An Introduction to Tantra
Written by: the Editors of goop
Updated: November 17, 2022
Reviewed by: Michaela Boehm
Mention tantra, and you’ll probably get the response that having sex for seven hours sounds really unappealing—as mythologized by an off-hand Sting quote from 1990 that still dominates the entire conversation about this ancient practice. So, what exactly is tantra? We were surprised to find that it’s not actually about sex at all—or specifically, not at all about sexual technique. It’s really about the bedrock of intimacy—and re-establishing sexual polarity, or in laymen terms, sexual tension. As Michaela Boehm, who lectures and teaches seminars about the subject, explains, “Many of the couples who come to me have stopped having sex altogether—it’s really about the building the basics of intimacy, of opening our eyes.”
(For more conversations like this one, follow us @goopsex on Instagram—our new space dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure.)
So what exactly is tantric sex? What is tantra?
Tantra as it is seen in the West is very different from the original ways it was practiced. It is essentially a tradition in which awakening is pursued through embodiment (vs. disembodiment in meditation, etc.) and union is sought through relationship and intimacy. In the West it has been mostly pursued for its emphasis on using sexual union as one of the vehicles to awakening (enlightenment). In reality, only a small portion of tantra has anything to do with sex, and only as a way to merge with the divine. There is a much larger tantric discipline that deals with allowing all feelings to be met with equal acceptance, and for each person to become deeply sensitive to what they are feeling. Subsequently, they are then able to feel others and their needs.
“In reality only a small portion of tantra has anything to do with sex, and only as a way to merge with the divine.”
How do you work with clients? Is there touching?
Sessions are individualized depending on what the person or couple needs. These days I mostly teach groups. Both in sessions and workshops there is no sexually explicit touching, no nudity and strict rules to ensure safety and maximum freedom in applying the techniques used. All the practices I teach are energetic in nature and can be done fully clothed. In personal sessions I might give the couple homework and assignments. In workshops I teach how to create intimacy and how to revive or increase a couple’s sexual chemistry.
Do people come to you to experience more pleasure? Or do they come to you because they’re not experiencing any pleasure at all?
Both. Some people have traumatic, habitual, societal or other closures in their body that prevent them from experiencing pleasure. Some people just have not experienced pleasure yet. Some people want to enhance the intimacy, connection, and pleasure they have.
What’s the disconnect? Why the lack of intimacy?
We are educated in most areas of our life, but there is no real sexual/relational/intimate education. We mostly see what our parents do and then fumble through our first few relationships. Many people have had a lack of intimacy in their upbringing and no sexual/sensual education as they started relationships. Life these days is increasingly disconnected and often the emphasis in relationships is on making money or raising kids—intimacy only becomes a goal when the relationship already suffers.
“Life these days is increasingly disconnected and often the emphasis in relationships is on making money or raising kids—intimacy only becomes a goal when the relationship already suffers.”
Can you explain the masculine and feminine aspects, and how this becomes distorted as we age as a couple?
Each human has both masculine and feminine in them. We usually tend to enjoy one aspect more than the other—that’s what is called the essence.
The feminine in men and women alike enjoys the flow of life and love, revels in the ability to enjoy beauty, nature, textures, colors, and experiences. Fullness is the feminine principle. Sexually speaking, the partner with a feminine essence enjoys the aspects of surrender, dissolution, and being ravished.
The masculine in men and women alike enjoys the forward motion of directed action and purpose. A time/space grid of linear planning and thinking feels enjoyable to the masculine. The masculine principle is emptiness. Through meditation, watching sports, competition, having a drink, “zoning out” in front of a TV, and relaxation through sex are activities the masculine in a person enjoys.
“In long term relationships partners often become very much the same—we start to like the same things, do the same things—over time, the couple resonates rather than polarizes and hence has less sexual chemistry.”
Men and women have both traits, but in a polarized (meaning sexually oriented) relationship one partner takes on the feminine expression and one takes on the more masculine expression and the radical differences in orientation create a strong arc of sexual polarity. The further the “poles” are apart, the stronger the sexual attraction.
In long term relationships, partners often become very much the same—we start to like the same things, do the same things—over time, the couple resonates rather than polarizes and hence has less sexual chemistry.
How do you re-establish the polarity when it’s gone? How do you create sexual chemistry?
Gender has very little to do with polarity practices. The only important thing is that one partner animates one end of the spectrum, while the other partner goes as far to the other end as possible for the sake of the strong arc of polarity. Polarity works like physics, with easily applicable rules that can produce polarity almost instantly. (In workshops I can teach these techniques and even strangers can effortlessly produce polarity). It’s much easier producing polarity than it is to find a compatible loving relationship.
Here are a couple of examples that I encounter frequently—keep in mind that there is no issue if you and your partner want to be friends. But if you’d like to have sex, then it’s important to be conscious of creating sexual tension when you are planning on a romantic evening. While for simplicity, I’m describing a hetero couple, these same principles apply to any gender combination.
SETTING THE SCENE
More and more women these days work out of the home—and as a matter of course, they spend their days in the masculine aspect, making decisions and directing others. In fact, the first thing many women may want to do after work is to get “full” again, to get back into their feminine aspect. They might want to do this by having a glass of wine, taking a bath, chatting with a friend, their mother, or their children, or downloading their husband on their day. Meanwhile, their husband might want to either get into, or stay in, his masculine aspect—this means that he wants to get “empty” or be quiet. And this becomes a source of disconnect and dissonance: As she “downloads” him on her day, he is craving silence—neither one of them is getting what they want or need.
“This becomes a source of disconnect and dissonance: As she ‘downloads’ him on her day, he is craving silence—neither one of them is getting what they want or need.”
This is not to say that this can’t happen—the intimacy, the conversation. A few things need to happen first, though, in order to create the ideal tension rather than dislocation. First, understanding that this polarity needs some time to happen is essential, as it adds a filter of acceptance. Second, both parties need to own their individual aspects. What needs to happen to create ideal sexual tension (again, a non-issue if you just want to be buddies for the evening), is for the husband to direct the wife when she steps through the door to have a glass of wine, or a bath, or to go relax and change. He is directing her to get full. Women balk at this, but for sexual tension, it’s essential. There needs to be that separation—getting full and getting empty—before they can come together again fully charged.
WHAT’S FOR DINNER
For many reasons, the onus of making dinner is often on women, which feels unfair, particularly for women who work outside the home—after making decisions all day, I often hear that the last thing they want to do when they leave work is to figure out what to make, order, or book.
Think about the rules of dating, though, and it’s interesting that the onus of “taking charge” is on men. Women like it when a man plans a date, and directs the activities of the evening. It’s sexy. But as relationships carry on, more and more of this falls on women.
“For many women, the idea of coming home from work and being greeted at the door by a smiling, apron-clad husband actually feels disconcerting—even though the idea of a husband who makes dinner is very appealing.”
There was a fascinating study a few years ago that found that in marriages where men do more, or an equal amount of housework, the couple have less sex. Understandably, this study got a tremendous amount of pick-up, and many women felt like it undermined an equality that had been decades in the making. (My guess is that in marriages where there is a more equal split, there is greater friendship.) So here is the thing: This equality is a great thing, it’s just all in the framing. For many women, the idea of coming home from work and being greeted at the door by a smiling, apron-clad husband actually feels disconcerting—even though the idea of a husband who makes dinner is very appealing. However, with a subtle shift—coming home to a husband who directs you to have a glass of wine while he finishes up dinner prep suddenly sounds quite sexy. (Substitute in calling in an order, making a reservation, picking up take-out.) The direction—the assumption of the masculine aspect—is a subtle but essential necessity.
Biologically, women are not inclined to have sex with a man they do not trust—and trust can mean many things. It can mean dishonesty, but it can also revolve around competency. I.e., a forgetful, unreliable man is not attractive. Interestingly, in my marriage, and in the marriages of many of my clients, guys are not as good at directions and navigating. This is a situation my husband and I would have all the time. I would know he was going the wrong way, would suggest he change course, and then be annoyed and turn away from him or I’d pick a fight. It was unattractive all around. Now we have a system in place that is empowering: It empowers me to ensure that we get to where we’re supposed to go, and it makes him not look or feel incompetent as a driver. It’s very simple: We get in the car, he turns to me, and he tells me to tell him where to go. He is directing me to direct him.
10 Tips For Creating Wild Passion & Deep Intimacy
Define the Purpose of Your Relationship.
Each relationship has a purpose, spoken or unspoken. For instance, you might get together to have children, build a community, create a partnership in which you also pursue business together, come together to experience sexual expansion, personal growth, or just plain fun. The more we can define the relational purpose, the more clarity and definition we can apply to the way we love, have sex, and create. Often relationships get stale when the purpose is not defined or has changed in one partner. Once you are aligned in your relational purpose you can create the practices and actions that support the deepening and growth you desire.
Discover Your Natural Sexual Essence.
Each human has masculine and feminine aspects with them. To be a full and deep human being it is important to express both. But we all have a place we call “home,” where we rest happily and feel the fullest expression. That does not mean we need to live there all the time, but it is the place we return to when we want to recharge and it is the disposition we offer our lover as a gift to create passion.
If you have a masculine essence, you prefer the structure of time and space over the wild chaos of existence. You enjoy spiritual pursuits that bring you towards emptiness, and activities that result in a blissful moment of nothingness. You enjoy creating schedules, objectives, and accomplishing goals. Your whole life is aligned with your purpose.
“Often relationships get stale when the purpose is not defined or has changed in one partner.”
If you have a feminine essence, you love the chaotic swirl of life, nature, bliss, color, texture, flavor, and communion. You love to relate, exchange, dance, celebrate, adorn and deepen into the fullness of existence.
Practice Offering Your Essence as a Gift.
Once you have defined your “home base,” your sexual essence, you can begin to practice the bodily expression of that essence as a gift to your partner. Like an artist or a musician you practice the offering of your gift. As a masculine essence, you deepen into meditation to still your mind, exercise to strengthen your body, breath, and stamina. You relax into being unwavering in the face of chaos and learn how to take charge, guide well, and pursue your purpose with integrity.
As a feminine essence you relax into the ever changing swirls of emotion and texture, movement, and sound. You practice experiencing pleasure in your body and showing that pleasure to your chosen partner. You cultivate ways to move energy through your body and learn how to become responsive and give instant feedback.
The number one “passion killer” is tightness and strain. Open and relax your body, then have some humor. Most of what we hold in our minds as a “problem” is really more an artifact of our past. Relationships and sex are not perfect and the need to “get it right” and “perform well” keeps us from being creative and uninhibited.
Breath is life force. Breath is also the vehicle of connection and bodily communication. Learn how to breathe into your belly, not just into your chest. Let your belly expand, which brings energy into your lower body where sex actually happens…Once you know how to breathe without constriction you can breathe together and create depth and incredible connection.
“Practice looking at each other, while staying relaxed, breathing and simply noticing when you have reached a threshold where it’s just a bit too intimate.”
Use Eye Contact to Open.
Our eyes are really the windows to our souls. Falling into each other through eye contact, while our bodies are open and unguarded is delicious (and yes, a bit scary). Practice looking at each other, while staying relaxed, breathing and simply noticing when you have reached a threshold where it’s just a bit too intimate. Hang out there for a bit and you will find that this can be as good as sex!
Connect Heart to Heart.
Locate the tension in your chest and soften the actual muscles around your heart. Put your hands over your heart and imagine that the whole area relaxes and opens. Imagine your heart radiating outwards to your partner. Feel your own heart and it’s joys and sufferings, then feel your partner’s heart. Connect with utmost care and compassion.
Expand Your Repertoire.
Most of us have strong habits as to how we connect and how we have sex. We offer a similar invitation and “flavor” each time. Make the effort to learn different ways to entice your partner. You can get a good idea of what your partner is craving by watching what they like in movies, actors, and other public figures. You don’t have to live up to those types per se, a little bit goes a long way. The same goes for actual sexual offerings. Mix it up, risk something new or unpack an old and almost forgotten favorite. Learn some new techniques and have fun and humor experimenting again. And finally, make friends with your “dark side.” Nothing enlivens intimacy more. Go beyond the “love and light” flavors and live out some of what has always been there but has not seen the light of day in a while, if ever. Talk dirty, go dark, risk something. Just don’t forget to keep the heart in it…
When we first meet, every date is an adventure, carefully planned for maximum effect. Remember that when you want to have wild passion the most important element is new-ness and surprise. Create a complete scenario, that includes something new, something out of your habitual ways, something that stimulates both conversation and opens your bodies and hearts.
Create a Sacred Space.
Set the scene. Put some creation into the space you are going to be intimate in. Just setting the space gets you out of the old habits. You can induce a state by creating a sacred space. This does not have to mean special linens, candles and music, even though that never hurts. It could be just turning various electronic devices off, making sure you are uninterrupted and having a shower or bath to end the workday. If you are playing with new flavors or experimenting you might go all out and decorate. Or go away to a different location… or nature… the options are unlimited.