The Hardest Pose in Yoga

For whatever reason, here in the West we look at the ending of the Gregorian calendar and think, “Time to make a change.” It’s the time of year when your shala becomes packed with the resolution yogis (who will slowly thin out by the end of February, so be patient). Gyms are packed. The population of joggers goes up in the morning. Even the Whole Foods produce section gets a little more close.

Here in the Confluence Countdown household, we are not immune to this effect. Steve has resolved to read more classical Indian texts, and has started on his list already (I’m sure he’ll be talking about that). This year, dagnabbit, I’m going to take on a beast.

My resolution this year is to finally face what is, for me, the most difficult pose in the practice: Savasana.

I know what you’re thinking. She’s being facetious. Kidding. No, I’m not. I’ve been practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga for well over a decade, and other forms off and on for six years before that, and I’ve never been able to do this pose.

I’ve laid there, mind popping loudly like mustard seeds in hot coconut oil, going over my practice, what time it is, what day it is, if I can scratch my ear, what I’ll make for dinner, the fact that it’s time to rotate my tires–really, I’ll think about any dang thing but what I’m supposed to be thinking about, which is nothing. What’s worse, I’m in seething envy of the dude next to me who is clearly in the early stages of sleep, breathing in deep sonorous rhythm. That envy turns to annoyance at whoever’s snoring to my left. Great day in the morning, hasn’t it been ten minutes yet? I think.

This leaves me feeling like a total poser when the teacher gently rouses the class from rest with tinging bells, or a softly recited poem, or turning down the savasana music that got me thinking in great detail about the oeuvre of Krishna Das. I of course knew this gentle awakening was coming, because I heard the teacher get up and move across the room for the bells, or flipping the pages of the book, or walking quietly to the stereo control.

Turning to my right to transition gently back into the world I never left? Sure. Why not? I move in fake slo-mo.

You might think, ye who find savasana restorative and necessary, that it would actually be easier to practice the last pose at home, in your personal practice, which is what I currently have. No. Way harder.

When there’s no pressure to be polite to your fellow practitioners and be still, you can fidget all you like. You can hum a little tune. You can scratch. You can think about the coconut water in the fridge, just fifteen feet away. Or about the clothes that need to go in the dryer. Look at the clock all you like. And then you can think, Aw, to heck with it, then give up, get up, and walk out, no questions asked.

I was raised as an Ashtangi with Tim Miller’s beautiful stories of epic long practices, just him and Guruji in his home, with correspondingly epic long savasanas—so long Amma would stick her head into the room and suggest, “Coffee, Tim?” He would describe tearful drifting, swells of gratitude and powerful feelings of union with his teacher. To me, that kind of peace is as unreachable as Sixth Series.

There are technical aspects to the pose, you know. Check out this detailed and highly methodical description in Yoga Journal. My favorite part: “In addition to quieting the physical body in Savasana, it’s also necessary to pacify the sense organs.” Pacify them? They own me. My sense organs are like the Chihuahua that lives next door: The more I gently say “shhh! good dog!” to him, the more it ticks him off. Bark bark bark bark, my sense organs say to me.

Via Yoga Journal. Maybe I should imagine myself photoshopped in white.
Via Yoga Journal. Maybe I should just imagine myself photoshopped into a blank white ground.

Tellingly, these instructions totally leave out the hardest part of the pose: Pratyahara, the fifth limb, what you’re supposed to be doing in savasana and the whole point of the entire ordeal you just went through. There I am, at the pinnacle of the practice, head hands and feet in proper position, tongue relaxed, breathing relaxed–I mean, I am in perfect posture here–yet all I can think about whether or not I remembered to turn off the coffee maker.

Tim has taught me exactly what’s supposed to be going on here. Inward turning. This is where the cittas are supposed to stop vrittaing. It’s called “corpse pose,” but you’re not supposed to be lying there like road kill; you’re supposed to be working on internal maintenance, disciplining the mind in the same way you just disciplined the body. Not easy. Tim was once asked in a teacher training if it’s okay to fall asleep in savasana, and his full answer is telling: “No,” he said, strongly (and immediately), then added, after a pause, “But it’s so sweet when you do.”

Which I cannot. No matter how hard I try.

But, I have a plan.

This year will be different. For the first time, I’m going to treat savasana like any other pose. I’m going to discipline myself, just do the darn pose, and if at first I don’t succeed, I will try try again. Yes, I will fail. But the worst thing that could happen? I might fall asleep.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

4 thoughts on “The Hardest Pose in Yoga”

  1. Bobbie I am totally with you. I thought I was the only one!!
    I have a new thing I do now that I hope will help lead to something a little more like what’s supposed to be happening. I start with my brain and go through each body part/muscle/organ and thank them each personally sometimes with a reason why (ex: thank you bladder for hanging in there for two hours!). Ok so it’s kind of cheesy and my mind is still not STILL but at least I’m focusing inward and not worrying about all that dust I saw in the corner during my (also at home) practice:).
    Thanks for your post!

  2. I’m naturally fidgety..I dislike the duration of savasana in led classes immensely, and dislike padmasana as well, for the same reasons you mentioned above…but I was really stoked when Sharath was leading and just called it rest, not savasana…because in rest I could try more…don’t know why the wording would or could make such a difference, but it stuff pops into my head, I acknowledge it, and then let it go, just like letting go of the practice I just did:-) some days it’s easier than others..but I no longer look with envy at the snorer on the next mat over..because that’s wrong too! Resting in gratitude but still alert is fine by me. I usually finish with breathing afterwards…I find it grounds me more and keeps the calm from rest better. Yoga for everybody, but different on every body:-)

  3. I’m surprised no one else has written what I’m about to write 🙂

    My teacher, Randy Aromando, is adamant that we (ashtangies) do not do savasana at the end of our asana practice; he quickly corrects anyone referring to savasana. According to him, Pattabhi Jois always said that savasana was a very advanced pose (6th series?), and he simply said to rest, just as Sharath does now. (Savasana is not listed in Yoga Mala.)

    I believe the advanced savasana involves making the body stiff. You could be picked up by your head and feet and remain straight. Richard Freeman often has everyone briefly stiffen their bodies to simulate rigor mortis before relaxing to rest, so maybe that’s it. It does help one to relax!

    In Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, savasana is different. Iyengar says every asana or pranayama practice should end with “savasana.” In his description, he says to relax and quiet the mind (which he says makes the pose extremely difficult), so perhaps this is where folks have picked up the terminology and goals.

    I have a feeling Pattabhi Jois was not after the same thing as Iyengar in the rest at the end of an asana practice. I never knew him, so I have no direct information, but it strikes me that the goal is therapeutic — letting the benefits of the practice sink in, letting the body reabsorb sweat. In Yoga Mala, he says not to expose your skin to wind or take a shower for 30 minutes after practice specifically to allow sweat to be reabsorbed, and he cautions that violating this rule risks making one weaker. If you can calm the mind, that’s great, too, I’m sure, but if you just let the breathing and heart rate return to normal and the sweat dry off naturally (which for me can take forever), you’re successful!

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