Leaves Of Anusara, Roots Of Tantra. ~ Emma Magenta & Bernadette Birney

Via Emma Magenta
on Nov 19, 2010
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walt whitman's tantric gaze

A Conversation: the Living Tradition of Tantra.

Emma: Hey Bern, did you read that EJ blog on Tantra and Walt Whitman? I appreciate Horton’s talented writing, but I found her view of Tantra limited.

Bernadette: I did read the article, and I think her article offers a great opportunity to clarify what Tantra is, and why Anusara yogins self-identify as tantrikas.

Emma: Truly! Tantra is a vast tapestry of esoteric philosophy and practice, and has meant different things to different people during its complex, 2,000-year history.

[ed’s note: this discussion of tantra does not appear to include Buddhist tantra or Vajrayana tradition or lineage, which was the focus of my personal comment in support of Carol Horton’s original article. I also discussed this issue in some depth with John Friend personally in LA this month—it was a fun and informative conversation.]

Having taught Anusara yoga for 10 years, we both know that Tantra cannot be reduced to three practices from one particular epoch and location, as Horton writes in her article. Anusara yogis don’t hang out in cremation grounds, but we seek to embody Tantric philosophy, orient ourselves around Tantric texts, and perform Tantric practices. We follow many of Tantra’s fundamental principles, but adapt them to modern Western society.

Bernadette: Let’s start by defining Tantra: it’s a technology for expansion of Spirit. Tantra uses the manifest world as a means to experience Enlightenment. Unlike other yoga philosophies, Tantric Enlightenment doesn’t transcend the everyday world; it points us back to it, in a more joyful, appreciative way.

Although yoga and Tantra are living, ever-evolving traditions, there are key distinguishing principles of Tantric philosophy that transcend historical, cultural, and religious parameters. For example: tantrikas identify everything, absolutely everything, as Supreme Consciousness and Creative Power—including body, mind and Spirit.

Anusara yoga’s Shiva-Shakti Tantra philosophy is easily identifiable as Tantric. We teach that Spirit is Good, Free, Full, Pulsating, All-Knowing and Blissful.  We teach that yoga is a practice that celebrates this Supreme Spirit as it manifests in ourselves and the world around us. We teach that humans have the common desire to experience the freedom of our true nature. We teach that through skillful action, we can reflect upon and joyfully recognize who we really are, who we always have been and what we may yet become.

In this way, Anusara yoga holds a tradition that has been around for thousands of years, yet is still as relevant and applicable today in our 21st century as it was at its inception. John Friend didn’t invent these ideas:  he learned them over a lifetime of study and practice.  No matter how much we like Walt Whitman, we can’t attribute the origination of these ideas to him, either.

Emma: Which begs the question, what is the origin of these ideas? Fortunately, John Friend has always encouraged Anusara yoga teachers to study with experts. We’re blessed to have scholars in our community (like Douglas Brooks and Paul Muller-Ortega, to name two) who are grounded in Western academia, yet informed by serious, life-long sadhana, or spiritual practice.

Because of our studies, we are able to answer questions about the roots and history of Tantra in its full spectrum. We’re better able to honor our past, live fully in the present, and serve the future. Because of our studies, we know we’re participating in and co-creating a rich tradition, rather than randomly making up ideas and calling them Tantric because it’s exotic.

Historically, Tantra emerged from a rich environment of Shiva worshippers (some of whom were known as “Kapalikas”) who were originally active in the 2nd – 5th century CE. These early “Shaivites” courted disapproval through outrageous behavior. They practiced in cremation grounds, where the veil between life and death was thinnest, and believed that violation of conventions brought them closer to the incomprehensible heart of the Divine.

Tantra then evolved in a number of different directions. In the south, a philosophy called “Sri Vidya” began to coalesce around the 8th century. A little later, Northern India saw the flowering of a form of Tantra called “Kashmir Shaivism.” At some point, in certain circles, the highly unorthodox nature of early, proto-Tantra went through a rehabilitation. External, more transgressive practices were refined and translated into internal rituals of meditation.

Some scholars refer to more socially acceptable forms of Tantra as “right-handed”, and more transgressive forms as “left-handed”. The convention-shattering, “left-handed” practices have given Tantra a reputation for black magic that persists even in modern-day India. However, the “left-handed” path is just one aspect of Tantra—it is extremely limiting to evaluate all of Tantric philosophy according to the behavior of one group at one point in time. You don’t have to hang out in cremation grounds to be tantrika!

Anusara yoga doesn’t generally identify with “left-handed” Tantra. However, there are aspects of Anusara yoga that are unconventional, even by the lights of the yoga community. Our Shiva Shakti Tantra considers the manifest world to be a blessing. We radically affirm life’s fundamental value by looking for the good first. We acknowledge and integrate life’s darkness by honoring the full spectrum of experience. We cultivate a wild creative freedom by playing and expanding the edge. These are not necessarily the predominant values of our society. Like our forebears, Anusara yoga is willing to explore unconventionality. We just don’t do it by smearing ourselves with ashes.

Bernadette: That’s Anusara philosophy, but not all modern yogas hold the same ideas to be true! Pigeonholing all traditions in the same category does a disservice to the marvelous diversity of modern yoga. It’s simply inaccurate to say all modern yoga philosophy is Tantric.

For example, the Advaita Vedanta tradition teaches that the manifest world we can see, touch, and experience is an illusory distraction from the fundamental Unity of the universe. The Classical yoga tradition considers the manifest world to be a very real yogic obstacle, a minefield of attachments and aversions that distracts us from eternal Spirit.

This is very different from the Tantric point of view, but when Anusara yoginis study the history of yoga, we study Advaita Vedanta and Classical Yoga, too. As tantrikas, we approach our selves, our world, and our practice differently, yet we readily acknowledge that we are indebted to many traditions. Tantra’s conversational partners have played significant roles in evolving the modern dialogue of yoga:  you and I couldn’t be having this conversation, today, had other traditions not had it first.

Anusara yoga honors our shared history, and the genuine diversity of the great ocean of yoga traditions. We know we stand on the shoulders of giants! Embodying these living teachings in the present, rather than embalming them, we carry the conversation of yoga forward into the future.

Emma: Well, Bern, it’s been divine having this conversation with you.

Bernadette:  Always a pleasure, fellow tantrika.

Emma Magenta and Bernadette Birney both teach within an hour of New York City and sometimes share a brain. They love talking about yoga and welcome feedback.  You can find more of their writing at Emma Magenta’s blog and Bernadetta Birmey’s blog.


About Emma Magenta

Emma Magenta is a yoga teacher and writer living in New Jersey. She grew up on a sheep farm in Kansas and attended Bryn Mawr College. She owns and operates South Mountain Yoga studio in South Orange, NJ with her husband. You can find out more about her on her website, emmamagentayoga.com.


38 Responses to “Leaves Of Anusara, Roots Of Tantra. ~ Emma Magenta & Bernadette Birney”

  1. jbnorton says:

    Thanks Emma and Bernie, for a delightful conversation. I particularly loved the phrase "calling them Tantric because it's exotic"! Let's keep talking, learning, and opening the hearts and minds of our students! Jai Ma…

  2. Emma Magenta says:

    Thanks Jane and thanks for the welcome Bob! Bern and I have been doing this for years, just not on paper. 😀 Last year at the Anusara Certified Teacher's Gathering, Bill Mahoney presented a number of examples of "Tantric" ideas popping up in the Vedas. And the BG is a real touchstone for Anusara yogis, for just the kind of passages you highlighted in your Nutshell piece.

  3. Ditto Emma–thanks so much.

    Interesting contemplation, Bob. I never consciously considered that by using dialogue Emma and I are emulating that great dialogue found in The Gita! How wonderful!

    I can't decide whether my overactive imagination wants to play Krishna or Arjuna.

  4. I hope Emma and Bernadette do more of these dialogues! They are truly a dynamic duo! This explanation on Tantra as practiced/experienced by Anusara practitioners is simply one of the most cogent, articulate, and accessible ones I've seen – and I am saving this to share with students!

  5. macpanther says:

    Does anyone know if I am correct in recalling that Talmudic and Essene traditions are likewise dialogic?

  6. Jeanine Oburchay says:

    Thanks for the enlightening article Emma and Bernadette! I find myself getting a lot of questions from new students about Tantra -there are so many pre-conceived notions about it, and I feel like I spend a lot of time dispelling inaccurate or sensationalized ideas. Your article is a beautiful snapshot of the philosophy and further expands my own understanding of the history of the tradition as well. So instead of talking about what Tantra isn’t, you remind me to teach what it is, and how it’s evolved. Thanks for keeping the tradition alive!

  7. Philip says:

    Many thanks for the illumiating dialog . Hopefully it will clear up some of the misconceptions that many have when they first hear the word Tantra. May the conversation you have started continue.

  8. Susanna says:

    Thank you so much Bernie & Emma – I was dismayed at the original article because it seemed so confined to popular stereotypes of Tantra, namely Tantra of the left. It's easy to become fixated on the cremation ground aspect but not see what it is really about – that the acknowledgement of dissolution is essential to recognizing regeneration – the rise & fall of nature, of life. Things need to fall apart in order to come back together – the cremation ground is about embracing the full pulsation or spanda of life and death, and through that embrace, choosing to live more fully, more artfully in our bodies, our hearts, and our minds. Walt Whitman would agree. More, please!

  9. Karen Rider says:

    Thank you Emma and Bernadette for the wonderful article and conversation. There is a lot of confusion hovering around the philosophy of Tantra. Your article sheds light on the different aspects of the Tantric path and brings clarity to the other philosophies as well. I hope you keep the conversation going!!! Great job!

  10. April says:

    We need to continue to put our vision forward. Tantra and Anusara yoga is leading the way to a new paradigm for the world to learn how to embody…Skill into action and then from that an opening up, a light thru the cracks of a very hard and impenetrable surface…You beauties rock!…I love the clear and readable way you brought these ancient teachings to light…Anusara is shining forth as a yoga for a new way to approach our daily lives…Peace and love to you both and thanks for being such awesome kula sisters!

  11. beryl says:

    this is a beautiful response and article on our wonderful tantra! thank you both for the wit, the wisdom the depth and offering….so much gratitude to you both for evolving this conversation!

  12. Bj Galvan says:

    Totally! 10.39 "And know, Arjuna that I am the seed of all things that are; and that no being that moves or not can ever be without me." Sounds like 'everything' to me!

  13. Bj Galvan says:

    Just do the voices. :^)

  14. Bj Galvan says:

    What an eloquent and creative expression of the evolution of yoga and of Tantra. It is clear, concise and explained in a way that weaves the roots of common Unity of all yoga systems into the beauty of the various yoga paths accessible and easily understood. We are all in the same Ocean of different currents, and it is a blessing that you two great Goddesses are flowing in the same current of Grace, the great current of the Heart, Anusara yoga that I choose. Yeah for the convo and looking forward to more!

  15. Jo M says:

    Loved the article, and really enjoyed Ramesh's detailed comments above too. The history and the philosophy fascinate me and I love Anusara's very overt acknowledgment and active integration of the Tantric tradition in our modern Asana practice.

  16. annelibby says:

    What I love about this article — other than its good-hearted tone, intelligence, simplicity, brevity, authority? Everything. Great job, ladies.

  17. donnaR says:

    Thanks BB and Emma for that wonderful article clarifying Tantra philosophy – makes it easier for all of us to explain Anusara's roots in Tantra and dispel the misconceptions prevalent out there. Umm more please . . . .

  18. Thanks, April. Yes–let's hear it for our new paradigms which seek to skillfully hone precise action in the service of the highest vision.

  19. Thanks, Beryl. Your comment is so very appreciated.

  20. Thanks, Bj. Beautiful image: one ocean of yoga; many different currents. Thanks for being an important voice in the great current of the heart.

  21. Thanks, Jo. I couldn't agree more–the infusion of uplifting Tantric philosophy into skillful asana makes our practice so meaningful to so many!

  22. Thanks, Anne. Brevity was a challenge. Thank god for INCREDIBLY SKILLFUL EDITING!

  23. Thanks, Donna. Here's to dispelling misconceptions!

  24. That's a great catch on the part of the editor: our dialogue , indeed, does not include Buddhist Tantra, or Vajrayana tradition or lineage.

    We may have to delve further to establish whether or not Walt Whitman actually invented either of those traditions. (;

  25. Oh, this discussion just keeps getting more and more interesting. I feel like I'm soaking up knowledge like some kind of Tantric sponge. That's my next book, Carol–Jeff Kripal's "Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion". I sure hope it's on Kindle so I don't have to wait!

    A warm thank you to everyone who has contributed to this deep and fascinating dialog. This is the Yoga cyber-sphere at its very best.

    Bob W.

  26. leslie says:

    wonderful discussion!

  27. Katrina says:

    Emma and Bernadette, Thank you for engaging in a dialog that illuminates specifically how Anusara yoga is Tantric in its outlook and philosophy. In my opinion, this is the aspect of Carol's original blog that you address. I love that you call out that "yoga" and "Tantra" are both living traditions, not to be frozen to one place and time. In fact, to freeze them in that way is not part of the long tradition… and long dialog. Thank you for continuing the dialog here – with the blog and the comments. Would love to see more of all of the above!

  28. Linda-Sama says:

    Ramesh, you are always on the ball!

  29. I'm incredibly appreciative of your thoughtful response, Ramesh, so it doesn't feel respectful to just dash off a reply. I shall have more to say; I just need to carve out a bit of time to say it.

  30. Katie Stephens says:

    I'm not going to contribute, I'm just gonna gush!!!! Love this, love both of you…but you already knew that : ) Keep 'em coming, it's less homework for me ; P

  31. AJ McIntyre says:

    Wonderful response and discussion!

  32. Laurie Mayper says:

    Great article! Namaste.

  33. Bj Galvan says:

    Big Smile to you BB….. Love the convo!

  34. Kimberley Rome says:

    Om Shanti, Michelle! Continuous inquiry is the only way to fly!

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