Shavasana is the crown jewel of yoga asana and is the most difficult pose to understand- physically, mentally and spiritually. We end our practice in this lying down position because this is moment when we let go of all of the technique. Throughout the practice we may focus on balancing muscular energy, controlling the mind and slowing down the breath but in shavasana, we drop all of this. It’s quite a wonder that at the end of each and every practice, yoga dismantles its own self. As a method of trying to teach us how to let go of things, it also teaches us how to let go of the yoga.
This quality of ‘letting go’ can be better understood when we consider the literal meaning of shavasana: corpse or dead-man pose. What shavasana teaches us is the art of dying. It is an acceptance of the imperfection of the practice because yoga can only be completed in ‘death’ or shavasana. Without this understanding we can never fully understand the practice nor life because both conclude in death. Rarely do teachers translate the name of the pose because they worry their students won’t want to acknowledge death in life.
Fear of death is one the main causes of suffering according to Patanjali. It affects almost everyone- even the most advanced practitioners- because everyone has some sort of attachment to life. Yogis- perhaps even more so than other people- are attached to life; nurturing their bodies, controlling their minds and loving life so much that they don’t want to leave it behind. The literal meaning of shavasana is beautiful because it taps into Patanjali’s understanding that death is an inherent part of the human condition. Shavasana teaches us to embrace death in a completely deactivated state, devoid of all control and knowing. For most people, this will be their closest encounter with death on a daily basis. When we recognise that death is an intrinsic part of life, we can release this fear and live life to the max!
Yet even if we don’t reach this higher level of consciousness, shavasana can still teach us the essence of life. It offers us a momentary glimpse of the whole picture and enables us to see the impermanence of life. If we practice yoga without shavasana we are only able to see a part of the practice, as we are not acknowledging that there is death in life, yin in yang. In life, we attach to people, places and things and do not recognise their impermanence. Practicing shavasana helps us to understand that all things are impermanent and will die. This is why it’s called the art of dying and not the art of living because if we are ready for death in life then it won’t scare us. Not accepting that things will end one day inevitably cause suffering because we are attaching to things in movement. People try to find stability and anchor to the world around them, but it’s the biggest illusion in life: the only thing that is really sure is that we will die. In this understanding of impermanence and acceptance of death we can live a more full and joyous life by not trying to hold on to it.
Yet there are no techniques or ‘tricks of the trade’ for perfecting the pose: you just have to stop. This is much more difficult than it sounds as it’s very easy to get attached to the yoga and to start believing that it is the truth. However, the whole truth can only be realised in the death of the practice. Only in death can we truly start to understand life. But death is the complete opposite of life and is totally unknown, which is why it is so scary. “The known is like a raft on the ocean of unknown” (Krishna Murti): in a way we are denying ourselves the ocean because we are attaching to the boat, to the things we know. Shavasana is an invitation to the exactly that. It’s intimidating to explore death in life because we are limited to what we know and the unknown pushes us way out of our comfort zone. This is why it is explored in stillness and in silence because anything you might say about the unknown will limit it to the illusions of the mind. Instead, shavasana frees us from the limitations of language and the boundaries of our body. When we are in this state we are exposed to the unknown, the complete and to a whole different perspective on life.
This article was co-written by Katie and Kobi.
Kobi is a yoga and meditation practitioner and teacher, a nutritional and holistic health counsellor and a life coach at Vagabond Temple. For more information about Kobi and the Temple, please visit www.vagabondtemple.com
Thanks to @searching4conrad for the beautiful photos!