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 Megan Cowles, Graduate of Yogasara Advanced Teacher Training 2017/18

Yoga is a word that is hard to define, often translated as ‘yoke’ or ‘union’. It is a discipline, a way of life, which gradually dissolves our illusions, allowing us a greater appreciation of reality. By using subtle effort to yoke the mind to a spot, often the breath, we can begin to see beyond the citta vritti, or mind chatter, and come to rest in a space of true-seeing, a place of non-attachment, of effortlessness. Where we perceive our sadhana, or practice, to ultimately be leading us will largely depend on the philosophical underpinnings orientating us. There are countless different branches of yogic tradition but two threads that permeate these are Sutra and Tantra. I will explore a basic understanding of these two philosophies and how they are relevant to modern, asana-focused yoga practice as well as my own life-views and teaching. The concepts to be unpacked are vast, and as such the explorations undertaken in this essay will necessarily fail to do justice to the complexity and depth that is there to be discovered.

‘Sutra’ can be translated as ‘thread’ and was first used to refer to scriptural verses or aphorisms from Vedic texts. Attempting to define Sutric philosophies as a whole is challenging as there are many distinct approaches that would fall under the term Sutric. Sutric philosophies can be both non-dual, believing that through yoga the individual self can find re-union with the supreme Self[1], or dual, seeing that even through yoga the transcendental individual self will always be separate from ultimate Reality. However, there are general belief systems felt to describe some of the core themes throughout this lineage. Sutric philosophies espouse renunciation and asceticism as the path to see beyond your false identification with your sensory experiences, your ego, your thoughts and feelings, into a realisation of your true identity as pure consciousness. The method of neti-neti (‘not thus, not thus’) is one tool that is used as a “dismantling of the false sense of identity with a particular body-mind-ego” (Feuerstein, 2008, p. 5) by asking the yogi to recognise her non-identification with what she is witnessing. The Sutric path involves drawing yourself away from the world in order to find truth, meaning bodily experiences are seen as distractions to be overcome, including withdrawal from sensory experiences and abstinence from sexual activity. Through disciplined practice one can come to see through one’s mental fluctuations and realise that the idea of separateness is an illusion, that everything material is energy, that energy is essentially emptiness, and as such there is no ‘you’, no ‘I’, no ‘it’. The part of us that comes to be aware of this is beyond ego and beyond form, it is pure awareness, the transcendental Witness-Consciousness.

‘Tantra’ can be translated simply as a book or doctrine, it can also be understood as a device (tra) for expanding (tan), or as wisdom (tan) that saves (tra). Again, it is challenging to understand Tantra as one unified concept as there are a variety of movements that can be considered Tantrik. As with Sutric approaches, Tantra can be both dual and nondual, although nondual “left centre” Tantra, particularly Śaiva Tantra and the Kaula lineage, is what most Westerner yoga practitioners have in mind when they discuss Tantra[2]. Tantrik philosophies evolved from Sutric lineages as a means to develop a more accessible and embodied practice of realisation. Tantra incorporated, modified, extended and added to existing approaches, creating an eclectic collection of theory and practice. Whilst Sutric philosophies ultimately espouse renunciation of the manifest world – including the body-mind –  in order to transcend, Tantrik approaches promote recognising the Divine in everything; “Tantra believes that there is literally no particle of reality that isn’t capable of revealing ecstasy and that everything that exists is full of light and awareness” (Kempton, 2006). Tantrikas believe we can enjoy the delights of the manifest world, not as some type of hedonism, but as a form of worship, recognising all that exists is Divine, including our mind-body. Core features of Tantrik practice include the use of mantra (sacred sound), mandalas and yantras (sacred geometry), gurus (following a master), initiation rituals, and worship of the Divine – both as a whole and as represented by individual deities (Wallis, 2013, p. 34). Nondual Shaiva Tantra sees Shiva, pure consciousness, and Shakti, the entire manifest universe, as two parts of a whole. We are invited to work with everything as a spiritual practice; in recognising that all is Divine, we come to value the ugly parts of existence equally to the beautiful, cultivating a compassionate stance towards all aspects of ourselves, the world and all living beings. We honour the Goddess Shakti in all her colours, and in doing so can start to recognise Shiva, or pure consciousness; “The Goddess and the One who holds Her [a]re one and the same. We are inseparable. The way to me is through Her” (Roche, 2014).

As such, Tantra is the opposite of Sutric practice, yet grounded upon it. Both approaches invite us to peel back our conditioning to see things as they really are and escape from the suffering associated with false identification with the ego, or individualised self. Both approaches describe dharana, or single-pointed concentration, as a key method along the pathway to achieve this. However, they differ hugely in their overall approach and orientating core beliefs, which shows up in the contrast of the withdraw (Sutra) and approach (Tantra) strategies. In Sutra we are invited to overcome our human experiences, in Tantra we are invited to work with them.

What has any of this got to do with modern day postural yoga? Hatha-yoga is the basis of modern postural yoga, and evolved after a period of Tantrik practices coming into decline. Hatha-yoga texts have been described by Christopher Wallis (2013, p.311) as attempts to “capture the most essential Tantrik practices, especially those of the subtle body, in the face of the dissolution of the classical tradition”. As such, hatha-yoga takes the tools from Tantra and simplifies them, moving away from many core Tantrik elements such as guru initiation and complex mantras. The main aim of hatha-yoga is to purify the body through elaborate systems of breath-work (pranayama), postural practice (asana), mudra (energy seals), bandha and other cleansing rituals. This promotes a clearing of blockages or imbalances and allows energy to move freely through the body, liberating the mind and awakening us to our innate identity with the absolute. In this sense it works with the gross (the physical body), to get in touch with the subtle (universal energy), in order to connect with the un-manifest (the Divine). The centrality of subtle body maps, including the chakras and nadis (importantly the ida, pingala and shushumna nadis) and the idea of Shakti stored as latent power, or kundalini, in our bodies, are central features of hatha-yoga, sourced directly form Tantra. The purpose of hatha-yoga is spiritual liberation through focusing and balancing the energies of the body-mind, and whilst the body is seen to play a key role in this, asana is not a prominent feature compared to other components such as shatkarma and pranayama (Muktibodhananda, 2012). Cultural factors, including the colonisation of India and the popularity of physical movement all over the world (for a much more detailed analysis of this please see Singleton, 2010), began the evolution of hatha-yoga into modern postural yoga through a prioritisation of strong, physical postures. Today, many people mistakenly see the word yoga as synonymous with asana.

Given the Tantrik roots of hatha-yoga, we can see that Western yoga is ultimately built on Tantrik foundations. ‘The Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali’ has become a classic text that is studied on yoga-teacher trainings, which details one pathway to freedom from a Sutric perspective. This reflects the disconnect between much of Western yoga practice and the traditional foundations of what is being taught; a derivative of Tantra is being understood via Sutric perspectives. Patanjali sees yoga as the yoking of the mind – citta vritti nirodha, the cessation of mental fluctuations – through his astanga, or eight-limbed, path in order to realise our isolation and to transcend prakriti, the manifest world. He gives a minimal amount of information about asana practice, essentially offering that asana should have qualities of both sthira and sukha, steadiness and ease. Here Patanjali is referring to sitting postures that support a state of non-doing, in line with the translation of asana as ‘comfortable seat’. This is quite at odds with Western ‘yoga’ practise, where asana is the main (unfortunately in some cases only) focus, and often consists of complex systems of positioning and movement. Patanjali’s yoga is based on the premise that kaivalya, the ultimate transcendent state, is the realisation of the self’s absolute isolation, “consciousness is absorbed in itself without an object, or is reflexive, having itself as its own object” (Saiva Tantra, 2017). According to Patanjali, one can never be in direct contact with purusha, or pure awareness, and in this sense it is a distinctly dualistic manuscript – the physical world, the transcendental individual self, and God are all distinctly separate (Hartranft, 2003). Hatha lineages, on the other hand, see yoga as the process of working with an embodied practise to realise our union, or innate identical nature, with the absolute[3]. Tantrik approaches absorbed Patanjali’s astanga yoga, modified and extended it, which was then transmuted to hatha-yoga. However, whilst many of the practices are similar between these approaches, the viewpoints are distinctly different, as we can see from our brief perusal of Sutric and Tantrik philosophies.

As such, there is no direct connection between the Yoga-Sutras and the body-based yoga systems being shared today. Studying the Yoga-Sutras is still an incredibly valuable part of svadyaya, or self-study; it is a fantastic and concise meditation manual, and as discussed, Tantra, and therefore hatha-yoga, has evolved from Sutric ideas. However, making the distinction between hatha-yoga practice and Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras is crucial to help Western yogis better understand the theory behind their practice. Teacher trainings would benefit from greater exploration of how and why asana came to be a central focus of Western yoga and the Tantrik roots of such practices. This may even increase the likelihood of new teachers coming back to the idea of yoga as a form of sadhana (spiritual discipline) rather than a form of gymnastics; if you are taught that ‘real yoga’ is about sitting still and withdrawing from the body (i.e. Sutric perspectives) there is the risk that the asana practise is offered with a confusing message that we should withdraw, whilst instructing people to engage. However, seeing the potential of asana as a moving meditation, as one part of a broader system towards Truth, could inspire the teacher to incorporate other parts of hatha-yoga into her offerings and to orientate students to bring their attention to relevant points throughout their asana practice, such as the five koshas and their sankalpa.

For most of us who are born and bred in a Western culture[4] our first awareness of yoga is as a physical movement practice. The association between the word yoga and asana practice has been further compounded by the use of the word yoga to describe any class where certain bodily postures are made, regardless of the intentions of this class. ‘Yoga Shred’ and ‘Booty Burn Yoga’ don’t readily conjure up a discipline which promotes true-seeing of the ‘self’ in order to connect with Self. And in this way modern, Western ‘yoga’ can actually be conceptualised as anti-yoga, encouraging ego-centric, competitive and disconnected practices in some cases. But not all… Several classes and teachers appear to weave in the other themes and practices of yoga as though using the format of the gymnastics class as a way to ‘sneak in’ something deeper. Of course many, if not most students may not take this further than the period of escapism on their mat. Luckily the yogis were right about the value of a body-based practice and the benefits of physical movement can start to transform us on other levels without a fuller understanding of the philosophical foundations, due to the inter-connection of the physical-energetic-mental-intuitive-bliss bodies. And in this sense virtually any physical practice could be part of our sadhana. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of movement practices that can lead us further astray, for example where the body is seen as something to be used and abused in order to achieve a goal or defeat an opponent. In my experience, what provides the metamorphosis of movement into meditation is dharana and right orientation. If we are cultivating a one-pointed focus we are beginning the practice of stilling mental fluctuations, or to start with, changing our relationship or attachment to these fluctuations, thus revealing more to us about the reality of who we are, tapping into the Witness-Observer. Moving with integrity gives us a plethora of focal points to draw in on, including the breath, muscles, skeleton, sensations, thoughts and feelings. It takes the right orientation to be able to make sense of this in a meaningful way, and this is what yoga philosophies can give us.

In a way this parallels my own evolving relationship with, and understanding of, yoga. Starting with the body, the benefits started to ripple outwards until I began studying philosophy in order to orientate my unfolding. I found yoga through a DVD attached to a cereal box when I was 15 years old. I knew of yoga as some hippy practice that meant you could do the splits. I was deep into a self-hating relationship with myself that included self-harm, substance abuse, reckless behaviour and bulimia – leading to health complications. I had never had a movement practice (other than my freestyle dancing in my bedroom!) but despite my hesitation decided to give the DVD a go. I was surprised that my body could access the gentle yet challenging physical movement practice; I struggled with the idea of being okay with where I was and like most people new to asana I tried to push and force myself into things, but just this space of being with my body and breath began to work its magic. As I was already interested in philosophy and psychedelics there was something about the broader teachings of yoga that intrigued me, but for many years I worked solely with asana, mostly through self-practice as public classes terrified me. My practice was on and off for the next 10 years but yogasana was always a haven, and ‘my thing’ since none of my friends were practicing. It wasn’t until years later when I did 30 days of Bikram yoga for £30 that I started a daily practice. I struggled with what I perceived as the purely physical, self-competitive tendencies of this approach but felt the discipline of daily practice and perseverance was transforming me. The work on the physical body permeated through to my energy – everyone noticed a calming and centering, my mind – moments of space and clarity in my usually busy thoughts, my emotions – becoming more aware of and thus more able to manage my patterns, and my connection to the Divine – having more moments of true seeing beyond my ‘self’. From then onwards I began attending other classes and doing stronger self-practice, seeing my asana move from a more gentle ‘hatha’ practice to the stronger ‘vinyasa’ style[5]. My body began to feel stronger, I started to feel a sense of integrity. I had been studying quantum physics as a hobby and felt a link between what yogasana was showing me and what this science was revealing. When I finally picked up the Bhagavad Gita, closely followed by Ram Dass’ ‘Paths to God’, I began a self-perpetuating process of further revelation. The yogic tradition gave me metaphors, stories, archetypes that coloured so many of the ideas I already held, but it extended, deepened and clarified them. I feel like a tiny speck at the feet of an infinite giant, but I am eager to grow, to integrate.

These experiences, as well as my work as a psychologist using predominantly compassion focused approaches, have orientated me strongly to the Tantrik path. The world is full of pain and tragedy, the urge to see the manifest world as the root of suffering is understandable. I have struggled long and hard with the idea that everything is Divine – how can the torture victims I work with possibly see what they went through as part of God? But Tantrik ideas have helped me to see that it is our misidentification with ego that leads to this horror, and also creates the suffering. To see the beauty through and even in the ugly is hard, and in no way meant to pave over and deny the very real tragedies that occur every day. But understanding that from a non-attached, non-moral perspective that what is, just is, can start to move us from conversations of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and into the more complex but, I believe, more accurate realm of appreciating that the Divine is sublime in the depths of her horrors and her miracles. That our mis-identifications create the actions and the judgements. I seek to address this in my personal life and in the way I teach by inviting compassion, the chance to view things as they are, beyond judgements, and be motivated to act in accordance with a desire for all beings to be free from suffering, to be happy, to be well. In teaching this might mean modifying physical practices, practicing mantras, setting ‘homework’ tasks or contemplations, using themes to bring greater awareness to asana classes, working with sankalpa and always stressing the role of dharana. I find the more I delve into yogic philosophy, the more my teaching and my own practice includes invitations to take sadhana beyond the mat and make it a true yoga practice. This has come into sharp focus as I work to set up a project called the Bristol Yoga Roots Project to bring yoga to people who are from marginalised communities, such as people seeking asylum.

Ultimately I seek for my students and myself to see the tapas element of asana not as a way to ‘purify and transcend our dirty, sinful body-minds’ (perhaps a more Sutric approach?), but rather to fuel our fiery passion to move from a place of love in order to find the very best versions of ourselves and support others to do the same. For me I feel that Sutra can more easily lead us down a path of denial, of self and other chastisement, of judgement and holier-than-thou-ness, whereas Tantra offers me a space to work with acceptance, togetherness and making every moment in my body-mind a potential practice. And in recent years truly feeling into my indivisibility with the rest of nature, I have found myself unable to choose anything other than a vegan lifestyle, not out of an attempt to be ‘pure and good’ but to feel my actions are truly motivated by, what for me personally, is meant by compassion. Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ — a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest— a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty[6].” (Einstein, 1950)

In reality both Sutric and Tantrik approaches may lead us to the same destination, it is down to the individual practitioner to work out which philosophies best support their evolution. At times I feel that I can get too caught up in the results of asana/pranayama practice or the business side of teaching, and in this sense feel that the focus on non-doing, on dharana through sitting meditation, that Sutra privileges might circumnavigate some of the ‘traps’ that body-based practices can hold for me. Yet I always come back to the pure, blissful dance of Shakti and know that her rhythm moves within me, that with the right orientation I can work through my ‘traps’ and join the dance.


[1] The word ‘union’ can be misleading, suggesting that there was a separation to begin with; and in a sense there was – the illusion of separation that our conditioning and self-identification has caused. A better description may be ‘de-conditioning’ in order that we remember or recognise our ultimate identical nature with the Divine (non-dual).

[2] Westerners that are unfamiliar with the yoga world are more likely to be referring to a basic understanding of Neo-Tantra as a set of practices to have more fulfilling sex lives.

[3] However, both Patanjali’s work and the Hatha-yoga lineage see awakening to the nondual nature of the phenomenal world as a key step towards liberation

[4] “Western culture” is a problematic term in itself. Clearly not linked consistently to any geographical position, here the term is used to refer to countries that have been shaped by European colonialism – arguably Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and South Africa.

[5] Of course all of modern postural yoga has evolved from hatha yoga. In the West we have come to associate hatha-yoga with slower-paced, more mindful and stretching asana, and vinyasa-yoga with faster-paced, more flowing and strengthening asana.

[6] This was the version quoted in the New York Times and thus commonly regurgitated elsewhere. In reality the last line was: “The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind,” and the much quoted last line is taken from another piece of Einstein’s writing. I prefer the much quoted version, despite it being an amalgamation of two quotes, and as such have chosen to present that here.

References & Bibliography

Many of these texts were used as a bibliography, informing the overall content of the essay as well as specific places where they are referenced

Einstein, A. (1950) Letter to a grieving father, quoted by: Sullivan, W. The Einstein Papers. A Man of Many Parts. The New York Times, March 29, 1972

Dass, R. (2004) Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita. New York: Three Rivers Press

Feuerstein, G. (2008).  The Yoga Tradition. Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. Prescott: Hohm press

Hartranft, C. (2003) The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary. Boston & London: Shambhala Classics

Johnson, W. J. (1994) The Bhagavad Gita. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Kempton, S. (2006). Tantra Rising. Yoga Journal, p.123.

Muktibodhananda, S. (2012) The Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Yogi Swatmarama. Fourth Edition. Bihar: Bihar School of Yoga

Roche, L. (2014). The Radiance Sutras. 112 Gateways to the Yoga of Wonder and Delight. Boulder: Sounds True

Saiva Tantra. (2017). Samadhi Archives [online] Saiva Tantra. [Viewed 8 Jun. 2018] Available from:

Singleton, M. (2010) Yoga Body. The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Wallis, C. (2013) Tantra Illuminated. The Philosophy, History and Practice of a Timeless Tradition, Second Edition. Petaluma: Mattamayura Press