Mind, Body & Soul article featuring Vera Zyla

Sex meets spirituality in tantra's healing bliss

By Pieta Woolley

Despite gusts of wind that downed trees and knocked out power in many neighbourhoods, the Art of Loving’s Tantric Massage on Women class attracted a full house the evening of January 14. It’s obviously a hot topic. As the storm blustered outside, nine single men and two male-female couples sat on folding chairs and listened to store co-owner Vera Zyla describe how to create an erotic ceremony for women.

“You are the erotic nurturer,” Zyla said, after telling the group members to turn off their cellphones. “When we’re in long-term relationships, sex can become habitual, and it can become boring. What this ceremony offers is variety.”

The audience was dead silent as Zyla described how a woman’s partner should reserve a time with no distractions, make a greeting area with refreshments, and create a comfortable massage space outside the bedroom. Build an altar to honour one’s beloved. Try role-play. Be François the masseuse from France, she suggested. Use usic and pools of soft light to set the mood. Run a bath.

Zyla’s most basic message of the evening was about simply paying attention to the sexual embrace. It’s a noble pursuit, but it doesn’t explicitly address the broader goals of tantra—bonding with the energy of the universe through union with another being. As Sting—tantra’s dubious spokesperson—told a Guardian newspaper reporter, it’s about a journey, “not fucking for eight hours”. Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions from South and East Asia note that sex has three purposes: procreation, pleasure, and liberation. Typically, tantric sex is about liberation, bliss at union with the divine through spiritual sex.

In Vancouver, however, more than a third of residents told the 2001 Census they had no religion. Can you have true tantric sex without religion?

Absolutely, according to Elfi Dillon-Shaw, a bodywork instructor with the Haven Institute for Professional Training on Gabriola Island.

“Everybody has a personal spirituality,” she told the Straight in a phone interview from the institute. “People can explore their sexuality in the sense of bringing their body and heart together. Tantra is about bringing sex back to the spirit, healing that rift. To me, spirituality is about how you want to live on the planet.”

At the Haven, Dillon-Shaw teaches sacred sexuality to couples of all ages. Growing up Catholic in Bavaria, she was flummoxed by the Old World cultural schism between body and spirit. Even in North America, she noted, that split persists. Tantric sex, she said, is a way to heal that.

Dillon-Shaw came to sacred sexuality in her mid 30s. After immigrating to Canada, she was swept up in the sexual-liberation movement of the 1970s, a time she remembers fondly. Even then, she said, “I was not really present in my own body. I didn’t feel the deep pleasure I’ve come to know now.”

She credits that shift not with a defined religion, but with inner reflection brought to her through her sexual encounters. Even in a postreligious age, she said, people are increasingly interested in a deeper sexuality. But, as Zyla said, busyness detracts from that.

“What you pay attention to, your energy flows there,” Dillon-Shaw said. “If you devote your attention to a frantic lifestyle, your energy goes there. Some say they want a more erotic life, but they don’t create it. A person has to want it.”

As a first step, Dillon-Shaw suggested taking some deep breaths, and really looking at your partner for three whole seconds. Be completely present in the moment. Sex, she said, is both a gift and what makes us human. It’s worth slowing down for.

As Zyla suggests, tantra starts by simply making the time and honouring one’s partner. As a spiritual path, the journey couldn’t be sweeter.