In Which Yoga Pose Do We Rehearse Our Death? and Why?

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(In this post I wanted to bring the interior of Savasana to life- to look at the experience rather than the pose. I shined a light into the posture using principles from the “Yoga Sutras” as a filter.)

If you think the yoga world is only a happy place where everyone lives purely on bliss and sunshine, think again.

In this post, we’re bringing to light a few death and mortality metaphors in yoga practice. Why not? It’s the end of August. Time to don the black hood and carry the scythe.

And besides, traditional Yogic texts are full of images of darkness, death, blood, violence and war.

Teachers might be reluctant to use these metaphors, especially in a class full of strangers. Death makes us uncomfortable. Furthermore, many of these dark or scary metaphors are used to explain the practice of relaxation and savasana – which is usually practiced in “Corpse Pose.” Being invited to “let go and relax, you know, just like you’re dying” could easily add an anxious flavor to the otherwise pleasant experience of rest.

In modern Western culture, we don’t find many invitations to contemplate our own mortality. We’re aware that our ancestors had shorter lifespans, lived closer to death and were a little more comfortable with the inevitability of it.

The idea of death was a part of everyday life for past generations.

Thousands of years ago, the yogis that incorporated the idea of death into philosophy, meditation and physical practice lived in an environment where life often hung by a fragile thread. I doubt anybody blinked an eye when hearing instructions on how to die well  or meditate as a rehearsal of the process.

They also practiced dying as a representation of life’s inherent moment-to-moment impermanence- an unfolding of constant death and rebirth.

The death- life – death principle, however, is very much alive in modern Western yoga, and not limited to Savasana.  For example, during our active practice, we learn to watch all kinds of thoughts, moods and body sensations come and go. When an unpleasant mood comes our way, for example, we stay steady and at ease, knowing it will pass.

Here’s my take on the process of savasana, the yoga practice of deep rest, integration and dis-identification. I’m combining my own metaphors for the process of savasana with a simplified version of the process of yoga outlined in the Sutras: dharana, pratyahara, samadhi to explain why death is not only an appropriate metaphor, but a beautiful, meaningful one.

We’re aiming to deepen our understanding of savasana, but also our relationship to the idea of death.

The watchful focus during our active practice is on the interplay of breath, mind and movement. This is called “Dharana,” (in the Yoga Sutras) and simply translated as “concentration.”

IMG_0590 - Version 2We  gradually make our way to corpse pose for Savasana, to let go of doing, to even let go of watching and concentrating.  The Sanskrit word “Savasana” is very nuanced in meaning. The basic root  “sav” means “approach” or  “go into” or “change” or “alter” and/or “transform.”

Physical death becomes symbolic of releasing our earthly controls: our adherence to our own usual world view and our resistance to involuntary change.

The process of Savasana can be imagined as having three phases:

  • slipping in
  • resting into it deeply
  • completing and exiting the posture with the relaxing residue intact

Lying in a Stream Without Drowning

Now, imagine intentionally arriving at a mountain stream after vigorous hike that has warmed the body temperature and pleasantly fatigued all parts of the body.

The stream is too shallow to swim in.  The body is too tired to swim anyway.  But the stream is shallow enough to lie down in and still breathe.

The body is ready to relax.  The careful, calm way of slipping into the stream and lying down is like gently moving into corpse pose.

Lying down, we take a deep breath and feel relief at the first moments of supine stillness, but the limbs of the body are not entirely comfortable. We make some physical adjustments such as getting our head at the right angle, making the neck and shoulders comfortable.

Once the body is comfortable we notice our senses and energy are still outwardly projected and active from the hike. We feel the body bracing itself against the stimulating flow of the current. The separation between the warm body and the cold current is very apparent.

So we allow the senses to relax and the breath to slow down. Our nervous twitching begins to ease.  We close our eyes and begin to feel the body’s experience of softening and cooling.

The current feels good, but tickles the skin a bit, making us want to fidget. Instead, we abandon the impulse to move and relax more.  At this point, we naturally begin to let go of the outside world — sounds of the birds, the light coming through the trees. This “sense withdrawal” is called “Pratyahara” in the Sutras. We have turned inward and are still aware of the body, on the way to relaxing deeper into a more subtle experience.

Slipping into the stream of Savasana…

The moment of entrance is a broad gesture of letting go of our practice, in much the same way as we just imagined letting go of the desire to hike, or to “get somewhere.” Both are resting into a current that takes hold as each moment unfolds.

Each moment is distinctly different.  The stream we slip into in Savasana allows us to feel a sense of resting into our energy and consciousness.  The more our thinking mind and senses are soothed, the more we can feel energy and consciousness.

Eventually, the body temperature is as cool as the stream.  We have smoothed out into the flow.  Completely rested into the current, we feel like a part of the stream.

Likewise, deepest Savasana is a submerged, time suspended state when thinking mind no longer dominates.  The deepest form of meditative experience is called “Samadhi” in the Sutras and is usually translated as “oneness with the object of meditation.”

Realistically, this oneness only occurs in moments.  Tantra provides a broader term that allows for varying degrees and kinds of suspended states in the term “Yoga Nidra,” or “awakened rest.”  We are familiar with these practices as a part of Restorative yoga classes.

The “trancelike” feeling we have is the body, breath and consciousness at rest together as one.  In Savasana, more than any other pose, we’re free. We allow, as the Yoga Sutras say, the consciousness to “stand liberated in it’s own form,” or “embrace the infinite.”

Out of the Stream Refreshed

Eventually, we remember we are in the stream and sense the current’s tickle and trickle. However, the sense is different than before.

Now we’re simultaneously aware of the stream as separate while maintaining the relaxation of still being one with it.  We notice our thoughts are more clear and flow smoother. This is like re-awakening the breath-body at the end of Savasana.

We practice watching the energy and consciousness without rearranging, interpreting, or disturbing it in any way. This is called “Dhyana” in the Sutras and means “in meditation while aware of the separation of one’s self and the object of meditation.”

IMG_0623We crawl out of Savasana lazily and carefully, staying cool, clear, rejuvenated, relaxed and free. We re-enter our regular life with the intention to preserve Savasana’s residue as long as possible.

Like a re-birth after a death-rest.

So, perhaps the death metaphor now seems a bit less final and morbid. Or at least now the death references at the end of yoga classes might seem less out-of-context.

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