Yoga as Ritual: How does it help us make things?

“Art, like ritual, is associated with the cultural realm of ideas, symbols and aesthetics; both have a social and a collective dimension and take place in the subjunctive mood, a realm of pure possibility in which experiences generated could introduce innovations into the social structure.” (Jones 2013: 126)


There isn’t a lot of research out there about yoga and creativity. Until recently there wasn’t a lot of research out there about yoga at all but, happily, this is beginning to change. In gathering ideas – the kind that have already been written down – for this project, I’ve found it useful to look at yoga practice as a kind of ritual, and to consider what existing work on ritual and art might be able to offer to a conversation about yoga and art. Most people I speak to who practice yoga regularly agree that it’s an important part of their productive or creative processes; that it takes them to a ‘different place’ or a ‘deeper place’, and that when they practice during periods when they’re working on making something, it somehow helps their ideas to become coherent, or brings up new ideas that seem to come from nowhere. For the purpose of this post, let’s take Philip Novak’s definition of ritual as action “that intends a transformation of state” (Grimes 2006: 19). It’s a handy definition to make the leap between yoga and ritual, as yoga is a practice that intends transformation – both immediately, from how you feel at the beginning of a practice to how you feel at the end of it, and on a deeper level, using our practice to transform our way of being in the world.

Before the 1960s, the widely accepted explanations amongst anthropologists for what rituals do were taken from Durkheim and Freud respectively: that they offer social cohesion and individual consolation. But then people began to talk about ritual differently; as creative, maybe subversive; as potentially transformative. Victor Turner is well known for his work on ritual processes, presenting the idea that ritual temporarily dissolves the myriad of social expectations and hierarchies that surround the individual, so that personal identity can be broken down and then rebuilt (Turner 1967). The ritual is the handle that opens the door to new creativity by offering freedom from social constrictions. Richard Schechner uses Turner’s theory of ritual to draw parallels between ritual and theatre arts, arguing that ritual is most apparent in the workshopping phase of the creation of a piece of theatre. He suggests that in the first stage of this, actors and directors step out of their every day lives and begin to strip away the effects of their place in society so that they are made ‘raw’ (Schechner 1977: 123) – and it is from this raw place that they can begin to create new characters, new lives and worlds.

If we think of yoga practice as a kind of ritual, it too is a method of ‘stripping away’ which can allow us to open up. We come to the practice to breathe, to move our bodies with our breath and to notice connections, and make connections. In doing so, sometimes, everything outside can drop back a little bit. We’re more present, if only for a few moments. There’s a sense of creating space: space that is sometimes filled by spontaneous thoughts and ideas. And sometimes the space itself gives us the confidence to share ideas we’ve had for a while. Sue Jennings, a professional actor, dancer and drama therapist turned anthropologist, did her fieldwork amongst the Temiars – a population indigenous to the Malay peninsula, who mostly live on the outskirts of the rainforest. They perform a kind of ‘trance dance-drama’, (Jennings 1995) which is central to their practices of healing, realisation and creativity. Through performance they communicate with an ‘other’ (a spirit-guide or their own self), and the dramatic reality that they create allows them the same kind of ‘forgetting’ that we might experience in dreams or ritual states or yoga practice. This, Jennings says, allows the ‘other self’ to come to action. Perhaps our subconscious, or perhaps something else – a part of ourselves that is vital for healing and for creativity.

The next post here will be a real life practical exercise that anyone can use to play around with using yoga to find this open state of mind, and see what comes up when you do. If you try it, I’ll be super excited to hear how it goes…and thanks so much to everyone for the support, thoughts and the sharing already.

Grimes, Ronald L. 2006. Rite out of Place: Ritual, Media and the Arts. Oxford University Press
Jennings, Sue. 1995. Theatre, Ritual and Transformation. Routledge.
Jones, Ruth. 2013. ‘Dancing in the Abyss – Living with Liminality’ in Anthropology and Art Practice, Schneider and Wright (eds.). Bloomsbury Academic
Schechner, Richard. 1977. Essays on performance theory, 1970-1976. Drama Book Specialists
Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press

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