The instructions and rationale for Śavāsana in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are focused most obviously on the power of the posture to support one’s physical, psychological, and meditative fitness – that is to say, focused on helping the yogi to live well. I wonder what more can be gleaned or realized from Śavāsana, however. Could it be that taking the form of a corpse, could teach us both about living well and dying well, and about learning to live through practicing death?
Roshi Joan Halifax is a passionate advocate for “practicing death,” which is to say, to enact what is required for a “sane and gentle” death, namely: letting go, surrender, and generosity. Halifax describes acts of generosity as profound, embodied opportunities to “practice death,” to practice letting go of what we believe to be “me” and “mine.” In a similar vein, the posture and practice of Śavāsana is, too, a profound, embodied opportunity to “practice death” for a practitioner with the clear intention to do so. In Śavāsana we request that the body “let go” and surrender all of the unnecessary tensions and anxieties built up from the day, from our lives. While it sounds, generally speaking, luxurious and pleasureable, this is not always easy. It is not always easy to stop – in the midst of a stress-filled day – and let go of the heavy burdens we carry. It is not easy to value quiet, still, conscious relaxation time, if our upbringing and our culture have told us time and again, that “achievement” and “doing” are king. It is also not easy to let go, most of all, of the identities, fixations, and attachments that distract the mind from practicing Śavāsana. By settling our bones, and softening the knot in the heart, by surrendering the weight of the pelvis and letting the brow center release, by resting the mind in presence, we practice letting go of a hundred different things, in turn, we practice dying.
If we choose to take it, perhaps there is an opportunity to not only embody death through the deep release of Śavāsana, but to also use the posture as a point of remembrance, however brief, much like in the Buddhist practice of maranasatti, by contemplating the inevitability and reality of our own death. Once we move beyond the morbid aspect of death remembrance, and begin to approach her (that is to say death) like an old friend – intimately, compassionately and with the fullness of our attention– paradoxically, in turn, it opens up a space to be ever more intimate with life. Of this premise, Halifax writes, “Perhaps, from the great spiritual traditions of the past, we can retrieve a vision of dying that makes it possible for us to embrace the unknown without being paralyzed with fear, and to embrace the truth of impermanence as we open our arms to the world.”
Because dying offers us a bigger perspective, we can learn to “let go” of anxieties, stresses, obsessions, and anger before the inevitable journey of having to let go of life. This leads to a much freer existence. Instead of fearing the uncomfortable aspects of life, we can learn to meet them with presence, to become intimate to our moment-by-moment experience, to be awake to what is, instead of asleep and perpetually wishing that things were different. Instead of being in conflict with ourselves and in conflict with others, this spaciousness allows for compassion to arise. We open our arms to the world, to ourselves, and to our lives.