An Experiment In Ecstatic Trance Postures

by Ross Heaven

From SPIRIT TALK Magazine, ISSUE 10


Most people using shamanic journeying for healing or divination will be familiar with the Jivaro lower world posture popularized by Michael Harner in his classic work, The Way of The Shaman. But there are at least 80 others now known, explored and their effects documented by the Cuyamungue Institute run by Felicitas Goodman and Belinda Gore, both of whom have written on the usage and purpose of ecstatic body postures for journeying.

I first experienced alternative posture forms in a workshop run by Howard Charing of the Eagles's Wing Centre. As he rattled in the healing posture called Bear Spirit (and more affectionately known as 'Grandfather Bear'), many of us felt the presence of a vast shape behind us, some experienced running through forests with Bear, all of us felt a surge of energy in our bodies.

When the trance ended, Howard explained that this was an ancient posture associated with healing and that Grandfather Bear is indeed experienced as standing behind the journeyer, using teeth and claws to rip away illness and infuse the body with new energy.

I began to research these ecstatic postures, conducting experiments of my own and introducing the postures to participants in occasional workshops, using Belinda Gore's Ecstatic Body Postures as a reference source. Results, not always entirely consistent with Gore's findings, nevertheless produced qualitatively different trance experiences for participants than those commonly experienced as a framework for journeying using the Jivaro posture.

I began to experiment further with trance effects of the different body postures, involving groups and other individuals in this work. More recently, this developed into experimentation of a radically different type, in the form of online 'blind' tests with volunteers from three 'cyber-shaman' communities run through Onelist.

I should explain: my degree is in social psychology and I understand fully the effects of group dynamics on shared perception and experience. We have only to look at the work of Stanley Milgram to know that the group and the authority of its leader can exert a powerful effect on the individual experiences of members. Rather than conduct these experiments in a workshop environment where these effects might well be a factor, I ran them instead across internet discussion lists where members (who were given descriptions only of the body postures and not their meaning, characteristic effects or full names) were separated by geographical distance and by the more ephemeral distance of cyberspace. Although part of a community of sorts, all volunteers were essentially alone and had no method of comparison with each other.

The online communities affected were, which is a discussion group I set up and moderate with Liz Tomboline; Karen Kelly's and David Scott's list, and, the list run by Alan Tickhill of Ravenlodge.

In the end, 10 people took part in this experiment, the aims of which were:

To see if the trance postures used produced a common effect and/or experience among participants;

To assess how these effects varied from those facilitated by the Jivaro posture; and

To see whether the experiences recorded were congruent with those from the Cuyamungue Institute, where experiments with trance postures are conducted in workshop groups.
"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 both 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 just 25 years ago by anthropologist Felicitas D Goodman, as an outcome of her research into glossolalia ('speaking in tongues'). Goodman's findings suggest that the figures represented in this artwork are, in fact, ritual body postures which enable ordinary people to enter non-ordinary consciousness and experience the spirit world.

These postures produce a common effect, according to Goodman, because they all share one thing in common - the one thing we all share - 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 otherworld just as effectively through the same neural doorways as Neolithic medicine women and shamans throughout history.

Dr Goodman identified several prerequisites for a successful trance experience:

The establishment of a sacred space - not necessarily a church, an altar or other 'power place', but a place of sacred intent for the individual. Participants must enter the trance state with the expectation or intention of a sacred experience

A repetitive sound must be used as an auditory cue to the nervous system to shift into non-ordinary reality. The rattle or drum is ideal for this and Dr Goodman confirms that a rhythm of about 200-220 beats per minute works best, which is consistent with other shamanic literature on the use of sound by tribal peoples

A method for silencing the inner dialogue of the mind is essential. In the churches where Dr Goodman did her initial research, the minister's instructions to focus on the Holy Spirit and leave the world behind served this purpose. In her experiments, Goodman used a simple meditative breathing exercise instead in order to focus on the breath and slow 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 reference by overcoming individual and cultural differences to transform the trance 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 dismemberment during the fifteen minutes of an ecstatic trance session".
Postures are designed for fairly specific purposes. The Lady of Cholula posture, for instance, connects one with a grandmotherly presence who gives advice or clarification, whereas the Tennessee Diviner is the preferred posture for specific questions concerning ceremony. Bear Spirit posture, dating from around 6,000 BC is widely known as a healing posture.

In my own experimentation, I have worked particularly with Belinda Gore's book, which includes instructions for 39 ritual postures. I have tried all of them and found their effects to be, in most cases, almost exactly as described.

I offered three postures to list members, describing only the positions themselves, not their intentions. These were:

Tattooed Jaguar - Kneel with legs spread so knees form a 'V' and cross your right big toe 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 curled left hand palm down on 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.

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 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.

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 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 is 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.
The Tattooed Jaguar, dated from around 1400 BC, is considered a shapeshifting posture which facilitates a view of reality from the perspective of a Big Cat. 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 around AD 700, is a divinatory posture which puts users in touch with a spirit with a penchant for offering advice on ritual. The spirit being contacted can be "short tempered, brief and even cryptic" but "generous with exacting details" concerning specific healing rituals.

The Realm of the Dead posture, from fifth century BC Germany, was designed to mediate experiences of dying and journeys to the land of the dead. "The traveller wanders in desolate areas… but eventually something changes and the journeyer begins to rise into a new form and a new life".

Ten people in total, spread across the three lists, participated in this experiment and some of them, workshop leaders, introduced the techniques to their groups as an extension to the exercise. All reported markedly different effects to the ones normally experienced using the 'Harner' Jivaro posture.

"Each individual was successful in gaining a different perspective than normal [and in terms of] where they went spiritually, the journeys were intense. I am buying the book you recommended", said one workshop leader who introduced the postures to her group of six.

The Realm of the Dead (described to the list participants only as the 'RoD', so as not to disclose its purpose) - a spirit journey posture - produced the characteristic descent into the lower world of the dead and facilitated meetings with "spirit guides that were unusual to the journeyer", she continued.

Another participant, 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 big cat.

"I journeyed in the posture of the jaguar and can report that I was unable until I left the journey to 'get out' of the jaguar body", said one informant. "During the journey I met the 'Mother Jaguar' - incredible. I was fully grown and compared to the size of the mother, I was a six week old kitten".

The Tennessee Diviner (described to list members 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. Participants mentioned only an "intense" experience and a feeling of "lightness".


It seems clear from the experiences of those who took part that these postures produce qualitatively different journeys to those normally taken using the Jivaro posture, that each trance posture was different in itself from others, and that broadly, the effects experienced are consistent with the findings of the Cuyamungue Institute.

Some postures by their very nature - such as the Realm of the Dead and the Tattooed Jaguar - do seem to open a specific doorway to a particular otherworld territory or state of being, while others like the Tennessee Diviner may require a greater degree of intentionality in order to be effective in producing helpful journeying information as well as a specific state of altered consciousness.


Belinda Gore, Ecstatic Body Postures
Felicitas D Goodman, Where The Spirits Ride The Wind: Trance Journeys And Other Ecstatic Experiences