Postural Techniques of Ecstasy - Ecstatic Trance

Guest Author – Michele Walters

This article examines the different forms of trance states and experiences used by various cultures to bring about an altered state of consciousness, with particular emphasis on the role of postures in the trance state. To examine this form of trance reference will be made to the work of Anthropologist Felicitas Goodman, who argues that there is a high degree of agreement in visionary context and physical sensation, cross culturally and trans-historically among individuals adopting similar body postures to induce an altered state of consciousness (Goulet and Young, 1994:324).

Reference to studies by Yan Dhyansky (1987) of the University of California, on the Indus Valley as an origin of yoga practice some five thousand years ago, will also be examined along with more contemporary forms of yoga asanas, or postures, and mudras, or arm, hand and body positions used in the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. These references will be used to argue that it is possible to take the trance postures out of the cultural, social and ecological frame of the originating culture in order to induce an altered state of consciousness in a modern Western environment. It will be shown that this blending of ancient wisdom with contemporary life is not an appropriation of the sacred spiritual traditions of these cultures but rather that the core practices themselves relate to, as Winkelman (1997:421) argues, “an innate drive within humans to seek an altered state of consciousness.

Cowan (1996:15) differentiates between religion and spiritual practice arguing that one can belong to a specific cultural religion and also partake in cross cultural spiritual practice. D’Aquili (1975:54) argues that although techniques to attain ecstatic trance may vary, ultimately the same end state is achieved, resulting in a feeling of union and harmony with the universe. Goodman (1986:83) proposes that the physiological changes observed during the religious altered state of consciousness represent a common deep structure, and that the variety of religious experiences is only the surface structure. This suggests that the ecstatic trance state is one that invokes, inspires and transcends cultural space and time, providing a universal spiritual base for healing, both for the practitioner and the community (human and non-human) to which they belong.

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In order to discuss how trance informs contexts of reality it is necessary to explain the concept of consciousness and religious behaviour. Krippner (2000:7) describes consciousness as the pattern of an organism’s perceptual, cognitive and affective activities at any given moment in time. Altered states of consciousness are therefore defined as changes to the ordinary waking state along with any number of dimensions which Baruss (2003:8) defines as “stable patterns 

of physiological, cognitive, and experiential events different from those of the ordinary waking state.” Bourguignon (2004:138) describes the term trance as the many varied mental states from which the subject retains consciousness and gives evidence of intelligence, either his or her own normal intelligence or some foreign intelligence. Goodman (1990:9) states that religious trance is when trance occurs in a religious context, that is, when contact is made with the alternate, the sacred, reality and argues that this intelligence is not an internal body mechanism but rather that the body is enabled to perceive a certain part or aspect of the other dimensions (Goulet and Young, 1994:324). D’Aquili (1975:34) argues that religious ritual is a step by step social performance which is the key to the structure of the groups’ mythology or world view. Goulet and Young (1994:330) argue that spirits or other dimensions are nothing more than an aspect of sociological and psychological processes. However, they do agree, that the informants of these particular experiences need to be taken seriously which requires recognising the limits of scientific investigation, and concede the cross cultural experience allows for new understandings of how others perceive their reality.

Discovering Postures that Enabled a Specific Trance Experience

A quotation from Robert S. De Ropp, in The Master of the Game (1968) states:
“If one wants to find out what lies beyond the frontier, the only way to do so is to go beyond it and see. On this journey one will do well to obtain both a map and a guide, but one will have to travel every step by one’s own efforts” (Coxhead, 1985:56).

It could be argued that ‘this map or guide’ has been left to us today in the form of carvings, drawings, stories and songs by ancient cultures which have their own universal symbolism and cosmology, inhabited by beings, gods and totems, displaying similar characteristics in various forms, depending on their place of origin (Matthews, 1991:1). Goodman (2003: 11) speculates whether art, as an expression of the religious, actually originates from an altered state of consciousness. Pondering the relationship between belief systems and neurophysiology, Goodman embarked on an investigative study to find out why posture of the body in meditation practices, could cause certain physiological changes (Goodman and Nauwald, 2003:3). Goodman searched for postures that could be used in her trance research and began using small statues and cave art that were thousands of years old, many of which originated in hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies that were animistic in nature (Goodman and Nauwald, 2003:3).

In practicing the body postures and using the rhythmic stimulation of the rattle, at 210 beats per minute for fifteen minutes to induce trance, Goodman observed that certain postures enabled a specific trance experience which is mediated by the posture (Goodman, 1986:112). The results of this investigation confirmed that while in trance, increasing the pressure on a body part, straining certain muscles, or relaxing certain muscles, altered the trance experience (Goodman and Nauwald, 2003:19). Initially, Goodman and her co-workers, researched six postures, the number of which has now increased to over sixty body postures, which during trance, results in an altered state of consciousness and produces identifiable and specific religious experiences leading to a direct link with the spirit world (Spickard, 1991: 336). Goodman organised the various ecstatic trance postures into the categories of healing, divination, metamorphosis, spirit journey and initiation to describe tendencies or better uses of one posture compared to another (Gore, 2009: 43).

The oldest known ritual posture Goodman used is known as the Woman of Galgenberg, which was created as a small statue 30,000 years ago in Austria, whose position is said to allow travel of the entire cosmos: through the lower world, the middle world, the upper world, and the realm of the dead (Goodman, 2003:14). Goodman (1990:218) describes the source of the visions experienced in the trance to be the alternate reality, stating that the body is tuned to the posture in the trance in such a way that we are enabled to experience, to perceive a certain part or aspect of the other dimension.

Comparative Studies

Anthropologist Erika Bourguignon’s comparative study in 1973 of 488 societies around the world found that 90 percent used at least one culturally institutionalised method to experience an altered state of consciousness (Goodman & Nauwald, 2003:3). Nauwald (2003:4) believes the Hatha yoga asanas also have their roots in the ritual body postures of shamanic cultures. Iliade (2004:405) argues that ascent of the shamanic type is found in the legends of the Nativity of the Buddha stating that “the Buddha symbolically traverses the seven cosmic levels to which the seven planetary heavens correspond and that the old cosmological schema of shamanic, and Vedic, celestial ascent was enriched by the metaphysical speculations of India”. Iliad (2004:407) argues that today it is no longer the Vedic “world of the Gods” and “immortality” to which the Buddha’s seven strides are directed, but rather the transcending of the human condition to final liberation and Nirvana (Iliad, 2004:407). Maxwell (2003:257) describes the Tantras, meaning woven threads, as an integral part of meditation rituals which have been developed to harness the powers needed to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime. The human form is seen as the yogic “vessel” for following the path and the figure is paramount (Maxwell, 2003:25). Ratnasara Tantra states “He who realised the truth of the body can then come to know the truth of the universe” (Metzner, 1971:30). In Tibetan esoteric art, the Indian tantric forms grew among the indigenous shamanic religion called ‘Bon’ in which extensive use of the posture called Yab-Yum, or “father-mother” is a symbol of absolute necessity of joining the goddess’ transcendent wisdom with the god’s skillful means (Maxwell, 2003:260). Metzner (1971:30) argues that for millennia it was, and still is, the concern of Indian yoga methods to extract oneself from the subtle web of illusion (maya) spun by sense experience.

Dhyansky (1987: 91) describes the origins of Yoga as a practice to have begun over five thousand years ago in the Indus Valley, which is based on the discovery of over 2500 steatite seals depicting human figures in very specific postures, often with horned headdress and animals, including elephants, bulls, tigers and most commonly snakes. Dhyansky (1987:99) argues that the postures reveal age old concepts of yoga including prana “vital breath”, or “that which is constantly present everywhere” and the connection between prana, breath, mind and body. Dhyansky (1987:99) argues the snake represents the kundalini, which is believed to be very powerful and lies blocking the entrance of the nade or energy channels until it is awakened and removed. The following passage from the Hathayogaprakipika (1972, IV, pp.11-12) states that when kundalini is awakened then prana is able to enter susumna: “In the yogin in whom the kundalini sakti is awakened and who is free from all karmans (objects), the truly natural state comes into being on its own. Then the prana flows in the susumna and the mind is absorbed in the void; the knower of Yoga uproots all objects.” Dupler (2002:2651) states that in yoga practices, the yoga masters, or yogis, through the use of postures, breath and meditation, aim to achieve the goal of enlightenment or self-transcendence though joining the individual self with what they term the Universal Spirit or Cosmic Consciousness.

Later images in South Asian dance, art and religious liturgy depict geometrical designs, or yantras, for the transformation of visual sense experience, mantras for the transformation of auditory sense experience, and mudras for the transformation of bodily experience through the channelling of energies by means of special postures and gestures (Metzner, 1971:32). Reedy (1987:635) states the mudras are used extensively in Buddhism to help practitioners in their quest for enlightenment, with the art communicating complex metaphysical and practical ideas (Reedy, 1987:635. Although able to identify structural patterns in the mudra markings in art, Reedy concedes that specific information communicated by a set of mudras is impossible to obtain from textual or oral sources and that exact meanings of iconographic components are unknown (Reedy, 1987:63). Given the similar iconographic images described in the yoga traditions to postures revealed in other ancient art work, perhaps a key to unlocking the meaning of these postures could be the use of techniques as utilised by Goodman and her associates in their work with other sacred postures.

The obvious difference between the postures described by Goodman and those elicited in yoga practices is the binary of outside and inside, for Goodman the ecstatic trance perception is of going out, of leaving the body and journeying beyond the self whereas the yogic trance, emphasises the control of the mind and body allowing for an interpretation of the inner body. In shamanic trance, the soul is in enticed to interact with spirits and be the bridge between the spirit world and the world of the living rather than to experience an altered state per se (Townsend, 1997:433) In Yoga, the postures or asanas and mudras allow for the control or steadying of the mind, however ultimately it is in this control of the mind that it said to be freed from the body and roam ’outside’ after reaching the appropriate yogic state (Sarukkai, 2002:468). Both forms of spiritual practice facilitate the breaking down of perceptual boundaries in which altered states of consciousness allow for contact with the alternate, the sacred reality. Cowan (1996:15) argues that just as the Buddhist practice of yoga is not contained to the Far East, shamanic practice is not bound to any particular culture, continent or century. Cowan (1996:15) uses the analogy of Buddhism as an example of how resilience is inherent within the universal message of Buddhism allowing for other cultural expressions of its practices. Cowan (1996:15) believes that for all the exotic and mysterious phenomena associated with shamanism the experience is simple, timeless and universal. Goodman (1986:114) concludes that postures used in both the use of shamanic journey states and Buddhist mindfulness training have proven to be of great therapeutic value for modern practitioners.

Gore (2009:19) believes the remarkable cross-cultural versatility of ecstatic body postures derives from the profound insight that every ecstatic experience requires a ritual and with the sacred postures, the body itself provides the ritual when the body assumes the necessary pose. In shamanic practice or yogic practice, entry into an Alternate Reality, whether an ‘inner’ or an ‘outer’ reality is to experience what exists beyond the world of consensual reality. Coxhead (1985:56) states the evidence that there is something waiting for us on the other side, in what Harner termed ‘non-ordinary reality’, is worth whatever the price of seeking, from Ancient shamanistic practices to Buddhist ‘Enlightenment’. Winkelman argues that the universal neurobiological system is the same, brain, the same body throughout the history of religious trance practices, but that throughout time have become culturally elaborated (D’Aquili, 1975:33). Goodman’s findings suggest that posture and rattling produces reliable visionary content across participants and that the subjective experiences obtained with a given posture correspond with important information contained in myths, or involved in helping the participants with healing, problem solving, or making major life transitions (Woodside, Kumar and Pekala, 1997:70). Modern yoga practice contains the central ideas that physical posture and alignment can influence a person’s mood and self-esteem, and that the mind can be used to shape and heal the body. Yoga practitioners claim that the strengthening of the mind/body awareness can bring eventual improvements in all facets of a person’s life (Dupler, 2002:2653). The traditional role of the shaman to keep his community connected with the world of spirit embodied the experience of daily life. In modern terms, the use of expansive, positive states are constructive for our own well-being, creativity and growth, and enable us to be able to recognise the state we are in, and how to navigate through it in order to learn (Metzner, 1971). The use of ritual body postures, as refined and depicted in ancient practices, present as a doorway to an altered reality providing for both individual and community healing. As described by Iliade (2004:509) ecstatic trance in shamanism, is one that “defends life, health, fertility, the world of “light”, against death, disease, sterility, disaster, and the world of “darkness”, religious sentiments that are as relevant today as they were to the cultures in which they originated.


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