"By remaining motionless for some time and keeping the mind still while you are fully conscious, you learn to relax. This conscious relaxation invigorates and refreshes both body and mind. But it is much harder to keep the mind than the body still. Therefore, this apparently easy posture in one of the most difficult to master." B.K.S. Iyengar.
I started this post about savasana to be a short newsletter. Quickly, though, I realized that there is so much to this pose than it appears and my "short newsletter" has become multiple blog posts. How? You may ask. How can a pose that is 'just laying there' require so many words and explanations?
There are a few reasons for this:
I'll explore all of these reasons in this series, but I'll start with one of the primary misconceptions:
It's actually called Corpse Pose
This one may not be a misconception, but a misnomer. Calling savasana a relaxation pose is accurate, but 'relaxation' is not the direct translation of the word savasana and as such, it doesn’t really capture it’s entire meaning.
I am guilty of side-stepping this actual translation and purposefully calling it "Relaxation Pose." I do this because I am sensitive to the fact that it might be a trigger for some people in the grief support group, especially without more context about the deeper meaning of the name.
As with other aspects of grief and emotional awareness, authenticity and calling something what it actually is can be helpful. So I explored it, which is how this post came to be.
I found what B.K.S. Iyengar says about savasana in Light on Pranayama to be enlightening:
“Sava in Sanskrit means a corpse and asana a posture. Thus Savasana is a posture that simulates a dead body, and evokes the experience of remaining in a state as in death and of ending the heart-aches and the shocks that the flesh is heir to. It means relaxation, and therefore recuperation. It is not simply lying on one’s back with a vacant mind and gazing, nor does it end in snoring. It is the most difficult of yogic asanas to perfect, but it is also the most refreshing and rewarding.”
"Ending the heart-aches and shocks the the flesh is heir to."
I know that for myself, I was always oddly perplexed that I was doing 'corpse pose' when death was so front and centre in my life. The way I reconciled the name corpse pose with practicing it after a death, is that it was a practice of complete and total surrender (surrender: to cease resistant to).
I found it easy to cease resistance to the fatigue I felt in my body and to slip into the stillness and silence of savasana. Mentally surrendering to the reality that grief eradicated my life as I knew it felt congruent because so many parts of me died when Cam died. The hard part was the SURGE of emotion that would spontaneously arise, making the supposed-surrender all the more complex and at times seemingly impossible. It did not feel like 'relaxation' as suggested by the Iyengar in the quote above.
He says, "remaining in a state as in death and of ending the heart-aches and the shocks that the flesh is heir to." Before you can end the heart-aches and shocks (maybe 'live-well-with' is a better word than end?) you must experience them in a way that integrates the heart-ache and shock reality into our life. Feel it to heal it.
When Iyengar says "ending" the heart-aches and shocks" I don't think he means permanently ending. We are human after all, and of course, heart-aches and shocks will happen throughout life whether we want them to or not. I think he means that in between the surges of thought and emotions there are moments of complete and total stillness that are void of thought, emotion and suffering. It is in these moments that you can truly relax.
The practice of savasana is to cultivate the ability to stay conscious of everything that is going on within you so that you can learn how to extend those spaces of stillness a little longer each time. Becoming still in the body and witnessing the impermanence and flow of thoughts and emotions is the doorway to conscious relaxation. More broadly, savasana teaches you how to manage life's ups and downs with less reactivity and more equanimity.
Another way to look at corpse pose is seeing it as the conscious awareness of death, and how parts of you and your life "die" everyday, especially after a major loss. Savasana, as a daily (or often) practice is quite literally, the practice of dying everyday; letting go of what we can let go of (like the constant and sometimes unhelpful chatter of the mind, for example) and appreciating some of the deeper chords that link us to life (awareness of the preciousness and fragility of life and relationships).
At the end of savasana when you slowly begin to move your body and deepen your breath, you are symbolically "beginning again." This idea of continually re-opening or re-beginning is a major part of integrating your yoga practice into your life and feeling recuperated from it.
“We die a little every day and by degrees we’re reborn into different men, older men in the same clothes, with the same scars.”
Regardless of what happens in savasana - you sleep, you cry, you think your head off - doing it with awareness and the intention to practice conscious relaxation is the most important part.
I hope you've enjoyed my take on corpse pose and I'd love to hear what you think. Feel free to comment below.
Stay tuned for the next post where I will look more deeply at savasana as a practice.
Through out this post I've referenced Light on Pranyama by B.K.S Iyengar. There is a wonderful chapter in the book on savasana and I recommend it as a resource.
Another one of my favourite books which looks at relaxation in a broader, more practical "off the mat" sense is Sabbath by Wayne Muller.
"The practice of yoga, in fact, reveals that the body is in no way separate from the psychospiritual forces that animate it."
This is the book I've been waiting for.
Have you ever read a book where you didn't even know what you didn't know until you read it? Reading this book, Yoga of the Subtle Body, was like finding the last few puzzle pieces I'd been looking for...BUT, instead of completing my puzzle, it has "springboarded" me to go even deeper into my yoga practice.
The introduction starts with the question “What is the subtle body?” which is an excellent question. Indeed, what IS the subtle body?! He describes it as the fine, delicate, infinitesimally small, all-pervading psycho-spiritual force that transcends scientific rationale. (No wonder I had a hard time understanding it pre-book :) )
The neat thing about this book is that Tias unravels the complex and intricate aspects of the subtle body, while using our modern understanding of anatomy and physiology to anchor the teachings. There's more though. He weaves together wisdom from different practices, ages and disciplines including: classic Indian mythology, the chakra and nadis systems, the structural body, traditional Chinese medicine, craniosacral therapy and reflexology. He does a fantastic (and probably very hard) job at distilling and uniting all of this wisdom in one place.
Throughout the book, Tias includes gentle yoga, pranyama and meditation exercises that apply the mind-body principles he shares. These practices are not to be skimmed over, but to be slowly and deeply experienced, allowing the wisdom to absorb. He doesn't talk about asana as mechanical poses, but takes the reader much, much deeper into the felt and internal experience of the pose, and educates the reader on the vibrational, pranic and subtle aspects of the pose.
His writing is poetic and embodied - making this manual even more coveted in my opinion. As I was reading I could feel my inner body responding to his words. For example, "soak your awareness into your heartbeat the way rainwater soaks the ground after a storm," (page 185). It's in his use of language that he achieves his intention of inspiring the reader to look at their yoga practice in a new way.
“I believe that ultimately it is impossible to articulate the yogic experience in words. By articulating the body-mind connection through analogy and image (such as lifting the brain stem upward like the hood of a cobra), a direct experience of the sublte body becomes more palpabe. Metaphorical thinking allows for greater flexibility, imagination, and openness, all of which are integral to the mind in meditation.” (page 2)
I found this book very applicable to grief, because grief is a holistic experience that permeates all aspects of our being. It's impossible to outline all the ways this book could be supportive of grief, because everyone's experience is individual - but I can guarantee that there will be something that resonates with your experience. He writes about prana, the immeasurable source of life itself, as being impacted by the powerful effects of emotion (page 3). He writes about the gut and emotional distress. He describe the energy channels and meridians of the legs as being essential for grounding, which can be really helpful in the wake of loss and upheaval. One part that I found really interesting is the hand-lung-heart connection (see photo below).
This review was difficult to write because of the amount of wisdom this book imparts, however, it's suffice to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. So much so, that I'm reading it a second time. No, reading is the wrong word. I'm experiencing it in my body as I go through it again. I plan to take a really, really long time, and (quite literally) take-in, everything I can.
Resources for further exploration...
You can pick up a copy of this book on Amazon Canada by clicking the link below, or visiting your favourite bookstore.
While I was reading this book, I was concurrently doing a series on Gaia called Shapeshift: Exploring Movement & Emotions with Ashleigh Sergeant. She is a student of Tias Little's and offers a great 7 week series that guides you through some of the practices outlined in the book. It was really interesting to combine the two. Highly recommend.
I'd also recommend Tias Little's website - https://www.prajnayoga.net
You can also find him on YouTube. Just search his name in the YouTube search bar, and you'll find lots.
READING GIVES US SOME PLACE TO GO WHEN WE HAVE TO STAY WHERE WE ARE. - MASON COOLEY
We are always seeking contact with Heaven, but how many of us have made any reasonable contact with Mother Earth?” - BKS Iyengar
Today is April Fools day. It’s kind of a strange day, if you think about it. I love the family friendly shenanigans that some companies do. This morning, I got an email from Halfmoon Yoga Products, promoting a Mood Mat. This mat changes colour depending on your mood. Kind of like those hypercolor t-shirts everyone wore when I was in junior high school.
Amazed, I clicked the link, and was re-directed to a page that said, "April Fools! Sadly Mood Sensing Mat Technology is not yet available. We'll keep you posted because we think it would be pretty neat!"
No harm, no foul. I can laugh and say, “Good one, guys,” and it even feels good to be released from the tomfoolery, back into reality.
Nevertheless, with intense grief, everything can be a trigger. April Fool's included. Even though Cam died in June, not April, I remember feeling like I was the biggest April Fool who ever lived.
For many many months after, I felt like it had all been a cruel prank. One big joke. It had to be, because it couldn’t possibly be my life. I was desperate to wake up and be released from my worst nightmare. Instead, I woke up, punched in the stomach by my reality. It was no prank. It was true. Cam died. Sometimes, after 12 years, I still can’t believe it.
Shock is weird. I remember some things so vividly from those early months, and in other ways I remember nothing. It was like I was living in a dream. Which, actually I preferred because my dreams were more believable than my real life.
I dreamt that I couldn’t find Cam. We were at a movie together, and then all of a sudden he was gone. I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t tell me where he was going. I couldn’t find a phone to call him.
Then my dreams shifted and I started dreaming he broke up with me. I didn’t know why and wanted to find him or call him to make things right. In one of those dreams, I actually found a phone and called him, only to wake up as soon as he answered.
My dreams, although distressing, were more rational, believable, and fixable than my waking reality. I wanted to live in dreamland. I'd have been happy if I didn't wake up. But, I did.
In my waking life, I did my best to live where Cam was - in the mystical and spiritual planes. I read books like, Talking to Heaven: A Mediums Message of Life After Death by James Van Praagh, and We Are Their Heaven: Why the Dead Never Leave Us by Allison DuBois. I found a medium in a nearby town and went to an appointment with her (which was amazing by the way, but maybe another post all together). Connecting with Cam in the realm of spirit even seemed more possible than believing he was dead. Being near him somehow was a balm to the thought of living without him in my personal earthy hell.
In these mediumship books they describe their process of connecting to the dead as one of quieting and opening the mind, while softening the senses and developing present moment focus. So, I signed up for a meditation class.
In our first class, as the instructor guided us to settle our minds, my emotions started to overflow. Desperately, my mind inserted mundane thoughts to keep the emotional release at bay: What color throw pillows should I buy? What color should I repaint the bathroom?
Those thoughts soon burnt themselves out and I was left with the gaping void of death and hating my life. I fought back tears the entire time, and then drove home hysterical. I thought going to meditation would make me feel better and it made me feel worse. I felt let down by something that I thought would be my saving grace.
That night, I emailed my cousin Richard and his girlfriend Tammy who had established meditation practices. This was part of their response:
When we sit in meditation, what is in our truest core self will start to arise. Allow your pain to come through as tears and you will be softened by it and transformed by it. Eventually the tears will run dry, and a deep inner silence will follow. Then you will be able to meditate without the intense emotion coming up, but until then allow this process. Be with yourself. Don’t be self conscious about your emotion. What you resist persists. You have to feel it to heal it.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this laid the foundation of my future work using meditation and yoga to live with loss. Understanding how to deal with emotion while meditating was both the keystone in my process as well as a grand paradox: you have to move toward the pain to heal it.
It seems counter intuitive to knowingly move towards such intense pain (especially when the cultural norm is to move away from pain - to hurry it, get over it, find closure, not live in the past and get back to normal), but moving towards the pain is the practice. It’s not to escape, or disconnect, or distract, but to become embodied and connect more deeply. This is the gift and the challenge of meditation.
My inner landscape of grief wasn’t as treacherous, the more I navigated the terrain. Ironically, the more I connected with my feelings of the loss of Cam, the more present he was in my life - spiritually, emotionally and cognitively. I was developing my own beliefs around his death, and how to continue living well while missing him.
I never became able to connect with Cam’s spirit in the way a medium would/could, but was more comfortable and self-assured searching for, and coming to answers to my questions within myself…but maybe this is connection to spirit…my spirit.
EASTER MORNING IN WALES
It’s not just the tincture of time that heals grief, it’s the conscious opening to our pain, in safe and supportive environments that is healing.
This is a counter-culture way to approach grief in our mourning avoidant society.
What is needed for the bereaved is a container of education and support around the benefit of feeling emotion, while embarking on a meditation and yoga practice.
If you are looking for this support and sanctuary, please consider my 8 week online Yoga for Grief Support Program.
I developed this so people who cannot attend my in-person group can still benefit from the supportive benefits of yoga and meditation. Click below to find out more.
I was listening to a podcast about Buddhism – which I have always found to be a complementary philosophy to yoga philosophy – especially around learning how to deal with suffering. There is something about these Eastern philosophies that I find peaceful – not because they have the answers, but because they confirm that life is made up of questions.
On this particular day I was listening to a podcast featuring Bernie Glassman. He was speaking about bearing witness and loving action.
The practice of bearing witness is to see all of the aspects of a situation
What I love about Bernie Gassman’s talks, is that he goes in with no agenda – he speaks to whatever arises in the moment. He “bears witness” to the needs of the people he is speaking with…and goes from there. He started his talk by asking if anyone had any questions that had arisen from a talk he had given the previous day; encouraging the audience by relating the power of questions in the statement, “Questions have energy and answers do not.”
Oh, how I loved this statement. Questions have energy.
Answers stop the question. Complete it. Finish it. Answers are linear. Questions carry energy with them. Questions are circular and spiral, taking you deeper.
It made me think of living with grief, and all the questions that surround such a change in life. Especially because many of these questions have no answers: We may never know how or why our loved one died, we may never know what happens to the spirit after death (if anything), we don’t know moment to moment, day to day where our emotions will take us and how we will go one living with our loss.
So many questions…so few answers.
Hearing Bernie Glassman re-phrase these mysteries in such a way made me realize that maybe the answer is the question itself. There is power in not knowing and not having the answers. Perhaps this is what keeps us moving along.
As Wendell Barry says,
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
Part of journeying through grief is appreciating that this path you are on is one that has never been traveled before, by you or by anyone. The specifics of your grief are defined by innumerable personal variables: your personality traits, the traits and life of the person who died, the circumstances of their death, intricacies of your relationship to them, etcetera, etcetera. Considering all these factors, it is suffice to say that there is no one way to grieve. There is no definitive road map, no to-do list, no checklist to refer to.
Simply being on the path creates your path. It’s the questions that guide you on your way.
How do questions like these land within you:
“What happens when someone dies?”
"Why did this happen?"
“How am I going to bring myself comfort when I feel so torn up?”
“How am I going to choose to live my life in a way that feels meaningful and true based on my experiences?”
Can you ask these questions for the sake of the questions themselves? Can you bear witness to your questions, and be comfortable with not (yet or ever) knowing the answers?
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the fourth Niyama (ethical discipline, or rule-of-conduct) is Svadhyaya, which means self-study. Ancient yogis looked inside themselves for the answers to cosmic questions, and in fact, the sutra says “Study thy self, discover the divine.”
Yoga, as a holistic system allows this self-study to take place by turning your attention inward, developing concentration and single pointed inner focus, and observing the true nature of the mind. The physical and spiritual practice of yoga cultivates discernment, awareness, self-regulation and eventually union with your big-S-Self (the true self, Atman (inner self or soul), immense Consciousness, or divine within you).
But, before that happens, it is likely that your practice of inner yoga and self-study, will turn up even more questions…especially in the face of grief. The take home point is that your process of discovery must arise from within.
This philosophy of yoga can be applied each time you do a pose. Instead of becoming complacent with sequencing and the execution of certain poses, treat each pose as though it were the first time you were doing it. Practice becoming re-acquainted with your body and your mind in each moment - opening yourself up to the process and wisdom of studying and discovering yourself with non-judgemental and compassionate attention. If a question, query, or debate arises within you, practice breathing into it. Give the question a life of it’s own, by which the answer will eventually be lived.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke says,
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
And so, as you journey to the heart of your Self and the heart of your grief, trust in the nature of your questions to carry you forward, and backward – both of which are required as you integrate loss. This is not a sudden process - it’s a gradual process. A gradual awakening and evolution of understanding your own specific beliefs around death, life and living.
If you're interested in reading more about the Yoga Sutra's of Patanjali or more by Rilke, check out these books below:
I recently started reading a book called Full Body Presence by Suzanne Scurlock-Durana. The first chapter had me hooked.
In those first few pages she wrote of something that I have known on some level, but seeing it in print made it so much more tangible.
She describes many instances when we don't trust our internal awareness - for example, feeling intense grief over a dear friend moving away but being told by people around you that your grief was not important, and shameful..."Why are you worried about it? You have many other friends, right?" Or having a creepy reaction to someone in your life and being told to stop being so silly and jumping to conclusions.
"In all these examples, your body was telling you something important, but those around you tried to convince you that what you were sensing wasn't real or valid" (page 9).
It was this lack of trust of our inner and deepest self that struck a chord within me.
She further describes how a lack of trust of our inner worlds leads us to looking for external sources to shape, define, solve, remedy our lives.
Take grief for example.
Our grief slows us down physically and mentally. We feel tired, lethargic, numb, confused, disorientated, lost and sometimes even crazy. Our emotions are all over the map. We feel so different, our lives feel foreign. We wish we could go back in time and never let go of the past.
The worst part is this: In the throngs of grief you don't know what to do. You've never lived like this before. If you don't know, and don't trust what you feel inside, you look outside yourself for the answers.
You look to a society that pushes speed, rewards efficient solutions, reveres stoicism, and demands productivity. We, as a society, don't do well with stillness, solitude, loneliness, pain, and hurt.
So here we are.
"Keep really busy," they advise.
"Don't cry. She wouldn't want you to be sad," they scold.
"You need to get back to how you were before he died," they push.
"Don't live in the past," they warn.
"Stop feeling sorry for yourself," they say.
"Quit playing the victim."
Need I go on?
We are taught to not trust our grief.
Intuiting the message, reading between the lines, understanding the subtext, we hear this:
"Whatever grief-striken energy you feel inside you is wrong. You feel the wrong things. You think the wrong things. You are doing it wrong."
What I teach in Yoga for Grief Support is this:
"Whatever grief-stricken energy you feel inside you is something to pay attention to. There is wisdom there. Let's learn, together, how to touch those wounds with compassion."
If you feel it, it's real.
If you feel it, it's important.
If you feel it, you can heal it.
Be curious about it. What is it saying? What is it's message? What is it's deepest need?
What if you believed that your internal world is telling you something very important about how you need to heal and nurture your broken heart?
Imagine, just for a second that the grief within you can be trusted - even in it's painful.
I mean, you are hurt, afterall. Let's spend some time there.
Say to it, "I will take care of you."
This is what moving towards your pain is. You must move (gently and with no rewards for speed) towards (and through) your pain to heal.
Suzanne Scurlock-Durana writes that our bodies are "incredible navigational systems that inform us constantly, from our gut instincts to our heart's deepest yearnings" (page 5).
Let's shift our relationship to our instincts and our senses from one of mistrust and doubt to reliance, and connection.
I'd love to hear your feedback on this book if/as you read it.
Please feel free to post comments under this blog.
Subscribe by Email