William has been attending a public yoga class at a local studio, once a week for nearly three months. It is a beginning level class that commences with chanting of the sacred syllable OM followed by a recitation of the Gayatri mantra in Sanskrit, which is venerated as the “Language of Gods." This invocation is accompanied by the employment of a specific hand gesture, the jnana mudra, and the musical drone of a tambura. As the vibration dissolves, the room is quiet. William joins the other participants in seated silence to absorb the stillness and to psycho-spiritually “arrive.”
Now, it is time for asana.
The class moves, as if a single entity, through dynamic postures and physical alignments. They breathe and flow and stretch and hold. They engage their muscles and absolve their minds as they conform to detailed instructions. Their bodies become symbols, their hearts the corporeal axis mundi (center of the world).
Occasionally the teacher will cue a psycho-emotional consideration:
“Allow your heart to open.”
...or “Connect into the Earth.”
...or even, “Surrender to the Universal Flow of Love.”
William is accustomed to hearing these phrases. They are a part of the experience and contribute to the atmosphere of the practice. Everything transpires as usual, as if by protocol, in expectation of the final gesture of the exercise: savasana.
Translated from Sanskrit to mean, “corpse pose,” savasana is the culmination of the dance.
This is William's favorite part.
He relaxes onto his back, granting every muscle to release, in a manner that has become affectionately familiar. Suddenly and spontaneously, he is engulfed in emotion. His body trembles as a torrent of tears mark rivers along each temple, pooling on his mat. He is not sad; he is bewildered. He has had a spiritual, perhaps liminal, experience that provokes a curious swell, “What is this Yoga?”
The preceding is a true story, and one that I have encountered many times over the past twenty years as a yoga teacher; when new practitioners succumb to a mysterious incident. Often, this unexpected phenomenon will inspire them to investigate their relationship to the world. They examine their soul's purpose. They will describe the sensation as both joyful and sorrowful. Deep questions rise from the unconscious mind, yet peaceful assurance is subtly provided. In the words of the great Mircea Eliade, the practitioner will “experience his profound nothingness–feel that he is only a creature” (10).
...And at the same time, the individual is empowered–inspired and motivated to seek meaning for his or her life. She feels both humbled and expanded–one with the entire universe. This incident will generally solidify her connection to the practice. In that instant, her involvement is shifted from curious neophyte to faithful devotee.
The aim of any ritual is transformation.
Ritual uses metaphor, imagination, and symbol to transform energy and awaken consciousness. Marion Woodman writes, “A ritual should take you into a much broader, richer experience; every time you go through a ritual you should contact that deepest, divine part of yourself and open to something new.”
Could yoga class be considered a ritual? Is it possible, that a studio in Colorado, thousands of miles and thousands of years from the original Vedic sages, could be the site of spiritual transformation?
Despite the exuberant work of religious and secular theorists, the definition of “ritual” remains elusive. The term has been used to refer to religious acts, secular celebrations, even systematized personal behaviors. The word "ritual" has been sensationalized and/or de-mystified and used to sell products. To other people the idea of "ritual" seems foreign—exotic and peculiar.
But human beings long for ritual. We have a natural tendency toward ritualization, ie everyday societal norms like shaking hands, birthday gifts, and prayers before meals. In fact, some theorists would assert that ritualizing is critical to the success of a society. Employing habitual patterns and repetition, ritualization establishes, transmits and perpetuates certain behavioral norms. It connects people and creates cohesion.
But here's something else about human beings: most of us will only do something for so long until we begin to ask, “What is the point of this?”
For a ritual to be potent, it must be living. It must have meaning. The purpose of a ritual is illuminated by the flame of its intention, ie: the point.
Ritual is like art. It is animate with meaning.
One might argue that great art is meaningless–created solely for art’s sake. But even art that is purposefully "purposeless" becomes defenseless to the meaning that it invokes. Eventually, as a relationship develops, an art appreciator will inevitably attribute some meaning to the work. Human beings are meaning-makers, after all. We are soul artists. We create purpose from connection.
Like art, ritual is not responsible for providing meaning. Instead, it instigates meaning. Meaning arises from engaged participation. It evolves out of embodied experience.
Across cultures and continents, ritual has inspired the imagination of its participants. Hopi kachina initiation rites, Isoma fertility rituals of the Ndembu tribes of Zambia, Tamil pilgrimages in India, Dia de Muertos of the Mexican heritage....rituals are defined by what they effectuate within the psyche of their adherents.
I offer Yoga class as a ritual.
It is an invitation to move consciousness beyond the routine identification with ego- personality, to connect with something seemingly larger than your limitations. Yoga teachings inspire mythic imagination while verbal cues engage your body as a microcosmic symbol of transformation. It invites you into the cosmic stillness, where the presence of the numinous may be experienced.
What does all of that mean?
You are a soul artist. The meaning is entirely up to you.
Yoga becomes ritual when you fully engage the practice and give it purpose; when you "open to something new" and dance inside the mystery.
...And after his experience, I know that William would advise you to never skip savasana.
The "corpse pose" is still his favorite part of the ritual.
It is, after all, the culmination of the dance.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane.
Woodman, Marion. Conscious Femininity.
Quotes from my teacher, by R.R. Shakti, PhD.
August 15, 1928—July 9, 2018
On July 9 the soul of my beloved guide, Marion Woodman, set.
She was an incredible inspiration to so many. Her life an example of love in real-world service to humanity.
In moments like this, I honor words for their healing power and their ability to unify. Without words we might not share the exact insight that wrote: “To me, real love, the move from power to love, involves immense suffering. Any creative work comes from that level, where we share our sufferings, just the sheer suffering of being human. And that's where the real love is.” (Woodman, Conscious Femininity).
Marion taught that true compassion requires courage. We must embrace the entire package of this human experience. She taught that true freedom comes from loving your Self—that to heal the soul, we must attend to the wounds of our culture and of the earth. We must nurture the inner child, honor the feminine principle, and remember the sacredness within nature. I am beyond grateful that she shared her heart's wisdom with us through her beautiful words.
Below are some of my favorite words from Marion.
To learn more about her, visit https://mwoodmanfoundation.org/
R.R. Shakti, Ph.D.
“This is your body, your greatest gift, pregnant with wisdom you do not hear, grief you thought was forgotten, and joy you have never known.”
“Only by discovering and loving the goddess lost within our rejected body can we hear our own authentic voice.” ― Coming Home to Myself: Reflections for Nurturing a Woman's Body and Soul
"Dismissing poetry is dismissing the glory of the imagination." ― Bone: Dying into Life
“Healing depends on listening with the inner ear – stopping the incessant blather, and listening. Fear keeps us chattering – fear that wells up from the past, fear of blurting out what we really fear, fear of future repercussions. It is our very fear of the future that distorts the now that could lead to a different future if we dared to be whole in the present."
“Having a body that is like a musical instrument, open enough to be able to resonate, literally resonate with what is coming both from the inside and from the outside, so that one is able to surrender to powers greater than oneself.”
“I can tell you that it takes great strength to surrender. You have to know that you are not going to collapse. Instead, you are going to open to a power that you don’t even know, and it is going to come to meet you. In the process of healing, this is one of the huge things that I have discovered. People recognized the energy coming to meet them. When they opened to another energy, a love, a divine love, came through to meet them. That is what is known as grace. We all sing about amazing grace. It is a gift. I think that it comes through the work that we do. For some people, it can come out of the blue, but I know that in my own situation, the grace came through incredible vigilance.”
“Without an understanding of myth or religion, without an understanding of the relationship between destruction and creation, death and rebirth, the individual suffers the mysteries of life as meaningless mayhem alone.”
“A flower won’t open if I yell at it and say “Bloom!”
“This is the point where love becomes possible. We see the other with the eye of the heart, an eye not clouded by fear manifesting as need, jealousy, possessiveness, or manipulation. With the unclouded eye of the heart, we can see the other as other. We can rejoice in the other, challenge the other, and embrace the other without losing our own center or taking anything away from the other. We are always other to each other — soul meeting soul, the body awakened with joy. To love unconditionally requires no contracts, bargains, or agreements. Love exists in the moment-to-moment flux of life.”
“The feminine takes time for spontaneity and slow time, honors inner reality, and gives values to feelings without brutally repressing them as “sissy” or meaningless.”
“Once we get used to listening to our dreams, our whole body responds like a musical instrument.”
“When I say the feminine, I don’t mean gender. I mean the feminine principle that is living—or suppressed—in both men and women.”
"Storytelling is at the heart of life... In finding our own story, we assemble all the parts of ourselves. Whatever kind of mess we have made of it, we can somehow see the totality of who we are and recognize how our blunderings are related. We can own what we did and value who we are, not because of the outcome but because of the soul story that propelled us."
About The Author
R.R. Shakti, PhD
Founding teacher of Inner Power Yoga®, Shakti is a Contemplative Mythologist, ritual facilitator, and writer who presents a Tantrik approach to personal empowerment and social action. Through contemplative story-telling and mind/body practices, she offers a vision of deep peace and radical freedom.
PSYCHE + SOUL