This post is the first in a series of blog posts in which I discuss yogic practices that relate to death and dying.
I recently had my first opportunity to speak on the intersection of yoga and death. In the week leading up to my talk, I had blocked off time in my calendar to prepare, but instead of using this time to write, I ended up sick in bed, high on cold medicine, unable to work. I subbed out all my yoga teaching, cancelled my plans, and hunkered down with a box of tissues. Lying in bed, listening to the weekday sounds outside my window, it did not escape me that I was being handed a potentially more valuable experience to draw from than days of productive writing could ever afford me. In our competency-addicted culture, what is more like death than having to step outside the circle of productivity, and be still?
The most difficult yoga pose
Stillness does not fascinate us modern day yogis. If it did, people would chase savasana (corpse pose) the way they chase their handstand, but they don’t. There would be master classes devoted to corpse pose, rather than to arm balancing and inversions. But few people are looking to take their savasana to the next level. While my social media feeds are populated with people documenting their progress with advanced poses like vrschikasana (scorpion pose), sharing a photo of savasana is so unusual that when I shared a video of my own savasana a few months ago it got laughs as well as likes.
Why is this? It’s not because savasana is an easy pose. Google “savasana” and you’ll find articles calling it “the most difficult yoga pose”. Nor is it because savasana is an irrelevant pose. In practice, savasana is the epitome of “last but not least”, with teachers typically placing it at the end of a class but calling it “the most important yoga pose”. So why doesn’t it make the social media cut?
Mastery of savasana is an internal process. In savasana, we practice alert relaxation, purposefully releasing tension from body and mind while staying present and awake. Achieving the fullest expression of savasana can take a lifetime of devoted practice. Even then, visually discerning a skillful savasana from an unskillful one is nearly impossible. Whether beginner or advanced, savasana just looks like a person lying on the ground. Nothing to see here, folks. And nothing to photograph, post, pin, or share.
Something true and lasting
I believe our disinterest in savasana stems from more than just its lack of photogeneity. I see our fascination with visually provocative asana as a direct product of our identification with the material body. In the west, we tend to come to yoga via the asana practice, and many of us go no further. But when the focus of our practice is exclusively on the physical we set ourselves up for a fall. The body isn’t meant to last, and savasana, corpse pose, is placed strategically at the end of every practice to remind us of this fact.
Asana is a beautiful practice for falling in love with the body, for feeling strong and supple all at once. Over time, poses that seemed impossible move within reach of our increasing strength and flexibility. The first time we lift ourselves into astavakrasana (eight angle pose) is a special kind of triumph. But our ability to hold astavakrasana is fleeting, as life itself is fleeting. One day we’ll find those peak poses moving out of reach all over again. If our focus has been on the poses themselves, this will cause suffering. However, if our focus has been on finding the stillness within the poses, the shapes we make with our body won’t matter. We’ll find that same quality of stillness lying comfortably in savasana.
I have a lodestar that I look to whenever I consider introducing something new into my practice, and it goes like this: Can I use this when I want to scream at my kid? Will this help when I’m sick and can’t work? Will it help on my deathbed or my husband’s deathbed? In a practice like asana, it’s so easy to be distracted by all the moving parts. But if the goal of our practice is to connect to something true and lasting, we need to get still to find it.
Image © 2018 Shamit Tushakiran