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Heart Practice: approaching the tantric body-in-practice – I

“The most immediate and concrete means of persuading people of the reality of divine power is to involve their bodies.”
Thomas Csordas, Somatic Modes of Attention

I’m going to progress this series by considering various themes related to the “tantric” body-in-practice. This is a massive subject, and I’ll begin by outlining what I mean by the “body-in-practice” and why this is a useful way of considering practice(see Tantra keywords: Embodied for some earlier reflections). Attempting to discuss the various different modes of tantra practice can be a tricky proposition, as it is, I often find, difficult to seperate them easily – as they work across different domains. In exploring Nyasa for example, at some point one will have to deal with how nyasa intersects with mantra-vidya. In considering mudras, it might be desirable to discuss how mudras ‘work’ across several registers simultaneously – from the broadly cosmological, the social, and the personal; as energetic movements through space and and at the same time, public, dialogical gestures.

One of the problems I find in discussing tantric body-practices is the western tendency to draw a sharp distinction between domains such as mind vs. body, personal vs. social, cognitive vs. emotional, physical vs. spiritual, etc. – as such distinctions are not really made in India (or at least, not quite in the same way). In India, many practices are undertaken with the aim of cultivating a particular kind of body in ways that cross all these “boundaries” – and I feel that it is a mistake to try and interpret them within the limits of one particular domain. Neither practices nor the body are “static” objects. Practices require some measure of understanding [of the underlying “theory”] to be performed effectively, yet at the same time, practice shapes and modifies that understanding; as does anything else which may be related to it – from a conversation with a teacher to a chance encounter; an act of reading or a sudden epiphany.

In a previous post in this series I mentioned briefly the work of performance theorist Phillip B. Zarilli, from whom I have drawn the term ‘body-in-practice’.

In the introduction (pp5-11) to his 1998 performance enthnography of Kalarippayattu, a South Indian martial art, Zarilli makes some key statements for approaching both bodies and practices in relation to each other. I’ll summarise what I think are the salient points.

Zarilli begins by defining practices as: “those modes of embodied doing through which everyday as well as extra-daily experiences, realities and meanings are shaped and negotiated.”

The key phrase here is “embodied doing” – practices happen within and through the body – rooted in what Thomas Csordas terms “somatic modes of attention” – which is to say, they are “culturally elaborated ways of attending to and with one’s body in surroundings that include the embodied presence of others” (see this post for a brief discussion of the distinction between daily and extra-daily practices).

Zarilli continues: “Because practices are not things, but an active, embodied doing, they are intersections where personal, social and cosmological experiences and realities are negotiated. To examine a practice is to examine these multiple sets of relationships and experiences.”

Again, this is a useful point for thinking around tantra practices – which frequently act simultaneously across “social and cosmological experiences and realities”.

“Martial arts, like other overt techniques of disciplining the body, including aerobics, weight training, contact improvisation, etc. are ‘incorporating practices’ through which the body, and therefore experience and meaning are ‘culturally shaped in its actual practices and behaviours’ … These are ‘technologies’ [of the body] in Foucault’s sense, i.e. practices through which ‘humans develop knowledge about themselves’.”

‘Incorporating practices’ is a term coined by Paul Connerton (1989). Briefly, Connerton distinguishes between two modes of inter-related “memory” practices – inscribing practices and incorporating practices. Inscribing practices refers to those actions whereby information is stored on various types of media (print, photographs, etc.) and incorporating practices which are somatically remembered and expressed – through gestures and postures, modes of dress, etc. Connerton argues that incorporating practices do not exist “objectively” apart from their performance, and that we acquire and perform them, for the most part, without too much in the way of conscious reflection on the doing of them.

Obviously tantra practices are not the same as martial arts, although in Zarilli’s ethnographic account of Kalarippayattu there are some themes common to both kinds of practice. But more importantly, Zarilli is drawing attention to the intersection between body-self cultivation, the interpretation of experience, generation of meaning and the influence of culture which encompasses these processes.

“Psychophysiological techniques are practised in order for the practitioner to be transformed to attain a certain normative and idealized relationship between the ‘self’, ‘agency’, ‘power’ and ‘behaviour’. Ideally, the practitioner’s ‘self’ is reconstituted through long-term practice to achieve agency, power and a type of behaviour which can be deployed personally, socially, even cosmologically. Such a transformation can only be actualised through the body-in-practice.”

Conscious of the western tendency to reify categories such as ‘self’, ‘agency’, ‘power’ etc., Zarilli points out that these are not stable objects, and should always be considered as provisional. Drawing on the work of Dorrine Kondo, he asserts that ‘self’, ‘agency’, etc., should be approached as ‘nodal points’ – in her words: “Rather than bounded, essential entities, replete with a unitary substance and consciousness, identities become rhetorical figures and performative assertions enacted in specific situations within fields of power, history and culture” (Kondo, 1990, p304). This reflects changes in the way that anthropology is considering the relationship between ‘self’ and ‘culture’ – in particular, a move towards analytical frameworks of how ‘selves’ emerge through interaction with ‘culture’ – through invention, negotiation (and opposition).

Gavin Flood (2006, p6) also underscores the idea that “bodies” are produced in this way: apropos the “tantric body”: “…the tantric body is not a given that is discovered but a process that is constructed through dedicated effort over years of practice. … Any distinctions between knowing and acting, mind and body, are disrupted by the tantric body in the sense that what might be called imagination becomes a kind of action in tantric ritual and the forms that the body takes in ritual are a kind of knowing. … This corporeal understanding shows itself in the great emphasis on transformative practices in the tantric traditions, ritual inseperable from vision, the body becoming alive with the universe within it, and vibrant with futurity in the anticipation of the goal of the tantric paths.”

Zarilli then highlights another useful point – (quoting Calvin O. Shrag), that “the experienced body is not an object for the abstractive gaze, it is the body as lived, as lodged in the world as a base of operations from which attitudes are assumed and projects deployed.” Here, he is highlighting the difference between our experience of our bodies and how we represent that experience – that there is “a constant process of negotiation” between how we experience our bodies – the discursive formations that we draw upon to make that representation meaningful – and how we think about and express that experience.

An example of these processes would be the chakra schemas associated with tantra practice – and now familiar through countless occult and new age books. In India, there are dozens of different chakra schemas, which for me, indicates that they are (to an extent) metaphoric arrangements for structuring and directing bodily experience – sensations and feelings. As these schemas have been transferred to the west however, due to a variety of historical processes, they have become reified – so that one particular schema – the seven-chakra schema – has become dominant, and is widely thought to have (and thereby experienced as having) a seperate ontological status and to operate in a quasi-medical fashion.

Zarilli goes on to stress what may seem like an obvious point – that individual experience and collective identity operate dialectically – “which is the arena through which ‘the self’ in forged in practice.” Again, calling attention to the way that ‘self’ (also ‘bodies’, ‘agency’, etc.) is negotiated within different social and institutional contexts. He also stresses that: “Modes of extra-daily cultural practice … are not practices reducible to their obvious set of virtuosic body-techniques; rather, modes of cultural practice exist as a set of potentialities of self, power and agency inherent in the complex set of practices, discourses and representations through which a practitioner’s experience of practices is historically and contextually negotiated. Through entrainment and embodiment, complex, extra-daily cultural practices and performances ‘structure the structure’ of experience and meaning – a structure which is never static, but is always in a process of negotiation….

I think there are several useful things to bear in mind here – just as ‘body’, ‘self’, ‘agency’ are provisional, then so are ‘practices’ – that is, they are not “objects” that can be easily removed from one cultural context to another without being changed (sometimes drastically) in the process. We don’t just perform practices passively – do perform a practice is to be changed by it, and equally, performance modifies the practice. Nikki Bardo (2010) makes a similar point regarding entrainment and embodiment. In an essay discussing Wiccan training, she distinguishes between a “natural body” – which progressively becomes (via somatic practices) a “body-in-practice” – “the learner first discovers [then] creates meaning through bodily engagement, through sensual and participatory conversation and intimate interaction.” She writes of students moving from “disembodied” belief to embodied ritual action, and highlights the importance of learning to pay a particular kind of attention to one’s body. Bado does not explain exactly what she means by the phrase “natural body” – it is reminiscient, though, of some of Foucault’s writing about the “docile” body, or the body-as-object. What’s useful here, I think is her reflection on moving from a position which is largely cognitive and passive, to the activity of putting that learning into practice by practice – cultivating particular modalities of body-knowing and acting.

I’ll hold it there for now, and in the next post, discuss some overall themes of tantra practice.

Nikki Bado, Performing the Ancient Ones: The Body-in-practice as the ground of ritualised negotiation in Ute Hüsken, Frank Neubert (eds) Negotiating Rites (Oxford University Press, 2012)
Paul Connerton How Societies Remember (Cambridge University Press, 1989)
Thomas Csordas Embodiment and experience: the existential ground of culture and self (Cambridge University Press, 1994)
Gavin Flood The Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion (I.B. Tauris, 2006)
Dorrine K Kondo, Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace (University of Chicago, 1990)
Zarrilli, Phillip B., When the Body Becomes All Eyes; Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, A South Indian Martial Art (Oxford University Press, 1998)