Ecstatic Body Postures and Shamanic Practice Like this article?
by Gerry Starnes, M.Ed.

Bear is a seminal figure and archetype for indigenous shamanic societies and has been for thousands of years. He is found in many guises worldwide – wherever Bear lives, he is held in high regard and is revered for many gifts.

It is not surprising that Bear is represented in a variety of art forms worldwide, as well. Bear also is sometimes represented in conjunction with human figures, such as in this Northwest Coast American totem carving of Grandfather Bear, standing protectively behind the shaman who holds a similar pose.

Figurines, carvings, and drawings are found in archeological sites from cultures scattered across the planet. The artists who originated these artifacts most likely never did encounter each other, and yet some of the statues and artwork they made are strikingly similar.

Consider these two figures:

Chiltan Spirits

On the left, this Bolivian stone statue was chiseled 3,000 years ago. On the right, a male figure stands at the base of a Haida totem pole used as a corner post of a house. Uzbekistan (Siberian) shaman women regularly sit cross-legged in this posture while in trance.

An Intuitive Leap
Anthropologist Dr. Felicitas Goodman (1914-2005), founder of the Cuyamungue Institute in New Mexico, made an intuitive leap in the 1970s when she wondered whether these pieces might be more than just art. Perhaps they were a form of communication, sharing wisdom directly through the media available, without a written language.

Over the past years, she and her colleagues have discovered ritual postures from all over the world and devised a method for using them. Holding the body in these postures for about 15 minutes often produces surprisingly similar journeys or journey experiences.

Below are two postures derived from the Bear and Chiltan Spirits carvings.

Bear Spirit Posture Chiltan Spirits Posture

For some, these postures may seem strangely familiar. Many of the postures are similar to postures we might take while resting, thinking, meditating, or journeying. Our bodies intuitively fall into many of these archetypal figures and positions.

Indeed, as we practice them in our Shamanic Journey Circle, we often find that when we've "got it," our bodies feel as though they have "clicked" into place and the posture becomes easy to maintain.

"When a ritual body posture is combined with a method for rhythmically stimulating the nervous system, such as drumming or rattling, ordinary people are able to activate their natural ability to enter Alternate Reality, known by shamans and other religious specialists for thousands of years." – Cuyamungue Institute

Classifications of Postures
More than 70 postures have been identified and studied by Dr. Goodman and her students and colleagues. The postures are classified into several groups. However, some of the groupings are unclear, and some postures may fit into more than one group.

• Healing Postures
• Divination Postures
• Metamorphosis Postures
• Spirit Journey Postures
• Initiation: Death and Rebirth
• Living Myths
• Celebration Postures

The similarities experienced among members of the group help to classify the posture. In some cases, though, the journey of the posture itself revealed how it could best be used.

Using the Postures
Work at the Cuyamungue Institute, as well as our own explorations of the postures in twice-monthly Body Postures Circles, suggest that with experience they might be used prescriptively. That is, when doing a healing journey, use a Healing posture; Divination for future planning; Spirit Journeys to enhance journeying; and more.

The position of the body is very important. Even slight variations, such as the position of a thumb, can have some interesting – if not dramatic – effects on the journey experience. The differences between Chiltan Spirits and The Realm of the Dead or the Maiden postures are subtle, but the result can be profound.

The individual may first select an intention for the journey, or simply be open to where the posture itself might lead the journey.

In a group, one or more persons drum or rattle to a fast rhythm appropriate for the journey process (about 140 bpm). If alone, the journeyer may use one of many CDs available. The posture is held for about 15 minutes, which seems optimal for most people. | Drum and Didjeridoo Journey CD |

In our Circle, each person generally finds one or two postures in each group to which they naturally relate. They are invited to use the postures both in the Circle and in their daily meditations or journeys, to deepen their personal, experiential understanding of the postures and their effects.

Empowerment Posture

Incorporating these Body Postures with our shamanic practice effectively helps to build a bridge between shamanic technology thousands of years old and our contemporary shamanic work.

Images used in this article are from Ecstatic Body Postures: An Alternative Reality Workbook , by Belinda Gore.

Index of Articles

What is a Shaman?
Excerpt from interview with Martin Prechtel published by Sun Magazine.

Eight Characteristics of Shamanism
Edited by Gerry Starnes

Shamanism Q&A
Interview by Jennifer Robenalt, Soul Lab Media.

Ecstatic Body Postures
Figurines, carvings, and artwork from around the world suggest archetypal ways to produce and enhance ecstatic experience.

Urban Shamanism
How can people live a shamanic experience within the urban environment?

The Bandana: Toward the Within
The use of the bandanna in TranceDance

The Shamanic Journey
The shamanic (drumming) journey has been used for thousands of years for guidance and healing. Excerpt of material by Tom Cowan.

Power Animals & Helping Spirits
What are power animals and how does one work with them?

Spiritual Eldership
The role of Elders in an shamanic cultures can be applied to help save our own.

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