Pattabhi Jois is quoted by Michael Stone in “The Inner Tradition of Yoga”, as saying that savasana is the one pose you should do, if you can’t do any others. This might surprise some yogis who have heard that sirsasana (headstand) is the king of all poses. The ONE to do, not only if short on time, but also as a palliative. October seemed a fitting month to explore the pose and the concept of death in its yogic context.
Besides respecting the words of Pattabhi Jois, why else should we study death? First, consider that no matter what lineage, what style, what teacher, what location, what day time or other variable, every yoga class will include savasana. We study intently, over long periods of time, our alignment in trikonasana (triangle pose), the depth of our exhale, our meditative seat, the correct prop to modify a pose, along with multiple other aspects of the practice. In the same way, savasana, and therefore death, deserve the same treatment.
Second, it is not only what we are inevitably born to do, but it is what we currently are. In the Buddhist tradition, impermanence is one of the three basic characteristics of existence. To study death is not only a study of the future, but of the present moment.
Third, it cultivates a respect for the present moment from which blooms gratefulness. Also from that cultivation arises a reminder to savor and live each moment fully.
How, then, do we work with becoming intimate with impermanence, with death?
1) Become intimate with the breath. The breath is a precious and vital yogic tool which aids the yogi in multiple ways. With the repetitive birth-death cycle (inhales & exhales) of the breath as guide, certain insights may arise about the nature of birth and death on a larger scale.
2) Become intimate with all the “tiny deaths” that surround our daily life, such as the cycle of a day, the life cycle of clothing, the cycles found in the food you eat, the balance of your bank account, the ink levels in your printer, the pens you use to write, the technology that surrounds you, the blink of your eye, teachers and teachings. All of these express impermanence. It is a yogi’s challenge to refute Yuddisthira’s observation* in the Bhagavad Gita, by remaining aware of these little deaths, and, just as with working with the breath, begin to allow the seeds of insight to dig in your awareness.
3) Death meditation. There are various ways to practice a death meditation. Locations can range from your living room to a cemetery to a loved one’s hospital bedside. Methods can include visualizations, reading literature on the stages of death (scientific, or in such philosophical texts as “The Tibet Book of Living and Dying”), contemplating the world you have created around you without you in it, or any of several other techniques. The basic work in this kind of meditation to fully confront your (specifically and uncomfortably) death.
4) Let Go meditation. Set aside a time that will allow you to wander through each room of your living area completely. As you move, contemplate each belonging. Stay with that belonging, keep it in your gaze, until you become comfortable with it no longer being in your life. Do this with everything from the new computer you bought, to the hand-me-down couch that needs to be donated, to the ring your grandmother passed to you, to your collection of music, to your photos, to whatever you have on you at that time.
5) Contemplate during asana, meditation, or quiet reflection the Yoga Sutras, Tao Te Ching, or other texts’ passages on death. For example: Tao 50 “…He holds nothing back from life; therefore he is ready for death, as a man is ready for sleep after a good day’s work.” This passage speaks to how practicing savasana after asana is a practice for dying after life, bring this to your next practice, both the asana and savasana portions.
6) Pull from your own experience. As with all yoga practices, make it relevant to you and your life.
Allow these practices to be uncomfortable, disconcerting, frustrating, upsetting, uplifting, freeing, joyous, exhilarating, or boring. Recall the “This too shall pass” popular yoga story:
A student was struggling in his meditation practice. His body constantly called him away through pain or other distractions. His mind wandered. He saw himself as foolish for wasting time sitting around. Frustration and anger resulted from every session. He considered quitting. He went to his teacher and told him this.
His teacher considered and replied, “It will pass.”
The student returned to his practice. Time went by. His body began to settle and fall away from his mind’s eye when he sat. His awareness was steady. Soon he began to feel subtle shifts in his perception. Elated, he returned to his teacher to share the good news.
His teacher considered and replied, “This too shall pass.”
Inspirations for this post include:
Michael Stone (especially his chant “Life and death are of supreme importance…”)
Tao Te Ching
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Jack Gilbert “Tear it Down”
Tias Little‘s dharma talk at the Shala, NYC, 10/11/2009
*When asked, “Of all things in life, what is most astounding?” Yuddisthira replied, “That a person, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die.”