Other cultures (and not only eastern ones) actually meditate in graveyards and charnel grounds where bodies are buried and/or cremated. These places are full of significance for practitioners. They symbolize the self integration that sustains a meaningful life, connected with the change that guides the universe, encourages the suspension of ego, the end of fear-based attachment to this body and life.
The equivalent practice in modern Western yoga is the practice of becoming a fair and distanced witness to the integration within our breath-body. Life on the mat is a laboratory for the observation of our likes, dislikes, habits and patterns as they come and go.
As we react to poses, the instruction, our own performance, we see ourselves with a clearer lens and let go of what no longer serves us. By doing so, we move closer to our unconditioned or “pure” self and the larger process that animates the entire web of life.
The Hindu diety that symbolizes this observance of change is Siva who is connected to the principle of “sava” or change. Siva is the masculine witness who watches the activity of his feminine counterpart diety “Shakti,” who symbolizes the creative force. The two are actually one. So, Savasana is not “playing dead,” but actually relaxing into the colorful, many layered interplay of unfolding creation, deeper and deeper, and then leaving the mat with the imprint of what we discovered in practice.
Anatomically, this creation is the body’s ability to heal itself. We lay still so as not to disturb the work. We also sink our awareness into the amazing process without disturbing it. So just as Siva and Shakti are actually two parts of consciousness- watching and creating- our deepest moments of Savasana is a unity of witnessing and work.
Mind is sunk into body and body is sunk into mind. Leaving savasana, the two are distinct yet harmonious and equal.
Savasana is at least 600 years old and is first mentioned in The Hatha Yoga Pradipika as 1 of 15 primary poses. Though often neglected in classes, Savasana can be more than lapsing into dullness– or a chance to spin off into the mind. Practiced authentically, with understanding of it’s role in life, Savasana is very rich beyond words and measures.
In stillness, we understand inherent ease. The Ashtavakra Gita clarifies this very effectively…..
All things arise,
And pass away.
This is their nature.
When you “know” this
you become still.
It is easy.
So, the “stilling of the swirling movements of the mind” mentioned in the Yoga Sutras is another way of practicing death to find insight. Physically, there is some degree of freedom and insight to be found in all poses, but none more than in Savasana. As Pattabhi Jois (R.I.P.) often said, we are “practicing death, a little bit every day” with each Savasana.