Shamanism and Yoga are spiritual practices originally found in Siberia and India, respectively. While Shamanism is practiced in various forms world-wide, traditional Yoga is mainly found in South-East Asia. Although the practices of Shamanism and Yoga share similar qualities, they are not always considered interlinking spiritual practice. Undoubtedly, there are times when the specifics between Shamanism and Yoga become vague and unclear. In order to contrast and compare these two magical/meditational traditions, precise definitions of both terms are absolutely necessary.
Shamans are religious healers and miracle workers, who may appear to be possessed by divine spirits. They are perceived to have power within the realm of the invisible, and thus, have powers outside the mortal world of average human beings (Robinson and Rodrigues 13). Scholars often describe Shamanism as “a visionary tradition, an ancient practice of utilizing altered states of consciousness to contact the gods and spirits of the natural world” (Drury 1). It may seem natural to relate Shamans with magicians or medicine men. However, it is necessary to maintain awareness that Shamans may take on many different attributes depending on their own personal practices. One may become a Shaman through ancestral lineage (considered a “lesser”, or inferior, Shaman), or may be called upon and chosen by spirits through dream or premonition (considered a “greater”, or preferred, Shaman) (Drury 6).
In comparison, the practice of Yoga is based upon the philosophy that seeks integration of one’s true self (atman) and the Absolute (brahman), through rigorously self-disciplined psycho-physical techniques and practices (Robinson and Rodrigues 159). Generally, the term Yoga is used to describe every technique of asceticism and every method of meditation (Eliade 1975:9). A great yogi has ultimate devotion to their discipline, and certain yogis are considered “spiritual masters” (Eliade 1975:7). Yogis are self-helping spiritual beings, due to the fact that they seek liberation (moksa) through meditation. Hinduism includes the methods of several Yogic categories and techniques. In fact, all forms of Yoga are the offspring of Hindu religious practices, as documented in the Upanisads. For those who follow the Hindu tradition, the underlying goal of meditational practices is the attainment of moksa. According to the Hindu tradition, anyone may become a yogi due to the fact that it is a chosen spiritual path.
Shamanism is a world-wide phenomenon that is believed to have begun in vast regions of Siberia. It is largely practiced in small-scale tribal societies, such as the Australian Aborigines, Alaskan Eskimo society, and the Yaquis of northern Mexico (Drury, 12-17). Familiar characteristics of Shamans around the world include trance states, magical flight and contacts with spirits.
In contrast, Yoga has become somewhat of a trend in the Western World in recent years. In India, classical Yoga can be traced back as far as approximately 300 B.C.E., in portions of the Mahabharata (a major Hindu epic, with origins in India). Gradually Yoga began to spread to the rest of the world. Yoga was created by ancient Hindus with intent of providing a more concrete religious experience. It was also intended to make mystical devotion more accessible, intimate and personal in order for the masses to achieve moksa (Eliade 1969:144). Thus, the modern forms of Yoga – such as “power dance Yoga” which induces high energy cardio techniques without any meditational aspects – practiced around the world today do not pursue the same goals of moksa and spiritual knowledge as the classical forms of Yoga.
Practicing Shamanism often includes the use of sweating cabinets to stimulate extreme perspiration, magically raising body temperature (“magical heat”), mastering fire to the point of attaining insensibility of the heat from burning coals (“mastery of fire”), and producing “inner heat” (Eliade 1969:106). “Inner heat”, expressed by a “mastery over fire” and abrogation of physical laws, is fundamental for “primitive” Shamans. Hence, the “heated” Shaman can perform miracles and “create new conditions of existence in the cosmos” (Eliade 1964:412). In this regard, Prajapati (creator god depicted in the Vedas) becomes the epitome of all Shamans.
In Yoga, the parallel of this “inner heat” technique is documented in the Rg-Veda, in the concept of tapas. Tapas originally meant “extreme heat”, but evolved into a term to generally describe ascetic effort. Through tapas, the ascetic becomes almost psychic, and may even incarnate the gods. Furthermore, tapas results in a kind of magical power, creating countless illusions or miracles of the ascetics and yogis (i.e. Magical flight) (Eliade 1969:106). Pranayama (breath control) is “cosmogony in reverse” in the sense that, as oppose to the creation of new miracles, this power enables the yogi to disconnect from the world (Eliade 1964:413). Evidently, these are opposing views in regard to technical practices of Shamanism and Yoga.
In both Shamanism and Yoga, “extreme heat” is obtained by meditating close to a fire, or by retention of breath. Noteworthy to state, respiratory technique and detainment of breath were crucial components during the organization of ascetic practices, magical, mystical, and metaphysical techniques in the practices of Shamanism and Yoga. Here, the lines that differentiate Shamanism from Yoga, and vice-versa, are once again blurred.
One crucial difference between Shamanism and Yoga lies in their functionary goals. Shamanism follows an ecstatic ideology, whereas Yoga prefers an enstatic approach. The Encyclopaedia of Religion states, “A first definition of the complex phenomenon of shamanism – and perhaps the least hazardous – is that it is a technique of ecstasy” (Jones 8269). This is to say Shamans exercise a sixth-sense, if you will, in the categories of dream analysis, astrology, and spirit possession. This special power is ecstatic, meaning it refers to “out of self” practices. Shamans are thought to have the capability of moving their consciousness beyond “normal parameters.” Shamans use their ecstatic ability to communicate with multiple beings (i.e. animals, nature, deities, and spirits). They are also able to diagnose illnesses, understand and communicate the wishes of a deceased family member, and presume desires of a deity. Shamanism is characterized by its everlasting effort to reach ecstatic flight (Eliade 1964:339). Therefore, Shamans are not solely concerned with their own personal spiritual goals (Robinson and Rodrigues 262). Shamans aid, and may be commissioned by, other persons in forms of healers, psychics, and priests (Drury 1).
Yoga cannot be confused with Shamanism, or considered in any aspect as ecstatic. In effect, Yoga truly contradicts the ecstatic philosophy of Shamanism. Yoga pursues the goal of individual moksa. Yogis are continually striving to achieve absolute concentration, in order to discover their true selves (atman). The “true self” in Hinduism is the person beyond all assumptions, ego formulations, and illusions. This is to say that all classical yogis are searching for their innermost self, as understood in their metaphysical systems. Keeping in mind that “enstatic” means “standing within oneself”, Yoga is appropriately defined as such.
Evidently, Shamanism and Yoga are two distinct, yet intertwining spiritual practices. Although traditional Yoga is found mainly in South-East Asia (specifically India), traditional Shamans are found in tribal communities world-wide. Though Shamanism retains its ecstatic philosophy, while Yoga contrasts with its personal enstatic ideas, the two blend together in several ways (e.g. “inner heat” and pranayama practices). In addition, ideologies of emergence from time and abrogation of history are components that bridge the gap between the two spiritual practices we call Shamanism and Yoga (Eliade 1964:339).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Drury, Nevill (1989) the Elements of Shamanism. Dorset: Element Books Limited.
Eliade, Mircea (1975) Patanjali and Yoga. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
_____ (1964) Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
_____ (1969) Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Feuerstein, Georg (1980) the philosophy of classical yoga. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
_____ (2002) the yoga tradition: its history, literature, philosophy and practice. New Delhi:
Fillozat, Jean (1991) Religion, philosophy, Yoga: a section of articles. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass Publishers.
Gupta, Madan Gopal (2000) Dictionary of Indian religions, saints, gods, goddesses, rituals, festivals and yoga systems. Agra: M.G. Publishers.
Jones, Lindsay, ed. (2005) The Encyclopaedia of Religion (second edition). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.
Malotki, Ekkehart (2001) Hopi stories of witchcraft, shamanism, and magic. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Osho (1998) the path of yoga: commentaries of the Yoga Sustas of Patanjali. Pune: Tao Publishing Pvt. Ltd.
Pentikäinen, Juha (1996) Shamanism and Northern Ecology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Robinson, Thomas A. and Rodrigues, Hilary (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.
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Article written by: Jessica Schultchen (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.