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 the intuitive right
hemishpere. 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
For example, one posture was similar to sitting in medita- tion, 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 ecstasy.
(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 43202.)