One of the many aspirations I had going into the yoga teacher training was to find out what it is that the yoga teachers don’t tell us in public classes. I am learning a lot of that. Here is one example.
The vast majority of yoga classes end with the pose in which the students lie on the ground, supine, for a few minutes, having let go of any effort. The pose is called Savasana, corpse pose. It feels nice to lie down and rest like that, especially after a vigorous practice or after a long day, so I guess it has a purpose, but what is the purpose?
Once, at a coffee shop, I overheard a woman telling her friend about yoga and explaining that the pose is done to integrate the practice. They moved to a different table before I could hear more; they might have noticed me eavesdropping.
The name of the pose is pretty morbid, but I had assumed that was just a Sanskrit pose-naming quirk. Nonetheless, this short article titled “Purpose of Savasana” in the Yoga Journal starts “In Corpse Pose, we symbolically ‘die’ to our old ways of thinking and doing”. I suppose, that could mean the pose is the passage from the work of practice back into the world, leaving behind what needs to be left behind.
One of our teacher training instructors told us that the purpose of Savasana is to practice for the death. Now, take this idea with a grain of salt, because that was only one teacher that one time, and because the purpose is often multifaceted, different for different people, or over time for the same person. But what a thought nonetheless.
The arc of a hatha yoga class, as far as I can tell from the practitioner’s point of view goes, more or less, like this. We settle in with a short ritual. Then there is a warm up. Some teachers, not everyone, introduce Balasana, the child’s pose, early on, as a reminder to feel free to rest whenever. The warm up leads either to a climax pose or to a series of poses that are the focus of this particular class. After that, we slow down, balance out the main poses, go upside down maybe, and go into the Savasana for a few minutes. Finally, sit up slowly and finish with a closing ritual.
I’ve taken yoga classes for several years. The first time I’ve observed a class (part of the training) was a few weeks ago. It was Yoga on the Labyrinth, at the Grace Cathedral.
The students lying on their mats on the stone floor of the majestic faux Gothic cathedral in Savasana, covered by clothes and blankets (it was cold), lit by dim lamps and an occasional beam pouring through a stained glass window (from where?), lying beside pews, pillars, and solemn wall icons, looked quite dead. Like medieval knight tomb effigies, like fallen warriors.
What a way to think about the arc of a class: practice the birth, practice life’s work, practice death. So as to experience all of it more fully, with less fear, off the mat.
Whenever I say good bye to you, I let the part that connects us die a little bit, I let you die a little bit, so I can go on living.