In the twelve or so years I’ve been practicing yoga I have noticed the shift in importance regarding shavasana. It used to be that a ninety-minute class would have space and time for at least a ten to fifteen-minute period at the end to lay on your back, arms and legs stretched out long on the ground. A time of stillness, rest, a time to absorb the effort and energy of the practice.
A time to practice death.
I remember the first time I learned that shavasana was corpse pose. My teacher at the time rarely explained that relationship because it often freaked people out. We humans tend to have a complicated relationship with death.
I’ve noticed how over the years, class length has shortened and, with that shortening, shavasana often becomes two minutes or three. Sometimes five minutes will be spared.
It’s a challenge – or at least it was for me when I first started practicing. To just lay there. My mind would always race around and I can actually remember the energy moving through my field and in my body. The energy prompting so much resistance to laying down. I never knew if I was “doing it right” and wanted to open my eyes and look around the room. What was everyone else doing? Really – I was just supposed to lay here? That’s all?
Later on, as the effort of the physical practice preceding was often difficult for me, I relished getting to that place of shavasana. It was met with an excitement.
Now, as a teacher and as a student, I notice how this important part of the practice is often relegated to the clock and getting the next class in on time. The few minutes that we all now seem to “fit in” really never enough to fully get into the posture.
At a retreat last year I overheard the teacher talking about how there is no perfection of a pose (which I liked). I heard him say to a student, “if you’re going to ‘perfect’ one pose – let it be shavasana”.
The teacher continued, “in the end, it’s the only pose that you’ll be able to do so why not do it well?”.
Death. A moment of dissolution. A moment where form no longer matters and we enter into the formless.
In yoga philosophy the cycle of life and death is often described by the Gods Brahma (as the creator), Vishnu (the sustaining force or preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer). I’ve always imagined these three playing out like the image of a sine wave where the creation starts and then rises up into a pattern for a length of time or effort and then falls back down and finds a completion of some sort only to rise again. It’s not quite so linear as so many things are being born and dying constantly, and yet this is how I understand it.
What I start to notice is where within that cycle I’m most comfortable and where I’m not. I love the creating force. I enjoy the start of things. I can be in the sustaining force for a great length of time (sometimes to my benefit and sometimes to my detriment) whether it’s a project or relationship or an emotion or any aspect of life. The destruction phase is one that I’ve been learning to become more comfortable with. Be it a physical loss, death of a person or being, or the many other deaths we experience in a lifetime. The positive deaths of personal and psychological growth are some aspects of this destruction such as learning that a belief that served you when you were three may no longer be necessary as an adult. The dissolution of a relationship, marriage, a business or completion of a major project are other possibilities (to name a few).
In the past several weeks I’ve noticed myself moving through what has felt like a phase of dissolving. The yoga studio I have been a student at and have taught at for seven years announced that its closing. For me, this is one of the last pieces of a pattern of death that has been happening for some time.
I noticed when I received the news that I immediately thought of all the students I wouldn’t see and wouldn’t get to say goodbye to (I’m away for their last month of business). I felt the emotions of sadness and loss rise up and I actually let them be there. Not long after I had a workshop that was canceled because no one signed up. I immediately felt as though nobody wanted what I had to offer, even though so many people have said the opposite.
It was this dissolving force. For a few days it felt as though I was dissolving in it. This also brought up a significant moment of trauma for me from the past. A moment which led to a direct experience with death.
Yet, the deaths do happen. Constantly. The dissolution can feel (for me) as though there’s nothing to hold onto and so I start to grasp for what I know. Often, that is to look for old beliefs or old memories with similar charges of pain or emotion. The difference in this moment for me was that instead of having those beliefs beat me down or control me, I took a look at them. I sat with them. I felt the pain the thoughts inflicted.
As I noticed the thoughts rise up repeating in a way that felt as though they wanted to skewer my heart, it also felt as though a massive gateway opened in the bottom of my heart. It was wide and deep – like a great void while also full of vibration. It was as if something in me had physically unlocked and opened. The first day it happened, I closed the door to the gateway. I simply said, “not right now”. The gateway closed and the pain dissipated, as did the thoughts. I found relief. Though I knew that they had only gone temporarily, I felt proud of myself for setting that boundary in the moment. It was too much for me right then.
In the days that followed I felt the sensations rise again and again only more subtly at first and I realized a connection to what I was feeling right now and a significant moment of trauma that was still charged with potent emotion and all of these belief that “nobody wants what I have to offer” which morphed into “I have nothing to offer”. The difference now was that I have so much evidence to the contrary. I could simultaneously hold with compassion the beliefs that were trying to hurt me, and at the same time reveal that they weren’t true.
The sensations rebuilt in intensity across my heart and I noticed that as I gave up my resistance and let myself step into what was happening, the gateway reopened and reappeared. I was afraid to go through it the first time. I didn’t know what would happen on the other side. I feared dissolving. Losing. Falling out of form or being. Only as I kept myself separate and distanced from this fear of going into the gateway, that was exactly what was happening – I was feeling myself dissolve and I was reacting to it instead of being in it. So, as the gateway reappeared I knew this time, I had to go through. And so… I did.
I walked into the dissolution. I walked into the sensations and feelings. And it released a huge energetic block from the past. My heart healed. The gateway closed. It gave way. I gave way. I accepted dissolution much more fully.
Not only could I witness how I managed and held myself through trauma in the past. I could allow this part of me to move through the gateway and into death now. I wasn’t ready before.
And now I’m free of that structure. Free of the form. I moved into formlessness and it was challenging. It felt challenging to be without an anchor and to notice when I searched for them.
To move into formlessness and know I was also safe. Know that I’m not moving into my actual death. While, at the same time, know that there is a major part of me dying and that death is one to celebrate and honour.
I can see now how I have often stayed in that sustaining force. I have often stayed there to avoid dissolving (even if where I am staying isn’t healthy or if I hold on to emotions or resentments simply because at least they are something I know). Now I know that I also need to dissolve. I need to embrace it and be able to move into it in order to live well. To not live in death or a fear of death and to be able to sit with it and beside it and know that it’s okay. That it’s a part of living.
It feels as though I’ve entered completely new ground. Only it’s not fully new. It’s built upon the foundation of all those times in shavasana. No matter what happened during them, the fact was that I am able to practice “perfecting” that pose. It’s far from perfect (and may never be, even in my actual death) and it’s not the “perfecting” that interests me. It’s the practice.