Psychotherapist and yoga teacher, Michael Stone, looks at corpse pose
Krishnamacharya, teacher of both Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, taught each of his students the same approach to savasana. This article is a psychological exploration of the posture as taught to me through this lineage.
“…every day, a little ‘bit dying.” Pattabhi Jois
At the end of our asana practice we lie down, feet fallen outward, breath long, hands facing the sky, for savasana, corpse pose. By all accounts, corpse pose is considered the most difficult posture, as we posture the mind and body to imitate a corpse. “Most difficult for students,” says Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, “not waking, not sleeping.”
When we are new to practice, the experience of savasana is simply a rest after the arduous practice of bending, stretching, and twisting the body into various shapes. At first, savasana becomes just another form, but a form seemingly void of technique, concept and application.
In savasana, we let go of any particular breathing technique and simply allow the breath to move through its inherent inhaling and exhaling pattern. As the breath finds its way through the open channels of the body, the mind does so as well, by weaving itself into the strands of thought and sensation that flow through the body. When the breath is free, the mind is free. When the breath is allowed to move naturally, the mind settles into itself. When the mind relaxes, the tongue and palette become spacious, the roof of the mouth lifts and hollows and the central core of the body opens.
While a busy mind is a consequence of overpushing in yoga postures, then it’s opposite is deep sleep during corpse pose. However, corpse pose exists in the middle space between sleep and effort. While sleeping seems to be the most common experience of corpse pose (often dreaming is easier than surrendering to the pose), sleeping keeps us from the depth and subtlety of savasana. It’s not that there is anything “bad” about sleeping or daydreaming, it’s just that those states are considered unconscious, and the mind maintains its state of conditioned existence while in the state of sleep or reverie. From Patanjali’s perspective of looking at hindrances, we could say that we actively engage the imagination in order to avoid the void of corpse pose. This “void” is the inherent emptiness of the present moment.
What are we avoiding when we sleep through corpse pose? When the breath slows down and the mind begins to mingle with the threads of breath and sensation that appear when we calm down, we connect with deep feeling in the core of the body. Usually, the mind tries all sorts of tricks to avoid coming into contact with the feelings and sensations in the core of the body. Again, from Patanjali’s notion of avoidance strategies, we can say that our sense of ourselves depends on relegating unwanted experiences to the corners of the psyche and body where the radar that is perception will not pick them up. And if something is picked up – an uncomfortable thought, a disturbing sensation, a memory – we call up our repertoire of avoidance strategies and we take flight. Sleeping and daydreaming are such flights.b
Most of the time, we live in loops of distraction. Patanjali calls this avidya, or ignorance. Ignorance is related to the act of avoidance. In Savasana, however, we need not avoid. We simply notice, with evenly hovering attention, whatever shows up, and then allow it to pass on, to die, so that we can arrive in the present moment. Savasana offers the possibility of “a small death, every moment, every day,” says Pattabhi Jois. Much of what we notice in yoga practice is our patterns of attachment and repulsion. Swallowing or spitting out, digesting and evacuating, accepting and rejecting: all of these discriminative acts become ways of sorting out what we can tolerate and what we refuse. Yet part of the process of allowing our preconceptions and our reactions to our anxieties to pass away is to allow for our categories of the unacceptable to fall away. When the discomforting thoughts arise, when the sensations that pull us out of Savasana distract us, we tether ourselves to the present moment by not swallowing or spitting out the contents that emerge from the depths of our body and mind. Instead we lie down with all of our repulsions and all of our attachments, both of which are sacred, both of which teach us about our strategies of attraction and avoidance and where we are in relation to the present moment. Observing these patterns allows us to suspend those very strategies and surrender to the feelings that we have been avoiding. This surrender gives way to spaciousness in the mind and body. When one practices this way there is space enough for everything.
When effort ceases we are able, if only briefly, to die into corpse pose. The void is left when the self is absent. When there are no views, no conceptions, no thoughts, no ideas, the world is seen in its actuality, with no filters, modifications, interpretations, goals, and qualifications. In other words, as we allow our conception of the world to pass on, we experience the world as it is in itself. In this space, corpse pose has no beginning or end and our awareness of time dissolves. There is nothing to be done. Thinking comes to a standstill and an intuitive dialectical knowing, rather than a logical or rational understanding, occurs. The gravity of savasana is surrendered to.
Savasana is the art of practicing our death, little by little, every day. “If student does not get up from savasana,” says Pattabhi Jois, “or lifting student up (and he/she) is like a stiff board, savasana is correct.” The aim of yoga practice in daily life is to live vividly from moment to moment without being stuck in thinking or the idea of not-thinking. Wood floor, open window, blanket, cushion, t-shirt, wool socks – there is something profound just here. We are not trying to create an experience; we are making room for experience to happen. Experience, like the present moment, is always waiting for a place to happen. The architecture of savasana requires us to continually let the ground we are lying down on, literally the ground of our thoughts and our bodies, to fall away, until the constructs that frame our experience pass on. This is an act of both dying and being born. Our imagination makes us very busy exploring the world of choices. In the end, there will be no choice, just death. So in the center of your bumbling human life, where you are always looking around for something better, notice how the present moment is just a small death away.
Michael Stone is a yoga teacher and psychotherapist in private practice in Toronto. His website is www.mindbodypsychotherapy.com.
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