Trance: Determinants, contents and consequences of trance experiences

An empirical study using the example of „ritual postures“

Management of the study
Sabine Rittner, research assistant and music psychotherapist and Dipl. Psych. Mag. Christina Hunger

Implementation of the study
2003 – 2005

Research overview as poster
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The study participants
The study involved 19 participants (14 ♀, 5 ♂) of the self-experience group “Travelling to the other reality” (leader: Sabine Rittner) in Heidelberg. The composition of the group ranged from 6 people without experience in the Ritual Postures to 6 people with a medium level of experience and 6 very experienced people who have been working with “Ritual Postures and Ecstatic Trance” for more than 5 years.

The investigated ritual postures
The ritual postures of the “Bear”, the “Olmek Prince”, the “Saami Shaman” and the “South Moravian Woman” were studied.

The research methods
A fundamental prerequisite for the research work was the comprehensive participation of the researcher Christina Hunger in the entire self-experience group. Thus she was able to experience the trance in the selected ritual postures very directly and was also directly involved in all other processes of the group.

In a self-developed questionnaire, the participants assessed their experiences with ritual postures, among other things. They allowed the author to write down the narrative reports on the trance experiences in the circle discussions after the ritual. After completion of the self-experience group, 4 newcomers and 4 people very experienced in ritual postures were available for specific interview questions.

Questions, results and discussions

Following the assumption formulated by Goodman (1986) that each ritual posture enables a specific experience, the first question is: Are the trance experiences of the participants during a ritual posture so similar that they clearly differ from other trance experiences in other ritual postures?

In their narratives, the participants repeatedly report that they felt strongly physically in the trance and experienced many visionary experiences. However, the content of the trance – what was physically experienced or how the vision was – differs from person to person, contrary to Goodman’s assumption.
An example: According to Goodman (1993), the Olmek Prince enables many different experiences with the element water. However, only three of the 19 study participants address such perceptions. In addition, experiences with water are also reported in the other ritual postures. From a scientific and statistical point of view, the assumption of specific trance experiences of ritual body postures must therefore be rejected.

In my opinion, however, it must be noted that in the present study the specific experience contents of the trance were not asked directly. Rather, the spontaneous narrative reports of the group participants following the rituals served to question the experience specificity. In this respect, I assume that the frequency of the experience elements would increase if they were directly questioned. Statements on the rejection or retention of the assumption of experience specificity could then provide a more accurate assessment than is possible based on statistical values alone.

In the second part of the study, questions are of interest regarding a) the determinants (influencing factors) that affect the way the trance experienced and b) the consequences of the trance experiences, which possibly lead to changes in dealing with demands in everyday life.


The results are so varied that the following presentation focuses on 8 selected aspects of particular interest.

The participants report finding answers to personal and transpersonal questions in their trance experiences of ritual postures. On the one hand, they describe an increasingly better understanding of their own personal processes and on the other hand an increased acceptance towards other people. In everyday life the group participants perceive their physical processes, e.g. a cramped posture after sitting for too long, more consciously. They also become more aware of personal childhood events. They describe a reflected approach to questions about their own biography. Participants from social and psychotherapeutic professions describe a more appreciative attitude towards the initially strange experiences of their clients and patients. They report that their horizon of understanding has broadened, e.g. regarding psychosis-related experiences on the part of their clients and patients.
The participants formulate difficulties regarding the verbalisation of their trance experiences. They also hardly share them with other people outside the circle discussions.


I see the conclusion of these results in the suitability of ritual postures as a possibility for spiritual body and psychotherapy.

In the third part, the study examines how the participants’ different levels of experience are reflected in their trance experiences: Do newcomers experience the trance of ritual postures differently compared to experienced persons?

Group participants without previous experience in ritual postures describe in their trances having perceived primarily physical processes. Often these were accompanied by painful sensations. Experienced persons, on the other hand, more often report visionary trance experiences. As the trance experience increases, the newcomers also include visionary experiences in their descriptions and only physical perceptions become less.

For me, the peculiarities in the stories of newcomers and people experienced in ritual body postures are explained within the framework of the basic assumptions of cognitive psychology. Participants without previous experience have little or no “trance knowledge” or “trance scheme”. They are looking for comparable situations to explain (assimilate) their trance experiences, although they are still little aware of the possibilities of ecstatic trance and visionary experience. Contrary to the newcomers, experienced people know how to classify their trance experiences very well and also develop (accomodate) new cognitive structures.

An example: A new participant reports such terrible shoulder pain during the trance that she felt forced to break off the trance. An experienced participant describes similar pain. In her further narrative, however, she assigns them to the claws of an eagle, which had sat on her shoulders to take her in the further trance in flight to another part of the shamanic world tree. When she returns from the trance, she notices that her shoulder pains have dissolved.


Goodman, F. D. (1986)
Body posture and the religious altered state of consciousness: An experimental investigation
Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 26 (3), 81-118.

Goodman, F. D. (1993)
Where the spirits ride the winds: Trance journeys and ecstatic experiences
Freiburg: Hermann Bauer.

Project related publications

Hunger, Christina and Rittner, Sabine (2015)
Ritual Body Postures: Empirical Study of a Neurophysiological Unique Altered State of Consciousness
In: The Humanistic Psychologist, 43:4, p. 371-394. UK: Taler and Francis.
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Rittner, Sabine und Hunger, Christina (2013)
Blood into the Earth – The Ritualized Use of Ecstatic Trance States in Psychotherapy – Research and Practice
In: Passie, Torsten (Hg.): Ecstasy: Contexts – Forms – Effects
Bibliotheca Academica.
Würzburg: Ergon Verlag. S. 311 – 325.
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Hunger, Christina (2005)
Trance: determinants, contents and consequences. An empirical study using the example of ritual postures
Diploma thesis in psychology, University of Landau.