by Sharon Steffensen
This article originally appeared in YOGAChicago, May–June 2001
Rod Stryker begins the workshop with an asana practice since most of the workshop participants have been working all day and sitting in rush-hour traffic. After the kinks are worked out of our bodies, he goes to the board and asks, “How many of you think this is Tantra?” and he writes, “Tantra = Yoga + Sex.” When the laughter dies down, he proceeds to tell us what it is.
This is Rod Stryker’s first workshop in Chicago, held at Moksha Yoga Center, March 23-25. He is based in Los Angeles, holds the title of Yogiraj (master of Yoga) and has been teaching Tantra yoga for 22 years, since the age of 21. Rod’s teacher is Mani Finger who studied first with Yogananda, whom he met by chance at a lecture in Los Angeles at a hotel where Finger was staying. When Yogananda died, Finger studied with Sivananda in India, then Venkatesananda, and then a Tantric hermit named Bharati, who had lived in a cave for 17 years. When Bharati came out of the cave, he translated all of Shakespeare into Hindi, says Rod, and then took on nine students. Mani Finger was one of them.
Like other yoga traditions, Tantra acknowledges the eight limbs of yoga as outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. In this system, however, asana comes first, followed by the yamas and niyamas (the observances and abstinences of yoga philosophy). Rod says that if you do Tantric practices, “your actions start to become right spontaneously. You will think right and start to act in more right ways. You become more sensitive. The things that don’t work will drop away by themselves.”
With classical hatha yoga at its base, Tantra incorporates the other systems of yoga (Raja, Jnana, Kriya, Bhakti, Karma, Mantra, aya, and Kundalini (or Shakti) as well as many other techniques and systems. These include Ayurveda, astrology, gemology, ritual, Swara (which refers to the control and subtle mastery of prana), ceremony, propitiating of the divine forces, chanting, mudra, Bandhas, visualization, Bhavana (cultivating feelings), and nyasa (placing consciousness in different parts of our body). “Oh yes, and maithuna, meaning ‘to make one,’ which includes sexual practices,” adds Rod.
The word Tantra means “to weave.” In this system we are weaving spiritual experience into the fabric of everyday life,” says Rod. In fact, the goal of Tantra yoga is three-fold: to thrive, to prosper, and to tear down the wall between the spiritual world and the material world. “it doesn’t matter if you can’t wrap your leg around your head,” says Rod. Tantra yoga shows us what is blocking us from thriving, and offers techniques that will help us attain spiritual and material prosperity.
To explain why we are the way we are and how we can change ourselves back to the way nature intended us to be–happy, thriving and prosperous on all levels–Rod explains what happens at birth. “At the moment of our conception, something profound and unique happens: the perfect merging of spirit and matter in an individualized form. In that moment there is a calibration or a resonance of the three doshas. [Dosha means “defect”–that which has a tendency to go out of balance.] that exact calibration is your blueprint for freedom. Ayurveda [the sister science of yoga dealing with medicine] is a discipline and a process to help us return to what we were when we were conceived.”
At the moment of conception, we are pristine. Afterward, various factors come into play to cause imbalances: our mother’s diet, her fears and anxieties while we’re in the womb, and planetary alignment at the moment we’re born. Later we are conditioned by our parents, teachers, and society, taking us further from our pure selves.
Consider also that each of us has our own unique dharma–who we are supposed to be in this lifetime. Rod says, “According to the Vedas, you can’t be happy with who you are unless you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. Any attempt to be other than what we are will bring unhappiness.”
Through Tantric practices we “reweave” the fabric of our consciousness to our original state so we can know what our dharma is and be the best that we can be. Rod describes it as a science of energy management. “There is no energy in your body that is not in the world,” he says. “If you can master the energy in your body, you can master the world. At a certain level of consciousness, the stars no longer command us. We command the stars.”
First of all we need to ask ourselves why we practice yoga, says Rod. If it is to become calm, ask yourself why you want to become calm. Why do you want peace? Why do you want to find God? “The real reason,” says Rod, “is because life is very short and we all want more capacity in our lives…It’s about wanting–in this short thing called life–to make it count…It may be controversial to you, [but] if you don’t want power– you only want to know God–the reason you want to know God is so you can be more capable in your life.” Besides, says Rod, it’s not the meek, but the powerful and the excellent who inherit the earth–but at the same time, don’t be attached.
Rod says one of the most common reasons for coming to yoga is that it gives us a “high.” We run away from our stressful lives into yoga class and “get stoned” on yoga. Through asana practice, we have reduced the symptoms of our anxieties and stresses, but we have not reshaped the causes of our stresses. We leave class feeling peaceful, somebody spills coffee on our computer, and the peace is gone. “The quality of the experience in the yoga room has to extend into your life,” says Rod.
He continues, “Your world is a reflection of you. If you want to know who you are, look at your world. The world is not a reflection of what you want; it is a reflection of you. What we need to do is look at the areas of our life where we are not thriving.”
One way we can make changes in our world is by working with the pranayama kosha, or energy body. Our responses to life are related to our energy boy, says Rod. As we go through life having experiences, we are left with Samskaras, which are impressions, or “scars,” that influence our perception and our future responses to situations. These Samskaras change the way prana flows through our bodies. Until we correct that impression, energy is blocked to a specific chakra in the energy body. Through pranayama techniques practiced under the guidance of a qualified teacher, we can reopen these blockages so the prana, or energy, can again flow into the chakra.
The foundational step in Tantra yoga is asana practice, to get the energy moving. Rod combines vigorous vinyasa flows, classical postures and longer holds in the asana portion of the workshop. We practice pranayama, visualization and sound while holding different poses.
Another element is the use of Bandhas (locks) in the poses, to control or correct deficiencies in the energy body. Bandhas occur at the perineum (or just above the cervix for women), the navel, and the throat. Employing the Bandhas involves a pulling up of the perenium or cervix, a pulling in of the abdominal muscles, and a slight pulling back of the head, respectively. The fourth Bandha is holding all three.
Rod explains that when we employ the Bandhas, we create a stoppage in the stream of our subconsioucs mind. When we stop the stream, we get to see what’s in our stream instead of letting it flow by. It’s a process by which we can stop the momentum and access some of the “stuff” in our subconscious minds. Once we are aware of it, we can make changes. The most powerful Bandha is talking less. “Most of what you say isn’t going to make any difference,” says Rod. “Choose where you will put your energy.”
Although he leads a strong asana practice in the workshop, Rod also advocated doing easy poses while employing Bandhas (locks) and specific breathing patterns. By working less physically , we can divert our attention to the deeper practice, accessing the subconscious and experiencing a deeper effect. And by changing our breathing patterns, we can also change our thinking [atterns. Certain psychological states can be confronted when we add a hold after an exhalation, for example.
Another way to control our energy is through Jathara agni, or heat. Through heat in the belly, we metabolize food, absorb the nutrients and release the waste; likewise in life experiences, we need to absorb what will nourish us and release the waste. In the Tantric tradition, prana sustains life; Shakti (power, or capacity) creates it. Shakti relates to the divine power that is everywhere, says Rod. We can make changes in our life through an incrase of Shakti, which is enlivened through agni. Through pranayama practices of reversing the flow of prana (the ascending breath) and apana (associated with the downward movement), heat is built and Shakti is enlarged.
Reverence is another way to make Shakti part of our lives. “it is deep respect from where you come,” says Rod. “great seers never needed asana because it was through their faith that the divine appeared to them.” In fact, if awareness of the divine is not part of your life, it’s not because you are not a good yogi, says Rod. “all you need to do is create a change in the subtle energy of your own body. It is an alchemy that occurs that allows you to relate to the divine on a consistent basis.”
Kriya techniques are also part of Tantra yoga. “Kriya makes the mind move in a productive way that eventually causes the mind to be still,” says Rod. “The deeper parts of the mind and soul are revealed. The teachings of Yogananda are the most well know, and even though thery are held secret–and should be secret–there are many kinds of kriyas that don’t hav to be held so close to the chest.” One is to become more aware of the subtle presence of the underlying reality through meditating on the concept, “Life is a gift from the Divine.”
The goal of meditation is to experience that part of ourselves that does not change. Unlike Vipassana style meditation where there is the observer watching the mind, Rod says once this distinction is made, the objective is to begin to see the seer. The definition of yoga is union, to connect. If you are only watching what you need to separate from, that’s not yoga. That’s a form of disconnection. Rather, we affirm “Aham Brahmasmi,” which means “I am one with the Absolute.”
This affirmation is powerful in connecting the spiritual with the mundane. It is only when the mind is quiet that we can be aware of this connection. Even as we are involved and fully committed in our lives, at all thimes we can be aware of the presence of the Absolute.
“Recognize the divinity,” says Rod. “Take it into your everyday life. The path of yoga is paved with three things: 1) Tapas–purification and practice, 2) svadhyaya–self-study, reading spiritual texts, looking at your actions and how you are perceived in the world because that is how you are; and 3) lay at the feet of the lord the fruit of your actions.”