Blindfolded, I sit on cushions with my back against the wall in a room full of strangers. I wait while the other participants are led in and seated. My eyes had been covered before I entered, so I am completely disorientated; I’ve no idea of the proportions of the room, nor of my proximity to others.
A gong sounds and I feel it vibrating through my body. Music follows, then a thunderstorm, and the sound of delicious rain. As the evening progresses, I’m treated to a symphony of the senses: there is scent; fruit is placed in my mouth; a feather is brushed over my bare arms. My thoughts fall silent as I become totally absorbed in anticipating the next sensation.
An hour earlier, I’d planned to run away. This is my first workshop with the Shakti School of Sexuality and Tantra, and, when I arrived, my fear was overwhelming. Most of us have heard the phrase ‘tantric sex’, but few of us know what it really means. Would I be asked to take off my clothes? Would people have sex? Would strangers touch me? Would I feel obliged to do something that I’d later regret? As it is, after the first evening of ‘awakening my senses’, I am still fully clothed and no one has invaded my space.
Feel the fear, and do it anyway
So, why try something that frightens me so much? My recent divorce has led me to reassess my love life. My introduction to sex wasn’t positive and, since then, I have lurched between prudishness and pleasing others, according to my perceived societal expectations, never delving too deeply into what I crave: a slower, more sensual experience. I am keen to explore my sexuality in a new way. But, how am I going to guarantee I won’t repeat previous mistakes?
Tantra, surely, can offer beginners something different? It seems a better option than picking up men in bars, or creating a Tinder profile. An ancient Hindu practice, the Sanskrit word ‘tantra’ means ‘to weave together’, which, in this instance, refers to uniting the masculine and feminine; the sexual and spiritual.
Founder of Shakti Tantra, Hilly Spenceley, says, ‘Tantra is really about expanding your consciousness through the medium of sex. To begin with, it’s about slowing down, letting go of the goal of orgasm, and being able to luxuriate in that place of being turned on, of pleasure, and awakening all your senses. With practice, this can become a sacred place but, before you can start this journey, it’s essential to learn how to communicate clearly what you like and don’t like.’
Yes... no... wait!
On the second day, newbies such as myself huddle together for moral support and giggle as seasoned participants swap sweatpants and T-shirts for sarongs. After exercises involving movement, meditation and sharing reasons for attending, our group of 12 is divided in two. One half lie on cushions and don blindfolds. The remaining six pick a blindfolded partner with the intention of exploring how we like, or don’t like, to be touched. This is exactly the kind of touchy-feely exercise I dreaded. But there are rules that put me in control, and my response surprises me.
At last, I am in charge
Those wearing blindfolds have to instruct ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘wait’, and the person touching them must obey the command. Not only am I expected to verbalise my wishes, I can change my mind at any point, which is both empowering and thrilling. It allows me to say ‘yes’ to sensations that I hadn’t expected to like. I discover that I enjoy my stomach being tickled without knowing who is doing the tickling and, when my top is lifted, I find it exciting to feel a hand grazing across my bra.
The exercise allows me more control than I have ever experienced with a partner: extraordinary, but true. Workshop leader, Becky Price, explains that one of the key purposes of the introductory tantra course, along with awakening the senses, is to lay the foundation for ‘clear communication’. ‘You can’t explore tantra, or tantric sex, if you don’t listen to yourself and express what you hear. It’s how we give consent. It’s not only essential for tantric practice but you can’t experience “relationship” until you have developed your own sense of authority.’
The following morning, my exhilaration from the previous day is gone. Fear of what’s to come triggers emotions from my past. I don’t want anyone in my space; especially not men. They have overstepped boundaries all my life; I don’t want to let them in now. When the next activity is revealed, my heart pounds. The teachers demonstrate a sensual touch practice, in which a ‘partner’ spends 20 minutes running their fingers from your toes, to your head and back. Men and women are randomly paired. I looked around to see if there are any other refusals but, instead, some people are disrobing. I felt guilty, but I tell my male partner that I do not want to participate.
My feelings do count
While I sit out of the exercise, all the beliefs and judgements I have around sex flood through me. Am I being judged? Am I a spoilsport? A prude? Have I hurt the man’s feelings? Have I let the course leaders down? I notice my thoughts are focused on pleasing others, not myself. When the practice is over, I’m in tears, but these aren’t emotions of sadness, nor guilt for not joining in – instead, having honoured my feelings, I experience deep sorrow for the times I have not been able to look after myself in the same way.
After the workshop, I discuss the exercise with Spenceley. I fear being criticised for ducking out of one of the most sensual exercises of the course, but her response is the opposite.
‘I had a similar experience years ago,’ she explains. ‘No one would work with one man, and I said I would. I wanted to be a ‘good’ participant, but I really didn’t want to take part. In the end, I ran out. Instead of admonishing me, my teacher congratulated me. He said, ‘‘If you can’t say no, what value is your yes?’’ It was one of the most important things I learned. Before embarking on a journey into tantric sex, you must have a clear “no” and “yes”; only then can you begin to understand your body, and explore your sensuality and sexuality more deeply.’
Having the sex I want
The Monday following the weekend workshop, I feel happy. I have part of the answer to why it’s been so difficult for me to get my sexual needs met – I don’t have the communication skills to ask for what I want.
In the following weeks, I try out my new skills. I make time to listen to myself, and practise expressing my desires. I dare to invite a man over for sex and, albeit in a small way, I experiment with a more sensual, slower approach, led by me, and not him. I know I can’t change the patterns of a lifetime immediately, but I can see that, with practice, the lessons that I have learned on the course could transform my life.
This is the beginning of a year-long journey I’m undertaking on the Shakti Tantra programme. I hope to discover a new way of enjoying my sensuality, sexuality and relationships.
Karla Newbey attended the Awakenings mixed workshop, run by Annabel Newfield and Becky Price at Shakti School of Sexuality and Tantra. The school was founded by Hilly Spenceley, who later co-created the retreat programme, with Sue Newsome. It offers mixed, women’s and couple’s workshops as well as one-to-one sessions.