The Posture of Ecstasy
The nature of ecstatic states of consciousness may be encoded in their
postures. The types of visions, prophecies or healing abilities that
accompany ecstatic states may have less to do with the religious
content surrounding the ceremonies of ecstasy than with the posture
assumed by the people undergoing the ecstatic experience.
This unusual hypothesis is being proposed by psychological
anthropologist Felicitas D. Goodman, PhD, based on observation of
people in ecstatic states and her experiments training people to enter
such states of consciousness. In some of her earlier re- search, Dr.
Goodman learned that she could induce an ecstatic state in a subject
through the use of a gourd rattle similar to that used in many
primitive shamanistic ceremonies. While a subject, alone, or in a
group, walked in a circle, or simply sat, Dr. Goodman would shake this
rattle in a steady manner for 15 minutes. The use of the rattle was
based on the hypothesis that "acoustic driving" affects the functioning
of the brain, blocking the verbal left hemisphere and opening access
the intuitive right hemisphere. Within five minutes, most subjects
were giving indications of being in an altered state of consciousness.
At the end of the experiment, their verbal reports confirmed that they
had been experiencing something resembling an ecstatic state, including
visions and variations in body image.
Noting that the content of these visions seemed to vary as a function
of which subjects had remained standing and which had become seated,
Dr. Goodman ran a series of experiments to specifically test the effect
To obtain experimental postures, she went to ethnographic resources to
locate either photographs of shamans in ecstasy, or artistic renditions
of this state. She found five different postural positions. In her
subsequent experiments, she would ask her subjects to assume a
particular posture, commence the rattle playing for 15 minutes, then
obtain their reports. She found that these
reports were highly consistent for a given posture, but differed
between various postures.
For example, one posture was similar to sitting in meditation, except
that the legs are both tucked under the body and turned toward the
right. Subjects experienced color sensations, spinning and strong
alterations in mood. This posture was that assumed by Nupe Mallam
diviners. According to the literature, the divination experience
begins by alterations in moods.
In another posture, subjects stood erect with their heads back and
their hands clasped at the abdomen. Subjects reported warmth, a flow
of energy rising, and a channel opening at the top of the head.
According to the ethnographic literature, this posture had been
associated with healing, involving the flow of energy. In a similar
manner, the other postures tested produced experiences resembling the
reports of native shamans who assume the posture in their trance
The author can only speculate concerning the mechanism by which posture
affects the content of ritualized trances. We know that posture affect
mood states. It is perhaps by their effect upon a wide variety of
psychophysiological variables that posture affects the course of
(Source: "Body posture and the religious altered state of
consciousness: An experimental investigation," Journal of Humanistic
Psychology, Summer, 1986, Vol. 26, No. 3, pp. 81-118. Author's
address: Cuyamungue Institute, 114 East Duncan St., Columbus, OH
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