The Diwali lights are still on the houses amongst the rice paddy fields even though the festival is over and winter is coming to South India with a bit of a chill in the morning air and daytime temperatures only like a good English summer!
I have just finished two weeks of tantra-yoga at an ashram ( www.shrikali.org ) run by a tantra-yoga practitioner. This is rare as in India tantra is associated with black magic and bad deeds so most tantriks are very well hidden. He is a Kaula and Trika practitioner; profound tantric systems with Trika better known as Kashmir Shavism. For beginners like me, the first few weeks are nearly all yoga with a few talks on tantra, yoga, Ayurveda and mantra and one puja. I have done about five hours a day of yoga asanas and some pranayamas (breathing exercises).
So what makes this tantra-yoga different to the yoga found in most gyms, village halls and adult education centres up and down the country? Recent scholarship shows that all yoga comes from tantra and there are pictures several hundred years old of tantriks doing asanas and sun salutations. The yoga we have today in the West; often called Modern Postural Yoga and systems like hot yoga, power yoga, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram Yoga are recent inventions and locate it as part of the health and fitness industry designed to improve us. The Indians who came to the West; like Swami Vivekananda at the end of the nineteenth century wanted to impress the West with their worthiness and downplayed their tantric roots (he was initiated by Ramakrishna a tantric Kali practitioner). They were keen to present yoga as self-improvement for the body. As a narcissistic society we are very keen on this. But tantra says that at the deepest level you are perfect as you are and striving to improve focuses us on an ideal and a future not on being here radically accepting as we are.
Yoga videos usually show beautiful young bodies in designer yoga clothes against a backdrop of an exotic beach. Yoga leaflets often show bodies knotted up like pretzels into improbable postures. Perhaps with enough effort we can be like them. I imagine that there are yoga studios like dance studios with mirrors around the walls so we can check how we look and if our asana looks right as the teacher or the video shows it should be done.
The problem is that everything in the modern world is externally-focussed and we are also fragmented so that we try and fix the different parts of us so that at least we will look OK. The tantra-yoga approach is to see yoga asanas as meditations for and through the body. They are not to stretch or tone muscles or ligaments but to open the meridians and nadis of the body. They are best done in a state of meditation; very relaxed, eyes closed and returning frequently to the basic posture which is Shavasana or the corpse pose where deep relaxation can occur. You are encouraged to find your bliss in each asana and to love yourself deeply in the practice. There is no right way to do the asana and your body will gradually adjust to your best version of it. You are encouraged not to compete, even with yourself. The focus as in any meditation, is internal not external. As nadis and meridians are opened deep relaxation is cultured along with a steady flow of energy. It is this energised and relaxed meditative state which is the basic state for the practice of tantra