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Annals of Leisure Research
ISSN: 1174-5398 (Print) 2159-6816 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ranz20
Sacred play: an ancient contribution to
contemporary play theory
Susan L. Ross
To cite this article: Susan L. Ross (2020): Sacred play: an ancient contribution to contemporary
play theory, Annals of Leisure Research, DOI: 10.1080/11745398.2020.1742751
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/11745398.2020.1742751
Published online: 16 Apr 2020.
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Sacred play: an ancient contribution to contemporary play
Susan L. Ross
Department of Public Health and Recreation, San José State University, San Jose, CA, USA
This exploratory case study examined pukllay (pook-lee-eye) –
directly translated as sacred play –for the purpose of widening
Western understandings of play and including non-Western play
paradigms in scholarly discourse. The purpose of pukllay is
biopsychospiritual development and its activities inﬁltrate all
social structures and daily living of the Q’ero people living
remotely in Peru. A review of literature yielded one publication
that obliquely describes this complex play type and none that
studied it empirically. Data derived from interviews and ﬁeld
observations. Results identiﬁed three categories of pukllay and ten
subtypes and corresponding cosmology, which constitute the ﬁrst
known written account of pujllay. The discussion suggests that
neglect of diverse perspectives will delimit opportunities where
play could advance the collective. A call to action challenges the
reader to transform through play and to consider that our shared
purpose is to be purveyors of psychospiritual growth,
interrelatedness, or even illumination.
Received 26 March 2019
Accepted 21 January 2020
initiation; play classiﬁcation;
Play is so pervasive and attractive that all higher order animals initiate its raw delight (Pel-
legrini, Dupuis, and Smith 2006). Although play is consistently present across culture, geo-
graphic location, ages, and gender the delivery of organized programming for play is
culturally and contextually informed (Sutton-Smith 1997) and therefore, limited in its
scope. Likewise, most scholarly analyses of play as a phenomenon are rooted in
Western epistemological and ontological paradigms (Pearce 1992), which inﬂu-
ences how recreation professionals comprehend and design play experiences.
In particular, there are a number of existing play typologies (e.g. Del Vecchio 2003;
Parten 1933; Piaget 1962; Smilansky 1968; Thorsted 2016; Vygotsky 2016), but
only a few identify play styles across the lifespan (Brown and Vaughan 2009; Caillois
2001; Carse 1986; Huizinga 1949; Sutton-Smith 1997). Of these, only two
directly classify a spiritual play type such as ritual (Brown and Vaughan 2009; Sutton-
Smith 1997), and one publication that does so indirectly (Carse 1986). The scarcity of spiri-
tually-related play within classiﬁcations –which deﬁne and categorize the ways that
people play –appears to exemplify Western predisposition and contradict literature
that thoroughly describes play as religious, spiritual, and mystical (Brown and Vaughan
2009; Froebel 1887; Hunnicutt 1990; Sutton-Smith 1997). There is a need to address
© 2020 Australia and New Zealand Association of Leisure Studies
CONTACT Susan L. Ross firstname.lastname@example.org
ANNALS OF LEISURE RESEARCH
discrepancies in scholarship and practice that inadvertently exclude communities in the
margins, which delimits collective understanding and experience of play.
In a review of literature, I found no paper that investigates play as a sophisticated spiritual
activity for psychospiritual growth.
This phenomenon exists among the Q’ero people of the
high Andes of Eastern Peru (and likely among other peoples); it is known as pukllay
lee-eye). Throughout the Andes the word pukllay
is widely recognized as the play-of-chil-
dren or play associated with festivals or carnivals (Carreño 2012, 305), which parallels
Western conceptualizations of play. For the Q’ero, pukllay also refers to the play of holistic
development and spiritual-responsibility, involving multifaceted and intentional inter-
with living energy they call kausay (cow-sigh). When translated directly, pukllay
among the Q’ero means sacred play or play as a spiritual activity, which highlights
nuanced dimensions of play as compared to Western conceptualizations that conventionally
equate play with pleasure, intrinsic motivation, spontaneity, and voluntary activity (Piaget
1962). If scholars and practitioners aim to be increasingly inclusive, celebrate diﬀerences
in the ways that diverse cultures engage in play, and reduce action that hegemonically pre-
cludes participation (Fox and McDermott 2017; Iwasaki et al. 2007;Liuetal.2008;McAvoy
2002), a more diverse understanding of play, like that of the Q’ero, is an ethical imperative.
In a review of literature, I found one scholarly paper that describes pukllay activities and
related cosmology, albeit obliquely (Wissler 2009), and no study that has directly analysed
the phenomenon. The scarcity of knowledge about pukllay is complicated because the
Q’ero (a) have an oral tradition, (b) are not typically adept at abstract thought which is
needed for a study such as this one, (c) villages are located in one of the most remote
areas of the Andes and the ﬁnal segment of travel there requires a 30 mile walk/horseback
ride from the nearest vehicular road (Duphily 2014, 11), (d) were only ‘discovered’in 1955
and allow few people to visit their villages and, (e) population is relatively small.
The purpose of this research is to address this literature gap by studying pukllay, as a non-
Western type of play, in an eﬀort to excavate its yet unknown dimensions juxtaposed scho-
larly discourse about spiritual-related play in order to extend existing play theory and dis-
course in ways that acknowledge and account for diversity and diﬀerence. To achieve this
end, this inquiry uses an exploratory case study approach (Merriam and Tisdale 2015)to
respond to the question, ‘What are the types, characteristics, and activities of pukllay,trans-
lated as sacred play, as practiced by the Q’ero people of Peru?’. The method will render the
ﬁrst written account of pukllay as a rich, thick description of its various facets as derived from
semi structured interviews, ﬁeldwork data sources, and one publication (Wissler 2009).
Due to the scarcity of relevant literature, this paper will not include a distinct literature
review section and will contextualize and clarify scholarly discourse in the Results and Dis-
cussion sections. In this paper, I italicize indigenous terms and use the titles Q’ero and
interchangeably because the Q’ero were recognized through an ethnological
expedition as the keepers of the Inka tradition because in part, they maintained knowl-
edge, practices, weavings, stories, and songs unique to Inkarri, the founder of the Inka
capital (Núñez del Prado 2005).
This study is informed by a social constructivist epistemology, which recognizes that play
is a culturally embedded, cocreated, and biospychospiritual phenomenon. This research
2S. L. ROSS
implements a case study design where pukllay is the ‘object’of analysis and discourse will
draw on this understanding to extend current theoretical constructs and inform inclusive
policy and practice. Pukllay qualiﬁes as ‘a case’because it is a ‘single entity, a unit around
which there are boundaries …a bounded system’(Merriam and Tisdale 2015, 37); its
boundedness is evident because ‘there is a limit to the number of people involved who
could be interviewed’and ‘aﬁnite time for observations’(39).
In order to generate comprehensive and trustworthy information, this study triangu-
lates three data sources that include semistructured in-depth interviews of experts, ﬁeld
experience observations, and literature. Purposive sampling was used to select individuals
because they are knowledgeable, experienced, available, and able to articulate reﬂectively
about the subject (Palinkas et al. 2015). Individuals who met the following criteria were
selected as interviewees because he/she has: (1) been learning from and practicing
pukllay with Q’ero elders for at least 20 years, (2) received all formal sacred initiations/
rites of passage from Q’ero elders and, (3) been internationally recognized as an expert
(i.e. working with groups of people from around the world) and teacher of Q’ero cosmol-
ogy and pukllay activities.
In total, this inquiry includes interviews with ﬁve individuals as outlined in Table 1.
The interviews transpired via phone or video conference, were recorded and tran-
scribed with follow up questions via email and/or electronic messages.
were in English
, with the exception of Américo Yábar’s, in which his long-time US-
based liaison Pia Ossorio served as interpreter. An attempt to interview a Q’ero elder
was not realized, because most elders are not versed in abstract thinking/expression,
timing with translators, and limitations with time zone diﬀerences. For ease of communi-
cation, I refer to each interviewee using their ﬁrst initial and last name.
Additional data sources include literature about the Q’ero as related to sacred play
(Wissler 2009) and its cultural cosmological context (Allen 1997;Allen2002; Arkush and
Stanish 2005;Duphily2014; Núñez del Prado 2005) and my own ﬁeld experiences.
Speciﬁcally, my observations of pukllay, didactic learning about pukllay via lecture, and
experiential participation in pukllay activities transpired between the years of 2006-2013.
Table 1. Interviewees.
Dr Juan Núñez del
Peruvian anthropologist and son of internationally renowned anthropologist Dr. Oscar Núñez del
Prado who led a scientiﬁc expedition to Q’eros in 1955 that identiﬁed the Q’ero people as
keepers of the Inka tradition. Juan has received decades of personal apprenticeship and received
all initiations from the highest-ranking elders: Don Manuel Quispé, Don Benito Qoriwaman
Don Melchor Deza, Don Mariano Apaza Flores and Don Andrés Espinoza (all of whom are now
Ivan Núñez del Prado Son of Dr. J. Núñez del Prado who received all formal initiations from his father from age 7 to 19
years of age and has been co-leading with his father, groups from around the world for 28 years.
He received all initiations from Q’ero elders including Don Humberto Sonqo Q’espi and Dona
Bernardiña Apaza Flores
Elizabeth Jenkins North American author ( 2009, 1998, 2013) teacher of the Q’ero tradition for groups from
around the world, student of Dr. J. Núñez del Prado, Don Mariano Apaza Flores, and initiate of
the highest initiation from renowned Q’ero elder Don Mañuel Q’espi.
Américo Yábar Peruvian, teacher of Q’ero and Andean cosmology and pukllay and student and initiate of
celebrated elder, Don Benito Qoriwaman.
The ﬁrst Peruvian mystical tour guide authorized by Peruvian Tourism Authority and native
Quechua speaker who works directly with the Q’ero elders and has received all Q’ero initiations
from Don Humberto Sonqo Q’espi and Dona Bernardiña Apaza Flores.
ANNALS OF LEISURE RESEARCH 3
My ﬁeldwork included: three trainings in Peru with the Q’ero (co-led by J. Núñez del Prado
and I. Núñez del Prado or E. Jenkins) lasting approximately 10–14 days each and six multiday
(i.e. 4–8 d) teachings in the United States (led by E. Jenkins and Q’ero elders Don Mariano
Apaza Flores, Don Humberto Sonqo Q’espi, and/or Doña Bernardiña Apaza Flores).
This study used inductive thematic analysis to scrutinize, interpret, and explain the
meaning of the semantic content (Braun and Clarke 2006)through‘careful examination
and constant comparison’(Hashemnezhad 2015, 60). Data analysis and data collection
occurred simultaneously in order to account for an emergent design, investigate conceptual
gaps, and clarify inconsistencies (Merriam 1998). Moreover, as I collected descriptive terms,
concepts, and perspectives, I conducted secondary and tertiary investigations through
follow up emails, electronic messages, and/or phone calls. I conducted continuous and
repeated analysis of the data for latent meaning, ideologies, and assumptions that underlie
the words (Braun and Clarke 2006). As themes and categories emerged, I completed recur-
sive cycles of ‘consolidation, reduction, and interpretation’(Yazan 2015, 145) until the data
was saturated. To verify the quality of the outcomes, I sent the completed outcomes to infor-
mants to review for accuracy and made adjustments based on their feedback.
Because I found only one scholarly source that describes pukllay (Wissler 2009), the
ﬁndings ﬁrst establish foundational information; an operational deﬁnition and key contex-
tual concepts and terms. From this base, the results suggest that pukllay consists of three
main categories and 10 subcategories each with distinct characteristics and activities.
For the Q’ero, pukllay is a biopsychospiritual relational activity that causes the individual to
heal, mature, and learn in order to become a fully developed human. Pukllay is exhibited
through dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, competing in games, enacting
ritual, engaging in healing practices, making oﬀerings, and participating in festivals.
These joyful, heart-centred actions help Q’ero individuals, communities, and the earth
to evolve in mutually enhancing, symbiotic relationships.
Use of the adjective ‘sacred’to describe the Q’eros’play is functional: it quickly denotes
to non-Q’ero person that these activities are not the play of children. Reference to the
word sacred is problematizing however, because Western thought deﬁnes the phenom-
enon as ‘religious, transcendent …set apart’(Evans 2003, 32) and ‘out of the ordinary’
(Goodale and Godbey 1988; Huizinga 1949; Pargament et al. 2017, 723). The
Q’ero, though, do not view the sacred as being outside of or beyond common experience
as do Western and Christian distinctions (Oxtoby 2002) that connote that a sacred experi-
ence is ‘out there’or at least ‘not here,’necessitating ‘leaving’. Separating the common-
place and sacred creates a judgement-laden ﬁctitious boundary that views one end of
the spectrum as desirable and the other as that which is to be tolerated or escaped. In con-
trast, if each moment of life is assumed to be sacred, then access to the holy does not
require separating; rather, one must allow one’s self to be in a natural state. For the
Q’ero, that natural state is play, which is in contrast with normative understandings of
play typically informed by Western epistemologies and ontologies. Pukllay presupposes
4S. L. ROSS
union between self and other through direct reciprocal relationship –by giving, receiving,
and sometimes directing energy, which causes the player to be in unison with the move-
ment of living energy that is everywhere. In the Q’eros’worldview, to play is to participate
in the movement of the universe.
Q’ero cosmology and key terms
The Inka cosmology is one of mysticism, not shamanism; this means that the aim of spiri-
tual practice is to have a direct experience with God, the supernatural, or divine and the
primary means to do so is through pukllay. According to J. and I. Núñez del Prado, the
Q’ero call themselves paqos,‘practitioners of the Inka (or Andean) tradition who are com-
mitted to a path towards illumination’.Q’ero develop spiritual capacities to encounter the
transcendent through two main practices: ayni and pukllay.
Ayni (eye-nee) constitutes the only law that governs/governed the Inka civilization; in
brief, it means sacred reciprocity (Duphily 2014). Each person has a responsibility to main-
tain her own health and wellbeing as well as that of her community by living in a state of
ayni, engaging in continuous giving and receiving. For example, the moment a lesson is
learned, the learner oﬀers to teach that new knowledge to another. For the Q’ero, even
breathing –the most basic of intake and output –is a viewed as sacred exchange of
giving and receiving kausay.Ayni requires gratitude, receptivity, love, shared accountabil-
ity, and power-sharing, all of which are woven into the fabric of Q’ero culture. As a way of
life, ayni causes a ‘universal circulation of vitality …every category of being, at every level,
participates in this cosmic circulation’(Allen 1997, 76). Ayni is ‘a way of living in harmony
with fellow human beings (social), with nature (ecological), and the spirit realms (cosmo-
logical)’(Duphily 2014, 20).
Ayni and pukllay are interconnected. J. Núñez del Prado explains, ‘Ayni is the command-
ment [about how to live] …and pukllay is the way to interact [the way to live]’or, said
diﬀerently, ‘the way we play is through ayni –reciprocity’;‘the way of answering this com-
mandment [ayni] is to play’.Pukllay is the way the Q’ero return energy reciprocally for
reasons that are strikingly reminiscent of sociologist Georges Bataille’s observation of indi-
genous cosmology of surplus solar energy and a solar economy (1988).
Categories of sacred play
The data suggests there are three distinct categories of pukllay, based on characteristic
diﬀerences in various sacred play activities and their corresponding cosmological under-
pinnings (Table 2).
I use direct quotations when precise language delivers distinct data or most accurately
Categories of sacred play
Cleansing and rejuvenating pukllay
The concept of pukllay is embedded in an ontology where all of existence (seen and
unseen) consists of kausay, described in terms of ‘weightiness’as either heavy or light.
Since the Q’ero do not recognize good and evil, only heavy and light energy, they have
ANNALS OF LEISURE RESEARCH 5
no concept of judgment. According to the Q’ero, the human is the only being who can
create heavy energy called hucha (hoo-cha); all other beings (e.g. animals, trees, celestial
entities such as stars) circulate reﬁned, light energy called sami
(saa-me). A person devel-
ops hucha in the body when she does not follow the law of ayni –lacking in either giving
or receiving or both. Stressful, emotionally painful, or traumatic experiences create hucha,
and accumulated hucha can lead to mental or physical illness.
An expert of Andean spiritual practices, A. Yábar, states that pukllay ‘cultivates salka,a
primordial or original undomesticated energy’that resides within individuals at birth.
Yábar’s international clientele lack regular play and sustain chronically stressful lifestyles,
which he says ‘slowly begins to eat this undomesticated energy inside, until that person
becomes very tired, pathologically tired.’Yábar’s experience and apprenticeships from
taught him that play ‘recovers, activates, and cultivates one’s primor-
dial salka’with a lot of humor in a ‘constant energetic movement that opens the psycho-
logical side of the beings and opportunities to ﬂower’. He describes pukllay as a form of
‘play therapy’where ‘the eﬀect is psychological but the act is energetic’. In this Andean
view, play helps people to reactivate, remember, and recover primordial energy to re-
create one’s self.
Cleansing and rejuvenating pukllay routinely, releases hucha; it is an act of biopsychos-
piritual wellness or hygiene, entailing activities such as creative visualization or imagin-
ation, conscious breath, movement, dance, musical instruments, and/or songs. Although
this pukllay could be seen as less important that other sacred play types, according to
E. Jenkins and J. and I. Núñez del Prado, Q’ero elders emphasize that avid personal cleans-
ing practices can lead to spiritual awakening.
Table 2. Categories of Sacred Play.
Play Category Play That …Examples
puriﬁes and restores life within the body, mind, heart
Personal cleanses one’s self of heavy energy Saminchakuy
Other priestess/priest healer uses pukllay activities to remove
the heavy energy of the other
Community clears and rejuvenates the health and happiness of the
Festival of renewal or celebration, raymi
Relational maintains, heals, and deepens relationships
Casual transpires during daily life activities that engages
intentional mutual giving and receiving
Intimate fosters and maintains intimate closeness Physical closeness, sexual interchange
Learning transpires as a means and product of learning between
the teacher and learner
Playful, experiential learning/teaching
Celestial cultivates direct energy exchanges and relationships
between the individual/community and divine
beings and God
Ritual, ceremony, haywariquy, kintu
facilitates illumination and healing for personal and
Initiation transmits wisdom, love, and capacities towards
awakening of an individual
Rite of passage/initiation
Selection of Inka
encompasses a series of community-based initiations
designed to generate a future leader who has the
most advanced spiritual knowledge, love, and
Cooperative games that create a leader,
Play to awaken
advances the order, vitality, and harmony of the
Ceremony, ritual, consciously living in
reciprocity and play, saminchakuy and
6S. L. ROSS
Personal. Arguably the most widely used pukllay activity for personal cleansing is called
saminchakuy (saa-mean-cha-kwee), where samin means ‘aﬂow of light, living energy or
kausay’and chakuy is ‘to build’. As translated by J. and I. Núñez del Prado, this pukllay
entails ‘creating a ﬂow of light living energy, from any source to and through yourself
or others’; E. Jenkins describes it as ‘moving energy where it wants to go’. She explains
that heavy energy ‘wants’to be in the earth (where it belongs) and lighter energy
‘wants’to move into and around the body. One can release heavy energy through the
base of the spine into the earth, and receive the ‘purple nectar’of sami from the
cosmos down, into, and around the body through an imagined ‘opening’above the
head. The ‘ﬂow of enlivening spirit …bears conceptual similarities to our ideas of
energy and divine grace’(Allen 2002, 34). When the Q’ero encounter daily life challenges,
they employ practices of pukllay, releasing ‘all those energies not needed and give them to
pachamama [the cosmic earth mother]’, according to F. Condé Huallpa.
Other. If an individual develops physical, social, or emotional dysfunction or worse –a
disease or accident –the priests/priestesses, who are also healers, practice pukllay to
remove as much of the heavy energy as possible. A simple pukllay involves lightly sweeping
the body and the air (living energy) around the body with a healing stone or sacred bundle
received through initiation. During my ﬁeldwork, I witnessed how Q’ero master healers Don
Humberto and Doña Bernardiña could sense large amounts of hucha in people. Once Doña
Bernardiña remarked aloud in Quechua ‘lots of hucha’, once while healing a person (i.e.
helping the person to release hucha) who had ongoing emotional problems. This pukllay pro-
duces vitality by helping hucha to move out of the body and into the earth where it belongs,
which acknowledges, ‘While everything that has material existence is alive, the intensity of a
thing’s liveliness varies and can be controlled, at least to some extent’(Allen 2002, 34).
Community. The third grouping of routine play activities serves to rejuvenate the health
and happiness of the community. In particular, this pukllay ensures that the community is
healthy and enjoys a sense of jubilant unity; the most prominent of which are festivals
occurring several times per year. These festivals, called raymi (rye-mee), help the commu-
nity ‘relate with the supernatural through parties’(J. and I. Núñez del Prado, interview). The
celebrations align with phenomena such as the equinox, solstices, and eclipses. During
these pukllay, the Q’ero ‘honor all of the gods, through dancing, singing, play, making
music and in most instances, drinking alcohol.
Our spiritual celebrations are not
serious with long faces’(J. and I., interview).
One annual raymi is oﬃcially called Pukllay. The multiday celebration, which takes place
in March, releases pain and suﬀering, blesses the llama and alpaca, and rejuvenates the
community. One of the many songs the Q’ero sing during this festival has these lyrics:
We remember Pukllay all year long and weave new clothes for it.
Closer to Pukllay, we sometimes work for nights with no sleep.
We celebrate the way our grandfathers used to. It makes us very happy.
(Dominga Paucar Chura, 2 February 2005; quoted in Wissler 2009, 60)
One scientist who lived with the Q’ero in their remote villages explained that the music,
song, food, drinks, and dance ‘fulﬁll community needs that are complementary in nature:
the shared release of joy, and the shared release of sorrow’(212). Wissler explains,
ANNALS OF LEISURE RESEARCH 7
The highly sensual environment of saturated consumption and energetic movement is con-
ducive to transformation, in terms of an altered emotional state that often leads to the emer-
gence and expression of sadness and anxiety …that leads to the expected singing of grief.
One Q’ero explained, ‘When we sing, we always cry. Life is hard out here on the land, up
here in the clouds, in Q’eros’(quoted in Wissler 2009, 197). The release of sorrows causes
‘communitas [an anthropological term coined by Victor Turner (1969, 97) for intercon-
nected community of shared power], celebration, and joy’and ‘renewal of social and
cosmic ayni relations’(215). The elements of this pukllay are found in cultures well
beyond the Q’ero: ‘At the heart of every ritual event is an act of faith demonstrated in a
way of life that is renewed in particular ritual celebrations by the entire community’
(Bryce 1981, 18).
Dr. Núñez del Prado argues that this type of pukllay is also the means through which
the community meets its basic needs in one of the ‘hardest of environments’, by trans-
forming work into play. The pukllay is the organizing factor behind harvesting crops,
constructing bridges and roads, and building homes as a community; social groups
form teams, ‘like a football team’, and ‘they apply all their energy [in the manner of
playful competition] for these practical purposes.’The ‘players’are motivated to
achieve excellence and eﬃciency because upon completion of the goal, the Imperial
Inka ‘chooses a champion’of (for example), harvesting, where ‘pride [and] being recog-
nized as the best’is the reward.
The second grouping of pukllay bonds and uplifts the group, fortifying a person’s pride
and love with and for her community. Like cleaning/rejuvenating pukllay, relational
pukllay is practical in terms of maintaining and developing personal relationships (i.e.
with one’s spouse, family members, friends, animals, celestial bodies, and God). On a spiri-
tual or metaphysical level, this pukllay helps individuals to ‘feed’[author’s words based on
ﬁeldwork] their relationships with the nourishment of kausay. This type of sacred play is
vital to the health of all, because the Q’ero believe that
Objects, including the intangible, such as song, are alive and dynamic, interacting with all that
is around them. Because of this, the maintenance of good relationship among all beings, that
is, the entire world, is crucial and is a fulcrum to daily life. (Wissler 2009, 45)
These activities transpire through four types of relationships: casual, intimate, learning, and
Casual relationships. As an activity of ayni (reciprocal exchange), pukllay in casual
relationships transforms daily living into a dance of mutual, joyful, and loving giving
and receiving. The Q’ero recognize that the instant one’s giving is received by the
other, such as a mountain, then the mountain reciprocates with sami (light energy). In
this way, the Q’ero play with other beings; they are aware of their moment-to-moment
responsibility (and desire) to be an active partner in the continuous ﬂow of kausay.
Pukllay is integral to tasks such as working, cooking, eating, harvesting food, or herding
llamas (who are treated and loved as family members), as these activities involve giving
and receiving loving energies –in the name of ayni –with the animals, plants, foods,
8S. L. ROSS
mountains, rivers, family, friends, earth, and sun, through song, breath, intentional energy
exchange, and oﬀerings. Before eating or drinking any beverage, for example, the Q’ero
(and many other people in the Andes) will oﬀer a tiny bit of food or dip a ﬁnger into
the liquid and ﬂick drops onto the ground next to them, while silently saying a prayer
of thanksgiving to pachamama.IfaQ’ero passes by a natural being such as a river, moun-
tain, or lake, she will gift that being by taking three cocoa leaves out of her pouch, holding
them together like a spread of playing cards –called a k’intu –and blow her energy gently
upon them three times. The ﬁrst breath is her power of heart, the second is her power of
mind, and third is her power of body (ability to act). She then mindfully arranges the three
leaves on a stone, the soil, a tree, or the water, so the being can receive her oﬀering. This
type of pukllay,a‘speciﬁc movement ….or blowing of breath aﬀects connections and live-
lihood among many domains: human, spirit, physical, metaphysical, through generations,
and for detoxiﬁcation and healing’(Wissler 2009, 187).
Pukllay in casual relationships includes the Q’ero’s approach to ordinary social
interactions. F. Condé Huallpa, a Peruvian spiritual guide who has worked closely with
the Q’ero for several decades, explained:
When the [Q’ero] were ﬁrst coming from Q’eros [the main Q’ero village] into Cusco and they
would meet someone for the ﬁrst time, they introduced themselves to others in this way: ‘Hi,
my name is Francisco’[for example]. Then they would present themselves and say, ‘Iam
hoping to have a nice pukllay with you.’[When this is said], this means they are starting a
This traditional greeting not only reveals the importance and centrality of play to everyday
relationships, it also shows the Q’ero worldview and intent –the desire to play as a funda-
mental way of being-in-relation with one another.
Intimate relationships. Intimate relationship begins and is described via pukllay. Once
each year, Andean communities celebrate the sacred masculine and feminine. In this
pukllay, single people go to a speciﬁc place ‘to meet a future mate’. On the slopes of
the Andes, ‘singles will see how beautiful and handsome others will be. If you like
someone, you start a pukllay (a relationship of play)’. F. Condé Huallpa explained, ‘your
relationship is always a pukllay. If you don’t play well, your relationship will fail’.Pukllay
is also the ‘play of lovers’, a means of communication and energy exchange that maintains
and deepens the closest of relations; it is characterized by the quality of shared words and
gazes into one another’s eyes and hearts. This play unfolds ‘when the rest of the world dis-
appears’(J. Núñez del Prado and I. Núñez del Prado, interview), as the lovers exchange
their powers of heart, mind, and body.
Learning relationships. The Inka experience the learning relationship between teacher
and student as one of play that requires focus and detachment, and is essentially joyful.
Students playfully compete to be the highest-ranking student, called the qollana (coy-
yana). The qollana earns the privilege to be closest to the teacher and has the distinct
‘right to interact with and even challenge the teacher directly’(J. Núñez del Prado and
I. Núñez del Prado, interview). In the pukllay of public works (e.g. building a bridge), the
qollana is the most valuable player (or in Western terms, the most eﬃcient/eﬀective/
skilled and collaborative worker).
ANNALS OF LEISURE RESEARCH 9
Celestial relationships. Finally, the Q’ero engage in pukllay as a means of exchanging
energy and cultivating relationships with divine beings and God. When a Q’ero person
wishes to pray for something signiﬁcant, such as safe travel, abundant crops, or the
healing of a loved one, he will make an elaborate ritual pukllay
(high-wah-reee-qui), which is translated as ‘to oﬀer with your own hand’(E. Jenkins)
often referred to as a despacho. The haywariquy is a physical oﬀering bundle made of
organic items (e.g. sea shells, llama fat, and ﬂowers), sweet eatables (e.g. candies and
sugar), and symbolic objects (e.g. a wooden cross or fake money) that are placed together
into a beautiful mandala design on paper. J. and I. Núñez del Prado explained, ‘when you
make a haywariquy, you oﬀer a dinner, a game, and a party all at the same time. All of the
beings come to enjoy the food you oﬀer to them’.
Ahaywariquy can be completed alone or as a group, and requires the utmost focus,
keen attention to aesthetic beauty, and the timely inclusion of ingredients that can best
embody and transport the kausay prayer. With the paper unfolded in front of the Q’ero
and the objects set next to the paper, the player of this pukllay methodically and intention-
ally selects one item or grouping at a time, and blows his power and audible prayer into
the object. The ritual objects have spiritual meaning (e.g. candy for sweetness and fake
money for abundance) and as such, exemplify the prayer’s content. The haywariquy,
which can be brief or last hours, is imbued with the sweet-loving reverence of prayer,
smiles, and laughter. In a universe of kausay, even songs are ‘part of this bundle of
oﬀerings and supplications, and one of the many actions employed to send energy or
samay [sami] out, just like alcohol and ﬂowers are thrown’(italics added; Wissler 2009,
185). This pukllay is a way for the Q’ero to hold, control, and direct the ﬂow of sami
(Allen 2002, 34) for everyone’s beneﬁt.
Cosmic participation pukllay
The third category of sacred play constitutes advanced and complex ‘games of illumina-
tion and healing’(J. Núñez del Prado and I. Núñez del Prado, interview) that ask the indi-
vidual (or group) to play with the cosmos in the spirit of learning, healing, giving, and co-
creation for the purpose of personal and collective awakening.This pukllay transpires
when master and the student of our tradition shares in ease and focus by playing cosmic
games related with pachamama [the cosmic earth mother], Wiraqocha [cosmic father], the
sun and moon, and all of the apus [mountains] and nustas [water beings]; still not taking it
too seriously but absolutely focused, and overall joyful. (J. Núñez del Prado and I. Núñez
del Prado, interview)
This pukllay integrates cosmic power, including salka (undomesticated primordial energy),
into the earthly realm and the players bodies. From the available information, data indi-
cates that sacred play within this third category is comprised of three kinds: initiations
or rites of passage, selections of Inka royalty, and play to awaken all beings.
Initiation. An important way the elder transmits
wisdom is through initiation or qarpay
(car-pie), which epitomizes the elaborate and complex cosmic participation pukllay. There
are various types of initiation that assist the initiate from one identity and capacity to
10 S. L. ROSS
During most qarpay, the master and student travel to key sacred beings of nature (e.g. a
lake, mountain, glacier, giant stones, caves, and large trees), because each place/being
holds unique capacities and energies. When the initiate, ancestor spirits, and place-
being engage in pukllay, the initiate’s goal is to play in a wholehearted, focused, and
joyful way, so as to receive the gifts and knowledge of the beings and place. These gifts
include distinct healing (e.g. childhood wounds), learning (e.g. breathing techniques),
and/or consciousness (e.g. the process of death). The initiation also includes pukllay
within or on stone structures built by the Inka for the purpose of expanding and clearing
one’s consciousness towards illumination. The master’s understanding of the site and its
matching pukllay is key to the initiation process.
Selecting Inka royalty. In the mid-1400s, the renowned Inka King Pachakuti created a
pukllay in his palace to select his successor. The multiday revered crowning ritual is
called Inka ajllay, meaning ‘choosing of an Inka’(J. Núñez del Prado and I. Núñez del
Prado, interview). During the kingdom’s later years, King Wayna Qapaq constructed the
ﬁrst Wiraqocha [i.e. God] Temple
for the sole purpose of hosting this pukllay. The intri-
cate, contest-like pukllay, which could be viewed as a series of initiations, involves 12
royal lineages (called panaka) engaging in group exercises to prepare lineage champions;
aSapa Inka King and Sapa Qoya Queen (Sapa translates as high or ultimate). In a successful
scenario, the 12 winners play a championship game that ends when one male and one
female become illuminated or enlightened. The champions are called ouwki or the ‘candi-
date to become a Sapa Inka/Qoya and successor to the king or queen; to that end, it is said
that the winner’s body begins to glow or emit a visible aura. The remaining players are
called Inkaranti, or ‘equivalent of a royal Inka’.
The royal-selection pukllay activities endow the king and queen with mastery-level abil-
ities of pushing kausay (action and intention to cause living energy to move) for change
and healing that beneﬁts all. Kausay manipulation is, in fact, the king and queen’s respon-
sibility and duty:
The Inka king, especially the most spiritual [enlightened] ones, Wiraqocha and Pachacuteq,
perform pukllay every single second. Imagine a time where a lot of ethnic groups, tribes,
and small cultures combined, blended powers, in order to face a lot of climate changes like
draughts and rainfalls. The Inka king needed to perform a lot of pukllay in order to solve
these social problems and deal with religious conﬂicts. They got it sorted out. They made a
nice pukllay. In order to do that, the Inka king needed to just go in a soft way. (F. Condé
The ‘soft way’of pukllay, F. Condé Huallpa clariﬁed, ‘is all about harmonizing the heavy
energy and [by] putting all your commitment and love into order to change it.’In other
words, play as an orientation toward life relaxes tensions and infuses joy.
Play to awaken all beings. The third type of cosmic participation pukllay involves play to
awaken all beings. Daily pukllay practices help individuals to learn, heal, and cultivate their
reception of mystical encounters. Those who dedicate their lives to personal and collective
illumination and/or those recognized as destined can become the highest-ranking priests,
called kureq akulleq (kur-ack a-cool-ya). This title is literally translated as ‘elder chewer of
According to Yábar, elder adepts know that sacred play can ‘help humanity
ANNALS OF LEISURE RESEARCH 11
grow’, because during pukllay,‘we transform personal energy into cosmic energy, and we
take energy from the cosmos to expand our luminous bodies,’thus positively advancing
The Q’ero elders engaged in this pukllay are masters of kausay. In addition to the cleans-
ing and healing pukllay, these priests perform cosmic play to advance the order, vitality, and
harmony of the universe by moving or driving the kausay to aﬀect reality. For example, one
pukllay in this category is called saminchakuy (sah-min-chak-wee) and saiwachakuy (sigh-wa
chak-wee), wherein the priest and fellow players stand closely in a circle to play. Using one’s
imaginative intention and love, players open the energy bubble surrounding their bodies,
and create a column of energy that connects the lower/interior world, the world in which
we live, and the upper world. Using the mind and emotions, the players move the
cosmic energy downwards through the body using this bridge (or tube), and then into
the earth to release hucha and then bring earth energy upwards, through the body, and
into the upper world. This pukllay retrieves power from the cosmic upper world into the
cosmic earth mother, pachamama, and back again, in a grand circulation allowing
humans to participate in the movement of powers larger than themselves.
If humans can be deﬁned as creatures that play –homoludens –(Huizinga 1949, 7), if
play is the basis of culture (Pieper 1948/1960; Huizinga 1949), and if at its essence
play is sacred (Carse 1986; Huizinga 1949) could the transformation of culture be
founded in the adoption of spiritual or sacred play? The potential of popular acceptance
of sacred play among those steeped in fast-paced, commerce-driven, and productivity-
oriented lifestyles might be too much to ask. Yet, ‘our [Western] ideas of ritual, magic,
liturgy, sacrament and mystery would all fall within the play-concept’(Huizinga 
1949, 18). Is it possible that more people are engaging in sacred play (albeit unknowingly)
than would be a ﬁrst guess?
Part of the reason why play is aﬃliated with the divine is because it goes beyond dua-
listic worldviews that bifurcate reality into polarities such as feminine and masculine, life
and death, happy and sad. Dualism ‘is already problematic when applied to [play such as]
European sport, but much more if one wants to understand non-Western play’(Eichberg
2016, 71). Play, in fact, is inclusive of polarities and in that sense beyond ‘wisdom and folly
…truth and falsehood, good and evil’(Huizinga 1949, 25). In a social world of play,
there is ‘an intense degree of cooperation and sharing, which is incompatible with
struggles for dominance’(Gray 2019, 98). Perhaps the Q’ero’s reality of play-as-a-way-of-
life is a reason why the Inka experience the universe as benevolent, devoid of dualism
and therefore, also of judgement?
As leisure scientists and practitioners, I argue that we have within our grasp the poten-
tial to re-imagine recreation and recreation therapy services that include play as a way of
living, to rebrand adult play as essential, and to introduce experiences of sacred play.
Beginning with re-education and debunking cultural myths, it is our vocation (i.e. sacred
calling) to teach our communities that:
All literature and art is, of course, play. Music is play. Ballet is play. Painting and sculpture are
play. Much of architecture is play, though the play must be kept somewhat ‘functional’…(in
12 S. L. ROSS
our) technological society, we are going to have to make do with more play. This means we are
going to have to take play more seriously. (Ong, 1972, xii)
If indeed, ‘we are the children of the universe and we are entitled to play with the universe’
(J. Nuñez del Prado and I. Nuñez del Prado, interview), how can we as scholars and prac-
titioners of leisure provide opportunities for play or secular approaches to sacred play
across the lifespan? We know well, as stewards of the spirited phenomenon, that
At no age does play necessarily cease. Rather, it becomes more and more deeply embedded in
the dynamic of development, so that its observable products are less and less recognizable as
play. (Pellegrini, Dupuis, and Smith 2006, 91)
Change can begin by asking ourselves questions that challenge fundamental assump-
tions about our reason d’être such as, ‘In what ways do our facilities and programming
need to transform to incorporate our fundamental need to engage in higher orders of
play?’If we do not dare to change, in what ways do we contribute to the stagnation indica-
tive of ﬁnite play (Carse 1986) where we have lost track of openness to surprise, vulner-
ability, and ﬂuidity in order to stay in the ﬁnite game?
Practitioners of leisure can monopolize upon progressive trends that introduce prin-
ciples of sacred play. For example, the concept of ‘communities of practice,’which was
developed by Lave and Wenger (1991), gave rise to the concept of ‘communities of
play’This oﬀshoot phenomenon describes a group of people who share ‘a wish to
create new knowledge or share information and experiences …[while relating interper-
sonally as] human beings’(29). This approach precisely aligns with the way that the
Q’ero live, by exalting play ‘as a sovereign expression of life
’(30). Using principles of
Carse’s(1986)inﬁnite games and an ontological framework of sacred play, recreation
therapist could facilitate opportunities for ‘communities of play’that bring to life pukllay
of the Inka and intellectual playful discourse echoed by Plato and Aristotle.
The recreation and parks profession already have within reach, professionals prepared to
bring into existence play across the lifespan and even sacred play. Although recreational
therapists already work within recreation centres, they are widely underutilized because
the position only requires use of a portion of their professional expertise. Recreational thera-
pists who specialize in mental health are equipped to lead group sessions that qualify as
sacred play –play experiences designed for personal growth, self-awareness, holistic well-
ness, learning, and healing. I propose that together, recreation practitioners and recreation
therapists could elevate the societal purpose of recreation commodities beyond escape and
restoration to illumination that transforms individuals and our communities.
This paper addresses the ‘need for leisure scholars and practitioners to engage with Indi-
genous world views, ways of knowing and being’(Fox and McDermott 2017, 1) and
responds to observations that ‘the lion’s share of studies of the sacred have been
rooted in Western cultures’(Pargament et al. 2017, 738). In order to challenge and
widen contemporary Anglo-European informed leisure theories and practices, this paper
highlights the literature gap pertaining to current play literature and classiﬁcations,
which do not adequately encompass spiritual play as a way of life or as conceptualized
and practiced by some Indigenous peoples (Gray 2019).
ANNALS OF LEISURE RESEARCH 13
To accomplish this goal, this study explores the cosmological and sociocultural dimen-
sions of the sacred play called pukllay, a lifestyle of sophisticated relational, growth-produ-
cing spiritual practices among the Q’ero people of Peru. For the Q’ero, sacred play is the
central organizing feature of all social, economic, political, personal, and spiritual life.
Because the vast majority of knowledge about the Q’ero’s cosmological activities is trans-
mitted orally, data sourced from interviews, ﬁeld experiences, and a few literary sources
were subjected to thematic examination, yielding three categories of sacred play: cleans-
ing and rejuvenation, relational, and cosmic.
This detailed account of sacred play impacts relevant scholarship and discourse in
several ways. First, although there are scholarly works that mention or brieﬂy describe
the Andean Q’ero’s cosmology and practice of pukllay, this paper is the ﬁrst known
study, description, and classiﬁcation of Inkan sacred play. Second, even though few typol-
ogies of play are lifespan-inclusive or identify spiritually related play activities (Brown and
Vaughan 2009; Sutton-Smith 1997), I found no literature that thoroughly illustrates diverse
facets of spiritually founded play, let alone literature inclusive of non-Western perspec-
tives. Third, the description of sacred play as a lifestyle insists that the frontiers of
leisure-related sciences and practice include analysis (and facilitation) of play across the
lifespan, play as a way-of-life, and play as a spiritual phenomenon.
Neglect of diverse perspectives of play and spiritual play in particular delimits opportu-
nities to achieve our potential to facilitate play in ways that supersede play for escape,
socialization or even creativity. I argue that it is our obligation as stewards, to re-
examine the spiritual and transformative essence of leisure and play and apply that
wisdom to advance the collective.
Although this paper presents an overview of one paradigm of play, it is fundamentally a
call for individuals and collectives to transform through play. The mere fact that the people
responsible for designing and building Machu Picchu (i.e. one of the seven wonders of the
world) (Shastri, Mattioli, and Mullin 2017) placed play at the centre of their social structures
testiﬁes to the sophistication and yet-unknown potential of play. In this light, I assert that
the construction of inspiring scientiﬁcally-based yet transcendent leisure services and
scholarship lies in our ability to see ourselves as purveyors of psychospiritual growth, inter-
relatedness, or even illumination.
1. Evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray (2019) analysed anthropological studies and found that
most societies of hunter-gatherer people transform “essentially all of social life into play”
(p. 98). However, he deduced that the purpose for the play is to mitigate domination/aggres-
sion and to promote egalitarian relations and not psychospiritual growth, as is the case for the
Q’ero nation that is the focus of this paper.
2. There are various spellings for pukllay. I use Fray Diego Gonzalez Holguin’s Quechua dictionary
spelling (González Holguín 1989, 293).
3. Pukllay is also exempliﬁed through the Bolivian harvest dance festival called Pujllay (Dougherty
2014) and aﬃliated with ‘ritual battles …[or] supervised performances …[that] seem to have
functioned as state-sponsored “games”…as rites of passage’(Arkush and Stanish 2005, 14).
4. One of the closest comparable contemporary activities to pukllay is Reiki because during a
session, the Reiki practitioner transmits energy to the patient for healing and in turn, receives
energy in the giving (Zucchetti et al. 2019).
14 S. L. ROSS
5. According to Hannah Rae who spends considerable time in the Q’ero’s villages stated on
December 7, 2019 that there are approximately 3,000 Q’ero people. Rae is the Founder of
Wilka Yachay, a non-proﬁt that works and lives with the Q’ero.
6. Native Andean people use the spelling Inka rather than Inca to better reﬂect the word’s sound
as well as their right to determine their own spelling conventions (Mannheim 1991).
7. The interviews with Juan and Ivan Núñez del Prado took place December 6, 2018 and a follow
up on January 22, 2019; F. Condé Huallpa was interviewed on December 11, 2018; Américo
Yábar’s interview occurred on January 19, 2019; and I interviewed Elizabeth Jenkins on
January 27, 2019. I asked follow up questions using electronic messaging on social media
and/or text messaging.
8. Whenever possible, I quote the exact sequence of words used by the informants rather than
correcting for grammar or syntax, to give the reader an opportunity to grasp the meaning/
content of the interviewee’s intended messages.
9. Sami (also spelled samay) is translated literally as ‘breath’,‘to breathe’, and ‘to rest’, and can be
viewed as the ‘essence of life force’(Wissler 2009, 45).
10. Américo Yábar and Juan Núñez del Prado were taught by the same elder who inspired Shirley
McClain to write the book It’s All in the Playing (1987).
11. This data point exhibits the Q’ero’s holistic rather than binary or hierarchical ontology.
12. During some occasions, festivals, or pilgrimages such as Qolloriti, the consumption of alcohol
is strictly forbidden.
13. In each of the interviews, the informant described the action of playing or play as ‘make play’
or ‘make pukllay’. I left this language unedited.
14. I intentionally use the word “transmit”to accurately describe the phenomenon when a teacher
teaches, heals, and initiates a student or patient. The elder literally transmits (i.e., passes some-
thing from one to another) energy and knowledge to the student regardless of the degree to
which the student/patient is aware of the transmission. The knowledge transmitted energeti-
cally is often more important, than the content of any words shared.
15. The existing Wiraqocha Temple constitutes the third and ﬁnal iteration of a temple erected
speciﬁcally for this pukllay.
16. Coca here refers to dried coca leaves that many indigenous people chew daily for nutrition, to
curb appetite and pain, and engage in spiritual practice. Incidentally, many Andean Indians are
trained to “read”coca leaves similar to how tea leaves are read in the West.
17. Authors borrow the words, “expression of life”from Løgstrup (1971, 271), which describes how
the act of understanding as a “matter of creation and of giving form”(xxi) creating itself and as
such, is “an expression of life”(xxi).
18. Although Don Benito Qoriwaman and Don Melchor Deza are not Q’ero, their knowledge
comes from the lineage of the last Inka named Waskar.
Notes on contributor
Susan L. Ross is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Recreation Therapy and Complementary
and Alternative Health Practices in the Department of Public Health and Recreation at San José
State University. Her primary research examines personal transformation from transdisciplinary per-
spectives and is the subject of her forthcoming book in 2020, The Map to Wholeness: Real-Life
Stories of Crisis, Change, and Reinvention. Her current work investigates transformative travel and
the integration of transformation among study abroad alumni. As a recreation therapist, she
specializes in the treatment of women survivors of sexual trauma, post-traumatic stress, and adven-
ture therapy. In partnership with indigenous elders, she leads study abroad to ancient sites where
students learn traditional energy healing practices called pujillay,orsacredplay.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author(s).
ANNALS OF LEISURE RESEARCH 15
Susan L. Ross http://orcid.org/0000-0001-6247-9588
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