Lying on your back, eyes closed and legs crossed underneath or spread out in front, listening to the guru-like voice chanting over the softly playing mandolin. Feeling and tasting each sweat drop falling off all parts of the body. Breath is slow and deep. “Inhale the world into you, exhale you into the world,” instructs the soft voice from nearby. Although the blood is flowing through every part of the body and skin is tingling, the mind is calm and free of thought, a feeling of complete rejuvenation. One is in a place of trance.
This place of trance can be found in the studio of Zen Hot Yoga, located in Sherwood, Brisbane. An altered state of consciousness is achieved here through the practice of yoga in a far-infrared (FIR) heated room. Participants of this activity can choose different styles of yoga to inhibit their own experience. In the mist of the heated room a usual group of roughly twenty people, varying from the young to old, are guided by a yoga teacher. This hot yoga activity is open to anyone and everyone who is looking to alter their state of consciousness. The questions to ask are how an altered state is provoked by such activity, how does this activity reflect on the participant’s processes of life and feelings, and what is the function of trance, altered states and the relationship to the transcendent?
An altered state of consciousness (ASC) is a ‘non-ordinary psychic state’. (Townsend, pg441) It is evident most societies practise inducement of ASC and there are many procedures of inducement which evoke common changes of consciousness. (Winkleman, p393) Zen hot yoga includes procedures of ASC defined by Winkleman as auditory driving response, sensory stimulation, extensive motor behaviour, and meditation.
Auditory driving response and sensory stimulation are applied by the setting at the studio which entices all the senses. The low lit, yellow room is gentle on the eyes, the calm chanting soft on the ears, the smell of therapeutic fragrance, the tender and encouraging voice of the instructor are all stimulating the brain waves. The infrared heated room also contributes to induction of ASC.
Hot yoga is an exuberant and quiet activity. Zen Hot Yoga offers a range of classes, some of which are more physically demanding than others but all leaving the members in an ASC. The two focused on in this report is Power Yoga and Qi Yoga. ASC in Power Yoga is provoked by extensive motor behaviour as it incorporates extensive exercise. Exercise in yoga is done by movements of the body through strenuous poses and stretching. In Qi yoga ASC is attained through meditation. The key to meditation is being able to differentiate automatic thought, the unconscious thought that runs through your head (mind chatter) in an ordinary state of awareness, to an observed thought, which can be described as one’s attention to be cleared of automatic thought, stepping away from initial responses to reactions and block thought of interaction with everyday accounts. (Winkleman, p417) In Yoga, this is done by emptying the mind of thoughts and concentrating on breathing and posture, thus creating an elevated awareness of one's self.
The ritual of yoga is performed through breathing exercises, stretching and movement of body through different postures. The yoga instructor interacts with the participants throughout the class. If new to the class, the instructor comes and helps one into the right positions. The instructor continually speaks in order to guide breathing patterns and movement into positions. In Qi Yoga there are longer periods of time compared to Power Yoga when one is left alone with the tranquillity of the surroundings. The trance or ASC is explained before and during the process. The instructor helps one realise the place of trance by heightening awareness of the participant’s body and explaining how to embrace the surroundings. There is no interaction between participants as they concentrate on themselves to induce ASC.
The after effects of yoga can make life more meaningful for the participants as it increases their general well-being as most ASC practices incorporate healing processes. The ASC of yoga has many beneficial therapeutic aspects.
At Zen hot yoga, one can learn that breathing is human’s connection to mother earth. It is life. The air breathed in and out carries energy called Prana which is nothing on its own but in everything. It is the vital link of body and mind. The way one breathes affects the mind and emotions. Deep breathing opens up the blood vessels allowing better circulation of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body and brain. This then reduces blood pressure and counter acts the adrenaline released during stress, therefore relieving one of anxiety and tension, relaxing mind and body while elevating mood. Yoga is also used as treatment for reducing fears, phobias, insomnia and asthma. Stretching along with FIR heat allows lactic acid trapped between joints and muscles to escape releasing pain and stiffness. The fresh air pumped into the studio and the rays from the FIR also contribute the more happy hormones being released into the body.
Many of the participants interview believe Zen hot yoga say they feel physically stronger, calmer, rejuvenated and invigorated after classes. One said, “every time I end class no matter how tired or ill I feel, I walk out feeling totally opposite.” The general consensuses of feelings from participants at Zen hot yoga proclaim they feel better in body and mind.
“When you connect with that special place, you sense special feelings of well-being. It energises you… when drawn to special places, people frequently have strong and meaningful experiences and go away transformed and renewed” (Swanson)
The mind during yoga is in a state of meditation. As said before, meditating is disconnecting from the ordinary self, the blockade against actions done in accordance to social norms and connecting with the observing consciousness, being able to look at oneself uninvolved which leads to pure awareness. (Winkleman, p417) Yoga is conquering of self and senses. “Achievement of this separation is liberation... which is the transpersonal consciousness only witnessing even and not participating, it is freed from pain and suffering that comes from identification with the personal self and external world.” (Winkleman) This ideology results in the mind having greater control and attention as Yoga ideology is that one’s identity is usually distorted and illusory by everyday mind cluster. It is the lack of awareness. “Many personality conflicts can be seen as a result of the failure of conscious mind to understand and know about the unconscious mind”. (Winkleman, p406)Yoga then provokes inner directedness and sense of responsibility in practitioners. Allows one to realise on psychological needs and attributes –self-realisation.
Winkleman describes the healthy quality of practices and mystical experiences, which is set at Zen hot yoga, a “transcendent experience” which is the function of this type of ASC. (Winkleman, p410) It is transcendental in value that yoga and it’s meditational aspect, creates “greater ambition in mind, increased energy and good health, less irritability, increased creativity, reduction of ever kind of stress and tension and a calmer, more positive outlook on life”. (Coxhead, p77) The function of transcendence is then experience of bliss beyond ordinary reality and experience, with transcendence “there is magic in the air”. (Shaw, p202)
“To me rituals are about reconnecting back to those very simple forms of uniting with the earth and with other people; the idea of death and rebirth and change and honouring, and all these things are very important. Without that you are just floating.” (As citied in Shaw, p202)
Coxhead N, 1985, The Relevance of Bliss: A Contemporary Exploration of Mystical Experience, Houndslow, Middlesex, Wildwood House
Shaw S, 2001, ‘Lose touch with the earth and you lose touch with life’, in A Dearling & B Hanley, Eds, Alternative Australia: Celebrating Cultural Diversity, Lyme Regis, Dorset, An Enabler Publication.
Swanson, J ‘Experiencing the Sacred Nature’, in “Nature and the Sacred” Conference in Corvallis, Oregon.
Winkelman M, 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’, in Glazier S, Ed. Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 393 - 428.