Sutra and Tantra

Yoga is not just about asana, compare and contrast Sutric and Tantric philosophy and describe the relevance for contemporary western Yoga practitioners. Please explain how you understand the application of philosophy in your own practice and daily life and how you might include this in your teaching.

Written by Hazel Bugler, Graduate of Yogasara Advanced Teacher Training 2017/18


Yoga, in the traditional sense is described by Wallis (2013), as referring to a comprehensive set of psycho-physical practices intended to discipline and integrate both body, mind and spirit. The word ‘yoga’, comes from the Sanskrit yuj, which means ’to yoke’ (Grimes, 1996). In Patañjali’s era the yoga posture, or asana, was simply a means of sitting as steadily and effortlessly as possible and was not considered an exercise system of any kind (Hartranft, 2003). In contemporary western yoga, the definition is somewhat varied. Gladwell and Wender (2014) question if modern yoga is nothing more than making shapes on a mat, a form of ethnic gymnastics. It could be argued that it is the philosophical element that is often missing from modern day yoga. The two primary paths of the traditional yogic philosophy are that of Sutra and Tantra. Sutra is a sanskrit term that means “thread” and is cognate with “sew” and “suture”, the thread which joins together, whereas the term Tantra, means to “loom or “weave” and to expand (Roche, 2014). These definitions are a good start, but they are a huge oversimplification to what is a complex task of defining these ancient philosophical terms. Even in terms of understanding what is ‘philosophy’ from an Indian tradition, Dresser (2016) describes how it is often more helpful to consider these philosophies as pedagogical systems. The ancient Indian philosophies are concerned with the best methods of attaining a common goal, which is the liberation from bondage or the end of suffering. Therefore, such philosophies can be interpreted as a kind of map to orientate a practitioner on the road to liberation. This essay will compare such Sutric and Tantric philosophies and analyse their relevance for modern contemporary yoga. The second part will examine how such philosophy influences my own yogic journey, in terms of my practice, daily life and teaching.

Sutric Philosophy

“Sutra is the practice of cultivating realisations of impermanence, inter-dependence and emptiness. This requires psycho-emotional clarity be maximised, and engagements and distractions minimised, so that one can deeply compute these three realisations”. (Gladwell and Wender, 2014, pg. 246).

Sutra is pure awareness, everything is known, and nothing is separate. With the knowledge that nothing has any separate, defined existence, it is considered that everything is flowing streams of energy and if you investigate this energy, you will find emptiness. Sutra could be considered as dualistic, as the goal is to transcend beyond the physical form, but this is not the case for all Sutric philosophies (Chapman, 2013). To practice a lifestyle of Sutra would mean to live as a monk and renounce all sensory pleasure and stimulus. Although for most individuals this is not a reality, the principles of Sutric philosophy can still be practiced. Patañjali’s yoga sutras is possibly one of the most influential spiritual documents that have been born of the Sutric yoga tradition.

“Patañjali describes yoga as a system of self-refinement through which consciousness, experienced as mind and body, can come to recognise itself as a material entity, observed by an immaterial pure awareness but not aware itself” (Hartranft, 2003, pg. 2).

Tantric philosophy

Tantra grows out of Sutra, Sutric practice is the base for authentic Tantra through the cultivation of the basic skills of developing a philosophical view, devotion and mind training (Gladwell and Wender, 2014). In the word Tantra, ‘tan’ relates to wisdom and ‘tra’ is to save, therefore Tantric practices can provide a means of strengthening and protecting ourselves from worldly harm, as well as bestowing the ultimate spiritual liberation (Wallis, 2013). This is all through realisation and liberation, living the vision out in the sense fields of the world. It is the fulfilment of your desires in conjunction with complete non-attachment to form, that leads to the resultant experience of paradox of the apparent duality of matter and mind (Chapman, 2013). It is this desire that then becomes a force for awakening through the practice of yoga.

“Advaita proposes that myriad individual souls, each non-separate form the others, can, through discipline and contemplation, realise that work, selfhood and thoughts are all illusion, and that all exists is a cosmic principle of pure awareness and absolute bliss which is one’s real self and always has been” (Dresser, 2016, pg. 1).

Advaita is a term for non-dualism and describes that liberation comes through the self and not through the evolution to a higher realm or separate god.

Sutric and Tantric philosophy compared

Although in many respects Tantra is the opposite of Sutra, yet it depends on Sutra (Gladwell and Wender, 2014). Rinpoche (Buddhist Congregation Dharmaling, 2008, 02:44) compares the difference between Sutra and Tantra to climbing a mountain. In Sutra you take the path around the mountain which takes time but has little risk, in comparison to Tantra where you climb straight up the side of the mountain, which may be quicker but there is always the risk of falling (as illustrated in the diagram below).

The table below compares the primary factors of Sutric and Tantric philosophy as understood from following resources (Chapman, 2013; Dresser, 2016; Gladwell and Wender, 2014; Roche, 2014).

SanskritThread, sew, sutureLoom, weave, expand
PathRejecting all worldly conditions as inherently unsatisfactory, revulsion for SamsaraTo recognise inseparability of emptiness and pure awareness
Absolute/RelativeEncourages more absolute truth, to reach absolute domain, NirvanaEncourages more relative truth, rejects the distinction. Nirvana is not separate from Samsara
LifestyleMonk- like reject worldly desires, retreat from normal lifeEmbrace life, desires, fun, play and emotions
The physical bodyTo be renounced, subjugated,To be celebrated, source of delight
RiskSupposedly safe and slow, progression over many life times and cyclesCould be dangerous, potentially fast progression. Licking honey off a razor blade, mountain metaphor
Sexual desireMost would argue that the traditional Sutric texts demand celibacyCan form part of celebration and expansion towards enlightened state
WomenMale centric philosophy, women often inferiorSome practices women are superior, at least equal
MeditationMeditation is separate from action, goal eliminate all thoughtsMeditation is inseparable from action and thoughts can be used towards enlightenment

Relevance of Sutric and Tantric philosophies for contemporary western Yoga practitioners

It could be considered that most of western yoga is obsessed with controlling the physical body and making pretty shapes (Gladwell and Wender, 2014). It is likely that most practitioners of Yoga in the western world would have not even heard of the concepts of Sutric and Tantric philosophy as presented in this essay, although they are likely to recognise the term Tantra, as related to Tantric sex. However, this does not mean that these philosophies hold no relevance. The diagram below demonstrates in my estimation how most yoga classes have a physical outcome as the primary motivation. Then as you move up the triangle, philosophy within yoga plays a more pivotal role but there are less participants. This is not necessarily a static diagram, those that get introduced to yoga at the base level may very well move up the triangle as the human need to want to explore, expand and delve deeper. It is this reason that I personally have no issue with Yoga that is more of a fitness class, it is one route into a potentially life changing hobby.

At a time that western society is increasingly becoming secular, yoga may serve an important role in providing a guiding pathway, community and sense of belonging. However, there is also the shadow to this, where practitioners of yoga can develop an unhealthy dependence, in a desperate bid for finding wholeness and attachment (Seymour, 1993). In conducting a review of the literature there were no studies apparent that measured the extent to which western yoga teachers use Sutric or Tantric philosophy within their classes outside of a teacher training environment. This would be useful to know, although the definition for these terms is so varied and could potentially be interpreted in a variety of different ways.

Yoga in my life

My own yoga practice started 20 years ago when I was working as a fitness instructor in a local gym as my first part time job after school. There was a yoga class held on the weekend and I remember being impressed by the teacher’s athleticism as he jumped about the mat and performed handstands between moves. The teacher seemed to live quite a bohemian life, wearing different clothes and I can recall labelling him as a hippy. Although I enjoyed the classes I felt that most of the moves were unattainable to my naturally somewhat in-flexible state (despite dance classes throughout childhood) and I found all the spiritual side, with the occasional chanting quite intimidating. Then the next exposure I had to ‘Yoga’ was the opportunity to be trained as a Body Balance instructor. This is a trademarked system of fitness classes where moves are combined from Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi and choreographed to music. The Yoga moves were often adapted to make them safer and simple to teach in a group environment and I found teaching the classes fun. I taught the class for a year before I moved on to further study and it would be another decade before I found any Yoga practice again. In the last five years of my life, Yoga has gradually moved from being a class that I would drop into on occasion to becoming a fundamental part of my life and wellbeing.

Philosophy and my Yoga practice

“Without the guidelines of ethical practices such as the yamas and niyamas then practice simply becomes a practice of feeling good, just another way to adorn one’s self-story with glittering jewels of fool’s gold” (Gladwell and Wender, 2014, pg. 16).

The yamas and niyamas are part of the eight limbs of Astanga yoga as identified by Patañjali, charting the path from ignorance to realisation within the Sutric tradition (Hartranft, 2003). The above quote resonates with the increasing importance of philosophy on my yoga practice. Of course, I would like to develop and master some of the asana postures, but this is now secondary to participating in Yoga for my wellbeing, an intrinsic motivation. This relates to the yamas of santosa, which means contentment or acceptance (Hartranft, 2003). It is acceptance of where I am with the asana, how long I can stay focused in meditation, how often I manage to perform my kriyas at home, the limitations of my physical body and all those other aspects that you could unfavourably compare yourself to others, or internally bring yourself down. As Brian Cox would say, in this universe everything that can happen, does happen, it is all about acceptance (Cox and Forshaw, 2012). So often the challenges that you have in practice, reflect the challenges that you have in life.

The niyamas of tapas, indicates heat or intensity and refers to both austerity and zealous commitment (Hartranft, 2003). In my practice, this relates to the commitment and application, particularly at times when it feels difficult. The ability to remain focused and not respond to the distracting impulses, which has been a huge challenge for me but is getting easier. The ability to find contentment with your breath, the simplicity of acceptance of your limitations but still to know when need to ignore those internal voices, aka the ‘shitty committee’ as Sarah Harlow would say.

Philosophy and my daily life

“Engaged yoga simply takes the realisations and insights arising from regular practice and weaves them into daily life” (Gladwell and Wender, 2014, pg. 48).

This relates directly to the Tantric lineage that engaging with Yoga is not just for when you are on your mat or meditating, but that its permeate into every aspect of life. This is something that I have personally found increasingly apparent as demonstrated in the diagram below.

The microenvironment in this case refers to my relationships with my partner, friends and family. What I choose to do with my spare time, and how I seek satisfaction and happiness. The macroenvironment relates to bigger decisions such as what I do for a living, my work-life balance, impact on the environment, community and my social setting. I feel the gradual changes that I have made have come about by regularly partaking in Yoga and therefore the increased awareness that this brings. This relates to the niyama of svadhyaya, which is the study that leads to knowledge of self, to see the whole picture and be able to make informed decisions (Hartranft, 2003). I feel this enables me to make decisions that are increasingly congruent, that reflect my true self and will further me along my spiritual journey. Just in the last two years, I have changed my diet to primarily plant based, taken a three-month sabbatical from work, reduced my working week to less than 20 hours, sold my car and radically changed how I like to spend my spare time. There are some friends that I now feel I have less in common with and this is likely to be attributable to the shift in my outlook on life. All of this is related to being more aware of what I pay attention to, to then identify it so it can be altered, a process of seeing, which is Dharana, the sixth limb of the Yoga Sutras (Hartranft, 2003). Gladwell and Wender (2014) describe this as ‘conscious evolution’, the concept of overall growth into a greater, more expansive and more self-reflective consciousness. Below is a fantastic quote which I feel summarises this perfectly:

“There are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, (unglamorous) ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing” (Wallace, 2007, pg. 1).

Philosophy and teaching Yoga

One of the primary factors that I feel is important in teaching Yoga is to have congruence and to be an authentic and transparent. This relates to the yamas of satya, which means truth and living in a place of pure being (Hartranft, 2003). I only ever feel that I can teach something when it feels authentic to me. For example, I have only started to include chanting the mantra ‘om’ in my classes in the last six months. Prior to this, I did not feel it in my heart and chanting was not part of my self- practice as it made me quite self-conscious. As I have developed this in my practice and learnt about the actual vibrational powers of mantra and understood their effect, I have now felt in a position to not only use them in my practice, but also when I teach. There is nothing worse than going to a Yoga class when the teacher is just going through the motions and it does not come from the heart.

It feels like an absolute honour to teach Yoga and I certainly realise the potential impact in just being able to teach someone to sit still and listen to their breath. As again quoted by Sarah Harlow from Kung Fu Panda, ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’ and I feel it is so important if you are going to teach Yoga from a philosophical stand point that you do understand the impact of your words. This is through obtaining the knowledge to back up your statements, understand the impact potentially on your students and also realise your limitations. I for one am not a psychologist and I am also not a saint, I want to lead by example but also fully embrace the concept that I am also still a student and will be for the rest of my days. The yamas of aparigraha, is an interesting one to apply here, as it literally means non-grasping (Hartranft, 2003). Of the eight limbs of yoga it is the one that I find the most intriguing to understand and apply to my life. It means so many things to me, but in relation to my teaching, I feel it highlights the importance of the ego and not grasping towards that recognition, attention and the inflated sense of self that can go along with the power of standing in front of a class. This is always difficult, particularly with marketing when need to promote your Yoga business but want to do this without putting out a warped sense of who you are and what you can offer. In this respect being aware of Satya and coming from a deep place of integrity is important.

It is intriguing to think about all three of these factors of practice, daily life and teaching and that for me they have gradually become increasingly inter-related and inter-dependent. It is incredible to experience how they all impact each other and whether in the future those boundaries will become increasingly blurred.

This essay has explored the Sutric and Tantric philosophies and found that although they are often opposite in nature they are mutually dependent. Even in the modern Yoga world obsessed with asana, an authentic yoga practice can develop out of these concepts and understanding, even if the ancient terms are unknown it is the purity and honesty that comes with your intentions towards the practice of Yoga. In my own journey, philosophy is increasingly playing an integral part in furthering me on my journey of self-acceptance, love and integrity and not taking life too seriously. To find that place of stillness and perhaps even be able to calm that monkey mind of mine even if just for a few minutes. Here is a lovely quote by T.S Eliot to finish this essay:

“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”


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