YOU haven’t lived until you have been in a room full of men and women you have only just met the day before, where everyone is screaming, shaking, roaring, sobbing, grunting, swearing, shrieking and bellowing so much that it sounds like a labour ward crossed with a herd of bulls. Welcome to Tantra, Level One for beginners.
My knowledge and experience of Tantra begins and ends with two words — Sting and Trudie. And sex, obviously. Tantra is all about sex, isn’t it?
Turns out there’s a bit more to it than that — it’s been around for thousands of years, originated in India, and is all about connecting with yourself — and your partner - using movement, breath, and ritual.
“Reconnect with others in the spirit of love, joy, nurturing, celebration, juiciness and discovery,” says the flier. I have absolutely no idea what to expect, apart from knowing that there will be no actual sex involved, just “gentle touch”. (I phoned to check in advance. Obviously.) So. Stop what you’re doing and come with me on this voyage into the unknown, where for three days, I will push myself far beyond the limits of my comfort zone, so that you don’t have to. Or you might, having read this, decide it sounds like exactly what you have needed all your life, and dive in head first.
I arrive a few minutes late at the London address, in the heart of buzzy Islington, to a large airy studio. Floor cushions line the walls, and at the far end is an altar with a statue of Shiva, candles, flowers, crystal hearts, some rose quartz penises and a glass vagina.
There are about 25 people already here — their ages span from 20s to 60s — swaying and shaking to rhythmic New Age music. A man with a microphone — the facilitator — is guiding everyone to shake up their energy. I join in self-consciously, shaking myself up like a bottle of Orangina. This is Kundalini shaking, he explains. Afterwards we have a quick lie down. Then we sit in a circle on the floor and say why we are here.
For obvious reasons of confidentiality, I can’t go into detail about the other people, other than the basics — that we all seem to be middle class professionals, of varying ages, nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. There are two couples — an older pair who are seasoned Tantra afficionados, and a younger couple experiencing relationship disconnect. Everyone else is unattached. A few of us have left our partners at home, while some are online dating, and some are single. Six of the group are experienced practitioners and are here to facilitate — to support the rest of us, and look after us. These are the ‘Angels’.
We sit in a sharing circle, and are guided by the facilitator, a psychotherapist called Mark Van Gogh. He says that in our culture, sex involves either obsession or repression, and that this is all about getting in touch with your inner self via your body. Then he invites us to share our thoughts.
When each person has finished talking, he or she says ‘Ho’, which is shamanic for ‘I have spoken’ and the rest of us respond with another ‘Ho’ which means ‘We have heard you’. There is lots of giggling. Turns out quite a few of the people here have previously completed this workshop, and have come back for more. Several have done more in-depth workshops, and some of us are raw beginners.
After dinner, there is a ritual to Awaken The Senses. We are blindfolded and led to a floor cushion, so that we have no idea who we are sitting beside. The room fills with sound — bells, rainsticks, gongs. Then something touches my lips — peach, pineapple, date, dark chocolate, one after another, slowly, as the Angels go around the room feeding us sweetness. It feels nice to just sit and receive without having to do anything.
Something is placed in my hand. And then everyone is tickled with small furry animal soft toys, as the Angels move around us make comedy meowing and purring noises. It’s quite a thing to sit blindfolded surrounded by strangers being tickled by a furry lion while holding what turns out to be a small glass penis in your hand. There is much hilarity in the room.
We are helped to our feet, and turned to face whoever is next to us, the palms of our hands brought to touch. It’s odd and incredibly intimate, touching fingertips with someone you can’t see, and don’t even know if they are male or female. Except you do know. You can feel it. My invisible partner guides my arms high over my head, which makes me fervently hope my deodorant is working.
The scarf blindfolds are finally removed, leaving a room full of spaced out people blinking and squinting to see how the Angels have made a beautiful altar in the middle of the room. It is covered in candles, plates of fruit, furry toys, and glass penises. There’s one right next to a pink fluffy dolphin.
The day starts with full on dancing, to shake up our Kundalini energy. I close my eyes and pretend it’s the 1990s, which is probably the last time I danced so energetically at ten in the morning. I feel horribly self-conscious.
It gets worse. The first exercise involves sustained eye contact with the man on the cushion next to me. There is nothing more intimate than eye contact — which is why I can’t do it. Sorry, I keep telling him as my gaze swivels sideways. I am overwhelmed with my own awkwardness. He is very kind, and tells me not to worry.
Then we do a boundary-establishing exercise called ‘Yes No Maybe Please’, which involves touch and responses to touch. It’s not as cringey as it sounds, but I wish I was doing it with my partner instead of the lovely man whose eyes I have previously been unable to look into for more than a few seconds without them diving towards the floor.
Afterwards in the sharing circle, several of the men talk about the difficulty of touching women; all the cultural baggage around sexism and people-pleasing comes up, and the difference between ‘power’ and ‘power over’. I get the idea that being a nice man can be really hard work sometimes, and feel empathy instead of my usual wariness.
The group leader suggests that one particularly gentle man puts his hand on his chest and groin and repeats, “I am a man of heart and balls” to the women in the room, which he does, and I want to cheer him for his guts, and cheer everyone else for providing the space for such a statement. Imagine saying that down the pub, or on the football pitch. I am full of admiration for these men. They are brave.
After lunch it gets hardcore. We are going to do Streaming, which I mishear as Screaming, because that’s mostly what it involves. First two of the Angels do a demo — one is the Streamer, the other the Supporter. The Streamer stands up, shuts his eyes, starts shaking, and deep breathing. The Supporter stands in front of him, also shaking, encircling him without touching.
The Streamer then proceeds to have a full on meltdown — screaming, gagging, shouting, howling, all witnessed with mild alarm by the rest of us. Don’t worry, says the facilitator. It may look dramatic, but he’s done this lots of times before. Any questions?
I put my hand up and express my frank terror at doing such a thing alone, never mind in public with a bunch of people I don’t know. But an older lady offers to partner up with me, and so I give it a go, as does everyone else, working in pairs. It is extraordinary.
The whole room is filled with the sounds of catharsis. I find myself screaming and coughing and retching, like everyone else — this is the body ridding itself of old psychic pain, apparently.
By the end, despite my trepidation, I feel like I have given birth to myself. Then we swap, and I support the older lady as she screams her head off. She vibrates with her own power.
That night there is Shakti and Shiva dancing, involving sarongs and shaking your booty, but I am so overwhelmed by the Streaming that I go home early and sleep for 12 hours straight.
Everyone is exhausted as we begin the day again with more frenetic dancing. Today the dancing feels more natural and less awkward. The feedback about the Streaming goes from “viscerally excruciating” to “amazing”. There is a warm feeling of closeness amongst the group; it feels like a genuinely safe place to express stuff you didn’t know you needed to express, which is very liberating.
The facilitator gives a talk on the seven chakras, which are the energy points in the body between the perineum and the crown of the head. You can’t see them, but they are there, apparently. One of the Angels whips off her sarong and lies naked on the floor for a Chakra Ritual, where another Angel carefully places seven flowers in a line from her vagina to her head, each flower representing a chakra. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, white.
It’s oddly moving to watch. Then we do one more physical exercise, the Inner Flute, where we lie on yoga mats. We do pelvic shaking — lifting our pelvises off the floor and shaking like mad, to open our chakras and get them spinning (they spin, allegedly, even though they are invisible).
EIRD things happen to me as I do this. I laugh, cry, and grunt, all completely involuntarily, and have quite strong visuals. Afterwards, my hips feel really open and no longer stiff, and when I dance, I find myself twerking without even realising what I am doing. I have never twerked in my life until this moment.
The final ritual before we end the weekend involves partnering up with someone of the opposite sex, and by now I am feeling far less repressed than I did 48 hours earlier. Each pair will spend 20 minutes touching the other person, first with a feather, then with fingertips. You can be naked for this, but I keep everything on — yoga trousers, yoga top, the lot.
I fight the urge to put on my coat. The man I have partnered with gets down to his underpants.
Several of the men and one of the women are fully naked, but the facilitator reassures everyone that it’s not a big deal if anyone gets an erection, as it’s not sexual, but sensual. Still, I’m glad nobody does. The touching is so light and gentle you almost can’t feel it — it is to wake up the skin.
I resist the urge to go into massage mode, and to maintain sensual contact rather than anything more muscular, but to be honest I am relieved when it’s over. It feels a bit peculiar, because I am probably intellectualising it too much. Which rather contradicts the whole point.
Finally, the weekend is drawing to a close. We gather for one last sharing circle — my favourite part of the whole thing, as you don’t have to do anything other than talk and listen – and everyone gives some final feedback. Everyone has had a genuinely wonderful time. Exhausting, challenging, astonishing, gut-wrenching, cringe-making, but wonderful.
Sitting on that floor cushion, I have genuine feelings of having connected to some kind of inner bliss via the people of the group. I’m sure it won’t last too long, but a few days later, writing this, I still feel floaty and serene, my psychic armour cracked right open.
Oh, and in terms of happy endings, the married couple who were having relationship difficulties leave the studio looking more in love than a pair of teenagers. So it works. All the way home, I feel like I’ve discovered some kind of magical secret. It’s definitely worth exploring, and a lot more fun and more profound than couples counselling. Or any other kind of counselling, for that matter.