The Tantras, Sanskrit texts that date back more than 1,000 years, urge adherents to indulge their desires in order to transcend them. So Xlandia sprawls her clients out on a massage table and tickles their "sacred spot" with feathers and furs.

Tantra has long been a buzzword in America's New Age mega-market. But the popularity of private "Tantric healers" such as Xlandia, who practices in Los Angeles and charges hundreds of dollars per hour for quasi-spiritual erotic experiences, has reached a new level in recent years. With the proliferation of the Internet, private "Tantrikas" can be found in almost any major U.S. city.

These spiritual vixens probably fit the most common understanding of Tantra: a form of eroticism that has something to do with sexual temple carvings in India or the Kama Sutra. But experts say the popular American notion of Tantra falls far from the philosophy's origins, and many academics decry the sex-centered commercialism of Western "neo-Tantra."

"I don't know why they have to call it Tantra," said Robert Thurman, a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University. "That's what people are upset about. There is a place for hedonism in this world. Why do they have to make it a spiritual thing?"

Tibetan Buddhists apply the term "Tantra" to certain practices and deities from Vajrayana Buddhism. For them, Tantra describes the fastest approach to enlightenment, a method that employs magical mantras and visualizations. Even the sexual images seen in Tibetan paintings are to be visualized rather than physically emulated, with the exception of the most elite yogis.

In some obscure "left-handed" or "dark" Tantra cults in India, Hindu yogis engage in sexual acts, along with taking drugs and drinking wine, as a way to merge with the divine. But in those sects, sex is a small part of the larger tradition that includes purification, initiation, meditation and deity worship.

Buddhist and Hindu practitioners study for years, sometimes decades, to learn the nuances of tantrism. The sexual practices are transmitted from teacher to student in secret and given only to those with the correct disposition.

In America, however, Tantric sex, like yoga, has been extracted from its highly ritualized form and taught through how-to videos and expensive workshops, critics say.

Tantra has always been a controversial topic, even in India. But the American breed has intensified the debate about what's spiritual and what's not, or for some, what's legal and what's not.

Some sex-crime experts complain that Tantric healing is a crafty form of prostitution. Several Tantric practitioners have been found guilty of sexual abuse, the most well-known being an Edmonds, Wash., hypnotherapist and Tantra apostle who was found guilty on four counts of rape.

He had been telling his students that having sex with him was mandatory for healing.

Bill Nelson, director of the Freedom and Justice Center, a nonprofit prostitution research center in Minneapolis, said it is hard to say whether Tantric healers who offer interactive sexual teachings are breaking the law.

"Whether or not this is illegal depends on the state," Nelson said. "But sex is sex."

Tantric healers, however, argue that "left-handed" Tantric practitioners have always been criticized by "right-handed" yogis in India.

"It's the same debate that has gone on for centuries," said Chandra Devi, a Tantric healer who advertises on the Web and has a bachelor's degree in women's studies and has studied Sanskrit. "The right hand has always criticized the left, and the left has always been out there breaking all the rules."

Students meditate at the Shambhala Meditation Center in New York. Some practitioners are critical of the explosion of Tantric healers who charge clients for erotic experiences.

Laura Simms teaches a class in Tibetan Buddhism at the Shambhala Meditation Center, where traditional Tantric practices are taught. Many traditionalists are critical of "Tantric healers."