Where Yoga and Shamanism Meet: Ancient Wisdom on a New Path
So how do yoga and shamanism come together? In 2006, Kripalu presenter Ray Crist was recovering from a debilitating illness. A yoga teacher, martial artist, and Reiki practitioner, Ray had spent four years traveling the world seeking those who could heal him. His quest took him from the Buddhist monasteries on the borders of Cambodia to the clinics of the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. But when he ventured into the jungles of Peru to study with Incan shamans, the experience opened new doors of perception—and healing—within himself.
Guided by Don Manuel Portugal, a shaman in Cuzco, Peru, Ray discovered the culture, mythology, and practices of Incan shamanism. “Shamans are the medicine people of their tribe,” Ray says. “Their methods of healing center on the ‘energy body’ and plant medicine.” The deeper he delved into Incan shamanism, the more he began to notice profound similarities with yoga. “Yogis and shamans view the world as a physical world,” he explains. “Traumatic experiences are embedded in the body—near a joint, muscle, meridian, internal organ, or chakra. Yoga and shamanism help us delve into the root of our traumas to find healing on physical and emotional levels.” Ray began incorporating shamanistic principles into his yoga practice, imbuing it with a new richness. “Shamanism brought to my practice a direct awareness of energy moving through my body, a visceral understanding of what each asana offers,” he says.
After two months, Ray returned to the United States not just in good physical health, but with a renewed sense of purpose. He established the Jaguar Path, a training that fuses the wisdom of yoga and Incan shamanism to create a system for empowerment using healing tools from both methodologies.
According to Ray, the serpent represents the body. Just as the serpent sheds its skin, so we let go of that which no longer serves us. “The serpent is linked to the asana practice,” Ray explains. “Through our physical yoga practice, we release toxins and let go of unnecessary layers.” The jaguar represents the mind and the heart of the path. “The human mind is driven by fear,” says Ray. “Jaguar practices create a strong, fearless mind, for in the jungle the jaguar is the ruler of its domain and knows no fear.” The condor represents the spirit, able to see the greater picture as it rises above. “The condor is meditation, shamanic journeying, flying wing to wing with the great spirit. What yoga and shamanism do that is so powerful is to use archetypes—the symbols of strength, wisdom, and courage that live within each of us. Archetypes, such as the serpent, condor, and jaguar, help us establish a better foundation of who we are.”
When the serpent, jaguar, condor (body, mind, spirit) merge, energetic shifts occur. This merger is union, which is the essence of yoga and shamanism. “The shamanic tools of the Jaguar Path give us new ways of perceiving ourselves, personal empowerment, and direction in life,” says Ray. “We journey from a place of lack (I want) to a place of abundance (what I can offer). Embarking on the Jaguar Path means tapping into the healer within, opening the mind and freeing the body to release deeply held samskaras, or energy blocks, that lie buried within the subconscious.”
Ray teaches that the word “shaman” means “the knower” in the Tungusic language. “In other words, knowing the self, being cognizant of what’s happening around you and within you,” he says. “We are all innately shamans, but we’re not trained to recognize it.” Ray hopes the Jaguar Path awakens the inner seer, the inner warrior and healer, that potential within all of us to carve our own path with clarity and strength.
Like ley lines running across time and space until they intersect, creating vortices of complimentary powers where the whole is measured to be greater than the sum of its parts, the ancient traditions of yoga and shamanism have naturally met in shamanic yoga.
Giving birth to an energetic and holistic psycho-spiritual technology that necessarily accounts for all parts of being, it’s as if the Amazon river has met with Mother Ganges, creating a powerful source that we have only just begun to dip our feet into.
Shamanic yoga philosophy holds that we create the reality around us, based on our experiences and insights—the problem is that these insights can be flawed, sometimes fatally.
These misconceptions are difficult to see and thus difficult to eradicate; this reality is known to yogis as Maya (illusion, delusion).
Shamanic yoga describes this as the multi-dimensional hologram of reality, constructed by the brain through perception, which is heavily modified by our expectations and past experiences—our stories—but this hardly gives a total (or accurate) experience of reality.
My reality is mine alone; at most I can only have a superficial connection to the world, as it is perceived by other beings. Biological and learned patterns determine what will be perceived by me—and how my brain (and its patterns of thought) decides how perception is interpreted.
Based on this interpretation, I make decisions about what I will think, say, do. Based on the mind’s assessment of the results of this interpretation, it will, like self-correcting (or self-reinforcing) software, rewrite the model from my perception, all the way up to cognition.
But the assessment of the results is based on the original model. The decision of how to rewrite is not necessarily based on any better information than was originally there, which is how we can keep making the same actions based on the same perceptions, even when they clearly do not serve us.
In active alcoholism, this is one definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.
The information coming in to the brain is encoded in neurochemical signals—but so much is dropped along the way; organizational processes, such as pattern recognition, deletion, compression and conditioning, filter and simplify the information.
With the simplified and usually ego-reinforcing information being selected, we begin building our hologram. We make our dream hologram come alive and keep it breathing through the stories we tell ourselves about the world.
In cognitive psychology, these stories are known as schemata, stereotyping or archetypes. Groupings are not just intellectual—they can be perceptual, experiential and fully emotional. They give rise to our verbal cognitive selves.
The sum total, in combination with your moment-to-moment sensory inflow, is your experience of consciousness.
Schemata are used to decide what to perceive or not, decide how something is to be perceived, assess value and quality (assigning a positive or negative value charge), evaluate background meaning or interpretation, decide what to remember or not, silently add new information, objects and events that were never there and take away that which was there, help us know how to do things–all elements that can easily be flawed.
We often tell ourselves stories to just believe what we are most comfortable believing and any information that conflicts with this is simply deleted or ignored.
This isn’t good enough, especially for the the enlightened way of thinking the planet requires now—yoga is the technology of understanding the human organism.
Shamans (including ancient yogis) have sought to penetrate, transform and understand their consciousness, probably since long before recorded history. One of the main tools for the transformation of consciousness is shifting perception; this is how shamans learn the details of the organic machine they inhabit.
Moving into their subconscious to know their schemata from the ground up, so they can harness the power to gain greater understanding; they are the original “scientists of consciousness.”
The true shamans/yogis/gnostics/mystics/sufis stretch the limits of their outward perception in every possible way as part of their (ritualized or not) external process. Their internal process constitutes learning everything about their instrument.
Shamans recognize that other beings (and even things) have different consciousness; therefore they study how to communicate as deeply as possible with other parts of creation by dissolving their sense of identity into other people, plants, animals, rocks, starscapes, etc.
Yoga equals samadhi; shamanism equals fusion—all of it means ego dissolution.
Our job in shamanic yoga is to become aware of the hologram we are in and reprogram our consciousness to expand it.
To concretize this abstraction, we can consider the loop of consciousness in shamanic yoga and how our arising perception/experience of the present moment and the consciousness which encompasses that moment are formed from the personality matrix of past learning.
We can then teach ourselves to understand why this matrix is composed of conditioned responses or what the Buddha called, sankharas.
Qualitative conclusions are then drawn from this unique (limited) perception of the world around us; this is where we label people, places and things as good or bad, positive or negative.
Once we have labelled something according to our own limited world view, we react to these labels, either internally or externally—and these reactions are also based on our identity and the experiences that forms it. We then engage in relearning, reconditioning and subconsciously reinforcing our sankharas from our conclusions and our responses to them.
This reforms and rebuilds our identity and perception itself, making the cycle even stronger for the next repetition.
If the core tenet of karma yoga is that action stems from the depths of the subconscious, we must somehow learn to really penetrate, communicate with and practice in these deep subconscious regions.
The stated goal of shamanic yoga is to understand and then break into this loop of consciousness, to intentionally “rewire” it; this is vital if we are at all interested in breaking free of illusion and delusion and eventually entering into a reality beyond mind and matter, i.e. samadhi.
This goal is shared by virtually every psycho-spiritual technology, including Vipassana meditation.
In Vipassana, which is a Pali word meaning “to see things as they really are,” we attempt to gain this freedom through the consistent practice of observing sensation without attaching a positive or negative value charge to it.
Simple dispassionate observation of the physical sensation, which is much easier said than done, when your legs are on fire from sitting all day or there is a fly crawling along your nostril ring, affords an experiential witnessing of the truth that all mental and physical events are ephemeral and so craving or clinging to pleasant sensations (and by extension, pleasant experiences) or hatred/aversion to unpleasant sensations (and by extension unpleasant experiences) is useless and serves only to more deeply engrain those patterns of the mind that give rise to unhappiness or suffering.
This awareness of sensation and the need for equanimity in the face of whatever arises, trains the realm of preverbal actions that constitute consciousness in its entirety, from moment-to-moment.
By accessing this realm, we are accessing the root level of our conditioning, and thus the roots of our suffering.
Only action will bring one to an experiential awareness of the value of that action and “you can’t keep what you have unless you freely give it away,” a layman’s expression for the complex non-dual idea of samadhi, which boils down to “when I help my brothers and sisters, I am helping myself and all of us”.
In this way, what both the Buddha and the Bhagavad Gita call right action is far more important than ‘the philosophy of karma yoga.’
Shamanic yoga places a strong focus on samadhi; that is, it is again within the realm of the attainable.
In understanding how this comes to be, I am loosely guided here by Shunryu Suzuki’s statement
“Do not necessarily think that you will be aware of your own enlightenment.”
I think samadhi, as state as well as concept, has been obfuscated by literature, doctrine and a plethora of definitions.
I recently took a master class with Bryan Kest and he spoke of putting hot sauce on the fingernails of someone who bites her nails. Every time she goes to bite her nails, she becomes aware of what she is doing in the present moment. “There you go!” Kest said, ‘That’s enlightenment–Hot Sauce Enlightenment!”
This simple example of being here now serves in a playful way to personalize experience and “union on the transpersonal level” seems more accessible as a result.
Samadhi, as the ‘goal’ of yoga, never really made much sense to me—it is one of the eight limbs, after all, which in my mind denotes something to be entered through practice.
That shamanic yoga places the focus of yoga back on the samadhi experience is encouraging to me, as I suspect it would be to any sadhaka. There is an element of demystification at work here, by using the technology of yoga, including all various methodologies in the shamanic wheel of consciousness, as means to attain a formerly elusive state of consciousness and understand through experience the entire continuum of identity states that are possible to the human organism.
There are many and in the shamanic yoga definition, samadhi becomes one point on a continuum of consciousness. This means, in essence, that there are no mundane moments. All is sacred, even the profane—especially what is referred to as ‘the sacred normal’. An experiential understanding of this truth is profoundly liberating.
I think it was Sri Sri Ravishankar who said that modern psychology simply hasn’t gone deep enough to understand what causes human suffering and all the psycho-social complexes we must work through.
Because I have experienced how Vipassana works its way down to the root perceptual levels of identity and then, from that place of awareness of annica with regards to bodily sensations, removes sankaras of craving and aversion, I can appreciate that the larger system of shamanic yoga, of which Vipassana is one element, can access the same thing.
Using sensation as a gateway to samadhi makes sense to me if samadhi is Jnana, i.e. experiential knowledge/wisdom from the insights that regular practice gifts to the practitioner.
The shamanic practices of “listening” and deriving knowledge directly from experiencing sensation seem to me a non-dual strategy where we are not constantly seeking to ride the wave of bliss. This awareness of sensations (and the equanimity to wear them without reacting) carries best results only when it becomes a consistent practice, not simply when one is seated on a meditation cushion or stretching on a yoga mat.
What interests me most in shamanic yoga is the modification of consciousness as it relates to traditional plant medicines. Due to my alcoholic background and my use of hallucinogens such as LSD and magic mushrooms, I have long held some fear about the wisdom or Jnana that the medicines of San Pedro and Ayahuasca can teach me.
It has been drilled into me through my recovery journey that any substance which alters perception is a drug that has no place in my brain; while I can appreciate that the view taken by my own tradition is ignorant of much wisdom and experience and can be quite limiting, this knowledge doesn’t do much to remove the aversion I have to putting any psycho-reactive substances in my bloodstream.
It took me less than a week of study in Peru to decide, definitively, that this aversion had to be overcome to allow these sacred plant medicines the opportunity to teach me what I need to learn to be able to offer something more tangible to others who suffer as I have.
I know that these medicines are traditionally used for addiction and while my recovery has kept me clean and sober for over eleven years, I have not yet managed to find freedom from addictive patterns of thought and behaviour.
As much as I fear and have aversion to these medicines, I also know intuitively that there is something there for me to help me become more adept at shifting my point of view enough to enable me to “hear and feel the lessons which are all around us.” (R. Hazard).
In a way, the use of these traditional medicines is my counterpractice, at this point in time.
So, I need to stand at what Joseph Campbell refers to as the mythical “jumping off place” and delve deep into the belly of the whale, the unknown, in order to gain new insight and growth and be of better service to others.
By JJ Ford