Tara Bray sets out to uncover the origin and meaning of savasana–corpse pose–and meditates on her life as a young Southern girl who lost her mother too early.
Savasana. Which translates into “corpse pose.” Dead still. This is the final posture. Practice your yoga, then lie flat on the floor and die to what you’ve done, feet falling open, hands turned palms up. B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of the Iyengar system of yoga, says to place a black cloth folded four times over across the eyes. I say the body should grow long and still. The body should become weightless. The bones should sink to the ground as the torn heart opens so the sky dwellers may look down and see this world as it is, bloody and rhythmic. The breath should move without effort. The skin should open its tiny, hidden mouths and let the air stream through in small, silent gasps. Southern women were made for savasana.
This year I turned thirty-six, which was not just any year, but the year I’ve been warned about. The dreaded year. Thirty-six, the age my mother was at the time of her death in 1978, a sudden death in the stagnant July heat of Donalsonville, Georgia. From this year on, my mother will be a woman growing younger than myself. We’ve come together in the only way possible after a death-a sort of merging by time-and now we will go through another departure, as I watch us both disappearing into some cold silvery stream behind me.
There will be no path for me to follow into the future, nor one to depart from, no model to tell me what is to come, nor anything for me to swear against becoming. As my hair grays and grows unruly, my mother’s thirty-six years will seem like youth. Her hair will forever be the same black she insisted on calling dark brown, and her feet will be veinless and narrow, never lengthening and flattening out with time and wear.
I did not want to turn thirty-six. In her book, Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman says a woman whose mother dies young often fears she will not live beyond the age her mother was at her death; therefore, surpassing that age brings sighs of relief. But that has not been my experience: I have always believed I will live a long life. My fear is that my mother will become an image of youth to me, and no longer fill the role of guide and protector.
Last night I was in my bed reading. I glanced in the mirror in front of me and tucked my hair behind my head so it would resemble the shorter style my mother always wore. I shut my eyes just enough so that they appeared closed, and through the thin cracks of light, I scrutinized the reflection of my stilled body, trying to halt the rise and fall of my belly in order to appear corpselike. I wondered if this was what she looked like in her casket, wondered if we looked alike at all.
I never saw my mother in her casket. I refused to go into the room where her body was laid out. And then, just as I began to draw up courage and moved forward towards the door, my cousin Frank stopped me. I was thirteen. He was fourteen. “You don’t want to go in there,” he said. “Nana’s really upset. It’s bad.” And so I stayed in the foyer, a dark and formal room, I’m sure, but I remember little of it. Only the bodies in dark Sunday school clothes, the stiff mahogany furniture, the deep maroon carpeting. Only that my great aunt, Loons, took me into the corner and told me that I never had to be my mother.
For years I’ve wondered if it was the right thing for me to do-to stay out of that room, to avoid seeing my mother’s face in death. At the time I convinced myself my choice was a good one, because if I had that image in my mind, I might return to it, again and again; it might accompany every memory of her existence, or worse, stomp each one out.
And so I told myself I’d remember her in life-which wasn’t quite true. My family lived the rest of its time together trying to forget. We lugged our forgetting around. It grew heavy as a coffin. Soon it seemed we’d made a deal to bear her death alone and only in the dark where no one could see. I walked through my youth trying to stuff my mother deep into the cracks of sleep: forgetting is tiresome. Daddy never spoke her name again, and we kids followed suit. Nothing seems so unnatural, and even frightening, to me now as the word “Mama” on my tongue.
Daddy packed her pictures away and her Sunday dishes and her crystal. Years later, while rummaging through some old boxes, my brother came across what he’d been looking for, our mother’s things. He lifted a piece of her crystal to the light and admired it-whistling at it in the way a college boy of his time might have whistled at a young woman. He was going back to her-in his own way. But you can’t push every memory down forever. And so there I was last night, staring into my own sleepy face, searching it for traces of my mother, trying to catch glimpses of her death as if it would lead me to myself-a thirty-six-year-old woman lying there empty-handed, slightly horrified, slightly amazed.
Savasana is a position we know well, stretched out and lying on our backs as if sleeping, but it is said to be one of the most difficult of the poses. B.K.S. Iyengar says that “a perfect savasana needs perfect discipline. It is not only very uncomfortable to the brain, but it makes the body feel like a piece of dry dead wood.”
There is just so much to understand.
When I turned thirty-six, I grew fascinated with this pose. I wanted to know its historical context. Why would the ancient yogis name one of the most important poses after a corpse? Why not call it “sleep pose”? I was curious why an asana that is supposed to destroy fatigue and bring life is an imitation of death. I wanted to know the reasoning of those who might possibly share my curiosity about death. What makes me want to get so near to it? What makes me want to flee it? What, if anything, does my experience have in common with the ancient yogis’ reasons for creating this asana? I decided to begin my search for understanding, unaware at the time that I was beginning to step a little closer to my mother’s death.
I emailed Tim Miller, one of the senior American ashtanga teachers. I emailed Shiva Rea, a woman who has practiced yoga since age fourteen, vowing as a young girl to explore the meaning of the Hindu name her father gave her at birth. I emailed Godfrey Devereux, the yoga teacher who offers the apprenticeships in Ibiza, Spain I’ve dreamed of applying for. I emailed yogis with strange Indian names I’d never heard of. I even emailed an ayurvedic doctor. I entered search engine after search engine, wanting to find any information on the history of savasana. For days I heard nothing.
Disgrace-that’s what it was, being Methodist in Donalsonville, Georgia. We were Methodists, with our tight-lipped preachers and our silent congregation and our dead hidden away in closed caskets. Oh, to be a member of the Church of God, where the children were allowed to run barefoot up and down the aisles as the preacher danced across the vestibule and the congregation shouted out and the Lord shivered all over their old, bent bodies; a congregation that broke out into applause and fell out into the aisles as if playing dead.
Mt. Zion Church of God was the place my seventh-grade teacher, Ms. Hale, stood before the Lord and talked about being drunk and tottering out on a pier at Lake Seminole, ready to end her own life, until she heard the voice of Satan, and the demons coming on with their sharp, noisy toenails clicking across the old wood, coming to take her away. And then the Lord cracked his whip on their backsides, destroying her every sin and sparing Ms. Hale-making the way for her to return to life as a new woman. She’d become born again, and I heard she’d begun to speak the slippery tongues before the congregation, a congregation I was not allowed to be a part of.
“No,” my father barked when I asked to go watch all of the excitement. I had to get my information secondhand from Staci Miller, the most careless girl in my class. But that’s not the worst thing I missed out on. The members of the Church of God got to touch their dead, caress their faces, kiss their cold lips, and wail into the heavens as they were torn from each body the moment before it was lowered into the dirt. I had neglected to take that chance. I had been too afraid.
Consider some of the guidelines for entering savasana:
Imagine a straight line running from your chin to your sternum to your pubic bone. Allow your bottom teeth to drop away from the top ones. When each toe grows limp, quiet your sacrum. Make each nostril wide. Let your head be the last thing to plunge like a stone. Remember, a stone is mute. The path downward can feel like a perfect dream. It is not real until everything shuts down into nothingness. The ground is a friend to the spine. Be there.
I moved around a lot during those early years after my mother died, living in one small southern town after another. There is not a lot to do in those towns, so cars, motorcycles and three-wheelers become great methods to pass the slow, sleepy hours. A lot of children die riding these motorized vehicles, and I’ve known quite a few of them. Ten of my classmates over the years died in car accidents. Three were killed on motorcycles. Craig Brooks was the first one to go that way. Carol, my mother’s third-grade student, made number two. And then there was Kayla.
Kayla died the summer I moved to Washington, Georgia, a year after my mama’s death. Within hours of meeting the local kids I was shown her photo by a tall lanky boy. She was perched on top of a brand new spit-shined motorcycle. She was tiny, with that shiny, white-blond hair that seemed to want to take flight. Everything about her was thin and pale, even the skin that stretched over her petite features, across her arms and her delicate wrists.
Everything about her said lightness.
The ancient yogis worshiped lightness. There are stories of them becoming so light that when they ran across the earth, their bodies lifted off the ground. Some had to attach iron chains to their ankles to keep them earthbound. Even in Westernized asana classes, we are instructed to be light-to float from pose to pose.
From her photo, I could tell Kayla was that kind of girl- quick, flighty, free-spirited. And every day the children of that town talked about her, which only emphasized my position in the group as an outsider. What could I say to join them?
My first boyfriend in Washington, Georgia, was Tommy Taylor, who was Kayla’s boyfriend when she died. She was buried with his ring on, a thick golden one engraved with his initials. At the funeral, he was allowed to slip it onto her ring finger, long and thin as a cigarette. When her birthday came along, the children remembered it. “Today would have been Kayla’s fifteenth birthday,” they would say, their heads dropping to the ground or tilting up to the skies as if she might be looking down on them.
In the same way I never again wanted to talk about my mother, I grew tired of the talk of Kayla. Dark, muscular and forever banned by my Dad from riding motorcycles through the fields-much less down hilly country roads-I knew I could never be like her. For this reason my resentment grew. And yet there were days I’d spend long afternoons lying in my bed yearning to be her-dreaming of being that free, speeding across country roads as if in flight, with glimmers of hair waving like a silk sheet in the wind. And then in one perfect second, to be frozen in flight forever, to be dead. Looking back, I see ways Kayla’s death served as a mirror for my mother’s. How I wanted to slide my ring onto her finger and mark her as my own as she went under.
The earliest mention of savasana I could find was in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a text assumed to have been written in the fourteenth century. About “corpse pose,” the text supplies these few words: “Lying full length on the back like a corpse is called savasana. With this asana, tiredness caused by other asanas is eliminated; it also promotes calmness of the mind.” This information, available in any Westernized yoga class today, was not enough. I wanted more. But information on the history of the asana, it turns out, is hard to find.
According to Dr. Nalini Devi, an M.D. I found on the Internet, asanas are referred to in the Upanishads as “meditative sitting postures.” Specific asanas-such as savasana-are not mentioned at all. And in an ancient text, the Yoga Vasistha, the only advice given to the yogi on asana as spiritual quest is as follows: “Conquer the mind first, by pressing palm against palm, grinding the teeth with the teeth and twisting the limbs with the limbs.”
Dr. Devi explains that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of the most familiar yogic texts, directly mentions asana only four times. She recalls that her teacher always said the ancient sage would “never, in his wildest imagination, have envisioned the kind of gymnastic contortions and sheer misuse of the word ‘asana’ which has occurred in modern times.”
I began to worry that we Westerners have misunderstood and exaggerated the entire physical process. How will I ever trace the path back to savasana?
When I was still a child, my mother returned to me in dreams. She was always horrid in my dream world, dressed in dark capes or carrying small knives, and always with an angry glint in her eyes and a shaking fist. In my dreams I’d beg her to return to the world of the dead.
Finally I received the first response to my inquiry. Godfrey Devereux, in a thoughtful message, reminded me of what makes yoga so rich:
“Most of the transmission of yoga, like that of all esoteric practices, was oral and personal. The criterion of historical validation is therefore hardly applicable. Besides, many materials are kept hidden from non-Brahmins in special vaults. The Yoga Korunta, which contains over 250 postures, is over 5,000 years old; a copy made by Krishnamacharya is, according to B.K.S Iyengar, in an exclusive vault in Mysore, India-access restricted. It is for them a historical treasure, which they fear would be commercially exploited by mercenary Westerners. I agree. I am willing to accept the authenticity of the transmission from Krishnamacharya via Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, on the basis of my experience of their potency and more.”
Mystery. Perhaps that’s the answer. Faith in what has traveled from mouth to mouth. Belief in what can’t be written down. Trust in what cannot be completely known. Mystery. Savasana. Death.
When I was twenty-one, my grandmother’s body began to deteriorate a little each day, until there was barely anything there. I went to the nursing home several times a week and washed what was left of her. I learned how to clean bedsores. I learned how a simple bath could be made into a gift. Water and a sponge were suddenly more valuable than a cart of gold. For the first time I saw my grandmother’s naked body. I cleaned her most private areas. I was afraid but I kept on, carefully and with attention. While I bathed her, I told her my problems, and in her broken shell, with the small spark of life that was still left in her, she helped me solve them. That small glimmer that allowed her-what was it? Where is it now?
Dr. Rangesh, an M.D. in Ayurveda and author of Health Tips for Daily Use, responded to my email request by saying that savasana helps us draw near to death. He wrote, “In order to protect the practitioners of yoga from this fear of death, sage Patanjali designed this asana from the earliest time.”
I have been near enough to death, and yet somehow I’ve never had the courage to look at it square on. I don’t know if I ever will. But Pattabhi Jois, the father of ashtanga, has been known to say, “Return to the practice and all else is coming.”
When a life is stripped from earth, death can drape another layer on those left behind. I know that heaviness. But when my grandmother died, I see now that it was a different thing entirely-airy, natural. She’d grown so light I dreamed of her lifting into the sky like a winged seed, floating, swaying side to side. A seed is a perfect thing for flight, and then it lands, finds its way into the earth.
Death shows us how to live and then we die. Savasana: we stop, and we remember who we are.
I’ve finished my two-hour ashtanga practice, and my hair is soaked in sweat. Every inch of my body is exhausted. I lie down on my mat, open my palms for the final position, let the bandhas go. My body feels completely alive, yet growing cool, the muscles gone lax with something more powerful than sleep.
There are no words for the space I enter. It is not death, but I am still. It is not a dream, but I am lying down, my eyes closed. There is a certain vividness.
When your mother dies, you die with her, but then your life goes on. Think of a moment when there is no answer, no matter how loud your calls or how beautiful your prayers. Her death was simple, one breath and then no more. My mother died, and I died, and she moved inside my bones to sleep. Then alone I had to get back up and live. Perhaps this death I carry is what guides me.
And maybe savasana is like coming to the edge, the border between one world and another so you can remember what it means to be alive. The truth is, there’s just so much I’ll never know. For now, I am tired. My breath is slowing down, and I am thankful to have been allowed my practice one more day. Another day: it is enough.