I am in a small town in South India. The air is stifling. It is the afternoon and I’m sitting on a rusty metal bench in a tiny, dirt-floor room with 4 other people all waiting to see the doctor. I have come with a friend of mine to offer support. She hasn’t been feeling well for the past week or so. She says that her body aches all over, she has lost interest in food and finds it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. She feels not only physically tired, but also emotionally depressed, with a recurring feeling of ‘what’s the use?’ hanging over her like a dark cloud. Finally the doctor calls us into his office. He asks her what’s the matter, and she tells him how she has been feeling. He then asks her a matter of fact question: “Do you want to feel better?” to which she replies, “Yes.” “Then get up and spread your feet apart, stand up straight, release your arms by your sides,” he commands, and although somewhat startled by his tone of voice, she obeys. “Now start shaking, lift your right foot off the floor and shake it, then your left, now each hand and arm, shake your head, let your jaw relax, move around—move, move—get down on the floor and roll around—move, stretch your body, don’t stop—now get up and shake all over,” as he encourages her, all the while clapping out a rhythm with his hands. He had her movin’ and shakin’ for a good five minutes without a stop, while I just sat in a corner and watched. Then he said, “Okay, you will feel better now, please give me 20 rupees.” We paid and walked out of the Ayurvedic clinic—both of us laughing uncontrollably. My friend was cured of her malaise by moving her body. You could say she shook her sickness off.
Ayurveda, which is considered a sister science to Yoga, will often prescribe shaking your body when you don’t feel well as the first step in the treatment of sickness. Shaking can be used as medicine. Through intentional shaking, you not only increase circulation of blood, but also circulation of prana—the universal life force that animates and connects all of life. When prana is flowing, the result can be felt as “upliftment,” optimism and even ecstasy. Shaking is a way to bring forth life’s essential vitality: your old unconscious ways of being get shaken up, and you can then reset your objectives, which for members of a constrained culture that takes as a foundation the concept and practical application of confinement—some examples being all that is viewed as normal in our lives: animals in factory farms, pet birds in cages, dogs on leashes, bridles and saddles on horses, fenced in land, trees planted in rows, bonsai trees, dammed up rivers as well as human beings living in cramped apartments or houses, property lines clearly defined, not to mention the confinement of our bodies in clothes and shoes which inhibit freedom of movement—is nothing less than a radical, revolutionary action.
The goal of Yoga is moksha—liberation, freedom. Through the practices of yoga we can dismantle our present culture and resurrect ourselves as the wild beings we really are! The development of yoga was a reaction against increasing urbanization, which was focused on exploiting animals and the earth—taming, enslaving and confining—and in the process we became tamed, enslaved and confined. Many people today feel imprisoned in their bodies and can’t find ways to experience a full life—locked in a head-trip and don’t acknowledge the body from the neck down as intelligent and so instead seek out entertainment and stimulation in the form of consuming—shopping, TV, eating or drinking in order to just feel something.
Using shaking as a means of healing is not new and it is quite universal. I have been in a Masai village near Nairobi and witnessed Masai warriors jumping up and down until their smiles erupted into laughter, once again restoring their connection to the other animals and to the earth and sky. I lived on the Pacific Northwest coast with a Native American Shaker family who practiced shaking and trembling as a means to connect directly with God. I’ve been in Istanbul and seen Sufi dervishes whirl for hours in order to help them confront and lose their fear of death. Even so, all of those examples are tame and should be seen as reified, ritualized, religious experiences—bearing pale resemblance to some of the more wild shaking and trembling practices employed by ancient yogis and shamans who were looking for ways to experience, remember and reconnect with that which is unpredictable and untamable—the wildness—that true spirituality which is forever blissful, ecstatic, free, naked, limitless, anarchistic, boundless joy—who we really are.