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.
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