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 research, 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 of posture.

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 work.

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 ecstasy.

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