Monday, 10 December 2012

Fantasy Island: Life in a Tantric Community

Koh Phangan - the fantasy island where I lived.
Photo courtesy of the gorgeously talented Clara Jansen
In Cambodia I fell ill again. Very ill. In fact so ill that I was trapped in a hotel room for several days, unable even to clamber down the 4 flights of stairs to get fresh water. I paid a Khmer man in the corridor to go and fetch me some. He came back with a bottle half filled. I couldn't trust it. I didn't drink water for 2 days and I watched myself waste away in the mirror as ants crawled up the walls. Losing weight was supposed to be a good thing but my cheeks were sunken and even my (formerly rather buxom) chest began to wither and sag. I felt alone and scared. I had to get out of Cambodia but I was trapped on a border town without my passport (on a last minute whim I had paid someone to send it back to Phnom Penh to get a 2 month Thai visa stamped in). Yet again I had to trust that it would come back to me on a local bus. I had to hope that I would get better. The days were drawing nearer to a course I had signed up to in Thailand. I held my breath. The passport arrived as promised. 

The beach that I would come to live on on KPN photo c/o Clara again
View from my beach hut on Koh Phangan
I spent a very uncomfortable day completely nil by mouth crossing the border into Thailand. Luckily I was amused by some very drunken boys from Devon, here on holiday. “I work in a pub and I drink in a pub. My life is great” said one of them, proudly. I told them I was doing a tantra course in Thailand and they oscillated between being fascinated and making crude jokes. It was to become the first of many conversations I would have about the definition of tantra which, clearly, is universally misunderstood. My first time in Bangkok was again spent sick and mostly inside a hotel room, punctuated only by a trip to hospital. In the end I had to fly down to Ko Phangan because I was too weak to travel by train.

Channelling the Goddess
A long day ensued taking in a bus and boat to Ko Phangan but as the sun was setting emblazoned across a purple and azure sky, the ferry glided over glass waters to the island. Triangular shaped smokey coloured mountains sulked in the background. The gulf islands of Thailand are quite possibly one the most sensationally beautiful places on earth. I wandered about the dusky air of the ferry, rocking with the motion of the boat and pondered how this was a dream come true for me to finally be here. And the next two months would be blissful, living on a beach and doing yoga every day.

Shakti awakens
The reason I had come all of this way was to enrol on a tantra course at the Agama School of yoga. Nobody had recommended it to me, I had simply found it on a Google search late one night on the Chinese island of Hainan. Tantra had come up for me a few times in India but I hadn’t felt ready for it back then. After months of deprivation or 'tapas', I now felt grounded enough in my spirituality to be able to start indulging my senses again. After all those months of sitting in ashrams and meditating, how to start living a normal life again? I believed that tantra was the answer.

The Shiva Hall at Agama, being prepared for a Tantric ritual
I didn't know it at the time but I had stumbled upon a gem with the school. The Sanskrit word 'Agama' is the name of a collection of scriptures which teach the practices of tantra, the most ancient science of India and the root from which the other Indian religions have sprung. Lord Shiva himself, who lived as a great master around 7,000 years ago was one of the proponents of tantra, along with the Aryan nomad tribes who invaded India from the North West. They brought with them the notion of non-dualism which is this: we are inseparable from the divine - we are expressions of God, as is everything around us. "I am that." We came from God and we can return to God and this is enlightenment. 

Shakti Power with Lyonne, another Tantric yogini
I have a lot to say on the matter of tantra, some of which is impossible or inappropriate to include here (please feel free to email me personally if you want to know more). It is a difficult subject to paraphrase but I will try my best. Tantra can be divided into two paths - the Right Handed Path and the Left Handed Path. Christ sat at the right hand of God. In India, the right hand is used for prayer and devotion. The Right Handed Path is that which takes you straight to the divine. Jesus was capable of this, Buddha was capable of this however most human beings, limited by working out karmas and bound by samskaras (imprints left by actions in previous lives), are not.  Most religions emphasise deprivation of the senses to get closer to God - through fasting, celibacy and asceticism. However the tantrics believed that it was possible to use the senses in order to transcend them.


More beautiful Shaktis
The left handed path offers an approach whereby the human body can be used as a tool to overcome itself, to attain 'one-ness' with the divine. The tantrics believed that in the age of Kali Yuga (the age of vice) in which we live, the left handed path is the only realistic path for people born into a life of materialism who are unable or unwilling to give it all up. Tantra provides a healthy route to enlightenment without complete renunciation - it basically involves bringing latent energy from our base chakras (associated with low, physical desires) into higher chakras associated with unconditional love, devotion, expression, intellect, creativity, knowledge and soul. I took to it immediately. The course itself was extremely well presented and inspirational. I was hugely affected by the teachings and the meditations which were so powerful I was often either in tears or flying out of my seat. Having been a reiki healer and member of the Usui reiki network for several years, I was well versed in using energy and I found the techniques of moving it upwards came naturally to me. Being an earthy, sensual woman, I had plenty of energy to use in the first place (a pre requisite for being a tantrica). At last I could use it for something positive.


Me and Joel, one of my gorgeous Shivas
The left handed path prescribes many ways of reaching enlightenment and although much smaller emphasis is given to it in the Shastra (the tantric scriptures) one route is sexuality. The sacred union of Shiva (masculine) and Shakti (feminine). The theory is that polarity exists in this entire universe - night and day, good and bad, yin and yang, black and white, male and female, Shiva and Shakti. Shakti represents energy, creation, manifestation, everything on this earth. Shiva is the consciousness which witnesses the action. Shiva is the eye and Shakti is the storm. Without Shiva, Shakti is nothing. Without Shakti, Shiva is nothing. In tantra, the point at which these two forces unite is the point at which Brahma or 'oneness' can be achieved. It is not only a beautiful notion but a beautiful and sacred practice which is completely undermined by ignorant modern-day interpretations based on new age derivations and activities of celebrities such as Sting.  


In the 'yab yum' with my teacher Assaf who I later
ran a workshop with in Goa
To get to the goal requires not only a very high level of purity of body and mind, but rigorous physical and spiritual training that demands an enormous amount of readiness and preparation. There are two pillars in tantra - sublimation (the raising of the energy) and transfiguration of yourself and your partner - to see them and yourself as an incarnation of the divine and to be as devoted to them as you are to God himself. Ram Dass has put this much bRetter than I ever could so I shall defer to him on this one: "It's all about making love. Make love in beauty, in joy, in seeing each other in truth...Let the man worship woman as God, the Holy Mother, the Divine Shakti, the Mana, the Food of Life, the Sustainer of Being, Isis, Astarte, the Good Earth, Terrible Kali and Herself - All of It. She is all of it. Let the woman worship man as God, the Son, the Sun, the Father, the Lite of Her Life, the Creator, the Provider, as Jesus, as Ram, as Shiva, as Krishna, as all of them and Himself. Surrender and die to one another. Become one. The glorious Mystic rose in the garden of the heavenly Father, Permeate the universe, fill it, become it, for this is the union beyond duality. O Holy Family. This is the seat of the practice."  

My beach hut home
And so it was that I lived in a little hut on the beach replete with hammock to swing in as the waves lapped nearby.. Paradise. I enrolled not only on the Tantra 1 and Tantra 2 courses, but a month long intensive yoga training course (6 days per week), which incorporated asana practice, meditation initiation and lessons, esoteric and mystical teaching, philosophy, laya yoga, lessons in a yogic lifestyle and kriyas (cleansing practices). I also embarked on a 10 day detox in which I ate nothing but brown rice and steamed vegetables and avoided all sugar (even toothpaste) to attempt to rid myself of the parasite that kept thwarting me. 


Nicola, my new friend enjoying raw food made with
love by Sabrina  at Wake Up Bar, Chaloklum
It was tough work but I was helped greatly by my fairy godmother Sabrina of Wake Up restaurant who prepared my raw food with love for the duration). With all of this healing work and yet more devotion to spirituality, things came up but on the whole, life was peachy. Tantra had given me a new and wonderful outlook on life and myself. I appeared to magnetise several men whilst on the island, including a gorgeous 22 year old German who became my tantric partner and together we enjoyed intense and beautiful practice. It had been a long time and I entered into love with him fully, consciously, joyfully and spiritually.  

But it wasn't all a walk in the park and, as with most communities, I found some of the aspects of the Agama 'way' challenging. Some of the members of the community were hard core non-drinking, non-smoking yogis who advocated 'urine therapy' (the daily drinking of one's own urine) and eating only 'yang foods' such as brown rice. I don't have anything against the lifestyle choices of others, but again I defer to Ram Dass on this when it comes to enforced asceticism "you cannot rip the skin from the snake, the snake will shed it's skin when it's ready". Nevertheless, with one notable exception (more on this later) the majority of my time on the island was also spent in sobriety. 

What I found more difficult was the encouragement of polyamoury within the community. Whilst I find the concepts of non ownership and unconditional love something to aspire to, I couldn't help but feeling that there were a few people on the island indulging in 'red tantra' - i.e. sex for the sake of sex. In this way, the ego is indulged, not surpassed and it is very easy to fall into the usual sense-pleasure games under the thin guise of 'spirituality'. They do say the tantric path is a slippery one after all. Although at times tempted, I did manage to successfully avoid getting dragged in. Another of my concerns focused around the ubiquitousness of sexual healing and the occasional unscrupulousness of certain people purporting to be healers whose motives might not be entirely pure. Thankfully the instances of this were peripheral and rare, but nonetheless it was something that I was conscious of and had occasional concerns for those more vulnerable than myself.

Despite this, however, my time on the island was nothing short of transformational. I am now a fully fledged and initiated tantrica and I went on from this to not only complete a tantric yoga teacher training course, but found my own company which runs tantric workshops. We have just launched our first event in Goa which was a great success - you can read all about it on my website and our Facebook page. Perhaps most importantly, I learned what it truly is to be a woman. To surrender. To devote myself to the Divine. To be a good partner. To love myself. And I was about to open myself to such riches that I could not have previously dreamt possible before. For this, I have my lover, Phil to thank, I have my new friends to thank (Johnny, Nicola, Lauren) and I have Agama. Although I don't necessarily sign up to all of their teachings, I think I have found my path.

To be continued... 

1 comment:

  1. I had to drop by your blog after your interesting comment at bloggers meet yesterday.I am loving reading this journal account of your travels and will drop back to catch up on more.My blog is not as factual as yours as it all about food , if time permits do drop by for a visit.

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