The Colors of Tantra
by Amy Marsh,
July 21st, 2010
Master Sunyata Saraswati has said that Tantra is "not for wimps" and I can certainly agree. My own path has been anything but wimpy. It was precipitated by a spontaneous ten-month long kundalini eruption, which eventually resulted in a profound spiritual crisis. Fortunately, I met with guidance precisely when I needed it the most.
I was slogging through the worst of this crisis the day I agreed to take my oldest child to a Renaissance Faire. If you've never attended a Renaissance Faire while feeling suicidal, I highly recommend it. You'll be diverted, at least, by displays of shiny swords and people who may or may not know how to belly dance. Ribald Elizabethan songs will remind you that life is worth living (at least in other epochs), and the Danse Macabre, which wends it way through the faire with rattling bones and piping flutes, provides fashion tips for funerals. Even in my worst moments, surreal juxtapositions are a comfort.
I grabbed my kid and made a beeline for the fortune tellers in the Caravansary area. I've never had one before, but I knew I needed a reading. And I saw immediately who should give it: a beautiful, elegant black woman who was seated like a jewel in the middle of her cushioned enclosure. This woman provided a simple key to my horrid state of soul, and within twenty-four hours all my agony resolved beautifully, coherently. Cristhal Bennett also became my friend, and later, for a time, my teacher of Kriya Yoga.
Cristhal Bennett is an accomplished teacher and spiritual guide. The Renaissance Faire was just a gig - not an indication of her true work and sphere of activity. Even so, I am glad I was able to find her in just such an unlikely place. I have relied on her insight and her friendship for several years now, and wonder that she is not more widely known. She is a superstar of wisdom, particularly the wisdom of working with kundalini energy.
As I learned that I could seek training to understand and manage the potent force which had caused me such excitement and grief, I began cruising the Internet for a Tantra teacher. I was attracted by the warmth and poetic quality of Jia Khechari 's website. He was in Napa at the time, and I studied with him before he relocated to Chicago. Our sessions were ritualistic and had a timeless quality. I began to feel myself flowering in appreciation of my own Shakti power. He is grounded in his devotion to the great goddess and awareness of his own Shiva energy.
During this time I also made my first forays into Ipsalu Tantra , a well-known school of Tantra. Bodhi Avinasha is the founder of Ipsalu Tantra. She taught the first "Ipsalu Level One" weekend I attended, and I basked in her presence. Bodhi has the most beautiful voice. She and Sunyata Saraswati co-wrote The Jewel in the Lotus, so I owe a great deal to his influence as well as hers.
Cristhal, Jia, and Sunyata Saraswati are three spiritual teachers who are children of the African disapora. I have been profoundly influenced by their work as I've wended my way along the tantric path, periodically bumping up against my own limitations. When I step back from my own story, I observe something about the larger American Tantra community.
I notice there is room for more conscious work - and proactive intervention - regarding certain influences of culture, particularly in the realm of race and racism. I notice that residual attitudes or gestures still linger, though in a diluted and subtle form - not intentional, but unconscious. As I view the phenomenon of the Western Tantra explosion in this country, black Tantra and yoga teachers are not visible in the best known Tantra networks and circles. My point is not that people of color are intentionally excluded, but that they are not intentionally and explicitly welcomed.
Love Journey Tantra , which has pioneered Tantra programs for bi-sexual and lesbian women, shows greater inclusiveness than others. Evelena Rose, founder of Love Journey, says that even with conscious efforts to promote diversity, it can be unexpectedly difficult to establish. She says, "I've found it challenging to reach true diversity as many people of color don't want to come unless they will find the circle already diverse, so it takes thought to create that critical number. I consciously recruit in areas with more people of color because that allows our circles to feel representative of what's really true on this earth, that we are a rainbow of people. The contributions from the African Americans who lead pieces of my workshops add richness to the teachings and expand what is already present."
There are cultural and historical ironies here. Tantra did not start as a European tradition. Tantra originated in India and spread to Tibet and other places, meeting and meshing with both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Taoism, another spiritual tradition containing energetic sexual practices, originated in China. And of course there are many other sacred sexuality traditions in other parts of the world. Through the mechanisms of colonization, many of these traditions came to the attention of Westerners.
Western devotees have adapted what they've learned - shifting, changing, re-emphasizing, and re-packaging the basics to allow for greater dissemination in a modern, consumption-driven society controlled by people who are white and middle to upper class. Western Tantra presents a comfortable assortment of modified practices designed to attract people who want to enhance their lovemaking. Spiritual zingers are an intrinsic part of the package, but they're not always the first things out of the box. I want to emphasize that I am not arguing with the value of this, not at all. I promote this path myself. And I notice things that happen with and to and for people who happen to be people of color, including Tantra teachers, who embody and convey a modality of great healing promise for all of us.
Cristhal has practiced yoga since 1978. In her life, she acknowledges occasional difficulties due to cultural influences and the ways in which her spiritual practices support her, "Ignorance and not knowing are why I am practicing yoga. It is so I can overcome my own limitations and ignorance, including the effects of internalized racism. This is how I look at my experiences of the conflicts I've encountered."
Freddy Zental Weaver and Dr. Elsbeth Meuth, co-founders of TantraNova Institute in Chicago, are an inter-racial couple who are well known in American Tantra.
Freddy says that "a very relevant application of Tantra as it relates to the African-American experience is the practice of integrating meditation and sexual energy. Meditation practice develops our observer skills which gives us a little space from the emotional, chemical, and physical effects of our story, which then allows us the opportunity to create with consciousness our intention - whatever that might be."
I notice a similar view conveyed by the website of The International Association of Black Yoga Teachers . IABYT says they're "dedicated to increasing the presence of yoga in the inner city. Our mandate is to utilize the art and science of yoga to better serve the African Diaspora and other communities around the world. The association provides an opportunity for Black Yoga Teachers to come together in support of each other's ability to nurture, uplift and spread meaningful teaching throughout our communities."
This work seems somewhat one-sided, however. The black community should not be left to itself to heal and clean up the debris of racism, and yet that is exactly what seems to be happening in the churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and yoga studios which are all part of dynamic African American spirituality.
I wonder what would happen if those who share the genealogical and historical story of inflicting racial discrimination committed to the conscious use of tantric practices to create healing and conscious intention around manifestations of racism, including those manifestations that remain deeply embedded in our shadow selves? What would happen if we had open, honest discourse as we explore the shadows? What gestures of grace and healing could be made? What would happen if the leading American Tantra teachers began sincere outreach and scholarship programs for people of color (particularly youth)? What would happen if more African American Tantra teachers were included as conference speakers? What if most Tantra sites included statements of non-discrimination in their web pages and materials?
This could be immensely fruitful. Yet I haven't come across a similar intention explicitly voiced (at least not out loud) among white tantrikas, though I am sure an inclusive intention mostly exists. What I'd love to see is proactive commitment to healing and inclusion that is still deeply grounded in "the heart of yoga" and Tantra.
Jia Khechari offered a gracious perspective when asked if he had ever encountered subtle or obvious racism in Tantra circles. "Honestly, I am not sure. Sometimes people do not warm to me but I seldom know the reasons. However I do believe that if I were of a different racial stock that more doors might open to me.
"I know that racism is here to stay even though it exists in smaller and smaller circles. I generally ignore it when I can or I will philosophically treat it as a sparring partner not to be taken too seriously. When you know that you have the divine behind you and supporting you, a few non-supporters become insignificant."
To people who are racist (either subtly or obviously), he suggests that "All they have to look at is the fact that all of the world's major religions and spiritual systems originated with people of color in the homeland of people of color. Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Africans, Hawaiians etc. Racism is in effect a projection of an inferior complex of the racist.
"I have had people apologize to me for what has occurred in the past as well as for the racism in contemporary society. The whole of the hippy movement in some ways was a response to Europe's annihilation of third world peoples and their cultures. Hippies were appalled at what they discovered had occurred after the industrial revolution with all of the colonialist powers."
He believes that, "Life is constantly evolving so ignorance in all forms is constantly being eroded by love, light and knowledge."
Let's hope so. European-American tantrikas who (like it or not) stand in a place of privilege must take up the challenge by doing some conscious work in this area in order to hasten that evolution. Passive good will or general promotion of "bliss and spiritual growth" are not sufficient. With Kundalini comes responsibility.