Valerie Pavilonis

It’s 11 a.m. in Manhattan and I am hosting an orgy. Invited to my orgy are Mark Ruffalo, Eileen Myles, Lupita Nyong’o, Frank O’Hara and Minnie Mouse. Everyone makes very different sex noises.

This is no regular orgy, mainly because it’s in my head. But in reality, another kind of orgy is taking place. Barbara Carrellas, a sex educator, author and founder of Urban Tantra, instructs the room of around 30 people — each imagining their own personal orgy — to loudly perform the “moans and groans” of each member they’ve invited. “If we do this right, everyone in the Jewish meditation session down the hall will be sorry they’re not in this workshop!” she projects into the microphone, between her own gasps.

Moments before we’d begun moaning and groaning, Barbara went over the sound pitches assigned to the seven chakras of the body. She sang from the lowest pitch of the root chakra (between the genitalia and anus) up to the highest, the crown chakra (top of the head). She explained to us that sound was an important container of sexual energy. Then Barbara glanced at us coyly, as if letting a secret slip. “You know what? I have a better idea for how we can make some noise,” she said. The better idea, as you may have guessed, was the orgy medley. And so the room crescendos, filling with gasps and yells. Barbara interrupts the pornographic soundscape, declaring: “There will be a cum shot at the end! Get ready!” We get louder and louder. Someone starts shrieking like a hyena. Miraculously, everyone climaxes at the same time.

Barbara and I first met through video chat, a week before her workshop. She is the kind of person you just want to watch. Even on my laptop screen, I noted how animated she was, often coming up close to the camera and squinting her eyes at me, refusing to let our screens stunt our intimacy. She had several thick silver piercings along her ears and bright pink hair. With her blunt fringe and round tortoiseshell glasses, she looked like the lovechild of Edna Mode and Glinda the Good Witch. I estimated that she was in her 60s.

Barbara explained how the AIDS crisis led her away from a job in theater and toward Tantra. Her voice grew emphatic as she remembered her queer theater community and the experience of losing up to four friends in a week. To cope, she’d joined a support group, where she met Annie Sprinkle, the porn star and sex educator, and Joseph Kramer, the founder of sexological bodywork (this was a new term for me too — think erotic and therapeutic body experiences, so basically Tantra). “All three of us had the question: What are we going to do about sex when AIDS goes on forever?” Barbara told me. AIDS had injected fear, suffering, and illness into the newfound freedoms wrought by the ’70s sexual revolution. “Not only do we need a way to have safer sex,” Barbara explained to me, her face pushing against the screen, but one “that was as hot and as appealing as drug-fueled sex had been in gay male discos.” This new framework for sex was necessarily healing; it was an effort to replace the god that had abandoned Barbara and her community with a new kind of spirituality.

Barbara eventually found Tantra, an esoteric Hindu and Buddhist practice that unites the spiritual with the physical. In Tantric sex, the energy of sex is as important as its physicality. There was space for sex — for the feverish and fiery — without the collision of bodies. Barbara recounted her discoveries to me: “What we learned in all the things we practiced along the way was that the energy part of sex was as or more powerful than anything genitals could generate.”

I attended Barbara’s eight-hour workshop on a cold Saturday. I filled my pockets with apples and oranges and fell asleep on my 6 a.m. Metro-North ride from Connecticut. It wasn’t every day that a college student ventured into New York City for a full-day Tantric sex workshop.

When we pulled into Grand Central, I began feeling nervous. “Explore the bliss that comes when our spiritual and sexual paths are one,” declared the workshop description. I didn’t especially connect to that idea of bliss. Actually, as a survivor of sexual assault, my bliss is most active when my spiritual and sexual paths are very much separated. They’re something like divorcées: civil to one another, for the sake of the children. But a very, very small part of me felt excited after listening to Barbara — a glimmer of hope that perhaps I would find it: the sexual practice that could heal. I wondered what the intensities of sexual connection might feel like without touch (and by extension, the fear or panic). I wondered if some injection of spirituality, some godly, energetic nudge, could open me up, shake me about and help make something click. But for the moment, I am here at the New York Open Center,shyly yelping as Minnie Mouse is about to come.

***

 During the workshop lunch break, I pick up Barbara’s book, “Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century.” They sell it beside the tarot cards and gemstones. In the weeks preceding the workshop, I felt confused reading about Tantra — like I was learning a new language, with little guidance and plenty of sexual metaphors. I had a lot of questions, and Barbara’s book provided some answers.

Modern Tantric practice, with its energy orgasms, erotic massages and ritual sex, looks very different from Tantra at its origins. In “Urban Tantra,” Barbara notes that “the seeds of Tantra were planted in shamanic, matriarchal societies three to five thousand years ago.” However, Tantra in its modern adaptation began in sixth-century India. In this form, Tantra signifies esoteric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism as expressed in the Tantras, ancient scriptures that deal with rituals, disciplines and meditations. In the Tantric origin story, Shiva, the god of pure consciousness, has sex with Shakti, the goddess of power and energy, and gives birth to the world. In Tantra, what is spiritual is physical, and what is physical is spiritual.

 Barbara explains how the West’s fascination with Tantra began in 19th-century India, where “Victorian-era Christian missionaries singled out sex as the most alarming aspect of the Tantras.” The early Western interpretation of Tantra has evolved, uniting with other sexual practices and philosophies as well as other cultural and spiritual practices (such as witchcraft), leading us to today’s schools of Tantra. Most contemporary American work with Tantra falls under the umbrella of Neo-Tantra — a Western adapted form of Tantra, which ’70s New Age-ism spun into a sexual-spiritual practice. 

The emphasis on sex within the Tantric tradition is a largely Western invention. It’s not unlike Yoga, a spiritual practice that was appropriated by the West and molded into (an often pricey) workout.

Nicole Ananda, a Tantrically trained surrogate partner — a sexual coach or healer who uses experiential therapy methods to help clients overcome sexual dysfunctions — explained to me, “In the United States, we’ve taken Tantra, which is a spiritual practice, which mostly has nothing to do with sex, and just glommed on to the sexual part and made Tantra all about… having great sex, having full-body orgasms lasting forever.”

Tantra, which was introduced to the West as a subject of colonial fascination, has become a kind of business for white women, who often borrow Hindu and Buddhist imagery to market themselves.

Before I attended Barbara’s class, I leafed through webpage after webpage and met the women who promised me ecstasy, bliss and healing. Their faces were white, their smiles stretched, their breasts distracting. These women are workshop facilitators and authors; they are personal sex coaches and counselors; they are “pleasure activists,” witches and goddesses. I found myself scrolling through their websites for hours, studying the round bodies that pepper their webpages and their easy promises of pleasure and empowerment.

 Some women wore loose skirts and gemstone pendants. Others were businesslike, dressed in blazers and glasses. One woman, the apparently famous Layla Martin — also known as Women’s Health magazine’s “Headmistress of Pleasure” — grins and laughs in a sequin dress and colorful lipstick. On her website, she describes her experience travelling to India at age 18 and having “one of those super lightning-flashy OMG moments.” Tantra became her life’s mission, but to get there she “did some super wild stuff with some super weird Tantric gurus that would raise some serious eyebrows.”

Martin is the founder of the Tantric Institute of Integrated Sexuality, a $3 million company. Online, she charges $70 for her jade yoni eggs. In 2018, Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness company — and one of Layla Martin’s endorsers — settled a $145,000 lawsuit with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office after being sued for touting unsubstantiated medical benefits of their $66 yoni eggs. Goop argued the eggs — a “guarded secret of Chinese royalty” used by queens and concubines — could help detox your body, regulate your menstrual cycle and improve your sex life. Several gynecologists have publicly contested these claims, arguing instead that using these eggs could be detrimental to one’s vaginal health.

Layla Martin is still selling her eggs, which come with two free instructional videos. She also offers a seven-week jade egg master class for women. Enrollment is now permanently closed, but the class is still advertised on her website.The text is superimposed over an image of Martin, her legs swung over a deep green velvet sofa, grinning with the jade egg balanced between her thumb and index finger.

Her website is fancy, but I’m distrustful.

***

The climax (read: orgasm) of Barbara’s workshop is the 25 minutes of breathing that precedes lunch. Here, we are all lying on the ground on yoga mats, a pillow or two under our heads and a Peruvian-style blanket resting over our bodies. Barbara leads us through an exercise which may or may not develop into a “breath and energy orgasm.” She also invites us to have other orgasms, a “crygasm,” a “gigglegasm,” even an “angergasm.” I hope no one will have an angergasm too close to me. Barbara guides our energy through our chakras. We start with the root chakra, then we move the energy up the lower belly chakra, to the solar plexus chakra, the heart chakra, the throat, the third eye, and, finally, the crown chakra. I am trying to guide my energy but it keeps slipping away. When I concentrate, it kind of hurts. I find myself squeezing parts of my body, trying to milk my energy from one zone to the next like my organs are udders.

Eventually, I give up, and focus on breathing. In the moment Barbara instructs us to move into the heart chakra, the music swells. The drums come in. I feel like we’re summoning something, a demon or ghost. Suddenly, I hear someone howling. Then: yelps, screams, and moans. I look around me. Workshop members scattered around the space are gyrating. I watch their pelvises shoot upwards into the empty space as if attached by wire to some invisible puppeteer. They spasm and yodel. I watch one plaid-clad 50-year-old man spin around on the floor like a glass bottle. Eventually he comes to a slow stop. I feel nothing, save short of breath and a little dizzy.

 Later, we decompress and discuss our experience. Barbara reminds those of us who emerged empty not to be discouraged: “Whatever happened to you today is perfect.” A short woman with thick black hair down to her waist describes her experience to the group. “I felt all this energy in my root chakra, and I was aroused, and then I felt all this energy in my solar plexus, and I felt empowered, and then it got stuck in my heart,” she says. “As I kept pulling, my body started uncontrollably shaking, and I cried tears of gratitude and joy. I was my most authentic self in that moment.” I stare at her in disbelief. To ensure she wasn’t planted by Barbara as a marketing ploy, I approach her after lunch to ask about her experience. Miauw-Ling is immediately open and kind. She tells me she’s been practicing Tantra for six years. When she first started practicing this exercise — also known as holotropic breathwork — she would get nowhere. As she continued for years, she began to get flashes of childhood traumas as she moved through certain chakras. Working through that pain, she began having full-body energy orgasms. She smiles at me innocently. “I like to get my orgasm on.” I scribble it all down in my notebook.

 ***

 On another early morning, I journey to New York on the Metro-North in search of another healer. Her name is Lauren Harkness and the banner of her website reads, “Put Your Body in Good Hands.” I dress in a thick coat, my body absent.

I meet Lauren at the foot of her apartment complex, a sleek building in Hell’s Kitchen with huge windows and a doorman. While I’m waiting for her to finish a session, I spot two corgis in Canada Goose doggy jackets. Lauren eventually comes downstairs to meet me, dressed in Uggs, a huge black poncho and a baby pink hat. I stick out my hand, but she wraps me in a hug. We go up to her apartment, which also functions as her workspace. In the center of her living room is a full-size bed fitted with a crumpled sheet. “Sorry, I just had a session and haven’t cleaned up yet.” The bed neatly folds into the wall. Lauren’s apartment is thick with the smell of incense; every corner is filled with gems, rocks, concrete buddhas and small marble pharaohs. After she folds up the bed, she closes the cupboard doors and repositions a poster explaining the seven chakras. 

We gather on her cream-colored couch to talk, like two friends gossiping. Lauren is the co-founder of the Tantra Institute in New York. She teaches large group classes about Tantra practice and conscious sexuality, as well as a range of private classes. The most prized part of her work and the one she is most passionate about is her Tantra healing session, because in it she gets to help her clients release their trauma and build up a conscious and holistic sexual existence.

Lauren uses a lot of technical language when she speaks — both Tantric terms and medical ones. She uses her hands a lot too, and I watch them move, her nails covered in sparkly gold nail polish. She explains to me the technical merits of Tantric healing, a method that involves a lengthy intake process (filled with questions such as, “If you could have anything you wanted, what would that look like?”) and sessions that comprise of breathwork, energywork and bodywork. So much language around Tantra feels implicit and assumed, but I should make one thing clear: Lauren touches people’s bodies — and oftentimes, their genitals — with the goal of healing. She tells me how she finds this process effective in a very different way from traditional talk therapy. With Tantra, “We’re working within the body,” she says. “Tantra doesn’t give you an intellectual understanding of your trauma; rather, it allows you to confront it physically.” Your trauma is trapped and Lauren seeks to set it free, clear it from your body, its host.

.“I think it’s my mission from God,” Lauren tells me. Lauren describes how when she practices Tantra, she is connected to her clients’ bodies, receiving information from some unknown source or finding words that “don’t feel like [hers].” Often, her clients will have a “cathartic response” during sessions — not unlike the wave of gyrating bodies in Barbara’s workshop – and during catharsis, trauma peeks its head. 

“I feel very honored … to be able to witness someone in the beauty of their release, because I find that tears and anger and the raw emotion is beautiful to witness,” Lauren says. “I find it absolutely breathtaking and courageous. And so to be able to hold space for people to release like that is an honor.”

I find myself feeling protective of my trauma; I’m not certain I’m ready to release it onto Lauren’s Murphy bed.

I ask Lauren if she identifies as a sex worker. She shakes her head: “I feel like I’m a sexual healer, but it’s not necessarily sex work.” I’ve heard this from several healers at this point. The way Tantric practitioners describe their work to me is so divorced from sex that I find myself surprised whenever I learn that they interact with people’s genitals and give their clients orgasms. Barbara, for example, sent me a video of her conducting the Sacred Spot Massage (another name for a Tantric healing session) on transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. When I opened the video and watched her massage naked bodies and genitals with gloved hands, I was shocked. I had no idea that was what breathwork or bodywork implied.

Lauren tells me how clients are surprised to find themselves crying or shaking, but she’s never felt out of her comfort zone. “A lot of people feel safe here to let go.”

She asks me if I would like to have a session myself. I find myself growing embarrassed, explaining how it’s a little too expensive for a college student. She tells me if I find myself interested later, she would give me a student discount. Her knees are pulled towards her chest and she’s nursing a coffee between her hands. She smiles at me gently, reminding me of a kindergarten teacher. “Put Your Body in Good Hands,” I remember. I find myself trusting her. She explains, “I always tell my clients… you could cry, you could scream, you could come… everything is welcome.” 

I think about the way Lauren gives herself fully to her clients in order to help them heal, how she uses her body to build nests of safety and love in the bodies of others. I don’t see myself cashing in on a student discount, but I can tell Lauren is sincere about her work. I can tell she’s helping someone, somewhere, feel safe enough to be touched, to welcome new hands onto their bodies. And they are good hands.

***

In the last hour of Barbara’s workshop, I meet Joanne, another attendee. She is a slim 59-year old woman, wearing blue jeans, a blue sweater and colorful fuzzy socks. She has one of those elegant faces, a thin nose, a pinched chin and tired eyes. We sit next to each other and I ask her if this is her first time doing this. “Pffff,” she answers, shaking her head. “I was in a long marriage, which was sexually bfftttt,” she squeezes her tongue with her lips, letting out a fart noise. Just then, Jasmine, Barbara’s assistant and the founder of an organization called “The Groove,” begins a “dance session” and invites us all to stand up and “get down.” Joanne rolls her eyes at me: “I was much happier sitting.” For me, this dance session is a welcome shift from heavy-duty breathwork. Jasmine plays music with a strong beat and I watch several couples in their 50s and 60s grind against each other, hands squeezing butts and chests rubbing chests, like parents drunk at a bar mitzvah. Joanne is in the corner texting.

After we finish dancing, she whispers in my ear, “I think I’m going to go early, I don’t want to do couples work with someone I don’t know.” I told her I didn’t either and we decide to work together. We are first instructed to stare into each other’s eyes for several minutes while Barbara feeds us heart-wrenching prompts such as “Think about the worst thing that ever happened to you.” As the exercise develops, we begin holding hands, pressing our palms to each other’s hearts and “shifting energy ratios.” Joanne occasionally laughs or scoffs each time Barbara gives us a new instruction before pulling herself together and staring into my eyes with the sudden stillness of a ballerina. I think of her as a fellow skeptic with a high level of discipline. 

When Joanne places her hand on my heart and I place mine on hers, I feel a huge wave of fear and panic. I’m not sure why — I’m not afraid of her. I don’t feel especially unsafe. But her hand on my heart suddenly feels intrusive. I feel like I might vomit. I breathe slowly for those long minutes, afraid if I stop concentrating I might start hyperventilating. When we are finally told to close our eyes after 40 minutes of staring, the whole world flips as blackness folds over. I feel relieved, but overwhelmed, still so conscious of her presence, and suddenly deeply afraid of being within myself alone. Later, Joanne tells me how her father had died, her marriage had fallen apart and her last child had left home, all within the past year. “If it wasn’t for my internal self, I wouldn’t have survived,” she whispers, combing her long fingers through her greying hair. “This stuff saves her,” I write in my notebook.

 On the train back to Connecticut, I peel my orange. I am stepping through dimensions; platforms to trains; incense to air; chakras to orgies. I find myself staring at the hazy afternoon sun refracting in the train windows. Looking out, I see only emptiness, the bright light blinding my view. I rest my head against the window and start filling my root chakra with breath. I don’t feel myself inflate, but it helps me fall asleep. When I wake up, I’m in New Haven, where I started my day at 6 a.m. I am happy to be away from the workshop, back somewhere where I don’t have to test my physical and spiritual boundaries, where I don’t have to spend $180 to make self-discoveries (or fail to). 

I also think about Lauren’s hands, her nails painted in gold glitter. I think about the many women who lend their hands in service of others’ bodies. I remember Joanne’s hand on my heart. As I step off the train, I whisper a soft blessing. I wish them all the will to heal.