Reporter's Notebook: Attending an Eye-Opening Tantric Sex Workshop

Siri E. Nilsson, ABC News Medicl Unit, July 18, 2006

I didn't think I could stare a stranger in the eyes for more than 30 seconds without giggling.

I also couldn't ever imagine wanting to confess my deepest emotional needs to a total stranger.

My perspectives on life and sexuality changed completely when I did these things -- at a recent workshop on tantric sex.

Despite the workshop's title, it was actually quite the educational experience -- and totally clean, I promise.

I attend medical conferences as part of my job with the ABC News Medical Unit. Some conference agendas are fairly straightforward and dry, but the agenda of the recent meeting of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Therapists, and Counselors actually made for a good read, like the conference's discussion on "triads" -- or couples that include one more person in the sexual relationship.

The association is the only national professional organization that certifies qualified health and mental health practitioners to "expertly and ethically deal with the sexuality concerns of individuals and couples."

Wandering around the conference, I stumbled into a room full of qualified practitioners who would soon know me a little bit better.

It was a workshop on tantra -- a sort of spiritual practice that many people think is about sex and only sex.

But "tantra is not just about sex," said Sally Valentine, a sex therapist who ran the workshop. "Tantra can be very healing to individuals and couples and can enhance sexual, emotional and spiritual intimacy."

I was a bit skeptical.

However, I soon found myself practicing "tantric methods of intimacy and honoring," all of which were entirely nonsexual and involved no physical contact.

The exercises I did, like reciprocal breathing and "soul gazing," are supposed to help people become more "present" so they can be more aware of and comfortable with their feelings.

That makes sense because the word "tantra" comes from ancient Sanskrit, meaning "expression of awareness."

"Tantra is supposed to be a sort of life meditation," said Dr. Judy Kuriansky, a clinical psychology professor at Columbia University and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tantric Sex."

"Much of it is about breath and controlling the movement of your own energies. It's very spiritual."

Tantra came into existence as a spiritual practice, and existed in India and other parts of Asia before political, religious and cultural upheavals forced the practice underground.

The practice is now gathering attention in the United States, as a "spiritual practice that reveres spiritual sex," Valentine said.

Experts emphasize that, although tantric practice reveres sex, it has nothing to do with the "bigger, better, longer, faster" sexual messages that fill most magazines and movie screens.

Those sexual messages led to the idea of tantric sex, such that most people think only of Sting and silk sheets when they hear the word "tantra."

Perhaps the most-famous tantric practitioner is the rock star, Sting, who, like sex therapists, takes issue with its misinterpreted reputation.

"It's about a 'journey,'" he said to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian. "There is some serious information about couples and how they can relate, and sex is only a tiny proportion of it."

In reality, tantra is more than that -- it helped me to focus on myself, if only for a few hours.

I was even able to comfortably hold hands with a person I had never seen before that workshop, and I felt remarkably at peace for the next few days.

I think that's what it comes down to: relaxation.

Relaxation -- like the sort provided by a massage, a vacation, or a workshop on tantric sex -- often leads to happiness. In or out of the bedroom.

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