An Inside Look At The World Of Tantra With Seva Khalsa
We get a lot of questions about tantra and sacred sex, so I jumped at the chance to chat with tantra practitioner Seva Khalsa and hear what he has to say about it, as well as some upcoming events.
1) First, tell us a bit about ISTA. Who are you and what do you do?
ISTA is the International School of Temple Arts, a nonprofit organization, created by Robert Desert Nichols, aka Baba Dez. Dez is, perhaps, most well-known from the documentary Sex Magic, which is about his life. ISTA started out as a residential school in Sedona, Arizona, in the spring of 2008, to teach the Temple Arts. So, what do we mean by Temple Arts? It is a reference to the ancient Tantric temples of India, where sensual and sexual arts were practiced, as described in texts, and carved into beautiful temple exteriors. It is believed that Dakas (male), and Dakinis (female) worked or served at the temples as sexual healing practitioners, or teachers.
One of Dez’s primary teachers is Charles Muir, author of Tantra: The Art of Conscious Loving, and generally recognized as the pioneer of the Neo Tantra movement. Charles began as a yoga teacher, before expanding into Tantra following a thirst for knowledge about sexuality. His research uncovered the specialness of the G spot (Prostate in men), which he renamed Sacred Spot. Sacred Spot massage, or stimulation, is one of the foundational services of Sacred Sexual practitioners, due to the potentially huge opening into a client’s psyche. I have been opened this way myself, during my training, and witnessed the transformational power of Sacred Spot work in hundreds of clients and students.
Sacred, in my way of looking at it, simply means “honoring.” The vulnerability that a client gets to with this work helps to reduce guilt, shame, and fear around sex.ISTA is a promoter of the revival of this tradition, and updating it for a modern world. Some refer to the western updating of Tantra as Neo Tantra, and is not always approved of by Tantric scholars. Tantra means many things to many people, but I can summarize the Neo Tantra approach as emphasizing ecstatic sensual, spiritual, or sexual experience over intellectual depth, historical accuracy, or specific ritual. I see Tantra as a method of using sexual energy to enhance the meditative state until it overwhelms the brain’s normal perceptions. This “Wow!” factor helps to dissolve ego, and get people past the blocks to bonding they might be carrying at the moment.
I observed the birth of ISTA in 2008, as a conference attendee. I had been practicing Tantra for over 20 years, but was working primarily as a counselor at the time. Over the next year I attended several trainings, and have been an ISTA event manager, and session practitioner, since 2009. ISTA has expanded to include conferences, talks, and SSSPT’s around the world, including Europe, South Africa, Australia, Bali, and Brazil.
Dez is a strong proponent of adding Shamanism, or native spirituality, to the instructional mix. ISTA offers two one week practitioner trainings (Level 1 and Level 2), titled Sacred Sexual Shamanic Practitioners Training (SSSPT), and a month long apprenticeship. SSSPT is designed to familiarize attendees with the modernized temple arts. It is not a certifying program. SSSPT is a specialization that some are called to who are already professionals in fields such as counseling, massage, yoga, tantra, or escorting. It is up to training or apprenticeship graduates to determine whether they are ready to take on the responsibility of hands-on work with client’s sexual issues.
For seven years before the birth of ISTA, the movement to create a peer network for Tantric, or alternative sexual healers, was spearheaded by Dez, who purchased a large house in Sedona for that purpose. The fairly luxurious house, which was remodeled to include nine bedrooms, and eight bathrooms, was referred to as the the Temple, (Sedona Temple). I was lucky enough to find the Temple by virtue of having moved to Sedona for the mountain biking! Due to its residential location, the Temple has persistently been involved with city zoning issues. Both the Temple and School were dragged into legal difficulty after leasing the School to the Phoenix Goddess Temple, which was raided by a SWAT team in September of 2011, resulting in over 20 arrests for prostitution and conspiracy. Continued zoning and legal problems have made it difficult to do business in the current locations. Both buildings are now for sale. The fate of the buildings does not effect the future of ISTA.
2) What are some of the reasons people come to ISTA? What do they get out of it?
ISTA is primarily focused on professionals, aspiring professionals, and the just plain curious. Practitioners come to ISTA conferences and trainings to teach, to network, to learn, to have fun, and to feel the support of tribe. Non-practitioners come to learn about the world of sexual healing, to explore their personal paths, or to take a step towards becoming a practitioner. Individuals, and couples come to ISTA-oriented practitioners primarily to get help with sexual issues, to learn about Tantra, or simply for pleasure.
In my experience working with gay men, and hearing from female clients and practitioners, men in general need some gentle prodding, or sometimes even ass kicking, to get them to improve their sexual and relationship skills. Getting men to slow down, to focus on pleasure, instead of ejaculation, and to control ejaculation are key areas of work. Older men experiencing problems with erectile dysfunction seek ways to reclaim their potency, or to get the most pleasure they are physically capable of. Clients are often stuck in a nonsexual relationship, and are seeking a little love, and affection to keep them going.
Female clients are not that different. My typical client is a 45 year old woman who is in a long term relationship (10+ years), but is unsatisfied for some reason. I help this client reclaim her innate, hot, sexual nature, and bring her reawakened enthusiasm and ability back to her partner. In most cases, this involves her accepting her role as leader, and teacher, which is naturally resisted. I am not a sexual abuse specialist, but some of my colleagues are. Abuse is a huge problem and issue that practitioners work with after talk therapy has reached its limit.
Regardless of background, the typical practitioner will be familiar with erotic massage, but currently unlicensed. Genital touch for payment is illegal for everyone, except the state of California, which licenses Sexological Bodyworkers. Any professional with a license would be at risk of losing it if genital touch were involved in his or her sessions, hence the need for practitioners that are willing to be at legal risk. To reduce the risk, no sexual touch is guaranteed, and no financial contract is completed before a session. The practitioner is always considered sovereign, or in full control of boundaries, wherever he or she is working. Monetary support is treated as a donation, after the session.
A more esoteric reason we receive clients is the desire to make sex Tantric, magical, or spiritual. One way for people to heal is to just release their guilt, shame, and fear. This is a great long term goal, but clients can feel more immediate relief if they have a transcendental sexual experience. This immediately opens up new learning pathways. Some, like Chis Hall in his amusing, and provocative SF Weekly blog, Why Sex is Not Spiritual, criticize the spiritual sexual movement. And I do too! I am a non-believer, but I have had some life-changing experiences practicing Neo Tantra. I have now internalized the practice of finding joy in all aspects of life. In addition, I have not been able to find better words to use, in private, or in session, than energy, and chakra. I prefer to not let my feelings about words cut me off from useful experience.
Some clients are sincere spiritual or religious seekers. At least one Tantra school has filed as a church with the IRS. Religious freedom has recently been used very publicly by the Phoenix Goddess Temple, as their primary form of legal protection. The city and county bust that shut it down, revealed the weakness of this defense. However, Tracy Elise, temple founder, deserves credit for trying. Her court case will be precedent setting, guilty, or not. ISTA itself has become a branch of the Oklevueha Native American Church, which has made progress protecting the use of plant substances as sacrament. Using religion as a form of practitioner protection is controversial within ISTA’s professional community. Personally, I support anything that is subversive to the dominant conservative Christian culture.
I am not an expert on how Shamanism and sexuality are linked, but I think it can be summed up by viewing sexual energy as part of nature. It is a primal force like thunder. It can be revered, or called upon (sex magic), to have an effect in the material world. Whether a material effect is achieved, or not, there certainly is a psychological effect on the person doing the ritual, or practice. If you approach a ritual without judgment, you are able to go on a trip that takes you to a grateful, sublime, or unique place. It is a form of mind expansion that, generally speaking, enhances the experience of life, or gives one a new tool for coping, or functioning. The spiritual focus will vary widely amongst practitioners.
Practitioners must prepare themselves, in order to be “present” for clients. They are constantly working on themselves, or taking trainings, to enhance their sexual glow, or juiciness. So, part of what a client receives for his/her money is a modeling of successful, liberated, or conscious sexuality. Another valuable modeling is simply the beauty and thoughtfulness of the session space.
3) How can these practices help folks enhance their sexual lives and relationships?
What has been surprising for me is learning how much need there is for sexual healing in the world. When you go about your business, get coffee, have a drink, or go to a party, you see lots of beautiful people, who seem to be totally together. But when the outward identity is let go of, and vulnerability opened up to, I have found that everyone has some difficulty around sex that they have not been prepared, or trained for. I am speaking mostly of heterosexuals, since it seems LGBTs have gotten their voice. I would also say that most ISTA-type healers are most expert in, and serve predominantly, hetero clients.
At some point during as session, or series of sessions, some form of genital touch may occur. These touch techniques help men improve their Ejaculatory Control. There is hardly a more important, or basic ability, if men are to feel confident with their female partners, and give them the satisfaction they need. I can’t emphasize this enough! The dynamics around female sexual satisfaction can effect every aspect of life. It is an important social, as well as personal issue. Some practitioners allow mutual touch, so clients can learn about and practice what the opposite gender likes.
Both genders are encouraged to practice Self Pleasuring (masturbation). This is useful for improving sexual ability, but also encouraging a frequent return to body awareness, and pleasure, that can enhance the enjoyment of all life. It is probably no surprise to your readers to hear that the more frequent a woman orgasms, that more easily she CAN orgasm, making sexual satisfaction more readily obtained with a partner. Tantric practices help men to see women as Goddesses, who are strong, complete and whole by themselves, and capable of virtually unending pleasure. We try to teach men what women are capable of sexually, including multiple orgasms, multiple partners, and female ejaculation.
Women want connection with their partners, AND orgasms. We work to help women become more Goddess-like, or open to their sexuality, and help men to be hard, long-lasting, AND open to a woman’s needs. A man needs to be sexually secure, in order to be present for a woman’s changing moods, and demands. Mastery occurs when a man is actually comfortable with, and turned on by, a woman in her full sexual, and emotional power. If a man can fully celebrate the feminine (some will say divine feminine), his female partner blossoms, is happy, attractive, and generous. Men frequently resist the feminine in their partners, and within themselves. This only causes pain for both parties. When men become more embracing, and accepting of the feminine, the communication between the genders is dramatically improved. Women start to feel safe, and respond by opening up their full sexual potential.
This level of mastery makes every sexual encounter, from a simple hug, to mind blowing sex, unique, and enables relationships to be continually fresh, and exciting. There is a lot of energy created around sex, and it can be a very positive force for good. The glow from good sex can carry people through their day, affecting everyone they come in contact with. I don’t have other words besides transcendental, or spiritual for this. It is maximizing all experiences at all times. It is a life path. Certainly one could get one’s greatest pleasure, or high, out of eating chocolate, climbing a mountain, playing music, or inventing a product, but for me, and most people, it’s sex. That is what we are made to do. When humans are sexually happy, they are more functional. They are not being constantly drained by a subtle fear, anger, or depression.
4) You have a conference, Phoenix Rising, coming up. What can people expect from it?
This year’s US conference, ISTA Conference of Sexuality and Consciousness, is at the Lodge at Cliff Castle, on Yavapai-Apache land, near Camp Verde, Arizona, May 4-6. It looks like we have found a home! Generally speaking, the city of Sedona does not want our brand of consciousness-raising. The Lodge has been welcoming, and is perfect for our needs. It has a large convention space that we can divide into three sections, each with its own video and sound systems.
There are three presentation tracks: Workshop, General, and Shamanic. Workshops are 90 minutes to three hours in length, and require an additional fee to attend. We usually have two or three headliners each year. This year Annie Sprinkle, eco-sexual activist, and Charles Muir, are keynotes. Taoist master, Mantak Chia, will be a headliner next year. The schedule is pretty full for three days, starting at 8 am with yoga. A wide variety of presentations and workshops begin at 10 am, including titles such as “Tantric Sex and Erotic Media,” “Anatomy of the Energetic Orgasm,” “Conscious Genital Massage,” “The Amrita Ritual,” and “From Heterosexual to Bisexual to Metamorphosexual to Ecosexual and Beyond Sexual.” Additional presentations and entertainment continue into the evening. The hilarious, and informative Tantra Theater is performing Saturday evening.
To finish off the night, we offer a range of guided play parties, where safety rules are discussed and monitored. This year we are kicking off the conference a day early with a Festival of Sexuality and Consciousness Films. Also new this year will be an Erotic Art exhibit. Total attendance averages 200. It is a very welcoming group, who will be getting turned on and juicy.
The venue staff are very friendly, and accommodations are affordable. Our event nearly sells out the whole lodge, so we dominate the facility. The Lodge gets its name from a nearby ancient ruin called Montezuma Castle, which is a National Monument. A short walk from the Lodge reveals a cliff top view of Beaver Creek. The surrounding land is high plateau, and only 35 miles from Sedona, a world class vacation area.
5) What are some other resources for people who are looking to explore these experiences?
Starting with the least expensive sources, one can find free resources online. I like the Good Vibrations How To section a lot, for basic sex ed. And I am very enthusiastic about the Sex Ed classes at toy stores movement. I think that is really helping to get people comfortable talking about sex. Bay area based Personal Life Media is a free information website that has a fairly large archive of podcasts and transcripts of interviews with some well know figures in the sacred sex field. Masturbation pioneer Betty Dodson’s website has some excellent nitty gritty articles, with educational videos available inexpensively. Oakland based Reid Mihalko is an increasingly popular speaker, who has his feet in both the sex ed, and sacred worlds.
Of course, numerous books and videos explore sex. A couple of my favorites, that I did not see on Good Vibrations popular book list, are Bonk, a humorous history of sexology, Sexual Healing, by Barbara Keesling, and Eros Ascending, by John Maxwell Taylor. The Red Hot Touch video series, by Jaiya, are good. Most cities have Tantra Meetups, where a broad range of topics are discussed or exercises practiced. Cuddle Party is a branded gathering that is guided by certified leaders. It is not very expensive, usually about $20, for a three hour evening that gets people talking and thinking about their touch boundaries, and practicing saying no. For a similar price, individuals or couples can attend a Puja, a traditional Tantric mixed gender gathering, that is usually based on a series of ritual honorings of the opposite gender.
Stepping up in cost, Harbin Hot Springs offers some excellent beginning Tantra weekend workshops. Santa Cruz based Source Tantra, also offers beginning workshops. A deeply moving, and growth-inducing class to take is called the Yoga of Sex. Founded by sexuality pioneer Joseph Kramer, this year-long class meets, and interacts entirely online. It is based on watching educational videos, and sharing one’s personal sexual experiences with teachers and classmates.
If personal service is desired, one can book an appointment with a Sexological Bodyworker, or Sacred Sex practitioner. I am not familiar with male practitioners in the San Francisco area, but can recommend Temple of Bliss, for female practitioners. As controversial as it may be, I respect the work of Nicole Daedone, and recommend checking out One Taste. Great strides in sexual self realization, and trance, can be made playing in the BDSM/Kink community, which is prominent in the bay area.
Basically, San Francisco rocks when it comes to sex.
Thanks for this opportunity to share with your readers a little taste of the world I live and work in.