Savasana: Corpse Pose
In the movie, Dreams, the filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, is in a museum looking at paintings by Vincent van Gogh. The viewer sees him from behind, moving slowly as he absorbs the works of art. Then he picks up his gear, including an easel and paint, and to the surprise of the viewer, walks into one of the paintings. He asks some women washing in the river where to find van Gogh and then heads off through some golden fields. When he comes upon the artist at work, van Gogh turns to him and says, “Why aren’t you painting?”
* * * * * * * * *
Awake, or trying to wake up and not wanting to. My body hurts and the fatigue feels overwhelming. I manage to get up. I attempt to sit in meditation. My mind is not quiet. My capacity to focus is poor. I go into child’s pose, covering myself completely with the blanket but today, even this pose hurts. I try a few other forward bends but nothing seems to work.
Finally, I lay on my back with a folded blanket on my stomach. Another blanket covers me completely, including my face. I roll side to side, tucking in the edges of the blanket so that I feel swaddled. This finally, is what I need, a swaddled savasana.
Suddenly, I find myself in my own painting of savasana. It is unfinished. I feel the dry, parched land on one side and the more alive, lush plants and creatures on the other side. My body is on/in the earth. Some parts of my body are flesh. Some parts are only bone. I see things not yet in the painting – a rock at my head and one at my feet, a snake and a tiger.
In the painting, the differentiation between existence and non-existence is dissolving. When salt or sugar dissolve, the molecules separate into smaller particles like a pile of leaves blown apart by the wind. Dissolving makes it appear that something has disappeared from existence when it has actually been spread out into particles too small to view. In my painting, the process of dissolving has begun. Or, the process of new life has begun. It is difficult to tell the difference. They are the same process.
Shava means corpse. Some schools of hatha yoga encouraged members to frequent graveyards and meditate on the transience of life while perched on a corpse.[i] Death for these yogis was the death of the ego identity and its consequent release from suffering. For them, the graveyard is a place of personal transformation.
“All that has a beginning must of necessity have an end. All that is born must die, all that comes into existence must cease to exist. Thus every existing thing unfailingly aims toward disintegration. The power of destruction is the nearest thing to ‘Qualityless Immenisty’ into which all must return..”[ii]
Death holds a feeling of sweetness for me. I imagine that we dissolve, just as sugar molecules dissolve, into something expansive: a “Qualityless Immensity.” We humans have written myriads of texts about who or what this mysterious Immensity is, texts that we understand as sacred. When I am exhausted, I want to dissolve into such a place of rest from which, I trust, there is some new emergence of the vividness of life. I imagine the death of ego as the yogis understood it, is just such a place of rest. Ego is a heavy word. A healthy ego is, of course, necessary. Yet, melting into the landscape of my painting where I am dissolving, and life is emerging, has great beauty and a feeling of freedom from all the thoughts and cares it is so easy to get tangled in. I imagine this is death of the ego – the thing that distinguishes us from the landscape around us.
I confess that in the early years of my yoga asana practice, I often skipped savasana. I didn’t really feel I had the time or patience. Now I have built a “savasana platform” for myself. I regularly lay down in savasana at a moments notice when I am between tasks, or stuck, or just tired. My cats love this new ritual and I am refreshed from the quiet moments.
Listening to the radio program “On Being,” recently, a Rabbi told the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Jacob said to the angel, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” The Rabbi suggested that when difficulty or some form of crisis arrives on our doorstep, as they most certainly will, we don’t let go until we find the blessing in them - the gift. This perhaps, is a piece of the personal transformation the yogis were finding when they sat on a corpse to meditate.
I want to stay swaddled and in my own painting. But eventually, like Kurosawa, I step back out of the painting, unroll my swaddling, and slowly get up onto my feet. I think I am looking at the world differently though holding on to the experience feels like trying to grasp a cloud. Instead I try walking through my day with the morning’s unique yoga practice of savasana as the background to everything I do and say and think.