‘So what do you think of it?’
he asked, indicating with a wave of his hand the maroon walls wrapped around a huge four-poster bed hung with matching drapes, the low, breathless music floating somewhere beneath the ceiling, a Moroccan lamp flinging jewel-like points of light across it in the otherwise-darkness. There was an earthy smell of an essential oil, but I couldn’t say which it was.
Moments before I had been wandering up and down the street outside, a short walk from Old Street in East London, turning Google maps this way and that on my phone, searching for the entrance to the Ecstatic Joy Temple. I’m not sure what I expected. Not what I found, eventually, which was a concrete apartment block, an intercom, a number, a corridor, a door at the end of a row of identical doors, all very residential. It was only when the door opened that lights dimmed and everything turned red.
Sat on the edge of the bed opposite me in a t-shirt and jeans, while I perched on a red velvet chaise longue, it was as though this lithe, softly-spoken man was casually asking me if I approved of the establishment’s curtain choice. I muttered some sort of compliment, pushing to one side the thought that he would soon have most of a hand inside of me. Because for women, a Tantric massage culminates in a half-hour yoni massage — inside the vagina — which has the potential not only to enhance orgasmic sensitivity, but also to heal psycho-emotional trauma connected with our sexual experiences. There is no equivalent lingam — penis — massage for men, the emphasis for them being on discovering erogenous zones in other parts of the body.
I’d been given the option of a male or female therapist, whilst men can only opt for a woman. Couples can visit together, though they are massaged in separate rooms so they can each go deeper inwards and focus on their own experience. I wasn’t sure which way to go, it being my first time. They advised I choose a man, and so I did.
‘How did you find out about us?’ he continued.
I explained that a female friend had visited a number of times and had told me it may be the greatest gift I could give myself; a profoundly self-loving experience of wholly receiving. A complete surrendering to a depth of intimacy and consciousness of touch that is too often lacking in our lives. He neither agreed nor disagreed, instead continuing with an explanation of the purpose of Tantric massage.
I would, ideally, be naked, though he would always keep his underwear on and be wholly respectful. He would be doing everything — it’s an entirely one-way process, and my sole job was to try and breathe into the experience. And to immediately let him know if there was anything distracting me. The music, something he might be doing that I’m not comfortable with — anything.
It’s not about reaching for sexual climax, the downward-moving, procreative drive that ultimately depletes our own life force as we release it; the French phrase for the post-orgasm crash, ‘la petite mort’, captures this perfectly. Rather, it’s a method of channelling the extraordinary power of our erotic energy upwards, out of our lower chakras, seat of our rawest instincts to survive and replicate, towards the upper chakras of higher intelligence, intuition and spiritual connection. In the yoga system, which has many overlaps with Chinese medicine too, the chakras are subtle focal points within our bodies, corresponding with our various different organ systems, from reproductive to digestive, circulatory and communication, at which energy can concentrate and shift between our physical and emotional planes. Redirected upwards, this sensual charge can become an uplifting, outward-moving force, vitalising our entire being and the way that we move through our lives, both on our own paths and as we fall into step with others.
Nevertheless, he assured me that he would check, after 90 minutes, whether I’d be happy to go ahead with the yoni massage.
“Just as with your outer body, I’ll feel for tensions, knots, indicators of dis-ease and work with certain points to bring about release. Some of this may feel pleasurable, some of it you may find uncomfortable. It may bring up difficult memories or emotions associated with past sexual experiences.”
He urged me to try to allow things to surface, to witness them, and ultimately, as much as I could, to let their power loosen. And to feel free to express myself in whatever way I may feel the need to. Ultimately, he said, it’s possible to experience a whole-body orgasm. But that is not the goal, and nor should I feel any pressure to get there.
‘This is a very personal question, but how easy do you find it to climax?’
‘That depends on the man,’ I said. ‘How engaged he is, how intuitive and how open to direction… I’m not trigger happy, if that’s what you mean,’ I bookended, intuiting that he might be searching my intentions for being there. He simply nodded.
‘At what stage of your cycle are you?’
‘Ah, plenty of energy to work with, then.’
He smiled, got up and left me to shower in the en-suite bathroom, then lie face down on the bed, naked (although there is always the option to be covered by a towel).
It’s hard to explain why I felt safe and able to relax. Perhaps because I’m a yoga teacher and inhabit my body so fully, unashamed at last. Perhaps because Tantric Hatha yoga is my personal yoga practice, and I’m familiar with and trusting of its ancient tools of energy building, containment and re-direction through movement, breath, meditation and the accessing of certain energy points within the body. I had done some research and I knew that the therapists all have their own deep personal Tantra practice. Perhaps because I entirely trusted the recommendation of my friend, another yoga teacher and also a mental health professional with over a decade of experience. Perhaps because we’d been in lockdown so long, and the expectation of sacred, loving human touch was a source of great comfort rather than fear. Most likely a combination of all these things.
The first stage of the massage felt much like any other massage, its gentle, sweeping movements along the back and arms drawing me gently into the experience.
It was when he moved down to my legs that something lit, chemical cordite shimmering in the field beyond my skin. He leant down hard on my sacrum, according to yoga the sleeping space of kundalini shakti, our powerful, primordial creative energy, dormant in most of us from birth; picked up my entire pelvis and tugged it — and all attached to it — into better alignment. Reached both hands right up underneath my body to my breasts and then pulled his fingertips slowly back downwards again, lightly grazing the softness of inner thigh where it became outer fold. My consciousness shifted into a new plane, the one we can access if our lovers are unhurried, and time is languid. Nothing to get to, no commitments, just the here and now, again and again, as light slips across a day.
He suspended his entire body above mine and massaged the length of me with his chest, knees and shins. Heavy. Energy prickling like static between skin and skin. At some point he asked me to turn over.
I was aroused but it was a whole body-mind arousal. I wasn‘t lost in a hormonal fog; I was present with a kind of ferocity, witness to every speck of sensation, floating in the sensuality of my flesh.
I felt beautiful, revered.
Feminine, mystical, powerful.
Eventually, he positioned himself sitting cross-legged between my legs, my knees falling apart across his thighs, my feet resting somewhere on the bed behind him.
In the past I’ve not always been able to relax into oral sex, a man’s gaze between my thighs. It’s taken time — if someone was willing to be patient, to enjoy the journey — to open up to it. There was a sense of timidity around opening my legs to such scrutiny, even within the fire of a longed-for intimacy. It could sometimes put the brakes on things, for me.
Why? I know that what I have is beautiful. It‘s been the legacy, I think, of years in a relationship — ultimately a marriage — in which intimacy was broken. Disinterest in your body from a partner can be a powerful source of shame and stiffening.
But in this space, with this stranger, I felt no shame, no shyness. My bones were heavy, my muscles soft, my skin wide open.
At first, I felt pure sexual pleasure as he worked various pressure points around my labia, circling closer and closer to the heart of me. But as he reached fingers inside me and began to press and knead my walls, I felt sharp points of discomfort.
There was a period of time when I wanted it to be over. I started to dissociate from my body, a feeling I recognise from some of the sexual encounters of my late teens and twenties, when I understood little of how to put in place healthy sexual boundaries for my own protection, and allowed my partners’ needs to come before my own, time and time again. I stayed present with what was unfolding, however, and the feeling soon dissolved.
Sometime beyond that, I became aware of goosebumps rippling all the way up my body from my toes to the roots of my hair. Two waves of them, one after the other, riding the surging currents of something warm, ticklish and charged beneath my skin. And then that, too, passed. I remember wondering if that was the glimmer of a whole-body orgasm, a paddle in the shallows.
Finally, he could go no deeper. His fingers began to massage my cervix. I realised my heart was aching painfully, a swollen, choking sadness pushing up through my throat. In the darkness, the tears of many heartbreaks slid silently down my cheeks.
The faces of men who’ve been disinterested in or disrespectful of my body, or who have physically hurt me down there, flickered across my mind one after another. I felt the traces they’d left in and on me.
When my search for intimacy met blankness.
When they saw to their needs yet left me lying with mine.
When I had been physically hurt in someone’s rush to penetrate.
When someone took dominance too far with the buckled end of a belt.
And then it was over.
He gently covered me with a towel and told me to keep my eyes closed and rest with what had just happened. He returned a few minutes later with a little tray carrying a glass of water and some grapes. He sat back down with me and encouraged me to try to talk about my experience, as it would help to integrate it. I cried more, and openly, as I described that film reel of past lovers. What he said next was perfect.
‘Of course. Because I was accessing that deepest part of you, the gateway to your womb space, source of your feminine identity, a bridge to your essence, your soul. Ultimately, what we’re all searching for is that soul connection with another. When we become intimate with someone, our soul rushes forward to meet theirs. And then when it proves bruising or unsatisfying or we are rejected, we retreat back within, turn back in on ourselves physically as much as emotionally…’
‘Yes!’ I exclaimed, sudden clarity bursting across him. ‘There’s a contraction, a retraction. I’ve felt that.’
There it was. The fallout, the residue of those disappointments expressed as a physical knotting and twisting of my inner walls, placing just out of reach the softness and surrender that might pave the way for a whole-body orgasm, though I’d perhaps glimpsed the possibilities.
As I left, we hugged, and I resolved to visit again, to continue the journey.
Tantric massage may not be for everyone, or at least not an avenue that others may be so ready to explore in their search for psycho-sexual healing. Yoga has, in recent years, endured wave after wave of revelations of sexual predation and exploitation by the spiritual gurus of many of its lineages, including Ashtanga and Sivananda, two traditions that have been an important part of my personal practice over the years. Tantric practices, too, have been called into question, though principally in the West, where this millennia-old tradition of life-force energy management and enhancement has been funnelled through a narrow sexual fixation to emerge as something almost unrecognisable. No doubt the abuse of these tools by key figureheads has eroded trust and cast shadows. Which is a great shame, because in the hands of those who are respectful, skilled and, above all, mindful of their duty of care to those who are vulnerable in their search for wholeness, these practices can be profoundly transformative.
We are erotic beings and, though we are so often asleep to it, are drawn to inhabit the world as our most erotic selves. Not solely sexually; it’s more about sensuality. Being alive to sensations, from the subtlest to the most enveloping, exulting in the very detail and fact of existence, plugged into moment after moment after moment. Unravelling ourselves from the inside out enables us to be receptive to the indescribable wonders and pleasures we are capable of experiencing, whether gifted to us by nature or to one another, to flow with what is offered and what we invite, and to radiate the light of our souls.
Certainly, something deep inside me unfolded, smoothed herself out a little and decided to face the world more.