Physical yoga (asana) comes from tantric schools of yoga. Tantra, however — contrary to everything your mother fears — is not all about sex. Instead, tantric practices are a concrete exploration of the divine. Tantric practice, in any tradition, involves ritual, movement, mantra, and other practices that give us a chance to experience the miracle of the world instead of just ruminate about it.
The word tantra comes from two Sanskrit roots – “tan” means expansion or stretching, while “tra” and it’s variations means protection or tool. Tantra, in its earliest forms, is often translated as “weaving” or “loom,” – in a way that we must stretch thread, and then bring it together, then stretch again and so forth.
If you have a physical yoga practice, that might sound familiar. You roll out your mat, take some sun salutations, and then settle into a yoga posture. Your practice expands into more and more challenging poses, you begin to stretch and extend your body, find more space, and then dive into that space. You’re constantly expanding, settling in, expanding, and settling in again. This is one of the reasons we call it a practice: because there is always more to explore, always more to stretch, always another pose. Perhaps paradoxically, there is always more contentedness, more ease, and more stability to be found in each of those shapes.
Mantra might be another piece of your yoga practice — another word adopted into our modern vocabulary. Mantra hasn’t been as misunderstood: most of understand it as a word or phrase repeated that comes to represent an idea or ideology. In yoga practice, repeating a mantra has a very similar meaning.
Etymologically, you can see the similarity between mantra and tantra. They both have that “tra” – protection or tool at the end. The “man” comes from “manas,” which means mind — sometimes just the thoughts, sometimes the entire space between your ears including emotions, senses, and all the rest.
So then mantra can both protect the mind and be a tool of the mind. We can use mantra to direct the thoughts — and by directing them in one singular direction, we direct the mind AWAY from all the crazy we’re trying to avoid most of the time. It’s like the banks of a river: without those boundaries, the water spreads, sits, and stagnates into a swamp. The edges keep the water moving in a certain direction.
But what happens when those boundaries feel stifling? What’s the difference between protecting the mind from distraction and putting blinders on? What happens when the walls you built up to protect yourself become like a prison?
This is where tantra returns. There is no final answer, but instead a constant dance between feeling restricted and feeling protected. Every time we get complacent, we can challenge ourselves, expanding our thoughts and our body. Every time it feels like too much, we can always retreat back into the safety of our practice.