Tantric “Sluts” or Living Goddesses: Why it Matters

With recent media revelations about ritual sex, nude yoga and “yogasms” – sex has become a hot topic in the yoga world. Well, in honour of Women’s History Month, I’m joining the fray. Because let’s face it, nothing is more juicy or salacious than the forgotten high priestesses of sex, the “debauched” yoginis of Tantra.

While much conventional scholarship has designated these women as low-caste “sluts” exploited for ritual purposes, religious scholar Miranda Shaw has unearthed a very different history. Her book Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism claims these women were no mere ‘consorts’ but powerful gurus once held “in awe, reverence and obeisance”.

Her book is a biographic treasure trove of Tantric women teachers spanning the Pala Period of India (8th -13th centuries). According to Shaw, their writings and teachings were pivotal to the “central feature of one of most brilliant flowerings of Indian civilization”. So why are their contributions so often overlooked or devalued? Could it be, that despite today’s supposed sexually permissive standards, these yoginis still violate our most deeply held taboos regarding sex, spirituality and women?

Female Tantrics were called by many names, Dakinis (woman who flies) Vidyadharim (knowledge-holder) Vira (heroine) but the most common term was Yogini (keeper of the occult secrets). Their methods for heightening, channelling and offering bliss included meditation and visualization, esoteric dance and song, and a wide variety of yogic sex practices.

Defining the scope of Tantra is well beyond the purview of this post, but suffice to say the “left hand path” was no ascetic practise. Practiced across India, Tibet, China and Asia for hundreds of years, Tantriks saw the body not as bondage but as the gateway to power, freedom, ecstasy and bliss. They dove “deep into ocean of the passions in order to harvest the pearls of enlightenment.” And without going into prurient details, let’s just say their rhapsodies on the union of the ”scepter” and the “lotus” went far beyond metaphor.

Tantric women were seen as a source of spiritual power.  Because their kundalini was much easier to awaken they did not need male consorts to advance in Tantra. Male tantrics on the other hand were advised to seek yoginis out and court their erotic favours. By channeling divine energy to their consorts and devotees, these yoginis bestowed all “the spiritual attainments” through “gazing, kissing and touching”.

Shaw reminds us that these Tantrikas did not see themselves as helpful attendees in the male enlightenment process, but as religious aspirants in their own right. The presence of female Buddha’s like the “beautiful, passionate and untamed” Vajrayogini in Tantric iconography and literature demonstrated that women could attain Buddha-hood in her present lifetime, in her present female body. In the Yogini Tantras, Vajrayogini announces “Wherever in the world a female body is seen, That should be recognized as my holy body”.

Laksminkara, one of the founding mothers of Tantric Buddhism, taught that because yoginis are embodiments of female deity, no external constraints can bind her; she can eat and do whatever she likes, and go where ever she chooses.

Shaw’s book is chock full of these independent Tantric women who came from all walks of life. Some were queens and princesses, some were wine-sellers and coconut vendors, and others were prostitutes and dancers. Often they had hundreds, sometimes thousands of disciples, and in some lineages were regarded as preferable gurus to men.

Many were wandering teachers, others settled in a place where disciples could seek them out. But most often they assembled at a network of pilgrimage sites and Yogini Temples where they staged ecstatic religious rites and Tantric feasts.

Here they gathered to read their writing and dialogue with others, improvising songs and poems on their personal experiences and philosophies of enlightenment. And for the lucky male tantric considered deserving enough to join their circles, they shared their teachings on the use of mantras, meditation, esoteric dance, yoga and ritual sex.

Today we might view these ritual gatherings as a little orgiastic, but Shaw reminds us that in Tantra, sexual union was seen as a vehicle for spiritual transformation. The goal of ecstatic practices was not simple hedonism but to maintain a clear realization of emptiness (a term for the insubstantial and illusory nature of all phenomena) in the midst of passion.

Women’s role as dispenser of ‘spiritual attainments’ was undertaken not just for pleasure, but out of compassion for the world. One example of this is the story of  King Dombia and low-caste female tantric Dombiyogini, who transformed themselves into Buddha’s through their sacred union.  Dombiyogini composed many songs of realization (vajra-songs). In one song she celebrates how communion between female and male Buddha’s generated waves of harmony, nectar that satisfied “the spiritual hunger in the hearts of living beings everywhere.”

Quite the different view of sex than we have today.

That’s why my intention in honouring the memory of these ancient yoginis is not to titillate -but to remind us there was once a very different world, one in which sexuality was not seen as dangerous, or something to be controlled, but venerated as divine.  A world in which women were valued not just for their beauty but their spiritual power. (This is especially poignant when we consider that the Catholic Church is prepared to accept aliens as “space brothers” but claims women priests are an “abomination”.)

Now I don’t want anyone to get their knickers in a knot by suggesting that these yoginis serve as role models for young women. But let’s face it, they provide a stark contrast to a popular culture which as writer Caitlin Flanagan puts it, encourages them “to think of themselves as sexually disposable creatures.”

Shaw believes that female tantrics by acknowledging the divine power within themselves were free from the need to seek relationships with men in order to gain self- esteem or approval. And indeed, I have a hard time imagining these yoginis squeezed into push up bras or tottering in mile high heels -or posting near naked shots of themselves on Facebook.

In Tantra it was a women’s honoured choice – when and if – to confer her blessings, energy and power upon a man. I think this is an important point. Because fact is, despite all their pornographic bravado, so-called liberated young women are still under constant threat (by overstepping sexual boundaries) – of getting what they deserve.

Were these yoginis as much historical scholarship informs us, lewd, lascivious and depraved? Is this why the legacy of these yoginis continues to be largely ignored? Shaw states “Since the history of these yoginis is easily accessible in Tantric literature, scholarly inattention to them cannot be attributed to their obscurity.” She theorizes that the positive views of these women are not accepted by western scholars because they “defy our expectations of gender relations.”

Could it be that in our post feminist age what is most taboo about these cavorting yoginis, is the idea of women at the sexual helm? Whatever the answer, I think it can be safely said that these yoginis, free from the control of the male gaze – and the fear of retributive sexual violence – glorified in a joyful embodiment very foreign to modern women today.

For more information on the role of women in Tantric Buddhism check out http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/hughes20120307

Did Women Invent Yoga?

If you don’t think yoga is a feminist issue try suggesting as author and feminist historian Vicki Noble does, that women invented the ancient practice. Noble’s assertion brings to light something rarely acknowledged or addressed in the yoga world – that throughout it’s 5000 year history women have been completely excluded from the practice of yoga.

Today the majority of yoga practitioners are women. While fair access to downward dog might seem on the surface like a feminist victory, Noble and other feminist researchers tell a very different story. They ask – why are women still practicing a form of yoga developed by men – only for men? In fact, their research is uncovering evidence of an alternative, much more ancient female centered yoga practice that preceded the Hindi yogis by thousands of years.

Who knew?

Noble’s research into what she called the “female blood roots” of yoga suggests there was a widespread female-centered communal yoga practice dating from the upper Paleolithic and Neolithic. Celebrating the natural powers of “bleeding, birthing, healing and dying”, this early yoga was practiced in rituals of trance and dance.

In this way disease was believed to be purged from the community and fertility in women, animals, and food crops enhanced. Noble points to the images of female Buddha’s and high-ranking shaman priestesses which are so are pervasive in the artifacts and figurines of Old Europe (6000 BCE).

She proposes that the varied poses shown in these early sculptures, as well as frescoes, murals, and rock art through the ages, are expressions of an ancient shamanistic yoga eventually codified into the formal schools we know today.

Modern yoga is acknowledged to be largely derived from the Hatha tradition, but Hatha’s roots can be documented to reach further back to the female centered practices of Tantra Yoga.

Miranda Shaw is a historian on the female roots of Tantra Yoga. In her book Passionate Enlightenment she describes the remains of round, open-air stone temples still found in India where animal-headed statues of dancing women, stand as a reminder of these yogini’s ecstatic rites.

Shaw writes how yogini’s gathered at feasts to play “cymbals, bells, and tambourines and danced within a halo of light and a cloud of incense.” Within this nocturnal congregation, “a circle of yoginis feasted, performed rituals, taught, and inspired one another”. They sang “songs of realization” regaling one another “with spontaneous songs of deep spiritual insight.”

The magical potency of Tantra was transmitted by a female line “power-holders” – a mysterious sect of women called the Vratyas – and they were not an isolated case.  Taoist Yoginis from China and Dakinis from Tibet were also powerful spiritual teachers, giving empowerments and initiations.

Monica Sjoo is another feminist historian whose books explore the legends of priestesses found in art, myths, and historical records. Sjoo claims that from the Pre-Neolithic through to at least the Bronze Age, across India, across the Silk Road to China, that women were performing ecstatic healing rituals for the benefit of their communities.

Sjoo claims that the concept of raising Kundalini energy,  fundamental to yoga philosophy and practice, originated with these yogic priestesses. They were the first to pull “the serpentine bio-mystical energies up the spine to achieve “wings” of illuminated consciousness”.

Both Sjoo and Noble argue that the concept of Kundalini originated in the female “Siddhis” (yogic powers) of menstruation, female sexuality, natural birth, and menopause. Noble believes these ancient yogic rites encouraged the free, spontaneous flow of kundalini energy through the female group, and by extension, throughout the entire community.

Did the idea of kundalini, recognized as central to yogic philosophy and development, originate with ancient yoginis? And if so, why do we know so little of their history today?

Noble, Shaw and Sjoo agree that with the advance of patriarchy, the ecstatic techniques of women were gradually swallowed up by the more ascetic practices of men. In seated meditation, the transcendent was sought not through the body, but through the practices of mind.

Women and their biological functions came to be negatively equated with the life of the body and soon female rites were outlawed altogether. Yogini’s, dakini’s and shaman priestesses became “witches,” “ogresses,” “demonesses,” or “temple harlots”.

Over time we forgot there was once a different kind of yoga. One in which the inherent powers of the female body were celebrated and harnessed for illumination, freedom and compassion.

Noble believes yoga is a feminist issue because until we understand women’s central role in the development of yoga, it cannot be a truly effective female practice. Noble teaches what she calls Lunar Yoga, a yoga tuned to the ancient lunar calendar and the natural cycles of women. Here the focus is not on perfecting yogic postures but on experiencing energy “flow”. She urges women to reclaim the “natural, biological ways of accessing and experiencing the yogic power of our ancient fore-sisters”.

Noble writes although the idea of woman’s yoga ” might appear to glorify the female at the expense of the male, or capitulate to a worn-out 1950’s idea that “biology is destiny,” it actually does neither.” Instead it seeks to acknowledge the “dynamic quality of ecstasy that especially seems to mark the female-centered yoga experience.” It seems Noble’s call is being heard.

Today some schools of yoga are evolving into a more fluid, even ecstatic practice. Priestesses like Shiva Rea are all about energy flow, as opposed to the static practice of traditional Hatha.

Shiva has sold millions of yoga DVD’s and is the creator of what she calls “Trance Dance Yoga” a free-form trance dance that invites us to experience the free flow of Shakti, (the divine feminine energy) to lead us back into our bodies and rejuvenate us with Prana, the vital energy of life.

Today the influence of Shiva’s Trance Dance Yoga is felt in nearly every yoga community. Classes in Goddess Yoga, Prana Flow and Sacred Dance abound. Some of the trendiest studios even feature Yoga Dance Raves by candlelight.

Does this herald a return to a yoga once practiced by our fore-mothers, a yoga of ecstatic embodiment? As we gather in communal classes, I wonder if our practise of yoga can become, like the practices of our ancient ancestors, a ritual of blessing and healing within the community.

According to Noble, the legacy of the ancient yoginis can be “activated in the here-and-now to bring balance and renewal to our community through our delight in the powers of the physical body.”

To me this seems like a yogic heritage well worth keeping. So I just don’t get why, despite the recent spate of articles and books exploring the historical roots of yoga, so few mention women’s contributions.

Why is it that the current debate amongst yoga scholars regarding the true historicity of yoga (is it 5000 years old or just 500) barely takes into account the legacy of ancient yoginis? I find this blind spot puzzling. I can’t help but wonder, in this so-called post feminist era, if yoga really has “come a long way baby”?