the human condition Tantric sex is about unlocking your potential for pleasure. Cassandra Lorius finds out how
A COUPLE of my closest friends returned from holiday, raving enthusiastically about a week of tantric sex in Spain. They explained that it was all about prolonging a state of "relaxed arousal" instead of the usual rush for orgasm. I wondered if this esoteric-sounding approach might do anything for me. So I ended up on a weekend workshop run by therapist turned tantra teacher John Hawken.

Hawken is the only teacher in Britain licensed to teach the Sky Dancing programme devised by Margo Anand, author of The Art of Sexual Ecstasy. (I invested pounds 1 in a book-club copy, though nothing would have prepared me for the hands-on experience.)

Twenty-four of us - some couples, some singles, equally divided between men and women, including me and my good friend Martin - arrived for the weekend at Monkton Wyld, an educational centre and holistic community in a stone-built Victorian rectory in a small Dorset village.

I felt reassured by the introductory leaflet's assurance that sex wasn't actually part of the programme. In spite of the eastern terminology, tantra turned out to be easy to grasp. It's about awakening your sexual energy - not just lust but your lust for life. The message is simple; celebrate life and love in a spirit of fun, playfulness and sensuality.

The evening session started without any introduction. We gathered in a circle in the old library, in front of a roaring log fire, a surprisingly normal-looking collection - mostly in our thirties and forties - with the odd long-haired new-ager among us. Blindfolded, we were seated on floor cushions for the first exercise, the "awakening of the senses".

Essences of lily, lemon and lavender were wafted under my nose, and small segments of pineapple, fig and pomegranate popped into my mouth. Percussion instruments were gently rattled, and my skin was brushed with fabrics, feathers and fur. My hand was placed in the tentative clasp of a neighbouring woman for her to explore. "I don't know where it's leading," I thought, "but if this is tantric foreplay, I want more!"

But then my hand was put into the overbearing grasp of a man who took the chance for a good grope. I recoiled, slapping his hands away. Trust me to be thrown together with the only nutter in the group. While the other participants had an early night in our single-sex dormitories Martin and I sneaked into the library to polish off an illicit bottle of wine, which led to a hungover exchange with John Hawken next day, when he apologised for not having seen the grope and intervened.

Now we were ready for the real tantra business of making "connections" with others. In tantra-speak this means seeing the "divinity" in each and every person - although I couldn't quite extend such generosity of spirit to my obnoxious groper. Since tantra celebrates a "feminine" approach to sexuality, the women were free to choose a partner to work with for most of the exercises. I found myself stretching out virtually naked while my chosen partner blew hot air all over my body, before slowly stroking my skin with a feather and then the tips of his fingers. John believes we have to break through our reticence about receiving pleasure - I seemed to be doing well on that score.

Tantric foreplay seems to involve a lot of gazing at each other, deep breathing in synch and visualising your heart "chakra" opening up. You imagine your breath is going right down to your pelvis, activating your "base chakra", the "energy centre" which tantrists believe is the source of our sex drive. I wasn't convinced by this explanation, but I sat in Martin's lap anyway. By the end we'd both started to feel distinct rushes of energy. Maybe all that hyperventilating had released lots of feelgood endorphins, but the experience put paid to my air of detached cynicism.

So did it work? I've got more lust for life, and as for sex, I can reveal that the the tantric goal of expanding orgasms into a cosmic experience of "whole body orgasm" is very seductive indeed.

8 Day workshop, "What is Tantra?", the Windsor Centre, London N1, March 31 (pounds 40). "Taste of Tantra" weekends, Sky Dancing UK. For details, telephone: 0117 9830958.