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Yoga and Shamanism (Part I)

Indian Sadhu, Rishikesh, India


I will begin by saying that somewhere along my Ashtanga path I was called towards Shamanism. But rather than immediately booking a ten day ayahuasca retreat in the jungle, I instead took a different approach. The famous Ashtanga yoga master Pattabhi Jois always famously said to engage in 99% practice and only 1% theory. Despite his time tested words of wisdom, I initially took the theory route in my explorations of shamanism.

I began reading all that I could get my hands on about shamanism. Seeing as shamanism appears to be a mysterious and nebulous tradition that was passed down through the ages orally rather than in ancient texts such as the Upanishads or the Yoga Sutras, reading as much as I could about shamanism was no small feat. Davina MacKail, a prominent western Shaman whom I have had the opportunity to work with, wrote to me when I inquired about reading recommendations explaining: “…whilst a lot has been written about shamanism, also nothing has been written about it because ultimately it is an oral tradition and a living one, so it cannot truly be encapsulated within pages of a written text.” In other words, there is no shamanic version of BKS Iyengar’s “Light on Yoga”.

Despite the persistent elusiveness of shamanic texts, over the last several years I have managed to read a wide variety of writings that seemed to relate to shamanism, ranging from the mystical Castaneda books, to Native American writers, to anthropological texts, to Vision Quest guides and many things in between. Interestingly enough, through much of this reading I was  led back in one way or another to where much of my own spiritual practice had originated: the Himalayas.

My intuition continued to sense deep correlations between my new interest (shamanism) and my daily spiritual practice (yoga). With continued investigation I began to indeed discover many connections between the two systems, often making them appear apart of a single system. This essay I am writing is thus the first in a series of essays (a number that still remains undetermined) that present yoga as a form of shamanism from practical, historical, theoretical and experiential perspectives. 

I hope when I use the word “yoga” here it is clear that I am not referring to the hordes of women in spandex bending in overheated rooms to Avici’s new remix, just as when I use the word “shamanism” I am not referring to the hordes of partying backpackers drinking hallucinogenic liquids in the jungles of South America. When I use the word “yoga” I am referring to the ancient tradition of yoga that originated in the Himalayas and has been passed down to us via lineage and traditional scriptures such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Upanishads, the Vedas and the Tantras.

It is important to note here that “shamanism” is a very loosely used term that usually describes a vast array of different indigenous mystical practices and traditions, often specifically implying native communities in the Americas. It is hard to duly describe exactly what shamanism is, though after much research shamanism seems to be any ancient healing tradition or way of life where the shamanic practitioner uses specific practices or rituals to reach other states of consciousness, channel energies for healing and transformation, and transcend the seen world to connect with the source of creation. Sound familiar? Yes, it sounds a lot like yoga.

From an anthropological perspective, shamanism “represents the most widespread and ancient methodological system of mind-body healing known to humanity… [with evidence suggesting] that shamanic methods are at least twenty or thirty thousand years old.” (Harner, 1990). What is fascinating about shamanic methods and beliefs is that they are very similar in extremely separated and remote parts of the world. In his classic work called “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”, Mircea Eliade extensively demonstrates the widespread correlations in shamanic traditions across the planet, from Asia to North America to South America to Africa and Australia. Despite vast geographical separation, the shamanic systems and the shamanic roles function fundamentally in much the same way and with the very similar techniques across history and the globe. This includes in the Himalayas, too.

From a historical perspective, yoga likely evolved from what was the original pre-Hindu shamanic practices of the ancient Himalayas. The closest that yoga is now to what it likely originated as as a Himalayan shamanic tradition is probably Tantra, specifically Tibetan Tantric Buddhism and Tibetan Yoga, both of which are kept highly secret and are rarely accessible to outsiders. According to a yoga scholar (with whom I have had the privilege to study with in India), a millennia ago ancient yoga traditions were pushed out of India and into Tibet. They were kept in Tibet for many generations before slowly returning to India in forms more easily recognisable today as modern yoga. Despite some dilution over centuries, the fundamentals remained essentially the same. Much of the occult and mystical tantric traditions that had originally developed in India over thousands of years remained in Tibet and evolved into Tibetan Buddhism. Many contemporary Indian yogis and sadhakas travel to Nepal and Tibet to learn and experience these ancient mystical mosdalities. In fact, in India today it is still seen as taboo to be involved in tantric practices, which are viewed as “dark”, “lunar” or “left handed” practices. 

The modern New Age movement likes to translate tantra as spiritual sex (and I daresay often uses tantra as their excuse for overindulging in sex), however, in defense of Tantra, Tantra technically denotes the mystical traditions of the Himalayas that eventually evolved into the esoteric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, including yoga. I will expound by saying that Tantra is an ancient system of yoga that can be dated to pre-Vedic times with mystic and shamanistic origins. It is a tradition of beliefs, meditations, and practices that seek to channel the macrocosmic divine energy into the microcosmic human being to attain liberation and occult powers. As Tantra is literally the grandmother of all yoga practices, it is a collection of practices and ideas rather than existing as one coherent system.

The history of the origins of yoga is very complex and, of course, highly debatable. So I will conclude here by saying that despite where yoga exactly came from, it evolved along the lineage of what was the indigenous mystical traditions of the Himalayas that were used for healing, transformation and transcendence, similarly to other shamanistic traditions around the world. For a more in depth study of tantra and shamanism, I recommend Surendra Bahadur Shahi’s book: Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas.

The concept of yoga as shamanism is hardly radical, just as the similarities between the two systems are hardly exhaustible. Several yoga teachers have made the connection in their writings and teachings. This includes the renowned ashtanga yoga teacher, Danny Paradise, who continuously teaches an internationally successful workshop on yoga as a shamanic tradition (which I attended several years ago).

In the classic book on Kundalini yoga, “The Serpent Power”, which was published under the pen name of Arthur Avalon, Sir John Woodroffe writes that “similarities are discoverable between the Indian (Asiatic) Sastras (scriptures) and the American-Indian Maya Scripture of the Zunis called the Popul Vuh.” (Avalon, 1918). Though I have not read the latter mentioned text, Woodroffe continues to explain that the Maya Scripture includes accurate descriptions of the chakra system and its functioning, despite being written in a completely different language and by a completely different civilization. Both cultures across time and space recognised the same energetic mechanics of the human body.

In another interesting account, Alberto Villoldo, a prominent contemporary shaman and neurobiologist, tells a humorous and fascinating story in his memoir (Dance of the Four Winds) about his studies with a shaman in Peru. The shaman showed the body’s “rivers” of energy to Villoldo by drawing them all over his body with his wife’s new lipstick. Villoldo had him take many photos of his lipsticked covered body and upon returning to the USA compared the photos to images of meridian lines used in Chinese medicine. He was amazed, albeit not surprised, to find that they were exactly the same. Upon his next visit to Peru he asked the shaman about this. The shaman had never heard of China, let alone Chinese medicine. If you looks at the comparison between the Chinese meridians and the Yogic nadi system or Marma meridians, you will also find they are relatively the same. 

There are also many non-yogis who have made the connection between shamanic practices and Himalayan esoteric traditions. In Michael Harner’s classic book “The Way of the Shaman”, he includes a plate of a Tibetan Buddhist tanka and compares it to a plate of a Hopi Indian painting. Both images are incredibly similar, not only in design but in content. Harner’s explanation is that Tibetan Buddhism was heavily influenced by shamanism. He even discusses that many of the feats performed by South American and Siberian shamans are also performed by Tibetan Lamas.

The last example I will use is from the modern medicine man Bear Heart’s book “The Wind is My Mother”. Bear Heart shares his observations that certain languages of the Indus valley are similar to what is spoken by the Cherokee Indians and that some spiritual practices of the Native American Indians are the same as Tibetan Buddhist monks. His conclusion is an innate interconnectedness between peoples as well as the possibility that the Native Americans originally came from Asia. It is easy to see that there is much noted, diverse and tangible correlations between the eastern and western mystical traditions.

Thus far I have discussed the concept of yoga as shamanism from a primarily historical and anthropological perspective. There are, however, many practical and theoretical comparisons between yogic and shamanic systems, which I will continue to expand upon in subsequent essays. In the meantime, I will follow Pattabhi Jois’s suggestion of the practical, as I am on my way to the Himalayas of South America: the Peruvian Andes.

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