Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Arousal, Imagery, and Breath Control

Keeping your attention focused on the sensations in one region of the body for an extended period of time isn’t easy, particularly at first. It turns out that this is much easier if you create some way to visualize the whole process.

And, in fact, everyone I’ve talked to about Tantra uses some type of mental image of “sexual energy” to help guide their attention. Most people seem to visualize it as looking something like ball lightning, or a ball of flame, or a churning hot liquid, such as lava or steam. Geysers and volcanoes are often mentioned, as the hot liquid gradually fills the underground chamber (the body) and then explodes outward during the orgasm.

(The most unusual image I’ve heard of is from a woman who said she imagined a huge steaming muffin or giant loaf of bread, rising inside her. For her, this best captured the feeling that it wasn’t something coming from outside, but rather something that starts out small and dense, like a lump of dough in a pan, and that keeps expanding inside her, filling every nook and cranny as it grows.)

Because Tantra shares a lot of history and cultural context with yoga, especially Kundalini yoga, many Tantrics also use the chakra imagery that is frequently taught in yoga classes. This idea of a hierarchy of chakras is not essential to the practice of Tantric sex. It was a relatively late 8th or 9th century Buddhist addition, coming at least a thousand years after Tantric sex was discovered, and the version of Kundalini yoga common in America is actually a 20th century invention, so we use these terms only for convenience.

In this modern neo-Kundalini, the chakras are described as seven way stations along one or more channels, or nadis, that go from the base of the pelvis to the top of the head, parallel to the spine. Sexual energy, often called Shakti energy or Kundalini energy, is described as being coiled like a snake around the bottom-most chakra, which is located at the perineum, the area between the anus and the genitals. The next chakra is behind the navel, followed by one at the level of the solar plexus, one at the level of the heart, one in the area of the throat, one centered in the forehead, and one at the very top of the head.

Kundalini yoga is often described in terms of using meditation to awaken this sexual energy, causing it to uncoil and expand upward. By focusing on each chakra in turn, the yogi can draw this energy slowly upward, purifying it and “unblocking” and energizing each region of the body in turn, until it reaches the topmost chakra, generating intense feelings of enlightenment and supposedly curing diseases and granting great magical powers.

Stripped of the chakra/nadi language and the magical claims, this is a reasonably coherent description of the process of extending sexual arousal from the groin up through the trunk and the rest of the body, except that it is being done without a partner and without sex, solely through the power of imagination … a truly impressive feat!

The Kundalini approach to meditation derives directly from “right-handed” Tantra, the attempt to capture the “true spiritual essence” of Tantra without all the grubby, messy, earthly grunting and rutting of “left handed” sexual Tantra. At some point long ago, someone decided that Tantric sex is just too accessible and way too much fun to be a powerful, secret, holy ritual! So the comparative simplicity of Tantra had to be turned into something really, really hard, something that only a dedicated mystic can do, and only after years and years of study and meditation.

In any event, the imagery of chakras is commonplace, so we often borrow these terms and use them to talk about what we do. I can say that I extended the area of sexual arousal from my pelvis to my belly to the base of my chest during yoni massage, or I can say that I moved my "Kundalini energy" from my second to my third to my fourth chakra. It means exactly the same thing.

The one mismatch in language is that ordinary people who actually practice Tantra tend to discard the idea of energy rising through a narrow channel in favor of seeing the whole body as a vessel that fills with energy. Books and articles about Tantra often do describe it in terms of channels, but as far as I’ve been able to tell, practicing Tantrics rarely do, or do so only as a kind of shorthand. The physical experience of expanding tumescence just doesn’t match the mystical image of energy rising up through a narrow tube.

There is no underlying physical truth, no “right” answer here, so you can suit yourself. Try several images and see what works best for you. Once you have experienced this spreading sexual tension for yourself, go with whatever imagery best fits your own physical sensations and best allows you to visualize and control them.

Breath Control

So far, we’ve discussed breathing in the context of general meditation and couple meditation, where breath control has the role, respectively, of occupying the attention with something rather boring and of helping the couple get in synch with each other and build trust and intimacy.

But during the massage phase, it also functions to help us control the pace of arousal. We all know the way that sexual arousal naturally causes an increase in both the depth and speed of breathing. “Breathing hard” is one of the most obvious signs of arousal and approaching orgasm.

Like most things involving mind and body, this also works backwards, at least to a degree. If you breathe slowly and evenly, you can fool your brain into thinking that you aren’t really all that aroused. Some people find this more useful than others, but most people can do it to at least some extent.

Just as importantly, your breathing can be an important signal to your partner during the arousal extension process. If it speeds up OR you start to hold your breath, your partner should slow down and remind you to breathe slowly.

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