I hear different stories about why people come to yoga. To fit into a size six. To lose the belly. To gain strength or repair a broken knee. To balance out the heavy weight or extended practice of some other sport. I could say those things, too. I came to yoga through a physical practice. But I wasn’t looking for exercise, or even enlightenment. I was looking for ways not to die.
I had a sort of plunging, inexorable thrashing toward death. Suicide daydreams. A history of bad, near lethal choices. A tendency to deaden myself with drugs and alcohol. “Depression”, say. “Alcoholism”. Whatever.
I’ve spent the last hour looking for a book for words I remember in it that say better what I want to say, but I think I’ve given the book away. In Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich describes a young woman’s reaction to hearing of a death. She is non-committal. She is passive. She listens, talks, drinks like normal. But later, alone, she stretches out on the naked ground. She wants to ‘feel June in the right way’. She mirrors, and explores, death.
As, I think, we all do. I remember a sordid realization as a kid, sitting at an early funeral. Already, I doubted afterlife or at least gathered that it was far beyond anything I could understand. And far, far from the body laid out in the coffin. It seemed that ‘death’, the ceremony of funeral, the fact of dying, is more a thing the living go into than the dead.
Odd, then, that one of the most important poses of yoga, one that is supposed to beat fatigue, induce life, restore, is named after dying. Is practiced by laying dead still. The earliest mention of savasana I can find is in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, given around the fourteenth century: “Lying full length on the back like a corpse is called savasana. With this asana, tiredness caused by other asanas is eliminated; it also promotes calmness of the mind”. Yeah, so. That’s what they’ll say in any westernized class. Namely, nothing. No reason why pretending to be dead should spur us to life, or ‘calm the mind’.
Savasana is the final posture. As dying is our final action.
Practice, then lie flat on the floor and die to what you have done. Let go of it. Let go of everything. For it was never really yours, anyway.
You will, I found myself saying in class, lose every single pose you’ve spent so much time and sweat and grunting trying to get. You will lose every pose you master. Except one. Savasana. That is the one to master.
Even in the asana, in the movement, we are embodying meditation. Everything is mirror. Everything is meaning. This is ritual, religion, and metaphor that we do with our hands and our skin. B.K.S. Iyengar says to place a black cloth folded four times across the eyes. A little shroud. I say the body lengthens, refines, grows thin. Wispy. Dead heavy. The mindbody becomes weightless, while the bones sink toward deep ground. The torn heart is pulled open, not I think so it can drink or fill, but so the sky dwellers, the living, can look down and see this world as it is, bloody and rhythmic. The breath moves, without effort. The skin opens its tiny, nervy mouths and air streams through in gasps and whispers.
We let go, say the sages, of any particular breathing or effort, and let it fall open. The openness of the breath reaches down and twines with the openness of the body. The space created reveals the feelings and emotions, the thoughts and obsessions, we normally cover up. The space reveals, the sages say, the void.
Yoga is existentialism.
It was not my own death, simply, that I was fighting. A few months into my yoga practice, a friend jumped off the Brooklyn bridge. There was no body, and nothing really to say. I had been on my way to a yoga practice when I heard. I sat down at the edge of the bed. I stood up again, sat down again. I wondered, like Erdrich’s character, how best to feel my friend in the right way. What do I do, now? What to do when your hands are full of death?
I went to my yoga class.
In camel pose, a heart opener, I suddenly sucked in more breath than I’d ever sucked before and I crumpled forward, gasping. It turns out, this was weeping. I wept. When we finally came to savasana, it was a relief. The tears stopped. I could lie, still and gutted. I felt both close to my friend and how he was receding away from me, how he was gone. I learned what grief feels like in the muscle and the mouth. Camel can still wring those sucky, desperate breaths out of me (drowing! drowning.). Corpse pose feels more like a comfort. (He is dead. yes. I am alive. yes. swaha.)
Of course, there have been other deaths. Another suicide. A child. Also, the birth of a child. And as I’ve practiced, as I’ve written, as I’ve quit drinking, I’ve begun to prod around this death thing with more bravery. The fascination and mystery was always there. But now it has more relevance. More courage. Death shows us how to live, and then we die. In savasana, we stop. That is the best way to remember who we are.
Why should the ancients name it corpse pose, if it’s supposed to destroy fatigue and depression, to ‘calm the mind’? Why should the meditation on death, the feeling it the right way, make us more calm? Why not call it ‘sleeping pose’? or ‘laying down stick?’. There is reason, everywhere.
The reason: it is terrifying, and then it suddenly is not. Or is still terrifying, but also lots of other things. Terror isn’t the end or only. Life is hard. But not only hard. Pattabhi Jois says “return to the practice, and all else is coming”. Practice your death. And live. Erdrich’s character, laid out still in the sleeping mud, culls up her dead. I invite mine into my notebooks. Remember, inadvertently, uncomfortably, in meditation, the times I’ve flirted with non-being. Where does all of that go? Spirits fly. And memory steps into our own bones, to sleep. The dead exist nowhere but in our own selves. Which gives us gravity. Which makes us rise up, as if shocked by a cattle prod, gasping for breath.
Consider the guidelines for savasana:
Imagine a straight line running from your chin to your sternum to your pubic bone. Allow your bottom teeth to drop away from the top ones. When each toe goes limp, quiet your sacrum. Make each nostril wide. Let your head be the last thing to plunge like a stone. Roll your eyes up. Relax the tongue. Remember, a stone is mute. The path downward can feel like a dream. It isn’t real until everything shuts down. The ground is a friend to the spine. Be there.
Consider, Iyengar not only said that savasana calms the brain, he also said “a perfect savasana needs perfect discipline. It is not only very uncomfortable to the brain, but it makes the body feel like a piece of dry dead wood.”
Mark Doty wrote intimately, beautifully, tenderly of the death of his lover. He wrote, particularly, of his lover’s body. He wrote of the moments before and after death. How the body was a bridge between the two, and a bridge between the two men. The body was not, of course, his lover. His lover died, the body stayed. But the body was the way he knew his lover, it was their language, their touch, their passage. Watching the body, watching the death, Doty remarked that he had never gone so deep inside the life of his lover, nor so deeply into his own.
Once, I buried a dog. Sometimes I dream of the dog, still. Sometimes he barks at me from the dead quiet of my many corridor-ed mind. Think, for a moment, of how someone dies, and you die with them, but then your life goes on living itself. Of the moment when there is no answer, no matter how loud you call or how wild you pray. Death happens, and we live through it, and then the dead move into our bones to sleep. Then alone we have to stand up.
Think, said Wayne Dyer in his first of many multi-million dollar self help books, for a moment of a constant companion, something always behind your left shoulder. For lack of a better name, he says, call it your own death. Whenever you wonder, whenever you pause, ask yourself how long you’ll be dead, and what your living choices might then mean.
Think, with that openness in the body that has carried you through this practice, with that breath that moves somehow each fiber and cell and flicker of the body, think, as you end your practice, of what it means to live.
Calm is born there.