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Tantric Teachings Help Couples Take Sexuality to a Higher Plane

June 05, 2000|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The way the 46-year-old wife tells it, her husband wasn't exactly solicitous in bed.

"He comes from the generation where women are 'broads,' " said Margo, who lives with her husband, Dennis, in Hollywood, Fla. "Our physical relationship was horrible. I totally shut down with him."

After several months of no intimacy, the couple, who asked that their last name not be used, decided to do something about it.

Last week, they traveled to Middletown, Calif., a bucolic place 90 minutes north of San Francisco, where about 40 other couples had gathered for a weeklong "Soul of Sex" workshop focusing on Tantra, a branch of Hinduism and Buddhism in which ritual, meditative sex is used to achieve enlightenment.

The "promised land" is reachable, ostensibly, through certain Tantric exercises adapted for Westernized sensibilities ("Tantra light," as some call it).

In Tantra, men and women are to honor each other and treat their genitals as sacred. (The penis is a lingam, Sanskrit for "sacred wand." The vulva is yoni, or "sacred place.") The sexual energy generated between man and woman is to be harnessed, not expelled in the form of ejaculation, taking both toward cosmic bliss.

The rock star Sting has tried Tantric sex, and once proclaimed he could make love for seven hours. Actor Woody Harrelson is a devotee. Dozens of books, videotapes and Web sites are dedicated to the subject, and a cottage industry of pricey workshops and seminars, many held in exotic places like Hawaii and Bali, has sprung up.

Tantra wended its way into the millennium, say sex therapists, precisely because there is so much missing from the narrow sex lives of Americans.

"Tantra gets away from that phallocentric performance model of sex that we have all been socially trained to accept," said psychologist Gina Ogden, a visiting scholar at the Radcliffe Institute, who is studying women's ecstatic sexual experiences. "It gives men permission to be tender without feeling like half a man. It is heart-centered sex as opposed to a genital-centered sex. This is what women in general have been trying to tell men for years."

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For many, Tantra broadens the definition of sex, getting rid of the foreplay-orgasm-roll-over-to-sleep script. Women are taught to take control of their sexuality and not to blame their partner if they don't achieve orgasm, said New York City psychologist Judy Kuriansky, who helped give the "Soul of Sex," workshop.

Intimacy exercises include "soul gazing" (rhythmic breathing while looking into each other's eyes), the "melting hug" or full body hug, "heart salutation," and massaging parts of the body that may be "blocked" by emotional pain.

A Santa Monica writer in her 50s had been married for more than 20 years when she and her lawyer husband faced the "is that all there is" question about their sex life. They tried Tantra.

"You learn new ways to be with each other," she said, adding that she and her husband offered to pay for each of their five adult children to take a workshop because their experience was so profound. "You can hold each other and kiss, and it is not necessarily a prelude to sex. Making love is treated like a sacrament. It is like a new dance. It has a different pace and you are more interested in the process than the outcome. We have a great sex life now."

Transcendence is what Margo and Dennis say they have found at the Middletown workshop, co-facilitated by acclaimed Tantra teacher Margo Anand, author of "The Art of Sexual Ecstasy" (Putnam, 1989).

"We created a safe place where Margo can come and tell me what her needs are," said Dennis in a phone interview. "It wasn't fun being a partner with someone who was physically shut down. . . . She needs a gentle touch. My willingness to hear her was just not there before."

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