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A small gathering of about two dozen University students, staff, and community members convened for a unique, meditative experience in Frist 114 the afternoon of Nov. 27.

The meeting, led by James Lawer, was an explanation of ancient practices and stances as well as the physiology behind them. After an explanation, Lawer led the group for about half an hour in their own “stance experience.”

“It’s a very old tradition in the human communities, and it seems to be that our human bodies are designed to go into [a] trance,” said Lawer. “It’s all normal.”

Lawer has graduate degrees in theatre and divinity. He spent many years of hospice work with HIV/AIDS patients, and afterwards devoted himself to teaching himself and other indigenous traditions of North, Central, and South America, as well as the Druid traditions of Great Britain. 

Lawer explained that different physical stances had different mental effects. He cited several different example of druidic and indigenous stances, like the “Lion Man Stance” which left users confident and feeling energized, and the “Underworld” stance, leaving participants concerned and a few even with headaches.

“The brainwaves change,” he continued, “We tend to think in ordinary framework in beta waves, but in trance and meditation states ... your brainwaves slow down and go into theta states. It sits right at the border between deep sleep and access to memories and dreams and the state at which you’re awake.”

Lawer’s process began with him singing a hymn to each cardinal direction, one upward, and then one downward. Afterwards, Lawer and his participants closed their eyes and breathed for five minutes before beginning the stance. The stance, in which participants stand with feet six inches apart, bent knees, cupped hands next to their hips, and mouths slightly open, was held for fifteen minutes while Lawer shook a rattle. After that time, Lawer slowly brought his rattle to a stop, told participants to take one last, deep breath, and then sit down.

“I use the rattle to stimulate the nervous system,” explained Lawer. “A number of things happen. When I rattle, I rattle at 210 to 220 beats per minute, at which the nervous system is stimulated and the body starts going into trance.”

The stance he led them in he later revealed was called “The Feathered Snake Stance,” meant to symbolize a process of death and rebirth. He explained that the purpose of the rattle beyond a nervous stimulator was to create a sort of mental stability, a sound to come back to if a participant lost focus. Lawer distinguished trance states from hypnotism, saying that the former was externally caused while the later was an internal choice.

“People report visionary states, prophecies, and deal with many personal issues as well,” said Lawer. “Many people experience heart rate going up and blood pressure drops. This is sometimes known as a Shamanic Death state … but that normalizes right away.

Lawer also explained some of the history behind the stance, saying it was first seen in cave paintings from 5000 B.C. in Siberia, and shortly thereafter in Central Yugoslavia and some similar stances in Eastern Peru. In 500 B.C., the stance was also found in copper cutouts in the Ganges Valley.

Reactions to the experience were mixed. One participant described feeling “severe anxiety” in the initial stages of her trance. Another claimed to see visions of a wooded clearing, while another explained his experience of feeling unstable, as if he was on a subway train. One other member claimed to experience memories of times in the early 1990s that he had not thought of in a long time. Many members, however, were amore skeptical, feeling as if the experience left them relatively unaffected.

Lawer is on the board of directors at the Cuyamungue Institute, an organization dedicated to education in physical postures that transform consciousness. He is a faculty member and mentor at the California Institute of Integral Studies CPTR program, an advisory board member for the Center for Optimal Living Psychedelic Integration Program, and a founder and teacher of the Druid College, teaching direct experiences of nature in New York and Maine.  

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