Tantra 101: A Practical Guide to Yab Yum. ~ Zoë Kors

Via on Feb 7, 2014

Tantra is Sanskrit for “tool for stretching” or “instrument of expansion.”

In the last couple of decades, the term Tantra has made its way into the pop culture lexicon. From Tantra Restaurant, an upscale restaurant and lounge in Miami’s South Beach, to Tantra Salon, a small hair salon in suburban Philadelphia, the allure of this mysterious practice is evident.

Tantra is not a religion; there is no dogma, no institution. It is a practice; a way of being.

Thanks, in part, to a provocative (and drunken) 1993 Q magazine interview with Sting and Bob Geldof (Sting talks about it in a recent interview with The Guardian), there’s been a fascination with tantric sex, also commonly referred to as “sacred sex”.

Despite the hype, sex is merely one facet of this complex and esoteric spiritual philosophy. Tantra encompasses the use of chakras (the energy centers of the body), mantra (Sanskrit chants), asana (yoga postures), pranayama (rhythmic breathing) and ritual ceremony to address concepts such as the weaving of light and shadow, paradox, and reverence for the body as a pathway to the Divine.

There have been many books written on the history, philosophy and practice of Tantra. Attempting to define or describe the various lineages, traditions, and rituals in this space would be a gross simplification and an injustice to a beautifully rich and nuanced tradition.

A lifetime could be spent studying and mastering Tantra. In a world in which there continues to be a pervasive disconnection between spirituality and sexuality, it serves to look to this ancient practice to explore where the two might meet.

The Practice

One of the most common Tantra practices is called Yab Yum,  or “Father Mother”. Yab Yum leans on the energetic gender polarity of a man and woman as it manifests in sexual union (intercourse.) The man sits with his legs crossed (Easy Pose or “Criss-Cross Applesauce”) and the woman sits facing him on his lap with her legs wrapped around his torso and lower back. Together, they represent Shiva and Shakti, the complementary divine masculine and feminine energies.

If all of this is still sounding obscure and cryptic, well…it is. Part of the very essence of Tantra is that it works with that which cannot—and should not—be articulated. We live in a culture that worships the intellect. We process and rationalize emotions in an attempt to make our experience of life neat and tidy.

In relationships, we define our needs and negotiate their fulfillment.

This is all for good reason; most of us live fast-paced, hyper-stimulated, goal-oriented lives. We contain our emotional life so we can reason our way through our busy day. But the byproduct of this is separateness and alienation—from ourselves, from each other and ultimately from God (in whatever way you choose to describe it.)

“The intellect is a beautiful servant but a terrible master. Intellect is the power tool of our separateness. The intuitive, compassionate heart is the doorway to our unity.”

~ Ram Dass

In this spirit, a Yab Yum practice provides an opportunity to flip the paradigm and allow our energetic and emotional selves, our “compassionate hearts,” to express themselves, thereby cultivating integration in ourselves, and a connection with each other.

To begin a Yab Yum practice, I recommend moving through these three phases to cultivate a safe space and to encourage energetic intimacy to build slowly. Each “sit” should be 20 minutes long. Set a timer so that you can surrender all thoughts of time and space and get lost in the practice. Move to the next phase when it is mutually agreeable.

Phase I:  Starting Knee-to-Knee

Both partners sit in Easy Pose facing each other with knees gently touching. Place your hands on each other’s knees, or forearms. Gaze into each other’s eyes without looking away. Spend a few minutes slowing and synchronizing your breath. Silently negotiate a rhythm that is comfortable for both of you. Pause at the top of each inhalation and at the bottom of each exhalation, creating a moment of mutual stillness. Notice what happens as you become more and more present to each other and to yourselves.

Phase II:  Scooching Closer

Both partners open up their legs and the woman sits as close as she can to her partner, draping her legs over his and around his lower back. Place your hands on each other’s shoulders, or waist. Another option is to place one hand on each other’s heart. Match breath in the same way as Phase I. Notice what happens as you move closer and deepen the practice.

Phase III:  Climbing Into His Lap

This is the classic Yab Yum position, and the first two phases primed the canvas for what happens now. The woman moves fully into her partner’s lap while he sits in Easy Pose. Begin face-to-face with foreheads touching and arms comfortably around each other. Eyes should be closed; the eye-gazing is replaced by increased physical touch, while you continue to focus on the breath as the main point of connection.

Notice the quality of the energy now. What does it feel like? Where in your body do you feel it? Let it move freely. Let your bodies embrace fully.

At this point, the woman’s feminine energy, her creative life force, her kundalini is rising. She is a vessel, a channel for the divine feminine in the form of sexual energy. The man’s role is to sit solidly in his masculinity and hold a container strong enough to support her as she allows it to overtake her, dissolving into bliss.

As you dance with this energy between you, you many notice that your egos, your ideas about who you are, your personalities, have vanished. You are united as complementary aspects in the union of divine masculine and feminine, a fractal embodiment of the universe.

Whether you are using Yab Yum as a prelude to sex, or as a practice in and of itself, it is important to allow the natural and organic rise of sexual energy. Our typical idea of masculinity as an aggressive force which pursues, controls and conquers doesn’t apply here. Kundalini energy (which is rooted in the sacrum, or base of the spine) can be shy. It cannot be coaxed by force. Imagine a snake curled up in a hole.

Gently wake it and charm it from the woman’s sacrum, up the spine. Begin by using the timer to contain and pace the energy. As you become more and more adept at surrendering to each other, yourselves and the mystical divine connection, lose the timer and let the spirit carry you away.

Sometimes the feelings which arise are not at all sexual in nature. This practice has a way of making us feel seen in a way that we rarely do in the course of our daily lives. The safety of this space often opens the floodgates of pent up emotions, like sadness or shame.

Allow whatever comes forth, without judgment. Welcome the opportunity to fall apart as someone holds a container for you. If your partner is moved by emotion, simply hold steady while they release their feelings. Resist the urge to comfort, which can encourage the containment or suppression of emotion.

Being a compassionate witness can affect a deep healing, as well as a loving bond.

Tips:

Eye Gazing.

It can be difficult to figure out where to fix your gaze. Try starting by focusing on the space between your partner’s eyes, or their “third eye”. As you relax into the practice, transfer your gaze to one of their eyes. Every so often switch to their other eye. You will relax into a rhythm that feels comfortable.

Sitting.

Easy Pose is often challenging for men. Especially for a length of time with weight on top of them. The most common complaint is irritation of the ankle bones against the floor. Sitting on soft blanket or pillow will help. For men with especially tight hips, placing pillows under the knees to raise them slightly and ease the stretch.

If it’s simply not possible for the man to sit, he can lie flat with the woman straddling him with their bodies perpendicular to each other. Bottom line: Use whatever pillows and props you need to make it work for you. Honor yourselves and each other by listening to and supporting your bodies in whatever way makes sense and feels good.

Set the Stage.

Dim the lights. Light some candles. Turn off the devices. Traditionally, Tantra rituals begin with ceremonial bathing. You might indulge in giving each other a loving sponge bath before you sit together.

Music.

Selected carefully, music can be a wonderful enhancement to a Yab Yum practice. Choose non-lyrical or purely instrumental, ambient music. Recognizable language will be counterproductive to the process of getting out of your heads and making a strong heart-based energetic connection. I often play music with Sanskrit chants or vocals in a language I don’t understand. My favorites include: Desert God, Field of Worlds and Mirrors, and Aqua Vista, all by Vic Hennegan; and DownTemple Dub by Desert Dwellers.

Same-Sex Couples.

Although the mythology and symbolism of Yab Yum is gender-based, it’s an equally great practice for same-sex couples. Play with the masculine and feminine energies as they express themselves in the physical postures by alternating who sits on top. You may discover something new in the exploration of these dynamics in terms of how they show up between you and what they might offer in your partnership.

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Assistant Editor: Lauren Savory / Editor: Bryonie Wise

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About Zoë Kors

Zoë Kors is the Managing Editor of LA Yoga Magazine, a certified life coach, writer, mother, yogini, existential detective and vortex surfer. She offers Spiritual Core Empowerment programs for women, in which she draws on the principles of Eastern philosophy and the healing practices of yoga, breathwork, and meditation and blends them with more process-oriented modalities of Western psychotherapy and Co-Active Coaching to create sustainable transformation. She lives in Los Angeles with her son and daughter.She can be found at ZoeKors.com, on Facebook and Twitter

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17 Responses to “Tantra 101: A Practical Guide to Yab Yum. ~ Zoë Kors”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    Yab and Yum are Tibetan honorific terms for father and mother. Not used for ordinary father and mother. So if we are to assume that the origin of what you are describing as "tantra" is Tibetan then we should also know that this is not how Tantra is taught and certainly it is never spoken about openly nor what you describe is tantra in the Tibetan Buddhist sense. I suppose that if we consider that what you are discussing is not authentic tantra then go ahead and discuss all you want. But for those who may have genuine interest in Tantra then don't be confused by this other thing the author is presenting. So…maybe give whatever it is you want to teach another term of your own; but this is not Yab Yum

    • Zoë Kors Zoe Kors says:

      Thank you for sharing your point-of-view, Padma. I am not trying to fool anyone who is interested in studying the vast subject of tantra in all its diversity and complexity. Tibetan Buddhism in but one many traditions, which hold tantric factions. My own personal tantric education is based more in Hinduism through the teachings of Osho, the Sri Vidya lineage and others. Whatever you want to name it, stting Yab Yum is a legitimate practice, which can benefit both individuals and couples in many ways. My reason for writing this article is to be of service in this way.

      • Padma Kadag says:

        As western merchants of "tantra" and Yoga which fall outside of tradition (tradition is not a strong enough word) you should at the very least use different terms of your own making along with the practices which are of your own making as the traditional terms, in truth, you use do not apply to that which you are selling.

  2. Kate says:

    Not sure if what the author describes here technically is or isn't "officially" tantra, but the practice she explains sounds delicious. Thank you! Sidebar: this whole it is/it isn't argument reminds me of when people argue about what does and doesn't count as yoga. Ugh.

  3. Alex says:

    I think the title and writing indicate that Zoe is valiantly trying to introduce a less sexually dominated view of Tantra to her readers. Parma, I respect the need for purity of tradition, I think Zoe is trying to draw people away from the whole Tantric sex world into a more spiritual one. Zoe does reference experiential over rational, in the same way as the original tantrics would have… Experiential investigation and natural wisdom is always best, but people in the west have to start somewhere… Let’s just continue to help society evolve in a good direction and put effort into helping, not hindering.

  4. Zoë Kors Zoe Kors says:

    Thank you, Kate and Alex. You nailed it. I am simply sharing what I know to be a rich practice, and dispelling the common Western idea that Tantra is about specific techniques for lovemaking.

  5. Amy says:

    The only way to authenticate is a reference to actual tantric text. Otherwise it is fabrication.

  6. Zoë Kors Zoe Kors says:

    By focusing on whether or not I am authentically writing about Tantra does a disservice to the content of this article. For everyone who is hung up and suffering attachment to their personal definition of Tantra, please reread this article with the substitute title: "Intimacy 101: A Practical Guide to Connecting with Another Soul." For everyone else, if you seek more information about the many forms and flavors of Tantra, there is a plethora of literature on the topic. I can recommend the following: "Kundalini Tantra" by Swami Satyananada Saraswati, "Tantra: The Cult of the Feminine" by André Van Lysebeth, and "Tantra: The Supreme Understanding" by Osho.

  7. Rob Parenteau says:

    Zoe: Could you say more about why you say only women should (can?) run kundalini energy and why men are to serve only as containers for the woman's energy to run, and not instead not experience their own creative life force energy (since men create life too, via the contribution of sperm to the ovum) as a channel for the exalted masculine, supported by the loving nurturing creative presence of the divine feminine? Or to put it perhaps more plainly, why is it the man's role to sit solidly in his masculinity rather than melt into life force energy as well? I don't get this man as observer/guard/container thing. Are you saying kundalini is something only a woman can experience, or something a man borrows/witnesses from a woman? Is it not also possible for a man to dissolve into bliss, or is he just holding the space for the feminine to do so, and getting a contact high from it?

    "At this point, the woman’s feminine energy, her creative life force, her kundalini is rising. She is a vessel, a channel for the divine feminine in the form of sexual energy. The man’s role is to sit solidly in his masculinity and hold a container strong enough to support her as she allows it to overtake her, dissolving into bliss."

    • Zoë Kors Zoe Kors says:

      Rob, this is such and great question. Thank you! I consulted my colleague, Frank, to articulate better than I ever could, his experience of Yab Yum from the male perspective. I have sat with Frank many times and he is a masterful partner. Here is what he has to say:

      Energetically, I'm running plenty of kundalini energy. Structurally, however, from an asana or mudra standpoint, I do my part to hold the pose and support the female so she can relax and be more expressive and emotive as the energy runs her. The energy runs THROUGH me (and I hold it and direct it). The energy RUNS her, and she surrenders to its will.

  8. Beth Abdallah says:

    If folks are interested in a really accessible and gorgeous book on Tantrik philosophy, they should check out Tantra Illuminated by Christopher Wallis. It's really special.

  9. Pete Noah says:

    You discribe how this process carefully builds trust to enable the woman to surrender fully to her feminine energy. Can it help heal a friend who had been in a sexual relationship that wasn't safe or nurturing and resulted in shutting down her comfort level and enjoyment of sex? If so, do you have any further suggestions? Can the process start with partners being clothed?

    • Zoë Kors Zoe Kors says:

      Pete, YES! Yab Yum is often practiced in clothed in groups. It can be incredibly healing on many levels. In fact, I facilitate workshops for women and I have them do Yab Yum at the first level. It's very powerful to be seen and to witness another. I also teach yoga in my son's first grade class. I have them do Level One and they LOVE it. They beg me to do it every week.

      I would have a dialog about her boundaries and let her be the driver. Try it for 5 minutes at first and see how she feels. Increase slowly from there. Feel free to email me if you want to discuss further.

    • Risa says:

      As a female who's experienced non-nurturing sexual relationships (and have presently learned and experienced what nurturing ones DO look like), that sounds like a comfortable way to begin. Maybe it's not traditional, but if a person's that concerned about Rights and Wrongs, perhaps they have more inner work to do before attempting to help others.

      Communication of the entire process prior to engaging is a priority; typically, for a woman to feel safe, she (and this can apply to men as well, not to exclude anyone here) needs to know exactly what to expect, physically at least, and that she's okay with each step. Ask her to be aware of her inner workings, during and even after, and that asking to slow down or stop is completely a valid request, regardless of how small or insignificant that inner voice may seem. Venturing into this kind of intimacy without solid trust can easily cultivate difficulties for later on.

      However, if both parties are open to the practice, come what may, (from what you mention of her past, it's possible she'll open the door to some formidable emotional history), this could lead to a very significant experience.

  10. Rinchen Happy Dorji says:

    I am not sure if any one could be exact in professing about Tantric- The Yab Yum Position as it might have undergone countless manifestation through the periods. How ever with coming to the art of practicing it, if it brings the desired effects to the ones who are doing it then there is no need for one to prejudice it as either good or not. At the end, the very essence of an act is to fill the gap of void an individual or pair is going through and I see clearly the author has her way of helping them meet the needs..
    Good day to every one!!

  11. munni barber says:

    What is your ethnicity Zoe?

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