What is tantric sex, and how can it help heal sexual trauma?

Yahoo Lifestyle
Having a healthy sex life after enduring sexual trauma can be a journey. (Photo: Getty Images)
Having a healthy sex life after enduring sexual trauma can be a journey. (Photo: Getty Images)

Conversations about sexual violence and trauma have long been overdue but are finally happening. Conversations about how survivors of sexual violence endure and overcome their trauma is of equal importance — and with symptoms ranging from emotional to physical to psychological, physiological, and sexual, there are a host of repercussions. Experts estimate that one in six women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape; similarly, while the precise number is not known, professionals estimate that one in four women will be sexually abused before the age of 18. For many of these women, some of whom have been victimized as adults and children, the struggle to maintain or achieve a fulfilling relationship with their sexuality can be chronic and long-lasting.

While traditional kinds of talk therapy, such as psychoanalysis and cognitive-behavioral therapy, are often helpful in overcoming trauma, they are not always sufficient — particularly where sex and sexuality are concerned. Somatic therapy, which is a type of body-centered therapy that combines psychotherapy with various physical techniques, recognizes that trauma can be as much a part of the body as of the mind. “Somatic” comes from the Greek word soma, which means “body.” According to somatic therapy, trauma symptoms are the result of an unstable autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our past traumas disrupt the ANS and can manifest themselves in a wide variety of physical symptoms. This type of holistic approach can be especially useful for survivors of sexual violence.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

Staci Haines, somatic teacher, practitioner, and author of Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma, agrees. In a 2007 interview with SF Gate, she said, “Many people can understand intellectually what happened to them, but put them in a stressful situation like having sex, and their bodies continue to respond as they did during the abuse. … That’s why somatic therapy is so powerful for recovery. Survivors learn to thaw out the trauma that is stored in their body. They learn to relax and experience physical pleasure, sexual pleasure.”

Most Americans’ understanding of tantra is limited to Sting’s now-infamous boast about his seven-hour lovemaking prowess — but tantra is actually a type of somatic therapy. As such, tantra can be used to help people achieve the same types of goals as traditional talk therapy does, such as better relationships, deeper intimacy, and a more authentic life. Furthermore, while tantra frequently incorporates sexuality into its focus, it’s not solely about sex — though that seems to be how it is most commonly perceived in the West.

Devi Ward, founder of the Institute of Authentic Tantra Education, uses the following definition of tantra for her work: “Tantra traditionally comes from India; it’s an ancient science that uses different techniques and practices to integrate mind, body, and spirit. It’s a spiritual practice whose ultimate goal is to help people fully realize their entitlement to full pleasure. We also use physical techniques to cultivate balance. The best way I have of describing it is it’s a form of yoga that includes sexuality.”

Internationally acclaimed tantra teacher Carla Tara tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “There are about 3,000 different definitions of tantra. One of them is this: Tantra is an interweaving of male and female energies, not just one or the other. I start there. Having both energies means knowing how to give and receive equally. Its basis is equanimity. It’s the foundation for conscious loving and living.”

Using equanimity as a starting point for individual or couples therapy can be useful in every facet of life, but particularly for survivors of sexual violence. “Tantra is important to any kind of healing,” says Tara, “because it teaches you to be present through breathing. Deep, conscious breathing is nourishing for every cell of your body. And they were not nourished when you were abused; they were damaged. This kind of breathing teaches you to be present. These breathing techniques help stop you from returning to the past. This makes it so powerful, and that feeling is so important for people who have been abused. Most people go first to psychotherapy, but for people who have survived sexual violence, it takes touching, not just talk, to heal.”

Yoga’s mental and physical health benefits are well established, making the addition of sexuality an even more promising tool for people struggling to have a more fulfilling sex life. “We use somatic healing,” Ward, who teaches individual and couples classes on-site in British Columbia and internationally, tells Yahoo Lifestyle via Skype. “When we’re traumatized, the body can become tense and tight where we have been injured. We refer to this as body armoring, because the body is storing the trauma in its cells. That kind of tight defensiveness can be impenetrable. But here’s the beautiful thing: When the nervous system is relaxed, it releases trauma. And that is a healing practice. We know that trauma gets stored in the body. Through combining meditation, sexual pleasure, and breathing practice, the body can then learn to let go and release that trauma. And that can look like tears, laughter, orgasms. It depends on the trauma and the person.”

Single or partnered, tantra can be beneficial for anyone looking to have a happier, healthier sex life. “The most promising sexual relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves,” says Ward. “If we don’t have that, how can we expect to show up for our partners? We all deserve to have a celebratory, delightful relationship with our body, but if we have unresolved trauma, we bring all that to our relationship. A lot of relationships we are in tend to be dysfunctional because of our unresolved trauma and wounding.”

When it comes to using tantra to heal from sexual trauma, reading alone won’t cut it. Expert assistance, most often offered in person and online, is recommended. “There [is help for] certain muscle tensions, and things like that, that you can’t get from a book,” says Tara. “You need a person to guide you.” Ward echoes this idea: “Especially if you’re healing trauma, it’s best to have a coach. Humans learn best through modeling. Reading is great, but nothing can substitute what we learn from follow-the-leader.”

Healing from sexual violence is a daunting task, and everyone who struggles to do so has their own personal journey to healing. Each person’s recovery is unique, and tantra can help every survivor. “The body is designed to heal itself,” says Ward. “We just have to learn how to relax and let it happen.”

Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:

Follow us on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter for nonstop inspiration delivered fresh to your feed, every day.


What to Read Next