My wife, CJ Ananda, and I have been leading Shamanic Yoga retreats, cleanses and teacher trainings for many years and we’re often asked about the connection between these two ancient traditions. But before we can begin to explore the overlap of these paths, I’d first like to define Shamanism, as it’s a term that’s used widely in the West but not very well understood. Keep in mind that since Shamanism has been practiced around the globe for hundreds of thousands of years, it’s not possible to fit all traditions into one all encompassing definition. But, the following is as good as I can do…
Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner (Shaman) who reaches a hightened state of consciousness in order to interact with the invisible realm to purposely affect change in the material realm. The material realm and the invisible realm are intimately connected in a divine dance of perfect balance; any action within one realm affects the other. Thus, every action we take and every thought we have influences the invisible. The difference between us and a Shaman, then, is that the Shaman has the ability to affect change within the invisible realm with purpose and intention in order to make changes within the visible, material world.
For example, a person may go to a Shaman for help with a disease. In the material world we can observe the symptoms of the disease, but the cause is generally energetic in nature, which can only be treated on an energetic (invisible) level. The cause of the imbalance is often due to a malevolent force in the invisible realm which the Shaman can mitigate. The Shaman enters a trance state in order to neutralize the malevolent force and thus correct the energetic imbalance. From there, the recipient of the healing must also make a change in life-style to fully bring harmony to the underlying condition.
While the practice of Shamanism is far more ancient than the word itself, the etymology of the word “Shaman” is most commonly thought to originate from the Tungusic Evenki language of North Asia, and most likely ultimately derives from Sanskrit (śramaṇá) meaning ascetic, monk, or devotee. So, before even exploring the overlap in practice, we see that the word “Shaman” itself derives from Sanskrit, which, of course, is the root language of Yoga.
The origin of Shamanism is ancient, dating well into prehistoric times, which makes the topic exceedingly difficult to discuss. One origin story of Shamanism is that in the times of the ancients, long before the development of written language, there was a window of time when early humans had learned how to control fire, but had not yet figured out how to start it. Archeological evidence puts this window somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million BCE to 500,000 BCE.
The ability to control fire allowed early humans to spread into cold climates where they could now stay warm. It also allowed our ancestors to increase their population since they could now prepare calorie rich foods like potatoes and other root vegetables, which previously were impossible to eat. Very quickly our early ancestors became increasingly reliant on fire. In many parts of the world, if the fire were to go out, whole communities would freeze to death or die of starvation.
During this window of time, in many villages there existed a guild of people whose job it was to tend the fire, to maintain the eternal light. Nature is always speaking, she is continuously sharing her secrets, but the secrets are hidden within a deeply hidden code. To hear the language of the natural world takes time, concentration and quietness, which the members of the fire guild had in abundance. Generation after generation, the guild members stared endlessly into the fire, entering deep meditations. During these meditations, the fire began to speak and the keepers of the fire received messages, downloaded from the ethers, from the infinite source of knowledge. The gift of wisdom given by the fire to the fire keepers helped their spirits thrive. The guild members became powerful mages, healers, and spiritual leaders of their communities… they became the world’s first Shaman. Elaborate temples were built for the fire keepers, which can still be visited today in countries like Peru, India, China and Egypt.
Shamanism in Yoga
The story of the fire keepers is merely a story, for the true origins of Shamanic mysticism is unknowable, lost in the annals of time. The first tangible evidence of Shamaism comes from written accounts found in the Vedic Scriptures, the same source texts of Yoga. In the Vedas, it is said that between our familiar Material Universe and the Ultimate Reality are multiple layers of subtle existence. To reach the highest level of existence, to merge with the Oneness of all that is, the Vedic practitioner must traverse the intermediate realms, which are invisible to ordinary sight but nonetheless as real as the material world. Through intensified awareness the practitioner traverses into more and more subtle realms and the boundaries between body and environment become increasingly blurred until a true experience with Oneness occurs. In this state of expansive emptiness the secrets of the universe are revealed.
Between the material realm and the highest realm of Oneness are the in between realms which are the home of the deities, ancestral spirits, and demonic beings (Bhutas or Elementals). While we may not be aware of it, we participate in, affect, and are affected by the invisible in-between realms. In order to pass through the “in-between”, Vedic practitioners must protect themselves against undesirable interference from malevolent Spirits at all times and especially during rituals. This is done by recruiting Spirit Guides through the giving of offerings and with telepathic communication.
When I first read these ancient Vedic texts I was awestruck by the incredible overlap between what I was reading and what I had learned from my Shamanic teachers in Peru. The texts were describing the exact path that my teachers had laid out before me. For several years my Shamanic teachers had instructed me on techniques to seduce Spirit Guides. I was told that these guides are necessary to traverse the invisible realms in order to merge with the Oneness of Being. I was guided through intensive meditations and journeys to communicate telepathically with the spirits. I was taught several forms of ritual offerings to entice the invisible beings to support me on my journey. Upon reading the Vedas it became overwhelmingly obvious that Shamanism, at its root, is a Vedic tradition, just like Yoga.
While it is easy to see the commonality in the history of Yoga and Shamanism, exploring the overlap in the practices is a much more in depth study. My wife and I have joined with several friends to form a community called Kula Collective to explore this fascinating topic. We host several different retreats and trainings around the world and delve deeply into the integration of Yoga with indigenous healing traditions. At our advanced teacher training in Peru, we fly in an Ayurvedic Master to work with the Shipibo Grandmothers from the Amazon Jungle. Many healing techniques that the Grandmothers teach have a very similar Ayurvedic parallel. We also work with Kero Shaman who teach breathing exercises, prayers and systems of movement that are harmonious (and sometimes identical) with Yoga Asana, Mantra and Pranayama.
The more we delve into the exploration of the union of Yoga and Shamanism, the more we see that the only significant difference are the names, which are merely words. At the core of each tradition is a path to quiet the mind in order to experience the Oneness of Being. Whether we call ourselves Shaman or Yogis is irrelevant, for it is to walk the path that is our Soul’s journey, and the walking is all that matters.
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