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Ecstatic Trance Postures
Although I had practiced yoga for a number of years, I did not make much of a connection between the physical asanas as methods for exploring the world of spirit until I began working with indigenous shamans and discovered an ancient and little-known practice where body postures are used to guide what are known as shamanic journeys: special states of trance or meditation through which we can access our inner selves or, as the shamans say, ‘journey to other worlds’.
My own experiences were profound and showed me that there was, indeed, something new and different about these body postures; something I had not discovered in yoga practice, so I began to research these postures, finding just two published works on the subject: Where The Spirits Ride The Wind, by Dr Felicitas Goodman, and Ecstatic Body Postures by her student, Belinda Gore.
With these two sources to guide me, I began conducting experiments of my own and introducing these new asanas to participants on my shamanic workshops, to test the claims of Goodman and Gore that these postures could, indeed, transport people to other worlds. This article is based on my findings.
"Great beings who inhabit the realm of spirit that we call the Alternate Reality have been around for thousands of years, helping humans through our journeys here on Earth; and hunter-gatherer and horticultural peoples around the world have documented their presence and preserved the means of access to them through their artwork on cave walls, in totem poles, in delicate gold or silver work, or in simple pottery. Their images have been perpetually in front of our eyes", says Belinda Gore.
Even so, the true nature of these images was only rediscovered 30 years ago by anthropologist Felicitas Goodman, in part as an outcome of her research into glossolalia ('speaking in tongues'). Goodman found that statues, carvings, and paintings from a number of different ancient cultures, most of which had had little or no contact with each other, nevertheless featured images of people in postures with which similar or identical to each other. Goodman's hypothesis, therefore, was that these postures represented coded instructions on how to produce consistent trance-like effects. Her studies led her to many countries, and to trying out these body positions practically with hundreds of participants worldwide. Her findings suggest that the figures represented in the sort of artwork that Gore describes are, in fact, ritual body postures which enable ordinary people to enter non-ordinary consciousness and experience the inner (or spirit) world.
These postures produce a common effect, according to Goodman, because they all share one thing in common: the human body, the basic structure and functioning of which has remained unchanged since the time of our most ancient ancestors. The nervous and endocrine systems are, in fact, all much the same as they were 30,000 years ago, a fact which enables modern city dwellers to enter the ‘other worlds’ as effectively, and through the same neural doorways, as Neolithic medicine women and shamans throughout history.
Goodman identified several prerequisites for a successful trance experience, many of which will be familiar to you from your standard yoga practice:
• The establishment of a sacred space - not necessarily a church, an altar, or other 'power place', but a place of sacred intent, which is entered with the expectation or intention of an experience which is in some way ‘non-ordinary’ (such as a yoga class!)
• A repetitive sound should be used as an auditory cue to the nervous system to shift into non-ordinary reality. The rattle or drum is typically used by shamans, but relaxation CDs, such as those we might play in a yoga class, would work just as well
• A method for silencing inner dialogue and the chattering of the mind is essential. In some of the churches where Goodman did her research, prayer served this purpose, but meditation works just as well. In her experiments, Goodman used a meditative breathing practice like pranayama to focus on the breath and quieten the mind
• The key factor, however, is that people need a shared approach to the exercise, a belief system to be part of, which acts to shape the trance state into a spiritual experience. The use of ritual body postures provided this common thread by overcoming individual and cultural differences to transform the experience into a spiritual one. Trance postures worked for everyone irrespective of their worldview or belief systems. In the words of Belinda Gore: "Agnostic computer programmers could undergo a shamanic [experience] during the fifteen minutes of an ecstatic trance session".
In my own experiments, I asked students in my shamanic classes to try a few of these ritual postures, selected from the 39 in Belinda Gore's book, describing only the positions themselves, not the purpose they were supposed to serve, to see what experiences these students had. The ones I chose were:
• The Tattooed Jaguar, dating from Mexico, circa 1400 BC, which is considered a shapeshifting posture that gives us a view of reality from the perspective of a Big Cat. Through it, in Gore's words, "many individuals become sensitised to the non-human world and grow in rapport with the animals".
• The Tennessee Diviner, dating from Europe circa AD 700, is a divinatory posture which puts people in touch with a spirit who offers advice on ritual. This spirit can be "short tempered, brief and even cryptic" but is "generous with exacting details" concerning specific healing rituals.
• The Realm of the Dead posture, from fifth century BC Germany, mediates journeys into the spirit world, where "The traveller… begins to rise into a new form and a new life".
So you can, if you wish, try these postures for yourself, here are the instructions:
The Tattooed Jaguar
Kneel with your legs spread so your knees form a 'V' and your right big toe crosses over the left big toe. Rest your buttocks on your heels and bend forward slightly at the waist.
Curl your hands the amount needed to hold an imaginary medium-sized candle. Place your curled left hand palm down on your left knee and your right hand on your right knee, tilted upwards slightly (so if you were actually holding a candle, it would point at 45 degrees towards your other leg). Keep your elbows relaxed and slightly bow your arms. Face forward with eyes closed.
The Tennessee Diviner
Begin by kneeling, then raise your right knee and place your right foot sole down on the floor beside your left knee. Continue to kneel on your left knee, with buttocks resting on your heel.
Place your left hand palm down on the left knee and right hand palm down on the right knee, but slightly to the left of the kneecap.
Cock your head very slightly to the right as if wanting to look over your right knee. Keep your eyes closed and protrude your tongue a little between slightly parted lips.
The Realm of the Dead
Stand with feet parallel about 6 inches apart and point your toes straight ahead. Keep your knees slightly bent.
Place your right hand over your waist with the ball of the hand covering your navel and your middle finger extending along the waistline. Your left arm is against your chest, with the palm of the hand against your chest so it rests just above your right arm and parallel to it. Keep your upper arms relaxed and close to your body. Face forward with your eyes closed.
My students all reported markedly different effects to the ones normally experienced using standard approaches to meditation or shamanic journeying. "Each individual was successful in gaining a different perspective than normal and in terms of where they went spiritually, the journeys were intense", said one workshop participant who also introduced the postures to her yoga group.
The Realm of the Dead posture (described to my students only as the 'RoD', so as not to disclose its purpose) produced a characteristic meeting with "spirit guides", this yoga teacher continued. Another of my participants, who could only hold this posture for a short time due to a prior injury, commented: "I got an impression of the incredible vastness of time and space rushing towards me, as if I was travelling at a very fast rate of speed through space. I saw blackness and stars that were very far away from me… I didn't think I really got anything in that short time, but since you asked specifically, I realise I did - and the impression is staying with me".
The most intense of all postures was the Tattooed Jaguar, a shapeshifting posture for experiencing reality through the eyes of a cat. "I journeyed in this posture and met the 'Mother Jaguar'", said one student. "It was incredible. I was fully grown but compared to the size of the mother, I was a six week old kitten".
The Tennessee Diviner (described to students as 'Tennessee D') - a divinatory posture, as the name suggests - on the other hand, had a more limited effect. In retrospect, this is not so surprising. The essence of divination is to hold a question in mind during the journey and without knowing the purpose of the posture, this was impossible. Students mentioned only an "intense experience” and a feeling of "lightness".
I wonder how your own results compare.
It seems clear from the experiences of students, and from Goodman’s own research, that these postures do produce qualitatively different experiences to those normally found in meditative practice, that each posture was different in itself from others, and that the effects experienced are consistent with the findings of Goodman and Gore.
Some postures by their very nature do seem to open a specific doorway to particular otherworldly territories or states of being, and if this is so, our distant ancestors had access to a vast knowledge that we can only guess at today – although practice may help us get closer to their experiences and to their knowledge of other realms.
About the author:
Ross Heaven is a therapist, workshop leader, and the author of several books on shamanism and healing, including Darkness Visible, the best-selling Plant Spirit Shamanism, and Love’s Simple Truths. His website is http://www.thefourgates.com where you can also read how to join his sacred journeys to the shamans and healers of the Amazon.