Ancient Wisdom on a New Path: Where Yoga and Shamanism Meet

In 2006, Kripalu presenter Ray Crist was recovering from a debilitating illness. A yoga teacher, martial artist, and Reiki practitioner, Ray had spent four years traveling the world seeking those who could heal him. His quest took him from the Buddhist monasteries on the borders of Cambodia to the clinics of the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. But when he ventured into the jungles of Peru to study with Incan shamans, the experience opened new doors of perception—and healing—within himself.

Guided by Don Manuel Portugal, a shaman in Cuzco, Peru, Ray discovered the culture, mythology, and practices of Incan shamanism. “Shamans are the medicine people of their tribe,” Ray says. “Their methods of healing center on the ‘energy body’ and plant medicine.” The deeper he delved into Incan shamanism, the more he began to notice profound similarities with yoga. “Yogis and shamans view the world as a physical world,” he explains. “Traumatic experiences are embedded in the body—near a joint, muscle, meridian, internal organ, or chakra. Yoga and shamanism help us delve into the root of our traumas to find healing on physical and emotional levels.” Ray began incorporating shamanistic principles into his yoga practice, imbuing it with a new richness. “Shamanism brought to my practice a direct awareness of energy moving through my body, a visceral understanding of what each asana offers,” he says.

After two months, Ray returned to the United States not just in good physical health, but with a renewed sense of purpose. He established the Jaguar Path, a training that fuses the wisdom of yoga and Incan shamanism to create a system for empowerment using healing tools from both methodologies.

So how do yoga and shamanism come together? The core of the Jaguar Path lies in the Incan trilogy of the three primary power animals—serpent, jaguar, condor—and how they symbolize the realms of body, mind, and spirit. According to Ray, the serpent represents the body. Just as the serpent sheds its skin, so we let go of that which no longer serves us. “The serpent is linked to the asana practice,” Ray explains. “Through our physical yoga practice, we release toxins and let go of unnecessary layers.” The jaguar represents the mind and the heart of the path. “The human mind is driven by fear,” says Ray. “Jaguar practices create a strong, fearless mind, for in the jungle the jaguar is the ruler of its domain and knows no fear.” The condor represents the spirit, able to see the greater picture as it rises above. “The condor is meditation, shamanic journeying, flying wing to wing with the great spirit. What yoga and shamanism do that is so powerful is to use archetypes—the symbols of strength, wisdom, and courage that live within each of us. Archetypes, such as the serpent, condor, and jaguar, help us establish a better foundation of who we are.”

When the serpent, jaguar, condor (body, mind, spirit) merge, energetic shifts occur. This merger is union, which is the essence of yoga and shamanism. “The shamanic tools of the Jaguar Path give us new ways of perceiving ourselves, personal empowerment, and direction in life,” says Ray. “We journey from a place of lack (I want) to a place of abundance (what I can offer). Embarking on the Jaguar Path means tapping into the healer within, opening the mind and freeing the body to release deeply held samskaras, or energy blocks, that lie buried within the subconscious.”

Monica Celli, a graduate of the Jaguar Path, credits these archetypes for helping her tap into her courage. “Whenever I encounter a challenging situation, I call upon the characteristics of specific animals to empower me,” she says. “Whenever I feel powerless, I visualize the strength of the jaguar, or the condor, soaring into clarity. It’s one of the great gifts of the Jaguar Path—these tools allow me to be more aware of how each moment unfolds, and show me that I have the strength to free myself from fears.”

Ray teaches that the word “shaman” means “the knower” in the Tungusic language. “In other words, knowing the self, being cognizant of what’s happening around you and within you,” he says. “We are all innately shamans, but we’re not trained to recognize it.” Ray hopes the Jaguar Path awakens the inner seer, the inner warrior and healer, that potential within all of us to carve our own path with clarity and strength.

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