religion) then you may practise yoga quite perfectly alongside your existing religious beliefs. At no stage will the theory or practices of yoga challenge, threaten or preach against your particular religious beliefs. In fact it will enhance it.
There is however, one branch of yoga which deals specifically with the matters of devotion to, and worship of, a chosen God-ideal. This is called Bhakti Yoga and it is the part of yoga which most closely resembles Hinduism in so far as it encourages an individual's attraction to any particular form of God. Any practising yogi, who is also a God-seeker or God-lover may use the practices of Bhakti Yoga to strengthen his / her own personal relationship with that chosen God-form. Bhakti Yoga has never been a compulsory component of any yoga class I have ever been to or heard of. In those schools and ashrams where it is popular among the devotees, it has always been a take-it-or-leave-it option. In this way, the religious or atheist temperament of any yoga aspirant can be accommodated separately to any particular devotional doctrines taught in the school.
In the Sanscrit language the word tantra arises from two root syllables - "tan" translates as expansion and "tra" as liberation. So the term tantra alludes to the expansion of consciousness and liberation of energy. Why did the ancients name a whole spiritual system in such a way? It was because they saw the human being as an organism made up of two primary elements - consciousness and energy. Rather than just static or accidentally evolving by a life of natural selection, they realised that humans (uniquely) have the ability to consciously control their evolution, dependent on these two interrelated factors. They discovered that to develop more completely and to accelerate this process, a person needs to awaken or liberate their energy from its dormant state, and to expand their awareness - or their level of consciousness. All the philosophical tenets and practices of tantra and yoga are aimed at this outcome.
Tantra is an extremely broad system. It covers a vast collection of life sciences such as:
· The study of mind, consciousness and awareness
· Cosmic creation and dissolution, that is, the causes of the beginning and end of the universe
· The nature and worship of non-physical entities (i.e. Deities, elves, fairies, etc)
· Astronomy and astrology
· The nature of psychic energy, pathways and centres
· Social laws and duties
· Incantations (mantras)
· Ceremonial rites and initiations
· Yoga practices
· Herbal medicines and many other types of healing
· Other physical and subtle sciences.
Tantra teaches that all things in life may be used as aids in the process of personal and worldly discovery. In other words, any experience, no matter how banal or gross it may seem, can be used to expand the consciousness, and any substance, no matter how pure or impure, safe or dangerous, natural or unnatural can be used to awaken the energy.
Now this is quite radical stuff compared with the usual presentations of spiritual life! Many readers may recoil from such concepts and the possibilities they present, but please, let me explain further to allay your fears.
The tantric masters (and mistresses, mind you - many tantrikas are women) in their wisdom, appreciated that such concepts were not to be openly shared around the general masses and the specific practices were best only taught in secrecy to the most advanced and initiated seekers. Therefore, for its whole existence, tantra has been shrouded in mystery, and frequently misunderstood by the uninitiated. It is only in the last few decades, since the yogic renaissance of the 1960's, that tantra has been disseminated away from the forest ashrams and monasteries.
Since tantra is so ancient and so broad, it is not surprising that many of its concepts and practices have permeated into many of the world's religious and spiritual systems, although unfortunately, it has frequently been transmuted into doctrines much removed from its original intents and purposes. Many of tantra's free thinking ideas and practices are today considered taboos by many religious movements who have given it a reputation as occult, demonic, idol worshipping, sorcery. Also, since many tantric artworks depict the union of consciousness and energy - as personified by Shiva and Shakti in sexual union - it has become misunderstood by many people today that tantra is nothing more than the study and practise transcendental sex!