Beliefnet
When Asra Nomani's editor at the Wall Street Journal asked her to investigate "America's hottest new fad," tantric sex, the Muslim journalist anticipated a light-hearted trend story. But the story took her from a Tantric sex seminar in California to the Dalai Lama, to meditation caves in northern India, and finally to Muslim and Hindu extremists in Pakistan and India. The story changed her life, faith, and identity--and swept her dangerously and tragically into the events after September 11. In this interview, Nomani describes her journey.

Why were you so consumed with the idea of crossing boundaries, with dualism?

Because I physically crossed boundaries at such a young age. I went from India to America, and I didn't know it growing up, but there had been created in me psychic boundaries that I didn't understand fully.

What do you mean by that?

Things like clothes, the fact that I couldn't wear tank tops in front of my father until I was 28. I didn't wear a skirt until my college graduation. In Muslim culture women aren't supposed to show their arms and legs. I went along with it, but I didn't really understand that this was a demarcation from the Western culture in which I was living.

But I knew that there were boundaries within me. In my late 20s and early 30s the boundaries began to create confrontations within myself because I started challenging them.

What were your internal confrontations?

The big one was love. I had grown up being told I would be married to the man to whom I lost my virginity, and that I wasn't going to kiss anyone except the man I married. So I didn't date when I was growing up. I was asked out to the high school prom and said no.

Then finally I fell in love with some guy at 19, and he was an American, a green beret--everything that was opposite to me in terms of identity, so what was that about? I was crossing a boundary, but I couldn't be honest with my parents about it. I told my mother about him, and she said "Stop dating," but my heart wasn't listening and my body wasn't listening. All through my 20s, in that most intimate way, I was confronting boundaries because I was falling in love.

And love is where you really confront your deepest self. That's where you can be magnificent and rise to your highest potential. I also found in love my greatest darkness--the competition of identities.

How did the assignment to understand tantric sex play into your journey?

I couldn't have been given a better opportunity to come to terms with the stuff raging within me. I was in New York, it was the summer of 1998, and I had this boyfriend. He was a "technical virgin," a guy who never consummated any of his relationships. And it was torture. He wouldn't talk about it.

Then I got this assignment to go out and find out the business of tantra, and who is making money off it. You know, Who is Mr. and Mrs. Tantra of America? I had never even heard of tantra. So I went to websites and saw all these pictures of people having sex in positions you wouldn't believe. I learned it was from India, so I called my parents and asked, "What is tantra?" and they said, "What is that?" I spelled it, and they said, "Oh, dahntrah." They said it's black magic, that it's the dark side. But of course that's not how it's being sold here-it's all about sex here. I thought it was all hocus-pocus, and I made fun of it.

Was that because you were a secularized Westerner or because you had a Muslim background?

Both. Muslim culture in India really doesn't have much respect for Hindu culture, so I grew up mocking the goddesses and gods and not even really understanding them. And I had an attitude because I thought, "Oh, these Americans are just going off and chasing after Eastern philosophies." I never went to a yoga class until I started tantra research.

So what is tantra to you?

It's a complicated philosophy and a way of life. It defined for me a lot of principles that I hadn't understood well, about how to live in this world. A few of them became important to me: overcoming your fears, incorporating your sexual energy into your whole self, and also being truthful to yourself and others about who you are. Utlimately, tantra teaches how to liberate ourselves from the mundane in this world. For the first time I was able to understand the techniques of living in the present moment, and through heart rather than through ego.

All these years I thought I had to be defined by boundaries, and I found that I have ownership over my own self. I had India claiming me, America claiming me, Islam claiming me. I didn't fit in in India, and I didn't fit in in America and I didn't fit in in Islam. But now they coexist peacefully. I'm proud to be American. Proud to be Indian. Proud to be a Muslim woman. I don't feel like I have to masquerade.

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