Understanding the Intent of a Posture

Felicitas Goodman and many others, have examined the ecstatic experiences of many people in using each ecstatic posture, and from these experiences have determined the intent in using a particular posture, for example, some are for going into the underworld, and others are for divination or for healing. Here I suggest two more steps to best understand the intent of a posture.

First, with each group I have asked the participants take and hold the posture during the preparatory segment of the session, and while holding the posture I have been asking them to put into words what the posture is trying to express. I have had many fascinating comments. Two of the divination postures, The Mayan Oracle and the Jama Coaque Divination Posture, have raised left arms and hands with closed fingers a few inches in front of their face. These postures have been related to Rodin’s The Thinker, except with The Thinker his head is resting against his fist. The Thinker is thus “more closed,” while the other postures are “more open,” open to thinking outside of or beyond the individual with more openness to thoughts that might come from beyond.

The second step is to put yourself in the shoes or bare feet of the shaman and ask, if I wanted to find the answer to some question or to look into the future as with divination, what posture would best express that need. I think that a posture similar to the Mayan Oracle, and Jama Coaque Diviner best meets that need. Other divination postures do not expressed this feeling as directly, but most do express a sense of alertness.

With regard to the Bear Spirit Healing posture, the posture most frequently found in all cultures, the participant stands with shoulders back and chest expanded with the hands resting on the lower abdomen. In this posture you can feel your abdomen rising and falling as you breathe if you are breathing correctly, that is breathing from your diaphragm. I think that this posture more specifically expresses a feeling of increased ego strength, a feeling of self-confidence, a feeling that with each breath growing energy flows into your body. As a shaman who is seeking strength and energy for healing or as a warrior who seeks to increase his focus, energy and strength in preparing for battle, I think this is the posture I would hold. One of my early ecstatic experiences suggested that this posture may be a posture used by the Berserkers in going into their frenzied fighting trance, feeling invulnerable. The fact that the word Berserk means bear shirt strengthens the relationship between these warriors and the bear.

The postures for journeying into the upper and lower worlds also express the direction of the journey. For the upper world posture, the figure is not firmly planted on the earth, but is lying at a 37o angle from the horizontal, thus the instability of this posture suggests floating or flying upward. The posture for journeying into the underworld is one of lying prone on the ground. There are two commonly used prone postures for this journey, the South American Lower World Posture of lying on your back and the Sami Lower World Posture of lying on your stomach. Both postures express well the direction of the journey for which they are intended. Each time I have used either of these two prone postures I feel myself sliding or gliding downwards into a cave or into water, something that takes me downward.

Another underworld posture, the Hallstatt Warrior from about the 5th century B.C. and found near Hirschlanden, in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany, takes us more specifically into the Realm of the Dead. He wraps his arms across his chest as if he is going into a place that is cold and damp such as the Realm of the Dead and his posture expresses apprehension about where he is going. The Realm of the Dead posture from Belinda’s first book expresses the same feeling, but with her arms wrapped across her stomach suggests that she in apprehension may feel sick to her stomach.

It has been suggested by group members that the initiation or the death-rebirth posture such as the Feathered Serpent, with the back of her fingers resting on her hips and her elbows out to the side, expresses defiance or a sense of “I am ready for anything.” Initially a person tends to hang onto and fears letting go of that part of them that needs to die, a part that in some way is not healthy and ineffective. But as the person grows in ego strength it becomes more and more apparent that that part needs to die and a new part with greater health, strength and effectiveness needs to be born. Eventually the person does face the situation with a sense of “I am ready,” and of defiance in letting the unhealthy, ineffective part die. Another person suggested that the elbows are out like feathery wings ready to fly in rising from the dead while the feet are planted as the serpent is also attached to the earth. For the shaman who recognizes the readiness for death and rebirth, this posture would well express this readiness.

In examining the many metamorphosis or shape-shifting postures, for some the person’s arms are extended forward as if using them as the forelegs of an animal (Olmec Prince) and other variations expressing the same thing. One posture, Cernunnos, does not specifically show this feature. The figure is sitting cross-legged with the left leg in front of the right. He is holding a snake in his left hand, a torque in his right hand and is wearing a set of antlers on his head. With all of the other animals standing around him, it is apparent that he is identifying with these animals and the intent to change his shape is likely. As a shaman set upon changing into a shape of an animal I would likely place myself among animals, but it is probably important to wear something of the animal such as a set of antlers. From ancient Nordic mythology Loki in shifting shape to a falcon wears a falcon skin.

The power of the posture is in how it expresses what a shaman wants to accomplish, i.e. going within to heal, journeying into the lower world, the realm of the dead, or the upper world, the realm of the gods, shifting shape, preparing to die and be reborn, or seeking an answer to a question or direction in life. The posture may vary as long as it continues to express what the shaman wants to accomplish. I wonder if it may not be important to narrow our range of postures to those that most strongly express their intent rather than using those that may express the intent more weakly, though as we experiment with new postures we may find new directions in our ecstatic journeying.