When we think of Tantra, we think of sex and imagine that it has to do with esoteric practices that make sex better, but it’s not articulated how or why. It’s all a mystery—a deep, dark secret that most of us would love to learn. Talking to Tantra yoga teacher Rod Stryker brings clarity to the age-old mystery. Rod has been teaching Tantra, meditation and hatha yoga for more than 25 years.
The now world-recognized got his start studying and teaching in Santa Monica, becoming a top instructor at Yoga Works in the ’90s. Rod soon began traveling worldwide and developed a system of Tantra that stays close to its origins, called Pure Yoga. He continues to travel and now lives on a farm in Colorado with his wife and two children. Yogi Times spoke to Rod during a break from writing his first book.
The notion of sex defining Tantra came about only recently, Rod explains, when Western teachers began offering “spiritual” sexual practices in the late 70s and early 80s. Although these teachers called the practice Tantra, they really weren’t being accurate.
Practices in the scope of Tantra are called maithuna, meaning “to make two, one.”
“Maithuna was originally developed as a method to awaken spiritual consciousness using sexuality and sensual intimacy,” says Rod. It is one of many practices in the Tantric discipline, and to separate it apart from the whole decreases its effect and power. Rod explained that many of these Western teachers had not properly studied Tantra from a learned master but rather took the sexual hook and ran with it to make money or for other selfish reasons. “Rather than teaching people how to discover the immense and extraordinary life that is possible through real and lasting self-realization, many teachers promoted orgasms—how to have as many as possible (for a woman) or none (for a man). It would have saved confusion if what they were teaching was simply called by its real name.”
Okay. So all Tantra is not sex, and sex in the Tantric world is maithuna. So, what is Tantra then? Tantra in Sanskrit means “to weave.” It describes the weaving of fabric or tapestry from the ancient times. With Tantra, one attempts to weave spiritual experience throughout daily life, instead of keeping them separate. It doesn’t ignore urges, but instead embraces them and helps us use them wisely in order to live our lives more fully. In Tantra, one weaves practices of yoga postures, breathing techniques, energy locks, meditation, chanting, Kundalini, astrology and many others, including maithuna. The lesson is that all aspects of life are sacred, not just our yoga practice, but our household activities, our work and our relationships. The practices are used to help each of us shine brightly and find more joy in our life.
Rod broke Tantra down even further. He explained that in the big picture of Tantra there are two schools: the right-handed path and the left-handed path. Both have the similar goal of “the realization of spiritual and worldly abundance,” but are different in their approaches.
“The left-handed path emphasizes more external ritual and is weighted more towards bhoga,” explains Rod. Bhoga is sensual enjoyment, and focuses more on delighting the senses. Maithuna fits in here as a left-handed practice. However, what most don’t know is that the approach is very methodical, even mechanical and tedious. “Think of it as a sexual version of a model airplane kit—lots of pieces that you have to put together precisely,” he says. While some people can find a spiritual awakening, Rod warned that “another downside to this approach is that exaltation is temporary,” for there’s no training for long-term effects.
The right-handed path “emphasizes integration and how to sustain a heightened state for as long as possible. This is done through breath, postures, energy cultivation and at some point, developing a deeper reverence for life,” says the yoga teacher. He goes on to say that while the right-handed path might seem the less exciting of the two at first, its power is longer lasting. “If you are practicing the Tantric approach to yoga, you bring the practices with you when you make love and the experience will become spontaneously ecstatic and heightened.” By following the right-handed path, all experiences in life “become more profound and sublime,” not just what happens in the bedroom. In his advanced trainings, Rod addresses the practices of maithuna for sincere students who are interested in the big picture.
Tantra found Rod found rather early in life. In his early 20s, he practiced out of Iyengar’s book, Light on Yoga until a friend took him to a Kundalini class at the Guru Ram Dass ashram (on Robertson Street in Los Angeles), where he practiced for two years. Then, in April of 1980, another friend took him to a class by Alan Finger. “Shortly after I started studying Tantra, my flexibility started to increase really fast,” says Rod. His body began to change and “postures started to unfold spontaneously,” something that normally would not have happened unless he had practiced for two to three hours. After six weeks of dedicated study with Alan he was initiated into a lineage lead by Mani Finger, Alan’s father. Two months later he taught his first class and has been teaching ever since.
In 1987, Yoga Works opened on Montana Avenue and yoga started to increase in intensity with the introduction of Ashtanga. As Rod began studying different styles with different teachers, his practice and teaching became more athletic and challenging. Gary Kraftsow came later and brought the awareness of Viniyoga. “It validated what I knew before,” Rod admits.
By the early ’90s, his ego was fulfilled with accomplishing intense poses, but his personal growth hadn’t changed much. He also observed that personal growth in some fellow teachers hadn’t developed as their postures became more advanced. “I realized that it needed a different type of work besides accomplishing poses. I learned that less externally intense can be more powerful,” he says. He chose not to abandon the athleticism, but to return to the source of Tantric teachings and eventually formed the basis for what is now called Pure Yoga.
The study of Tantra can be so vast and specific that it is encouraged to have a teacher as a guide. After 17 years studying with Alan and Mani, Rod felt that that his time was respectfully completed. He spent a few years looking for his next teacher and found that in Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, the successor to Swami Rama’s lineage and leader of the Himalayan Institute.
“I’ve been around two great masters and had the opportunity to observe their immense power and enthusiasm. Once you are around that, it’s impossible not to aspire to be like them,” Rod says. What’s it like for someone so accomplished to start working with his new teacher? While it’s an intimate and personal subject for anyone, he revealed that what directly changed was his meditation. “After he initiated me, I realized that I had been preparing for 20 years to meet him and be part of the tradition of the Himalayan sages.” He explained that spiritual awakening happens most often in a systematic manner and “for that you need the guidance of someone who has done the steps and then can lead you through them.”
He reiterated that the whole point of Tantra is to have more fun. “We do these practices to be more alive, to be more joyful and to be the most courageous that we can possibly be. It’s about life. Are we moving to the other side of our fears and learning how to live more fully? Can we change our shortcomings and increase our optimism and our sensitivity?”
And how does a yoga master have fun when he’s not writing or traveling around the globe teaching others? On the mat it’s in paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) and mayurasana (Forearm Balance). And off the mat? “Spending time with my wife and kids,” he says, “and pottery and surfing.” Since it’s all part of the practice of Tantra, life as a whole becomes glorious.
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