis to change tact and work on strengthening the body, rather than wasting it away.
500 years after Tantra, came Hatha Yoga.
(This is another story!)
James Mallinson, foremost scholar and expert defines Hatha Yoga as...
"a system pre-dominated by physical practices".
So thousands of years after the Śramana started seeking, we finally see evidence of the fully formed system of Hatha Yoga emerge in the textbooks.
In the last 150 years or so, the mother system of Hatha has exploded into Vinyasa (the first Yoga sequences), Iyengar, Ashtanga, Viniyoga and every other innovation out there in the modern world of Yoga.
When we hear teachers and lineage holders say that Yoga is thousands of years old... it is because it has been through this wild and colorful process of development!
None of the original parts look like the Yoga we see mostly today - but all of them were an essential step in it's formation.
As part of the June/July training, we delve deep into the historical timeline of Yoga and Tantra to get a clear understanding of the migration of Tantra from it's inception to modern day.