When you hear the word "tantra," what instantly pops in your mind? Is it the idea of spending hours upon hours lost in slow-motion, super-pleasurable lovemaking? Well, that's where pop culture's led us a little bit astray.
To learn more about what the real deal is with tantric sex, we talked with Mark Michaels and Patricia Johnson, authors of Great Sex Made Simple: Tantric Tips to Deepen Intimacy and Heighten Pleasure, who opened us up to the real workings of tantra — and how everyone can use tantric techniques to take their sex lives to the next level. It turns out tantra has a lot to teach couples regardless of how deeply they want to get into the practice. Here's what they had to say.
SheKnows: Sting became known for his comments on tantric sex and how he made love for hours. How did he get it wrong?
Michaels and Johnson: It's funny that a comment Sting made over 20 years ago [about tantric sex] still has an enduring hold on the public's imagination.
He's tried to explain it away or recant it in various ways. At one point, he said that he regretted making the statement and didn't really feel he could talk about the subject beyond saying that his wife, Trudy, is his church. That's much closer to what the spirit of tantric sex is all about.
In the classical sexual ritual, the participants worship each other as embodiments of deities. We encourage people to bring an attitude of reverence into their lovemaking and to all their interactions. The tantric approach has far more to do with your mental approach than with technique. It's certainly got nothing to do with bragging about staying power.
Next Up: How you can feel pleasure longer
A version of this article was originally published in January 2013.
SK: Is long-lasting sex part of the tradition at all?
M&J: Prolonged lovemaking is part of the tradition. The tantrics of old recognized that orgasm can be a mystical experience, often the most readily accessible mystical experience of all. During orgasm, the mind goes quiet, and you may feel a sense of merger — be it with a partner or even with all that is.
For most of us, the transcendent potential in sex is something that's experienced only briefly, during the orgasm itself. If you extend arousal and focus on building it (this need not include genital intercourse), you may start to feel this sense of union well before you have an orgasm, and it is likely to last far longer than it would in more conventional lovemaking. So making it last is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If you can stay turned on for a half hour or so, you're likely to experience the altered state of consciousness we just described.
Here's how to incorporate elements of tantric sex into your own bedroom:
1. Focus on your breathing & your (& your partner's) reaction to touch
M&J: It's fairly common for people to check out during sex, to do things by rote and without a whole lot of reflection. Paying attention to what you're experiencing in your body, the way you are breathing and how your partner is responding are all very important.
2. Give & receive with kisses
M&J: To take this a step further, people tend to interact sexually based on a set of tacit understandings: Basically, I'll do you for a while, and then you can do me, and if we're lucky, we'll both have a good experience.
We encourage people to separate giving and receiving in a very methodical way. For example, it's great to experiment with giving and receiving kisses. Take a couple of minutes and allow your partner to kiss you and explore your mouth with his tongue. Then reverse roles. When you're kissing, see how fully you can give yourself over to the active role. When you're receiving, surrender to the experience completely.
Next Up: The 60-minute massage
3. Take 60 minutes & give each other a massage — but no sex yet!
M&J: Set aside an hour or so to give and receive full body massages (culminating with genital stimulation but not intercourse). Do this on different days. As with the kissing exercise, the role of the giver is to give as fully as possible, and the role of the receiver is simply to receive. Taking this activity out of the realm of foreplay and keeping the roles clearly defined may help you discover new sources of pleasure, and may also give you new insights into the way you interact with your partner both in and out of bed.
4. Break a taboo by just talking about sex
M&J: Many traditional tantric practices involved breaking cultural taboos, and there were many in medieval India. This was true both in the context of sexual ritual and more generally. In the simplest terms, the violation of these cultural norms had a liberating effect.
Of course, we don't live in a society that has such clearly defined social rules, but we all have our own self-imposed limitations and our habitual ways of being, in lovemaking and more generally in life. If you can shed some of your inhibitions, you're likely to experience more pleasure. Talking frankly about sex is a big taboo for many, so for many, having frequent and explicit conversations about sex is a great first step.
5. Explore a personal sexual taboo together
M&J: If you want to get a little bolder, you can identify a couple of personal taboos (you can also do this as a couple by identifying shared taboos), and then decide on one that you might be interested in breaking. Don't pick anything huge at first; it might just mean making love with the lights on or experimenting with light bondage, sensory deprivation or role-play. The purpose is to become more flexible and aware and to be less limited by preconceived ideas about yourself. Sometimes we deprive ourselves of a lot of pleasure by thinking, 'I'm not the kind of person who would enjoy that.'