After high school at 17, rather than immediately going to the university, I decided to work for a year to prepare myself. I found a job at a furniture store in my hometown where I thought I would deliver furniture, sell furniture, and take care of stock in the warehouse. It did include all of that, but when I was asked to help lift corpses from a table and into a casket, the job turned out to be much more.
In the early days of this country, the furniture maker was the logical person to turn to when a loved one died and the family needed a well-constructed wooden box. In the 19th Century, caskets were wood and since furniture makers worked with wood they were called upon. It’s easy to see how furniture makers became trusted with handling specific requirements of the casket, and from there, not hard to imagine conversations about the deceased spilling over into a pastoral care-type situation. It’s also not difficult to imagine these furniture builders doubling up on their businesses and offering funeral services. This is why so many furniture stores doubled as funeral homes.
Seldom thinking about death as a teenager and with no preparation for handling dead bodies, I was thrust into a situation where I touched the hands and lifted the bodies of deceased people. It freaked me out a little bit. In time, I became comfortable around dead bodies, and one time before a funeral, even drove the Goodrich Funeral Home’s Hearst to the car wash with a casket and body in the back. And while I did look back at the casket through the mirror a few times, hoping nobody was playing a joke on me, the ride was uneventful.
This early experience made me think of death more than I needed to, and it activated my energetic and existential teenage brain. This background experience has also influenced my thinking of yoga’s corpse pose (shavasana) as a way into spiritual life.
Finding a Door into the Spiritual Practice of Yoga
Death is an uncomfortable fact that will not go away. Ground this in your mind; we will all be corpses one day. Death is the final note in everyone’s song and the universal closure of our Earthly experience; an experience ending with an exhale, a bookend to the first breath we took as a new creation in a living body.
The door to see yoga as a spiritual life is the Shavasana pose. Shava=corpse + asana=posture. In shavasana, yogis take a few moments to willingly suspend participation in life, energy, and the flow of movement. As a corpse, the yogi is metaphorically dead and no longer fired by the force of prana or the vital intelligence of body/mind/spirit.
Breath is the only thing keeping a yogi alive in the shavasana pose. A diaphragm lifting the chest up and down is all that separates a living yogi from the corpses I once lifted into caskets, and when the yogi genuinely thinks of this, they realize the precious and complex biological explosions involved in each breath in and out. This reality, hitting close to home, jump-starts the yogi’s gratefulness for life and opens the door to a spiritual attitude of receptivity.
In shavasana, the yogi is not lying prostrate on their face in a willing and energetic act of full-bodied prayer; rather, the yogi does nothing but remain flat on their back in a complete release of the cares implicit in all duality and suffering. The yogis of old believed that shavasana pose allowed for the balancing of all bodily systems, all ayurvedic doshas, all prana vayus, and all chakras. It is one of the few poses that does this. There are a few techniques to assist in flattening the spine on the floor so that the yogi gently and fully releases into stillness and does nothing:
- Gentle engagement of the bandhas, slight lift of hips, lowering vertebra one at a time creating length along the spinal column
- Legs extended long, hip-width apart, feet turning naturally outward — flat back, remove anterior tilt of pelvis
- Shoulders drawn away from ears, palms rotated upward resting on the floor next to the hips all to facilitate softening of shoulders and body
- Chin tucked slightly to lengthen neck allowing neck to fully rest on the ground
- Release body weight, soften extremities and internal tensions, and breathe in ease
- Soften eyes by imagining space between eyelids and eyes
- Focus on breath, release cares, still the monkey mind
In the 3rd installment of this series (Love), I wrote of how a moment in savasana opened an experienced yogi to a better understanding of the faith in which she was raised. In other writings, I’ve revealed that a single-word mantra guides my moments of savasana, and I am convinced that in the silence of these moments, something happens to us that comes from another place.
This something has been called a spiritual awakening, a quickening of soul, an encounter with oversoul or the transcendent, or even a second birth. Up from shavasana, after our metaphorical death where we have posed as non-moving corpses, we are born anew. This is the yoga answer to Nicodemus. Yes, a person can be born anew.
John Paul Satre once wrote that nobody could disbelieve enough to truly be an atheist. The corollary follows; nobody can believe enough to be a true believer. But if we believe as if God is in us — and it is true — then we are one with God and we can live as if God is in us.
Shavasana, the Perfect Yoga Pose
It is perfect in its simplicity and efficacy. The goal of shav asana is to lie on your back and not move. Asana is interpreted as a pose in movement, but shav means non-movement. It’s true, a corpse does not move. Shavasana is easy, but it’s difficult for American people who tend to be driven beyond what is healthy and find it hard to rest.
I’ve been around corpses from early on, and none of them took a breath; none jumped up and back into life. We can, and we do, but to find a moment in shavasana where we live as if dead is the doorway to deepening our awareness of life and the meaning of spiritual life in yoga. Shavasana is an embodied rebirth, a believed new life at the level to which we can believe.
A spiritual awakening or connection does not happen every time in shavasana it may never happen. It’s also true that some yogis experience their death on a spiritual dimension every time they go into shavasana. Shavasana, like all yoga poses, is exceedingly simple but immensely difficult.
Yoga as a Spiritual Practice
Oral tradition holds that at its inception yoga was the incorporation of five or six sitting postures as a way for the priestly classes to strengthen their bodies so they would be more fit for serious meditative disciplines. That was yoga’s reason for being. Yoga’s physical practice was dedicated to strengthening the yogi for spirituality. Yoga goals today are much different.
In this series, I’ve built on yoga as spiritual life by integrating yoga with being and creation, life and breath, love and service, and now death and life. I’ve tried to open up the notion of yoga as an ipso facto spiritual practice because I believe that yoga is not just an appendage to a spiritual practice; rather, yoga is itself a spiritual practice. To the eye, it doesn’t look like yoga is a spiritual practice, but when we embody yoga in our breath, it starts everything.
I’ve pointed to shavasana as a door apropos to both the Christian and yogic spiritual inheritance. This door opening to the spiritual is not just a mental construct on which the intellectually rigorous can hang their hats, but an embodied and universal experience found directly in the fact of our death. Yoga gives us a way to experience death now — even for a few minutes — and through savasana pose yoga’s shavasana offers a doorway to spiritual practice, a doorway to life anew, and an answer to Nicodemus, just another one of us.
Full 5-part series here: