Tantra Therapy: Weaving Health and Spirituality
Tantra’s diverse approaches to health are as subtle and esoteric as they are powerful. Here, five advanced practices give you direct access to an unbounded pool of vital energy essential to tantric healing.
By Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
The scope of tantric healing is vast. It stretches from healing our body and mind to healing our families, our communities, and the world of nature. For me, a comprehensive understanding of the breadth and power of tantric healing has been the work of a lifetime. I have been exposed to tantra and tantric healers since I was a child. Initially, my attention was captured by the miracles I witnessed in the village where I was born and by the extraordinary powers people attributed to tantric practitioners. But when I met my first “formal” tantric teacher, Swami Sadananda, my understanding of tantra and tantric healing expanded dramatically.
I had my first direct experience with tantric healing in 1973 when I was a graduate student at the University of Allahabad. In those days, tantric studies and practices occupied more of my time and energy than did my academic pursuits, so I could usually be found at Swami Sadananda’s ashram. One day I received disturbing news from my family back in the village. My sisters told me that for weeks my mother had been having excruciating headaches and now had lost her eyesight. Not knowing what to do, I told Swami Sadananda about my mother’s condition and asked if he could cure her. His first response was to recite a passage from the scriptures, which can be translated as, “The sun is the soul of the universe and everything that lives in it.” Then he said, “Worry is no solution to any problem. Do the recitation of Aditya Hridayam [a set of mantras dedicated to the Sun God] and your mother will be healed within twelve days.”
I had seen Swami Sadananda healing people, but had never imagined myself healing someone by reciting a prayer. However, I did as I was told. Within a few days, my mother began feeling better and by the 12th day she was cured. I told Swami Sadananda I attributed this healing to his blessings, but he dismissed my statement by explaining the power of prayer and the dynamics of distant healing.
Soon after this, I saw another facet of the tantric approach to healing when a man suffering from violent epileptic fits came to the ashram. Swami Sadananda advised him to feed wild birds, ants, and other insects every day for the next six months before taking his first meal of the day. He further instructed this man to feed the birds and insects with his own hand, and to do it lovingly and patiently. So every morning he scattered grains under the trees, put flour near ant holes, and fed puffed rice to fish and frogs. Within a month, both the frequency and the intensity of his fits diminished. Within six months, he was completely cured.
Swami Sadananda explained that this cure was an example of karmic healing. When I asked him how karmic healing works, he replied, “In this grand web of life, all of us are interconnected. What we do to others we also do to ourselves in one way or another. By feeding birds and insects, we feed ourselves. By providing nourishment to these creatures, we nourish ourselves.”
I asked him how it is that we heal and nurture ourselves by feeding insects and birds and why feeding people does not yield the same result. “Wild animals and insects are much closer to nature than human beings,” he explained. “Nature contains and guards our karmic pools and these creatures are an integral part of nature. By serving them, we reconnect ourselves with nature and this reconnection reunites us with nature’s healing and nurturing forces. Normally one human serves another out of attachment, pity, guilt, recognition, or dominance, and thus service to other human beings is often contaminated by a subtle agenda. To serve Mother Nature and her nonhuman children, we need wisdom, selflessness, and the purest form of compassion.”
Swami Sadananda went on to explain that wisdom means abiding in the knowledge that everything in nature is an integral part of everything else. That is why maintaining balance and harmony in the natural world is crucial to our own health and healing. By sharing, serving, and making a difference in the world of nature, we are not obliging anyone nor are we seeking recognition or a reward for our kindness. That is how we become selfless. Birds and insects don’t care about what we may or may not expect. When we serve these aspects of nature our efforts are not contaminated by expectation. Serving others without any expectation is the hallmark of the purest form of compassion.
What I found most intriguing about Swami Sadananda’s explanation of the dynamics of karmic healing was the idea that everyone and everything is connected seamlessly in the web of life. We share one planet, one environment, and one life force. We derive our inspiration from one collective consciousness. Prakriti and Mother Nature are names for this all-encompassing web of life. Mother Nature is bigger than our eyes can see and our ears can hear. She is bigger than our narrow understanding of the natural world. She is the embodiment of all forms of subtle forces, including the healing force. All forms of healing—distant healing through prayer, karmic healing through feeding birds and insects, healing through the power of mantra, as well as the esoteric healing accomplished through rituals and the use of sanctified water or herbs—ultimately derive their power from Mother Nature.
In short, Mother Nature is the primordial and infinite pool of all healing forces. Tantrics call Her the Divine Mother. At the individual level, She is Kundalini Shakti. As we saw in the last issue, a vast portion of the powers, potentials, and privileges inherent in Kundalini Shakti lies dormant within us. The fraction of Kundalini Shakti that is awakened and active is called prana shakti. In other words, prana shakti is the manifestation in us of the radiant, indomitable life force. By investing prana shakti wisely and mindfully, we can infuse our body and mind with ever-increasing vitality, stamina, health, and enlightenment. Activating prana shakti and infusing our body and mind with this vibrant force is the core principle of tantric healing.
In yogic literature, the word for a living being is prani (one who has prana). A prani is one whose body and mind are united and nurtured by prana shakti. Prana is the fundamental life force. It holds the body and mind together. When the flow of prana is disrupted or contaminated, we become ill. When it is disconnected, we die. Although prana is not a physical force, it has the power to breathe life into the physical body. The most visible manifestation of prana is the breath, so for all intents and purposes, working with prana shakti entails working with the breath.
The science of breath is one of the most fundamental and ancient discoveries of the yogis in India, Tibet, and the Himalayas. The traditional term for this science is shiva swarodaya (the rising of the energy that transports our core being). Astrologers have used this science to attenuate or negate the ill effects of planetary movements. Clairvoyants have used it to read their clients’ minds. Masters of martial arts have used the force of prana to defeat their opponents. Exorcists in the East have used it to cure various forms of psychoses. However, it is the tantric masters who have developed the most comprehensive set of techniques for increasing, containing, and concentrating prana shakti and applying it in their lives and practices.
For centuries, tantrics have used prana shakti to breathe life into their rituals. For example, a unique tantric procedure, prana pratishtha (impregnating an object with prana), enables tantric rituals to awaken and concentrate the power of mantras, yantras, and mandalas by imbuing them with prana shakti. Tantric adepts use prana shakti to awaken the Kundalini Shakti, and lead Her to a particular chakra. In essence, the countless miracles attributed to tantric practitioners and healers have their source in mastery over the pranic force.
Mastery over the pranic force begins with gaining access to our pelvic, lower abdominal, and navel regions. In tantra, this area of our body and its corresponding psycho-spiritual dimension is known as rudra-kuta (the center of active, vibrant, and radiant energies). All three regions come under the domain of fire, which is most concentrated at the navel center. The soul enters this world through the corridor of the mother’s navel center and also receives nourishment through the mother’s navel center. And after we are born, the navel center continues to play a paramount role in maintaining our overall health and well-being. Many major organs—the ovaries, uterus, testes, kidneys, bladder, and pancreas, as well as the entire digestive system—are controlled by the power that resides at the navel center. That is why gaining access to this center is the first and foremost practice for expanding, intensifying, and mastering the pranic force. Then the prana shakti can be used to heal various aspects of our body and mind. But to heal others or the planet, we not only need to activate our navel center, we also need to further refine and concentrate this force, and then mentally transport it to the person, group of people, or aspect of the natural world that is in need of healing and nurturance.
From the standpoint of acquiring mastery over the pranic force, the entire range of the therapeutics of tantric healing can be presented in five steps: (1) activating the pranic force; (2) churning the pranic force; (3) containing the pranic force; (4) concentrating the pranic force; and (5) applying the pranic force.
The first three steps constitute the core of hatha yoga. According to tantric masters, the purpose of hatha yoga is to enliven and balance the forces of ha (the sun) and tha (the moon), and bring them to a state of balance. Here “sun” and “moon” refer to the active and passive, the masculine and feminine energies within us. The interplay of these two energies not only influences both hemispheres of the brain and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, it also regulates our psycho-neuro-immune system.
1. Activating the pranic force. The simplest way to enliven and balance our sun and moon is to adopt a set of practices that energize our pelvic and abdominal regions and help us gain access to our navel center. Such practices include matsyendrasana, kapotasana, mayurasana, kapalabhati, bhastrika, nauli, and agni sara, to mention only a few. Among these, the practice of agni sara is the key practice for activating the pranic energy at the navel center. In conjunction with these hatha yoga practices, tantric adepts advise the visualization of fire at the navel, the mental repetition of the bija mantra of fire, and the use of ayurvedic herbs to nourish agni.
2. Churning the pranic force. This step entails churning the prana shakti at our navel center. This is done by practicing a tantric kriya known as the Ganesha mudra. With the help of the Ganesha mudra, we churn our pool of prana shakti, forcing the essence of prana—vitality, virility, and youthfulness—to circulate throughout our body.
3. Containing the pranic force. This third step draws on yogic techniques for compressing the prana shakti at the navel center and forcing it to flow upward toward the eyebrow center and beyond. The most powerful among all of those techniques is yoga mudra, a practice that should be done carefully and only within your own capacity. (See “Mastering Prana” below to learn more about agni sara, Ganesha mudra, and yoga mudra.)
4. Concentrating the pranic force. This is a purely tantric technique known as prana dharana. The first step of this practice was detailed in the last issue. As we saw in that article, on the surface the prana dharana practice resembles bhastrika pranayama, but with a slight constriction at the throat and a focus on the movement of the breath as it brushes and stimulates the soft palate. This awakens the energy that surrounds and fills the space where our pituitary gland is located, an area that is the biggest vortex of prana shakti in the human body. It is important to remember that it is not the duration of the practice but the precision and coordination of the mind and breath that allows consciousness to penetrate the infinite vortex of the pranic force and gain mastery over it. As we master this practice, prana shakti becomes more and more concentrated in the region of the pituitary gland. At some point, this pranic concentration begins to glow. In the language of tantra, this glow is called “the third eye of Shiva” and is the source of all revelations and healing forces. (Learn more about this practice and watch a video demo.)
5. Applying the pranic force. The fifth step consists of techniques for transporting the concentrated pranic force to a specific destination—a particular person, family, community, or aspect of the natural world that is in need of healing and nurturance. In tantric literature, this final step is known as preshana and prayoga, the transporting of prana shakti and the precise application of prana shakti, respectively. For ages, tantric practitioners have used this technique to heal others.
Today this same technique can be used to heal the anxiety, depression, immune system disorders, inner unrest, and environmental degradation that are the hallmark of our age. Tantric healing rests on the knowledge that the world and everything it contains is supported and nourished by the beneficent and all-encompassing matrix of Kundalini Shakti. Following in the footsteps of the tantric masters, we can invest our prana shakti, the awakened aspect of Kundalini Shakti within us, to infuse ourselves, our communities, and the natural world with vitality, enlightenment, and vibrant health.
The descriptions below offer an entry point to three advanced hatha yoga practices which can help you gain access to the healing power of the pranic force at the navel center. All require proficiency with bandhas, guidance from an experienced teacher, and consistent prolonged practice.
Bend the knees and support your torso with your hands on the thighs. Exhale and squeeze the abdominal wall toward the spine. Inhale and relax, releasing the belly. Repeat, engaging as deeply as possible, and relaxing as completely as possible. If you are menstruating, or pregnant, or have a hiatal hernia or cardiovascular problems, do only this much.
To deepen the practice, exhale and engage mula bandha by contracting the pelvic floor and the sphincters between the pubic bone and the tailbone, as well as the lower belly. Then contract the mid and upper abdomen. Relax slowly but completely on the inhalation. Both the inhalation and the exhalation should be smooth, slow, and deep. On the exhalation make an extra effort to work deep in the pelvic floor.
To further deepen the practice, while exhaling, contract in a wavelike motion, starting with the pelvic floor and moving up through the belly to the diaphragm. With the breath held out, tuck the chin and draw the whole abdomen and diaphragm up under the ribs. (This is uddiyana bandha; for more instructions, see Samana Vayu: The Breath of Balance.) Next, release the diaphragm and begin to inhale, first releasing the upper belly, then the lower belly, and then the pelvic floor. Repeat this, working with depth and control.
Practice on an empty stomach once or twice a day. A good beginning practice is three to five repetitions per minute for 5 to 10 minutes.
Sit on your heels with your hands on the floor in front of your knees. Exhale strongly, contract deep in the lower belly, and rotate the pelvis and spine to the right, front, left, and center. Inhale, and without pausing, exhale and repeat. Exhale as deeply as possible, using the abdominal muscles to churn the energy of the navel center and bring it up through the spine. Work fluidly and with as much movement as possible: the entire body rotates from its core, rooted in the pelvis. Repeat in the opposite direction.
The whole spine will feel warm and flexible. This practice is like a sideways, full-body agni sara—drawing up out of the pelvis with the exhalation—and then churning the energy to send it through the whole body. A half-dozen rotations in each direction is a good starting practice.
Sit in padmasana (or cross-legged), cup the hands and bring the little finger edge of the hands into the lower belly. Exhale, press the hands in and scoop the belly up as you bend forward, applying mula bandha and uddiyana bandha. Rest the forehead on the floor. Release the upper abdomen and inhale gently. The breath should be subtle and slow. Keep the forehead on the floor and maintain the stabilizing contraction in the pelvic floor as you continue to work deeply with the breath: on each exhalation, gradually squeeze the whole abdomen, and on each inhalation, slowly expand above the pressure of the hands in the lower belly.
Practice for several minutes, but only to your comfortable capacity. Make sure there is no pressure on the heart or lungs. To release, inhale and unfold from the hip joints.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD, is the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute. A teacher, lecturer, Sanskrit scholar, and author, he has practiced yoga and tantra for more than 30 years.
Watch a video demonstrations of agni sara.