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Bodily intimacy and ritual healing in women’stantric retreats

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Abstract

Alternative health care and holistic spiritual practices have become increasingly popular in many Western countries, especially among women, who often claim them to be deeply transformative. This paper presents an ethnographic study of women’s tantric retreats in Northwest Europe that aimed to help women reconnect with their vital sexual energy, rediscover the sacredness of their female bodies, and possibly heal from damaging and even traumatic experiences regarding their femininity and sexuality. It draws on Turner’s influential view on ritual as a liminal space in order to account for the transformative potential of these workshops. Specifically, it applies Hinton and Kirmayer’s flexibility hypothesis, which suggests that healing rituals shift people’s mode of being-in-the-world, including their cognitive, emotional, and physical state or stance, towards openness to new ways of being. First, it highlights different ontological domains where shifts took place, notably somatic state, self-image and relationality. Subsequently, it identifies the main modalities that were used for enabling transformation: the embodiment of the metaphor of the goddess/the divine as present in each woman and the use of intimate, loving touch and meditative awareness. The process of transformation and healing elucidated in this way engaged the physical, emotional and cognitive levels as interacting dimensions, relying foremost on the activation of a vital energy that both gave participants a deep sense of self and connected beyond the self.

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