Some Cincinnati residents identify with the city's national reputation for sexual conservatism. But others have a decidedly more relaxed view of human sexuality.
Forty such people attended a seminar March 26-28 on Tantra Yoga — a system of techniques often exercised during sexual intercourse. The seminar was conducted by Bodhi Avinasha, an international Tantra instructor and co-author of Jewel in the Lotus: The Tantric Path to Higher Consciousness.
"Americans view Tantra as a way to obtain super sexual powers and become the ultimate lover," Avinasha said. "The sex stuff is a byproduct, not the main goal. The original Tantric scriptures list 111 techniques. Three of them involve sex."
Tantra Yoga is a system of techniques and rituals designed to flush extraneous, distracting thoughts from practitioners' minds and bring about a focused awareness of their connection with the universe. While most forms of yoga attempt to achieve this enlightened state by subduing and calming the body so that the mind can function more clearly, Tantra Yoga increases physical awareness and sensation using stretching, breathing, vocalization and meditation.
Concentration on these heightened sensations pulls the practitioners, known as tantrikas, wholly into the present.
Such Tantric techniques may be practiced alone or incorporated into sexual activity.
Avinasha, a native Californian who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, understands the American preoccupation with the erotic element of Tantra Yoga. As an adult, she said she recognized that her religious values were causing the guilt and depression that she had experienced since her sexuality first appeared. After exploring other Western religions for 10 years, Avinasha discovered Hinduism and Tantra Yoga.
"It was quite a relief to discover that sexuality doesn't have to be repressed, ignored or treated as evil; that it can be celebrated; that sexuality and spirituality, in some religions, are closely related," she said. "Most Americans, because of their religions, spend their lives denying a large, important part of themselves. In Tantra, sex is not your undoing, it is a possible route to spiritual ecstasy. That intrigues people."
But she warns that practicing Tantra Yoga in order to become a better lover or increase the intensity of sexual experiences can only lead to disappointment.
"Tantra, when practiced correctly, will result in intense sexual experiences," she said. "Most 'typical' orgasms are short-lived and localized in one part of the body. Tantra teaches you to take that feeling, prolong it and spread it throughout your body, intensifying it at each stage. But, to achieve that, you have to be totally present with your partner, totally connected with them. You won't get there if you're concentrating on the sex."
Avinasha teaches Ipsalu Tantra, a form of Tantra Yoga that she originated and has taught for almost 13 years. Although Ipsalu retains the core traditions of ancient Tantric teachings, Avinasha has modified those traditions to coincide with modern Western culture.
"Cultures are different, and these differences have to be reflected," she said. "Americans and Europeans are different than Indians and Asians. People will not embrace the important parts of Tantra if it does not interest them and grab them in some way."
Knowing that Americans, even the open-minded, experimental ones who attend her seminars, are conditioned to expect quick results, Avinasha designed Ipsalu Tantra to emphasize those Tantric techniques that bring about immediately noticeable physical and spiritual sensations. This accelerated form of Tantra provides people with proof that it works, she said.
Other modifications to traditional Tantra include the introduction of emotional clearing, a Western therapeutic practice. Participants are encouraged to uncover, confront and rid themselves of painful memories.
"The residue of painful experiences inhibits the flow of energy," she said. "Tantrism can be difficult because it can bring these difficult memories into light. This is the price that is paid for all of the benefits."
But 40 people were willing to pay this price, along with $295 for techniques, which according to promotional materials, "unlock the highest levels of physical and spiritual ecstasy."
Most attendees of Avinasha's seminars are middle-aged and older — she would rather not have students under 30 — and most have explored the offerings of many spiritual traditions, both Eastern and Western. After attending the seminar some feel like they have come home, others are startled by the intensity of the experience and still others are scared, she said.
"The unknown is scary," she said. "They are comfortable in their current lives, even if they aren't as happy as they could be. Tantra asks them to try something totally different and unknown, something that can really change their lives."
Intense emotional exchanges at her weekend seminars have resulted in both marriages, as like-minded people connected, and divorces, as couples realized that they are together for the wrong reasons, she said.
The seminar was comprised of lectures on Tantric philosophy; stretching, breathing and sensory heightening exercises; and instructions on meditation. Although no sexual activity was displayed at the seminar, Avinasha discusses sexual practices. She also stresses the importance of non-sexual intimacy, authentic emotional exchange and the breaking down of interpersonal boundaries.
Participants are encouraged to maintain a short, daily regimen of breathing, meditating, and stretching exercises. They also receive three follow-up correspondence lessons.
"These seminars can bring about dramatic changes in their lives," she said. "It's important that they have someone to talk to who's been through those changes."
Dick and Antoinette Asimus, residents of College Hill and participants in Avinasha's teacher training program, organized the weekend seminar. They also will conduct a less intense, three-hour evening seminar April 23 at Northern Hills Fellowship, 460 Fleming Rd. in Western Hills. For more information, call 931-3030.