This is the power of posture: the way we place or hold our bodies. Some postures can be instantly recognised, for example, kneeling with hands together at the heart is familiar to many as the posture of prayer. Or sitting upright in the lotus position is seen as the classic meditation posture.
It has become so well known because the way we place our bodies is crucial to practices such as meditation. Through centuries of tradition we sit, either on the floor or in a chair, and keep our spines straight.
Sitting like this, with the back free to move a little, has the practical benefit of allowing the spine to make subtle adjustments to find and maintain perfect balance. When we get it just right we have located the "sweet spot", a blissful space, in which remaining upright and centred becomes effortless.
The right posture also has the esoteric effect of allowing spiritual energy from the reservoir at the base chakra to flow freely up to the crown. Over time, as we hold this posture in our daily practice, the energy body is detoxified, blockages are cleared and we can access higher (or deeper) levels of awareness.
This is why most meditation teachers guide new students very precisely to find a position that balances the slight tension of the erect spine, neck and head, with a deep letting go around that upright core. Getting our posture right is also one of the most important tools for maintaining longer periods of meditation.
An extension of this, which goes back to ancient times, is to deliberately hold the body in defined postures that have the documented ability to alter consciousness in very specific ways.
About 40 years ago, an American anthropologist, Dr Felicitas Goodman, began studying the art of ancient peoples from as far back as 36,000 years ago - Neolithic times. The first posture she worked with was from the famous Stone Age cave paintings in Lascaux, France. She also studied other statues and carvings, some of which are held in museums around the world. Many of these figures are in very precise postures, often with the knees and elbows bent and heads held at angles that suggest trance or inner ecstasy.
Dr Goodman realised that these figures not only represented gods and goddesses, fertility symbols or seasonal deities, but that their body positions were actually coded instructions on how to enter non-ordinary states of consciousness.
She believed that the human body holds the memory or resonance of altered states that were accessed ritually by our ancient ancestors. Remarkably, if we adopt the postures today, they still have powerful effects on our consciousness. Her research showed that various postures led to experiences of healing, transformation, spirit journeys, divination, initiation or celebration, among others.
She called them Ecstatic Trance Postures and spent many years testing her theories by inviting groups of people to take up the postures and record their experiences. In the light trance states they accessed, the visual images and energetic experiences that came to them were amazingly similar.
They also discovered that certain preparations made their experiences more intense. These included:
• carefully creating a sacred space for the work
• entering meditation while holding the posture
• cueing the nervous system with rattling or drumming to synchronise the vibration for the group
• returning decisively to everyday reality
These steps enable ordinary people to enter non-ordinary consciousness, because we share one important thing in common: the human body. Our nervous and endocrine systems have remained basically unchanged since ancient times.
This means that right now, in the modern world of cities and traffic, we can adopt these postures, prime ourselves with the steps above and trust our bodies to take us into the experience of the inner (or spirit) world.
In Sydney, a group of us meet once a week to experiment with the postures from the books written by Dr Goodman and her colleague Belinda Gore, as well as choosing postures from other figurines, statues and paintings.
Again and again, we observe that there is something about our bodies that is hard wired to experience altered states and that the postures physiologically open the doorway. To get the most from an Ecstatic Trance Posture group, it's important to enter the experience in a safe place, with a deep sense of trust.
One of our favourite postures is called the Sleeping Lady of Malta, a spirit journey posture from Belinda Gore's book, The Ecstatic Experience. The Sleeping Lady is a tiny clay statue that was found in the underground Hypogeum Temple in Malta. She lies on her right side, with arms and legs very specifically placed and her right hand in a loose fist, tucked under her cheek.
We play a CD of rattling and drumming in the theta brainwave frequency of between four and seven beats per second and wait for signs that we have entered a light trance. These include changes in body temperature - often heat, but sometimes also feeling unusually cold, involuntary movements or jerking of arms, legs or head, hearing unusual sounds or tingling/pressure at the heart, hand and feet, or solar plexus.
In our recent "Sleeping Lady" group, we experienced some things in common, including spiraling, dancing energy that each person identified as goddess-related and that led to a deep feeling of peace. One of the participants said, "I am left with the sensation that the goddess dance goes on and on."
Ecstatic Trance Postures are best performed no more than weekly as they are "high gradient" and our systems need time to integrate the new levels of consciousness. They are most powerful when performed in groups. Everyone benefits from the combined energies, which can lead to richer and more profound experiences.
An important part of the process is sharing our experiences at the end of each session. Hearing each other's story helps us to understand the full meaning and expand the possibilities of our own journey. This is the power of the group and a pointer to the future development of the human race. We live in a narcissistic, competitive culture where the idea of teamwork is often given only lip service. Working with ecstatic postures, we feel our deep connection to each other and we have the opportunity to honour our own and others' experiences.
When the drumming or rattling stops, we rest in a space of gratitude. We thank our bodies for the deep teaching they hold for us and allow the process of integration of our experiences to begin before we return to the everyday world.