By Michelle McLemore. First published in part January 2022 in Crazy Wisdom Community Journal.
One day while teaching Tai Chi—somewhere between forms—I was no longer cognizant of my body, my students, the studio, not even time! There was suddenly nothing except delightful whiteness, bliss, and an ethereal consciousness. When I came back to the immediate physical surroundings, I admitted to my students, “mmmm I lost count. Was that two or three Part the Horse’s Mane?” We all laughed. Later, I recalled having had other similar experiences during movement as well as sitting/lying inert.
In 2022 we are seeing the full circle of spiritual exploration finally expanding in the West. Yoga, Tai Chi, dance, and other practices advocated by the doctors the last fifteen years for their physical benefit and “non-religious ties” are now being explored at deeper levels—specifically for the spiritual origin. People seem to be seeking now, more than ever, internal health and peace in addition to physical health.
Come along on an exploration comparing the positive benefits and movements across Yoga, Islam’s Salaat, Sufi whirling, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong to discover we are more similar than different in motion and mind.
Spiritual vs Religious
From 2012 to 2017, the Pew Research Center noted a significant increase of spiritual affiliation. 19 percent rose to 27 percent by 2017 in a U.S. survey tracking spiritual, but not religious-specific affiliations. The article highlights “only 54% of U.S. adults think of themselves as religious – down 11 points since 2012 – while far more (75%) say they are spiritual….” Still, 48% say they are both religious and spiritual. That brings the total to 75% of those surveyed, identify as spiritual in belief (Lipka and Gecewicz, 2017).
Additionally, there is a growing body of research showing connections between spirituality and physical health. Research by Koenig, McCullough, and Larson in 2000 cited statistically significant results suggesting “…elderly people who pray or attend religious serve regularly enjoy better health and lower rates of depression than those who do not.” Another study from 1989 by Levin & Vanderpool—and reviewed in 2005 by Wilkins—note “studies have shown that having a religious commitment may also help to moderate high blood pressure and hypertension.” So, faith is good for the body and the soul? Huh. Shocking. Or not so shocking for those of us who daily work to create balance and health across the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy facets of a person.
So, what are the common traits of the “spiritual-minded”? According to the Pew Religious Landscape Study (2017), of the slightly over 5,000 people interviewed, 91% of those who identified as spiritual, claim to be fairly, or absolutely, certain in a God. 69% seldom or never attend a formal religious service while 13% attend once a week. 73% of those who are spiritual feel a spiritual peace and well-being at least once a week. Another 12% say once or twice a month. Additionally, 80% say they feel a sense of wonder about the universe once or twice a month, if not weekly. 52% believe in a heaven and 12% are unsure. However, 61% of same group do not believe in a Hell.
Most major religions and faith backgrounds agree on basic principles: give up the ego, appreciate but don’t attach to worldly aspects, be present in the present experience, feel—and offer—compassion. And how about in physical practice? Prayer and meditation seem to be the self-sustaining actions involved by the spiritual majority. 57% of people surveyed pray daily while another 12% pray weekly. 58% say they meditate at least once a week with another 11% who meditate once or twice a month.
An often quoted saying, first made famous by Edgar Cayce (The Sleeping Prophet), is “Prayer is talking to God. Meditation is listening to God.” Swami Adiswarananda, minister and spiritual leader of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananada Center in New York explains further: “Meditation ends in absorption with the divine…. The seeker does not attain a state of meditation, they are overtaken by it. Like sleep takes over the sleepy.”
This delightful state can occur both in seated, still postures, but also during movements. Adiswarananda states there are three states of spontaneous transcendence:
- You lose yourself in state of inner absorption; You transcend the idea of time and become oblivious to the lapse of time
- You transcend place, become oblivious to your surroundings
- You transcend I-consciousness and any thoughts about self. You become like an empty stage with the lights on. Detached from the body consciousness. This becomes another state of consciousness – Turiya – state of the self & Atman. A place of peace and bliss.
To clarify, this is a different state of consciousness than what people experience while driving a well-known path. Have you ever suddenly realized you don’t recall the last few miles of a drive and your mind had drifted off to visualizing either potential or recent events? Psychology explains this as automaticity. When a frequently practiced skills becomes ingrained through muscle memory, it becomes a habit. Then, the brain does not need to consciously focus on that activity and can instead focus on other thoughts. Driving is one example of this and has happened to so many people that it was dubbed “highway hypnosis.” The key difference between automaticity and transcendence through meditation is the merging with a higher state and losing the sense of self identity and self-concerns.
Does this form of unattached bliss always occur during meditation? Of course not. Many people struggle to simply still their minds or stop focusing on everyday tasks and worries. Meditation practice relies upon breath focus and not following pop-up thoughts.
Regardless of if the blissful state is achieved, meditation research studies have produced impressive results. Several studies now conclude that even a few moments a day of meditation for two weeks makes an observable difference in the brain. Over time, it actually increases gray matter (which normally reduces during aging). It has also positive benefits on “attention, memory, verbal fluency, executive function, processing speed, overall cognitive flexibility as well as conflict monitoring and even creativity (Lutz et al., 2008, 2009; Colzato et al., 2012; Gard et al., 2014; Lippelt et al., 2014; Marciniak et al., 2014; Newberg et al., 2014).” A study at Johns Hopkins also determined it has the same efficacy to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain as antidepressants (Goyal et al. 2014).
Additional research studies say meditation is useful in treating ADHD and helping parents manage stress of families (Harrison, Manocha, & Rubia, 2004). Many people stop using drugs after taking up meditation (Alexander, Robinson, & Rainforth, 1994). Meditation may increase the effectiveness of the immune system (Davidson et al., 2003). Regular practice increases increased sensory awareness, sense of timelessness, well-being, peace with self and universe (Hameroff, kaszniak, & Scott, 1996). Breathing seems to replenish vital energy flow through the body and balance any disturbances in the energy anatomy (Bruce, Lindgren & Dlitt, 2000).
Regarding prayer specifically, a long-term study with a sample of 4,000 participants in men and women above 65, yielding results that “praying and attending divine service regularly seem to result in a 40 percent reduction in the likelihood of high blood pressure” (Koenig).
Brain changes during higher states?
Another interesting physiological mark of meditation is that the brain waves literally change. A review written by Cahn and Polich (2006) found several studies proved meditation creates lower frequency alpha waves and theta waves. According to brainworksneurotherpathy.com, Alpha waves run 8 to 12 Hz and signify a resting state aiding in calmness, mind/body integration, and being present in the moment. Theta waves (3 to 8 Hz) occur in deep meditation connecting to learning, memory, and intuition. We can access information held deeper than our awake consciousness. Some studies have picked up the rare gamma waves (38 to 42 Hz) during meditation studies. Researchers discovered it is highly active in states of universal love and altruism…a greater presence of gamma relates to expanded consciousness and spiritual emergence.”
Additionally, during that sought after blissful transcendent moment, the parietal lobe of the practitioner becomes dormant—showing zero activity. It was documented several times with experienced meditators. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, recorded this phenomenon over ten years in Franciscan nuns as well as Tibetan Buddhists. Interestingly, the parietal is the area of the brain that is related to sensory information and helps form our sense of self. Research by Shimada, Hiraki, and Oda suggests “the superior portion of the parietal lobe is essential for maintaining one’s own body image.” It stands to hypothesize, if the parietal shuts down during deeper meditation, it would explain why the sense of self dissipates. Then the question becomes similar to the chicken and the egg conundrum. More research will have to be done.
Me geeking out on the science-side aside, let’s move into the practical application.
Perform an Internet image search for “meditation” and you will download pictures showing someone in lotus pose. Hands may or may not be positioned in a mudra, held at heart center, or resting gently on the folded knees. Eyes are partially or fully closed. The stillness suggests a requisite part to attain an enlightened state. Undoubtedly, it is safer to be stationary while merging with Divinity; however, I propose the early spiritual leaders (consciously or subconsciously) had one’s full health in mind while offering moving forms as another method of Divine connection.
Hindi Yoga Background
The first reference to yogic principles appears to be in the “Upanishad,” or last chapters of the Veda (ca. 1300-900 BCE). It is a synthesis of over 200 Hindu scriptures detailing meditation techniques to help someone attune to his or her true Self or Atman. Modern yoga talks about eight limbs or principles:
- Yama (restraint) covers non-violence, truthfulness, non-covetousness, continence/chastity, and declining gifts/favors.
- Niyama (observance/discipline) studies cleanliness, contentment, austerity, and study of sacred texts, and surrendering all fruits to the Divine.
- Asana (posture) explores the various stretches, postures, and flows for physical health.
- Pranayama (breath control)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from their objects)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation) moves from through stupefied, restless, distracted, to concentrated and suspended states.
- Samadhi (contemplation/absorption) is when the mind merges in object of meditation.
As one can see, the principles cover more than just the physical asanas demonstrated in many westernized studios. However, yoga—similar to martial arts—maintains that in order to control the mind, we must control the body and the senses. Asanas are often practiced prior to meditation to help raise prana (energy) to the crown and quiet the mind.
B.K.S. Lyengar is considered one of the foremost yoga gurus of the world (b. 1918, d. 2014 India). In his 2001 manual Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health, he wrote “When there is perfect harmony between body and mind, we achieve self-realization.… Spiritual awareness flows into the student during phases…. One moves from the physical practice (arambhavastha) through merging phases to reach the fourth phase of nishpattyavastha– the state of perfection where “I” ceases to exist.
“The ultimate goal of yoga is the union of the individual self (jivatma) with the universal self (paramatma). Self-realization is Samadhi. Samadhi involves jnana marg (path to knowledge –what is real vs unreal), karmamarg (selfless service), bhakti marg (love and devotion), and yoga marg (path to whole mind and actions brought under control).”
In a 2011 review published in the International Journal of Yoga, Catherine Woodyard summarized the numerous studies which found significant physical gains from practicing yoga. They included that yogic practices enhance muscular strength and body flexibility, promote and improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, promote recovery from and treatment of addiction, reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, improve sleep patterns, and enhance overall well-being and quality of life. A 2021 article in Yoga Journal additionally noted that yoga improves flexibility, builds muscle strength, prevents cartilage breakdown, increases blood flow and bone health, drains the lymph nodes, boosts the immune system, decreases pain, and improves emotional balance.
The most known yoga flow:
An ancient practice was the Sandhya-upasana, or the dawn and twilight sun salutations. This flow (taught as part of a typical vinyasa flow class today) “strings together (sutra) body, breath, mind, and soul with the healing and nurturing forces of the sun, and infuses life with serenity and inner awakening” wrote Pandit Rajmani Tigunait and Sandra Anderson in an article for Yoga International.
Four cycles of the sun salutation is common and, Tigunait and Anderson claim, doing so “fans your digestive fire, energizes the nervous system, balances your pranic flow [internal energy flow], activates both the lower and upper extremities, and influences your moods.”
The asanas traditionally associated with the salutation consist of mountain/namaste, overhead stretch, standing forward fold, lunge, plank pose, eight-point pose, cobra pose, downward facing dog, lunge, standing forward fold, overhead stretch/mountain, and namaste.
For the full spiritual minded yoga practitioner, there are mantras associated with each asana of the sun salutation. See medindia for the list of the 12 mantras.
Local Yoga Practitioner Perspective
Elisabeth Sötebeer, yoga teacher at the Rudolf Steiner School and Sequoia Senior center in Ann Arbor, agreed to share more on the physical, energetic, and spiritual aspects of yoga.
In teaching classic hatha yoga, “we follow the lineage of ancient wisdom with a pure form of yoga. We begin with relaxation, visualization, special breathing techniques (pranayama), poses, and gradual stretching so we warm up before deeply stretching. Through breathing we relax into the poses.”
She continued, “Depending upon the group, I may introduce the 8 branches of instruction. However, I use gentle terms on how we incorporate it. I may discuss meditation, relaxation, good deeds, nature, and how yoga postures open the chakra centers (energy portals) and inner gateways named nadis. Of the 72,000 nadis in the body, we focus on the opening up of the major ones along the spine so the wheels [chakras] can spin in the right direction to move the incoming energy upwards from the base of the spine toward the head.”
“When we offer yoga, we focus on asanas (postures) which focus on positivity. We use affirmations to raise the energy [from feet to] above the head. “At the lower energy centers, we work out releasing feelings of greed, resentment, anger. At the heart we feel it begin to open with joy, expression, enthusiasm, wanting to give. When we move to the throat: a center of creativity, we open up channels for creativity and speech. As we move up to the forehead, Anja chakra, we connect with peace within, a quietness of mind. By the time we have raised the energy to the crown, there is the feeling of “I am just the way I am” – no attachment to anything from the outside. It is a beautiful place to be—to radiate calm, peace, and joy at the Crown chakra, Sahasrara.”
Does all yoga always bring the energy flow all the way through the crown? She laughed. “Are we always there? No – that would be enlightenment. We have moments. We can remember these spaces of bliss, recognize, and desire to return. It urges one to put in the effort and move forward. Yoga helps to have a life of meditation, more moments in the day you notice you are improving, more calm, more aware of what you are doing, mindfulness, the connection with the Higher Self and Universe. When you tune in to that, it flows. You know when you are restless, you are holding things. When you offer yoga—you release points which you are holding.”
When asked about specific poses that may assist chakra opening or heightened states of transcendence, Sötebeer explained Child’s Pose helps connect the 3rd eye to earth in the bowing down to your higher self, you release and open. Resting poses, like Child’s Pose, “are as important as active poses. They help bring about the balance.”
Sötebeer first found her way to yoga after a relationship ended and a sudden decreased ability in her right leg. Despite medical consultation and physical therapy, she was still shuffling after three months. Something nudged her to take matters into her own hands. After a year of yoga and reiki she became pain free. Since then, Sötebeer has been practicing for over 40 years and, since her training in 2004, has been teaching ever since. She was trained through the School of Royal Yoga and has taken additional trainings on Reiki, meditation, health, wellness, and how to connect with the higher self/universe.
She offers meditation guidance by phone and in person and is willing to travel to the client’s home or a common space for the sessions. Some of her classes are chair yoga for seniors while others are mat classes. Additionally, she is open for Reiki sessions and also teaches Reiki 1 and Introduction to Meditation. She can be reached at email@example.com or 949-433-9116.
Islam’s Salaat/Salat/Salah Background
The general agreement is that the principles of Islam coalesced in the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century (approximately 613 AD when he began preaching). The Qur’an/Koran—believed to have been written by Muhammad’s scribes shortly after his death in 632 AD—establishes the practice of praying at five specific hours of the day (Stijn Aerts, 2013). The Qur’an compiles information from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as well as sacred revelations taught to Muhammad through visits with ArchAngel Gabriel.
Salat Moving Prayer Form
There are five pillars of the Muslim faith, with Salat (the moving prayer form) as the second main pillar. (Salat/Salah originates from the Arabic word ‘Silah’. The translation is “connection with The God.”)
- Shahada: to declare one’s faith in God and belief in Muhammad
- Salat: to pray five times a day (at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening)
- Zakat: to give to those in need
- Sawm: to fast during Ramadan
- Hajj: to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during a person’s lifetime if the person is able
Each of the day’s prayer sequences are very similar, only varying in the number of units (repetitions of cycle), or Ra’kahs. Each Ra’kah unit is comprised of 7 to 9 postures. The early morning prayer (Fajr—just prior to sunrise) has two units, the two afternoon (Zuhr –just after noontime and ‘Asr—late afternoon) and night prayer (‘Isha—anytime at night) has four units and the sunset prayer (Maghrib—just after sunset) has three. “A practicing Muslim if he offers FARD (Compulsory) Salah alone, repeats these Rak’ah a minimum of 17 times every day. The number of total Rakʿah is approximately 48 Raka’a per day which includes all mandatory and optional Rak’ah” (Kamran, 2018).
Most Muslims can complete a series of two Ra’kah in in 3-6 minutes. Researcher Ghakan Kamran discovered, ” For an 80 kg person, the energy cost of daily prayers was about 80 calories per day, and could be considered a form of physical activity that enhances fitness ”.
Research Studies on Physical Health Benefits
Though less studies have been done in comparison to the effects of yoga, the numbers of studies regarding the impact of Islamic yoga is increasing. One study (carried out by University Malaya’s biomedical engineering department) showed that the ‘ru’ku’ and ‘prostration’ positions helped to relax the spinal canal and reduced the risk of pressure on the spinal nerve. Improvement occurred in subjects within the month.” .
Additional studies reveal Salat makes muscles contracts isometrically and isotonically (Jing et al., 2012) and that followers of the Muslim faith have a range of motion of 139.5° in comparison to non-faith followers who have typically a 102.5º of range (Nazish and Kalra, 2018). Also, heartbeat rate proved to be able to be reduced by 10 times a minute during prostration (Azman and Ahmad, 2016).
Analysis of Salat ul-Fajr, the early morning prayer flow, shows the basic, yet meaningful, postures and poses involved: Takbir, Qayyam, Ruku, Qayyam, Sajdah/Sujud/Sujood, Jalsa/Tashahhud, Sajjdah/Sujud/Sujood, Jalsa/Tashahhud, and Salam.
Interestingly, the remarkable similarity between salah flow and yoga forms has been noted by the international research community and now multiple studies have found similar health benefits—enough to give rise to the term “Islamic yoga” by members of the Islamic community. Several Muslim-authored articles are advancing the idea that practicing Salat, even without the prayers, will provide similar physical health benefits for any practitioner and should be considered as a viable physical fitness routine for anyone around the world akin to Yoga or Pilates.
How do the two forms align?
|Takbir (standing with hands by ears)||Tadasana aka Mountain (Standing pose with hands at sides or above head)|
|Qayyam(Standing arms crossed at heart/waist)||Namaste (Standing pose/ hands at heart center)|
|Ru’ ku(bow/ half forward fold)||Ardha Uttansana aka half forward fold|
|Sajdah/Sujud/Sujood (7 point prostration)||Balasana aka Child’s pose (a 7point prostration)|
|Jalsa/Tashahhud (sitting back on feet with toes activated)||Varjasana aka Thunderbolt variation/Toe Squat/Rock pose variation (sitting back on feet with toes activated)|
|Salam (turning head to wish “peace”)||Neck stretch left and right|
Accompanying prayers & spiritual/energy aspects
Just as there are prayers or mantras to say during traditional yoga asana flows, for the practicing Muslim, there are set prayers for each position as well. More in-depth explanation of the symbolism of each position can be found here.
Amira Ayad explained in a 2018 article for About Islam, “Prophet Mohammed PBUH said: ‘Truly in the body there is a morsel of flesh which, if it be whole, all the body is whole and which, if it be diseased, all of it is diseased. Truly it is the heart.’ ‘Piety resides here” and he pointed to his chest. The word piety or Taqwa in Arabic comes from the root wiqaya, which means to protect, prevent, or avoid harm. Being pious is consciously performing good deeds and avoiding all evil acts seeking Allah’s content and satisfaction. ‘The entire philosophy of prayer in Islam is that it is a way for the individual to elevate his or her mind to seek God.’…And again, to keep this heart balance, we need constant reminders, and what could be better than Qur’an recitation and constant dhikr Allah” (Divine remembrances).
This focus is emphasized by the Qur’annic term Khushu—being fully present (body, mind, and spirit) before the Divine Presence in prayer. It is such a conscious objective that once prayer and the flow begins, there can be no interruptions or distractions of even the mind, else the practitioner must begin again.
(Though there is some disagreement among Muslims about the existence of the subtle energy anatomy (chakras, nadis, etc.), researchers in the community have been publishing about the impact of Salat on the energy anatomy. The International Journal of Science Culture and Sport summarized in that, “Even each (Salat) positions is having some similarity with corresponding yoga position and the positions together ‘activate’ all seven ‘chakras’ (energy fields) in the body as per yoga practices (2016). “Each of the chakras correlates to major nerve ganglia that branch forth from the spinal column” (Roaf et al.,2014).
“Sujud is said to activate the ‘crown chakra’ which is related to a person’s spiritual connection with the universe around them and their enthusiasm for spiritual pursuits. This nerve pathway is also correlated to the health of the brain and pineal gland. Its healthy function balances one’s interior and exterior energies” (Roaf et al.,2014).
Researchers Nazish and Kalra (2018) focused on brain changes before, during, and after Salat and revealed (similar to yoga research cited earlier) the occipital and parietal regions were influenced on the parasympathetic index. This study concludes that regular Salat practices may help promote relaxation, minimize anxiety, and reduce cardiovascular risk.
“During Prostration, specifically, dissipation of the electromagnetic energy accumulated from the atmosphere takes place by the grounding effect at regular intervals resulting in a calming feeling. A recent study investigating the alpha brain activity during Muslim prayers has reported increased amplitude in the parietal and occipital regions suggestive of parasympathetic elevation, thus indicating a state of relaxation” (Doufesh, 2012). Awareness of frequency changes and the need for grounding the electrical nature of the body has also been explored by Kanat Eleyoun. By using a turba (wooden disc or item from nature) at the forehead, it helps reset the body during Sujuud, making the posture even more healthful physically and spiritually.
Participating in the multiple moving meditations throughout the day seems to keep Muslim practitioners in better physical health than those with limited movement and offers a higher possibility for reaching calmer states of mind.
Sufism Whirling Background
Though there is a discrepancy in if Sufism arose specifically as a mystical pursuit of Muslims or if it had origins predating Islam, the early Umayyad period (661-749 AD) have several recordings of Sufis demonstrating their anti-worldliness. Sufi (which came to mean ‘mystic’), in fact, comes from the Arabic word ṣūf for wool which followers wore for simplicity. Known for renouncing worldly possessions, Sufis came to be known as the poor/ fuqarāʾ. In Arabic–faqīr, in Persion darvīsh–hence the English words fakir and dervish (Brittanica).
According to Understanding Islam: The complete Idiot’s Guide by Yahiya Emerick, there are four basic principles:
- Faith in God can be experienced by the devoted believer through a program consisting of meditation, changing, selfless love for others, and self-denial.
- Worldly possessions, if not kept to a minimum, can corrupt a person’s soul. Frugality is the key to spiritual wealth.
- The path of Sufism requires its followers to develop patience, thankfulness to God, and a complete reliance on God’s knowledge of the future.
- In addition to the Qur’an and hadiths, another body of wisdom is contained in the teachings of the great Sufi masters. These consist of poems and wisdom stories that have hidden meanings.
Just as other religions have grown and changed, Sufism developed different branches. “Universal Sufism” came to the Americas in the 1920s with Inayat Khan (a Sufi leader of the Sufi Chishtia lineage). Inayat Khan, however, taught that “Sufism and Sufi practices pre-date Islam and have their root in multiple ancient traditions such as Christian mystics of Syria and Egypt, the Essenes, the ancient Pythagorean orders, and the mystery schools of the Egyptians and Zoroastrians, among others” (The Origins of Sufism.) Khan, thus, referred to Universal Sufism as “the wisdom of all faiths.”
There are several sister or sub-orders within the Inayati umbrella, such as the Raphaelite healing order and the Sufi Order International. Another offshoot is the Sufi Ruhaniat International,established by Murshid Sam in California in the late 1960’s. Murshid Sam established the Dances of Universal Peace.
Achieving enlightenment by a Sufi practitioner incorporates four main points:
- Chanting God’s names and praises in unison while seated in a circle or standing and turning slowly (the whirling meditation)
- Fasting, Qur’an reading, and meditation in remote, natural places often in the early morning
- Prayer at night with frequent supplications for knowledge and forgiveness
- Sitting at the feet of a shaykh (leader) listening to his or her teachings and stories, and then contemplating the meanings
Moving Prayer Form
The spiritual meditation most often associated with the Sufi, is the whirling dervish ceremony. Sufi mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi of the 13th century is said to have begun the moving meditation. He supposedly told his followers in Konya, the Turkish Empire capital, “There are many roads which lead to God. I have chosen the one of dance and music.” He would fast, mediate and then dance to reach a state of unparalleled enlightenment. By the 15th century, the order had established rules for the ritual which had come to be called “Sema.”
According to Nurhan Atasoy in her book Dervis Ceyizi , even the clothing selected for the meditation is rich with symbolism. “Dancers wear long white robes with full skirts, which symbolize the shrouds of their egos….On the dancers’ heads sit tall conical felt hats called sikke, ranging from brown to gray to black depending on their sect; these represent the tombstones of their egos. Over the robes, the dancers wear long dark cloaks, which embody the wearer’s worldly life and these are cast off during the ceremony. When the dancer is finally wearing only his long white robe, he is assumed to be without fault and ready to start the mesmerizing complex whirls that define the Sema.”
Cara Tabachnick, witnessed a sema in person and described it for Washington Post readers: The dancers, who fast for many hours before the ceremony, start to turn [counter-clock-wise] in rhythmic patterns, using the left foot to propel their bodies around the right foot with their eyes open, but unfocused. Their whirling is fueled by accompanying music, which consists of a singer, a flute-player, a kettle-drummer and a cymbal player. As the dancers turn, the skirts of their robes rise, becoming circular cones, as if standing in the air on their own volition. A team of researchers found that the edges of spinning skirts experience accelerations ‘of about four times Earth gravity,’ reporting that the skirts “carry cusped wave patterns which seem to defy gravity and common sense.”
Per a video of a demonstration done at the Galata Mevlivihanesi Muzesi in Turkey, the ritual begins as a leader brings a prayer mat into the circle. Each dancer performs a Ru’ku (half forward fold) at the entrance to the dance arena. When the dancers are in line at the side, the leader performs Sujud toward the high balcony. The others alternately offer additional Ru’kus to the center and bows to each other, then crossing arms across their chests, they take places around the room.
This moving meditation, like the others, is a model example of dhikr—an invocation done with one’s entire being. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee explains in her book Catching the Thread, “Individually, each dervish, or semazen, is turning toward the truth, opening to it. Head tilted to one side, out of the way. One arm is held high in another world and another held low in this world. With each turn, he or she says silently, “Allah, Allah.” The dervishes orbit one another, recreating the movement of the heavens.” It is both, at once, grounding and expanding of the individual physically, energetically, and spiritually.
In Man Seeks God, Eric Weiner interviewed a dancer, Shams Shirley, who elaborated on the transcendent feeling which occurs during the turning: “You turn in your heart. When you are in it, really in it, you have one foot in this world and one foot in another. You feel like you can do it forever. You rip open from the inside out. It can happen very slowly or sometimes it feels like a fast fall.” He went on that after so many experiences, you turn [inside] while sitting still.
In Arabic, universal energy flow is called “Qudra”—the human body’s light. It was recorded as visible and oft referenced by the Prophet when he asked Allah to regular the light in his body and or increase it for him (33:45-46).
Beyond the apparent posture and balance necessary to complete repetitive turns, Amanda Solk of the National Federation of Spiritual Healers, claims the dance “stimulate[s] the activity of the pineal and pituitary glands, releasing endorphins and serotonin. Such effects on the brain reduce the need for mood-elevating substances and cause a sense of ecstasy to occur” (Prince M Mohamed,2020).
The pineal and pituitary glands are physically located in the area of Ajna, the brow chakra in Yogic subtle anatomy—associated with intuition and foresight. Sufi tradition outlines some similar and some different energy portals in what is known as the Subtleties—Lataif-e-sitta—associated with soul (Rooh) health. Similar to chakras, the Lataif are centers of energy intake in the body and vital for balance within the body systems. Also similar to Islam, each Lataif center is associated with a Qu’ranic established
prayer time as that is when the point is “most active.”
Depending upon the Sufi tradition, there are mainly between 5 and 7 subtle energy centers recognized. For example, in one tradition, the crown chakra ( Sahasrāra in Sanskrit, known as “the bridge to the cosmos”) is named as Akfha—the location of beatific visions from Allah, love and kindness. Ajna (the Sanskrit brow chakra/3rd eye of intuition) is known as Kafhi. It has connotations of peace, stillness, and perception. Then, comes the major difference: whereas the Hindu tradition is the chakras align vertically up the spine for optimum health and moving kundalini energy up the spine to Divine release at the crown, Sufi recognize power centers across the mid-chest, heart region. “Sirr” (the ultimate secret), Qalb (the heart), and Ruh (the soul). Sirr is the bridge between the physical and the metaphysical. Spiritual advancement here requires putting contrictions on nafs (similar location to the solar plexus and sacral) and Qalb. Master these and Ruh and its spiritual mysteries will open.
But as is the nature of mysteries, they are built upon further mysteries. A 1982 research paper by Marcia Hermansen, explores a more elaborate subtle energy system outlined by Shah Wali Allah.
Was it purely to distinguish their energy centers differently than the Hindu yogic tradition which is considered haram (not acceptable) by many clerics? Or did the Sufi identify additional chakras and focused only on the ones, in their opinion, related to higher spirituality? More research is necessary. For instance, Valerie Hunt identified frequencies at the traditional chakras higher than could be attributed to the brain, heart, or any organs. Testing for unusual frequencies at the Sufi sites could add more legitimacy and cause other esoteric groups to more focused study of these spots.
Local Practitioner Perspective
Judy Lee (Nur-un-nisa) Trautman has led Dances of Universal Peace in the Universal Sufi tradition in Ann Arbor. She explained, “In the 1960s, Disciple Samuel Lewis had a vision from God to minister to the Hippies. He created five dances, led groups in his garage, and 50 years later we’re dancing over 500 dances created globally.” Trautman continued they are “simple folks steps based on traditional folk dances and influenced by modern dance which was being created at that time.” After Sam’s death, four people met to codify the dances to keep the authenticity, similar to how prior Sufi leaders wrote down the Sema to keep it unified in practice.
To become a certified dance leader, one must go through training and retain a mentor, but does not have to be a Sufi initiate. Trautman explained her process. “I was mentored for three years and certified. My mentors in Ann Arbor moved back to California and they gifted me the dance circle – a great honor. She became the group’s fifth leader. She has since started a second dance circle in Toledo, Ohio.
What philosophy is brought to a dance? “I try to reflect the authenticity of the dances but also the world religions they represent” Trautman shared. Prior to Covid, she led first Friday dances in Ann Arbor. Then, during the uncertain initial times of the pandemic, offerings moved online. She laughed. “It’s kind of nuts to lead dances on Zoom where everyone has to dance in their living room but after 4-5 months, a small courageous group formed. Between meditation, dances, reflections, sharing from the soul, praying for each other, we discovered over Zoom we could still be [spiritually] intimate and greatly helpful to each other.”
When asked, Trautman acknowledged they do a couple of dances similar to the whirling dervish order. “It is amazingly spiritual the connection those dancers have. But, it takes a lot of practice to twirl and whirl for an hour without getting dizzy and keeping rhythm with musicians.” However, she finds the Sufi or Peace dances her group does are very healing.
For example, on most New Year’s Eves her group comes together to dance. “As the group leader, I am fortunate to be in the center for much of the dance. In the center you get the reflected glow of everyone. The faces of the dancers glow enough to be captured in photos.” The healing dances are ones choreographed by Murshid (teacher) Samuel Lewis. Trautan explained, “During the circular flow, I invite each person into the center which is the receptive position. It takes awhile, but we carry it on long enough to allow all participants to stay as long as they need.”
Many indigenous traditions hold that when an individual or a group moves in a circle, it generates energy. Focusing that energy collectively into the center, the recipient would be bathed in higher frequencies from all angles and planes.
For Trautman though, what states of spiritual enlightenment did she find through dance? She graciously explained. “I meditate through movement and sound. That’s why I’ve grown into the dances so readily. I have an active monkey mind so sitting quietly doesn’t work for me. But if I’m moving, singing, and responding to music, then it happens. I transcend the mind and body stuff and I just go there.”
Still non-movement meditation has fed her insight for dances. One day she was supposed to be reading and meditating for 20-30 minutes. Trautman admitted, “During this time, I cheat. A tune comes to me and I sing it in my head and that helps me. One time, sitting in meditation, I heard a tune I didn’t recognize. It was stunning. I listened to it and tried putting the words ‘meta sutra’ (loving, kindness) to it, but it didn’t it. I sat with the tune and was led to use the Arabic words for Sufism: ‘There is nothing but God’ and that worked. So, then I was singing it in my head and inventing a dance. I could hardly wait to get home and write it down. It became the most complete dance I’ve ever created. I taught it to my circle and they loved it. It was all very sweet. The dances have done that for me. It is a community experience.”
In addition to leading the dances, Trautman has become more involved in leading services. “My life’s work currently is a founding member of the Ohio council. For 20 years we have been gathering the diverse faith traditions of NW Ohio together.” The goal is to “transcend the borders that religious traditions built. I always felt it was the mystics among us that always met in the center somehow. We may use different forms to access the Divine, but we have something genuinely in common. We witness that in universal worship.
So, what does a Universal Worship service look like? There are 8 or 9 different authentic groups who do readings, music, and poetry in a service. We do a theme each month and it is amazing to hear similar words coming out of the different religious representatives. We experience it. We don’t have to be told it [how similar we all believe].”
She laughed and explained as an ordained minister, doing it on-line [during the shut-down] was easier than dancing on-line. Her website has reached 4,000 viewers over 15 months. However, they are optimistically hoping to return to in person soon. Trautman clarified: “I’m not looking for fame. I just want hearts to come together.”
Trautman is the Chairman of the MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio and greater Toledo Compassionate Community. She is also a minister of the Sufi Ruhaniat International which is one branch of Universal Sufism founded in the lineage of Inayat Khan. Trautman is also an honorary board member of the North American Interfaith Network. Additionally, she is currently mentoring in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at (419) 475-6535 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Taoism, Tai Chi, & Qi Gong basic history
Termed the philosophy of “the people” Taoism is said to have developed from various religious and philosophical traditions (like shamanism and nature religions) in ancient China as far back as 4th century BCE. The main emphasis is living in harmony with Tao, or The Way—the source and substance of all that exists. Influential texts where Taoist principles can be found include School of Yinyang (Naturalists) the I Ching (Yi Jing), The “Legalist” by Shen Buhaif, The Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing), attributed to Lao Tzu, and the writings of Zhuangzi.
Depending upon the particular Taoist school or branch, there may be some variance in ethics or basic principles, but most align with the following:
- Wu Wei (action without intention)
- The Three Treasures: compassion, frugality, and humility.
Qi Gong and Tai Chi are the two Chinese moving meditations most widely known and are both part of traditional Chinese health regimen and martial arts training. Sources disagree on the actual earliest origin of Qi Gong. Some advocate its elements are present in the Huangdi Neijing book of internal medicine which itself has caused claims that its authorship falls between 400 BCE and 220 CE. The Taoist Sanctuary proposes Qi Gong originated in dances of early Wu shaman to induce trance states for communicating with the spirit world. Later it is hypothesized Hua To’s “Frolic of the Five Animals” synthesized the Chinese Medicine Theory of Channels (meridians) and the “Three Burning Spaces” (today called the Dantiens).
Energy & Spiritual Aspects
“Qi” in Chinese translates to breath/spirit/energy. When the mind, heart, or body refuses to let go, tension, worry, and angst block the Qi flow and thus causes health concerns. “Qi Gong” is breath/energy work. There are both passive and active practices incorporating exercise postures and breath work. Some say in Taoism it is a way of attempting physical and spiritual immortality.
Tai Chi is one of the traditional martial arts in China. It is named after a philosophy term meaning, “in all changes exists Tai Chi, which causes the two opposites in everything.”
Tai Chi is sometimes described as the moving form of Qi Gong. Whereas yoga asanas are done to prepare for meditation, Qi Gong is often done prior to Tai Chi. The eight brocades are a series of active Qi Gong exercises, each one focuses upon clearing a different energy meridian in the body. Tai Chi, on the other hand, is a continuous flow that works the entire body.
Buddhist temple monks were believed to practice Tai Chi for both health and protection as a self-defense. Important families each held and passed down their own Tai Chi sequences. However, according to Tom Rogers, President of the Qi Gong Institute, “Qi Gong is not the pursuit of metaphysical or transcendental experience. It is a state of mindfulness and awareness.” The sharpening and awakening of presence in the present is the objective.
In 1956 the Chinese Sports Committee asked four Tai Chi teachers to collaborate and create a shortened 24 Form of Tai Chi for the populace to help with universal health.
Regardless of if you are doing a moving form of Qi Gong, or Tai Chi, the goal is to sink one’s Qi from the Tan Dien/Dantien into the earth. There are three Tandien/Dantian energy points. Each is believed to be an energy harnessing and storage site. The three locations are the lower Dantian which is just below the naval, one at heart level, and the upper Dantian at the brow or between the eyebrows. Good posture is aligning all three of these over the soles of your feet and remaining relaxed. Learn more about Dantians here.
There are five main Tai Chi styles based on the founding family or teacher. Depending upon the style, the number of forms in a sequence also varies from 24 to up to 108. Qi Gong also has options of flows and lengths.
Slightly similar to Whirling, Wild Goose Qi Gong uses circular and spiral movements. It is meant to be a fluid, nearly effortless continuous movement. Dance-like it is meant foster peace, relaxation, and joyful meditation while activating the acupoints of the feet to assist energy flow through the major meridian paths.
As a dance-like flow, comparing postures to other cultures is limited. However, Yoga’s Tree is similar to Marching pose as a Tai Chi warm up. Standing Palm Tree (Vrksasana) and Forward Fold (Uttanasana) can be seen in Wild Goose’s 64 movements. In Tai Chi, Form 13 Kick with Heel is similar to Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. Additional forms incorporate similar moves to yoga such as Lunges, Goddess pose (Utkata Konasana), and Warrior I (*Virabhadrasana). Others have also compared Mountain pose (Tadasana) with Qayuum in Islam Salaat and “Return to the Mountain” in Tai Chi. Thus, we would expect similar physical benefits across platforms.
Research studies have found several physical benefits for incorporating Tai Chi into one’s life: improving balance, preventing falls, pain reduction in rheumatoid arthritis cases, coronary disease rehabilitation, improving breathing for those with long-term lung problems, stress-management. An additional study has shown that physical exercises like Tai Chi, increases cognitive function and delays deterioration connected with dementia (Allen T.C et al, 2016). And for the calorie conscious? According to the Taoism for Dummies, Tai Chi burns 280 calories per hour. For a comparison, downhill skiing is said to burn 350.
A growing body of research on QiGong also shows benefits: depression reduction, stress-management, reduction of chronic-fatigue, improved mental functioning, improved immune functioning, and balancing mood (Cleveland Clinic).
Local Practitioner Perspective
Master Wasentha Young is the owner and instructor at the Peaceful Dragon School in Ann Arbor which has been offering programs and classes in Traditional Chinese Health Arts like Yang Style Short Form Tai Chi, Qi Gong, energy work, self-acupressure, meditation and more since 1990.
Young explained, at the creation of both Tai Chi and Qi Gong, there was “no separation between reaching higher potential, spirituality, and artform. Comprehensive Qi Gong covers four schools or frameworks: Martial, Buddhist, Taoist, and Medical.”
- Martial – bringing energy mass to its highest potential
- Buddhist – bringing mind into the presence
- Taoist – connection with nature, movement & experience, and breath work
- Medical – the natural systems such as acupuncture, acupressure, herbology, fens shui – all that affects health and longevity
Young clarified, “Some religions do not count nature while others discuss everything as divine. Qi Gong looks at connections and energetic connections. You study body mechanics, then mind mechanics, and then spirit mechanics.”
Regarding the difference between Qi Gong and Tai Chi, Young used this metaphor: “If went to light switch and turned it on and off – that’s Tai Chi. It’s a user of the energy processes. Whereas Qi Gong knows why the switch works, where the energy comes from, the function, the interconnectivity. Qi Gong is more like an engineer if being comprehensive. If just meditating, then one doesn’t process all that information. You might be an electrical engineer or the architect, but not able to see the full picture. We need all the specializations. However, medicine includes all these things.”
As we talked, the depth and breadth of Qi Gong became clearer. “In studying, you have to take a comprehensive approach to it. Some students expect limited aspects; but that is only part of the elephant.” Young’s affinity toward the Way came through in gentle waves.
“Qi is more complex than the periodic table. If looking at body and talking about Qi there is the muscle Qi, the flow, the mind Qi, the human spirit Qi. But if practicing as a movement, such as Wild Goose Qi Gong, it adds in the connection of Divine Qi and Nature Qi, and Earth Qi.”
“It is not a religious indoctrination and yet if you experience all the difference types of Qi then there is a responsibility. You begin to feel the disharmonies. What is your role within that? If you notice something [an imbalance] you have a responsibility to bring yourself back into harmony.”
“Wild Goose Qi Gong is a moving practice through ritual of connections.” Young explained, “When you finish there is a sense of renewal—a sense of perspective, more spaciousness. There is a core connection and strengthening. It is inwards and outwards to muscle mass and connections outside of one’s self. Spirit is there and higher energy is there but just connected with. Nameless. In terms of Taoism – ‘the name that can be named is not the eternal name.’”
Master Young has been a practitioner since 1968. She is a founder of the Association of Women Martial Arts Instructors, and has taught at Omega Institute, Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Rec and Ed, and for several other institutes nationally. In addition to training by Grandmaster William CC Chen and Professor Chengman-Ching disciples, she studied also with Trungpa Rinpoche and Gia-Fu Feng along with earning a master’s degree in Transpersonal Studies. For additional joy, she writes poetry and creates mosaic art. To find out more information about classes or seminar possibilities, email Youngwasentha@peacefuldragonschool.com or call (734) 741-0695.
Bringing it Home For You
Space doesn’t permit the additional similarities to Jewish prayer, Catholic mass and Liturgy of the Hours, a Mayan morning mediation, and walking meditations. However, I trust you can imagine now, how body movement has always helped align and commit one to a full presence for deeper, higher peace and health.
Looking for the benefits of a brief moving flow, but not wanting one based on a specific philosophy or faith? Try a combining the most common poses with relevant positive affirmations or optional spiritual mantras. Used in a small research study, one participant shared, “within days I could tell there was an increase in flexibility.” Note, any affirmation that is difficult to vocalize, identifies a subconscious area to work on as well as a possible compromised chakra.
Insert table of flow direction OR just include a link to my website with it there?
|Three steps forward.|
|Low hands Mountain||I stand ready & am supported.”||“I stand ready before you.”|
|Fan hands upward to prayer hand Mountain, lower prayer hands to brow. Lean slightly forward.||“I honor and join with Divine vision.”||“I connect with your vision.”|
|Lower prayer hands to heart. Lean slightly forward more.||“I am loved and give love unconditionally.”||“I am grateful to reside in your Love.”|
|Half-forward fold/Ru’ku||“I bow respecting the greater good.”||“I bend my will to benefit the All.”|
|Forward fold to table, to Child’s pose/Sujuud||“I am grounded and hear universal wisdom”||“Forgive my weakness” OR “Help me to …”|
|Rock pose/ Tashahhud||“I am understood and communicate clearly.”||“I seek to understand and be understood.”|
|Return to child’s pose/Sujuud||“I am grounded and listening.”||“I listen and rest in you.”|
|Pull palms to sides of head, lift into downward dog.||“I am flexible in thought, action, and relationships.”||“Flexibility provides more peace than attachment.”|
|Step/hop forward. Low hand Mountain Stance.||“I stand ready and am supported.”||“Thank you. I stand ready to serve.”|
|Raise one hand to mouth, turn neck to side. Repeat other side.||“Peace to all.” 2x||“We are one. Peace to all.”|
|Three steps backward. Optional bow.|
How and where are you brought closest to your Divine connection? For some, it is nature, for others it is within ancient tabernacles carved from stone. And yet the world’s foremost religious texts advise simply to go into a closet alone, to a desert, or isolating yourself in order to be free from distraction. Unlike real estate slogans, physical “location, location, location” is not the key to Divine connection. Unity of heart, mind, and body may be the answer you seek.