Center Your Spirit: Asana as Ceremony

Since the beginning of time, humans have performed rituals and ceremonies. Many such ceremonies continue to exist in one form or another—acknowledging the passage of youth to adulthood, celebrating the change of seasons, honoring the joining of two people in marriage or the passing of a loved one—all of which can bring a community together. We can also practice ceremony in solitude, on the yoga mat, connecting to the larger world through a journey inside.

Yogis and shamans understand that ceremony is vital to humans, as it awakens the subconscious, the place where deep changes take root and healing happens. Ceremony is symbolic action imbued with heartfelt emotional energy, performed in one place and time with the intention to affect another place in time. In both yoga and shamanism, strong feeling mixed with clear intention is magic fuel. When we honor the body’s inherent temple nature, and allow our practice to be ceremony, the mind quiets, the senses open, and we can see ourselves and our life in a wider perspective. We remember to bring our best self to the mat.

There’s a saying that “how you do one thing is how you do everything.” It took me a long time in my asana practice to realize that yoga wasn’t a self-improvement plan, nor was it simply an opportunity to practice mastery.  My focus was on the physical—to a destructive degree. I didn’t understand what sensations, thoughts, and feelings in a yoga practice were for. I didn’t understand the yoga mat as the microcosm of the macrocosm. When we get that, then the body becomes the temple, both within and without. The body is the vehicle for our experience; our thoughts, feeling and sensations tell us so much about what we believe, where we allow our life to flourish, and where we close it down.

When you open sacred space on your yoga mat, you are acknowledging the connection between the inward journey through the body, and the space where the body moves. You are surrounding yourself with a healing frequency that resonates inside and out.

There are many ways to offer ceremony on your mat. Calling in the cardinal directions and their archetypes is one of the simplest and most effective. This action sets the tone of the practice, and gives us an anchor to dismiss distractions. Archetypes represent primal qualities in life, in humans. We can think of them as part of our hidden aspects and unseen dimensions.

In Peruvian shamanism, the archetypes for the cardinal directions are

  • Winds of the South: Serpent
  • Winds of the West: Jaguar
  • Winds of the North: Hummingbird
  • Winds of the East: Condor or Eagle. 

The winds carry the energy of the archetypes onto your mat. These four directions and their power animals clear the space and share the gifts of healing, of no fear—inviting in sweetness and a soaring life, a life with a broad perspective. It’s important to include Earth (receptive energy) and Sky (creative energy). This one decisive ritual supports a meditative, self-directed, and reflective practice.

The ceremony itself is simple:

  1. Begin by standing in the center of your yoga mat, facing the south. Invite the Winds of the South and the great serpent into your practice. The Serpent represents letting go, shedding skin, softening. The serpent’s nature is belly to the Earth. Name these qualities; open to them. Complete the prayer with gratitude.
  2. Turn to the west and repeat the process, exploring the qualities of the jaguar.
  3. Do this facing north and east, focusing on the energy of the respective power animals.
  4. Once you have made the full circle, offer gratitude and welcoming to Earth/Mother energy. Bring a hand to touch the earth.
  5. Then honor Sky/Father energy, and bring a hand toward the heavens.
  6. End the ceremony by bringing your hands to your heart, in prayer or stacked with palms against the heart. Offer your best self to the practice. Now you’re ready to begin your journey into the body temple through asana.

Both shamanism and yoga offer practices that free us from our inner bondage and the inhibitions of society. They aim to heal and liberate. Ceremony helps us to journey within the framework of the body/mind/mat with clarity. Asana practice can lead us to discover our full potential—in both the world of the senses and in our spirit life.

Cristie Newhart, former Dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga, is a dynamic yoga teacher who imbues her classes with meditative inquiry, detailed alignment principles, and playful humor.

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