After having been gone from London for six months, returning has been in some ways unsettling. The moving forest of human trees with black trunks and placid faces, the continual sabotage of curiosity by averted gazes and the absolute unacceptability of physical contact in crowded places stands out for me against the contrast of bright colors, smiling hello’s and soft, pleasant brushes with strangers I’ve been enjoying outside the density of a giant western city.
‘How did this not disconcert me so much before?’ I wonder. ‘Was I caught up in the same way of disconnect?’
This automaticness of living was well illustrated for me in yoga class this morning. At a small lower level studio in central London, having just wound down to the end of a hot vinyasa flow, I was laying on my back in a puddle of my own sweat.
With my eyes closed, beyond my breath and heartbeat, I heard an unusual shuffling of feet and mats. Feeling a breeze rush by my head, I opened an eye and tipped my head to see what was going on.
The room had been full before. Now half of the mats were empty.
I knew what was happening. They were skipping Shavasana; the position of laying flat on your back that we do at the end of every class. The point of it is to simply relax in silence as your breath calms. It is a peaceful way to close out the journey of a yoga practice.
I knew this because when I first started doing yoga at home, I too skipped Shavasana. I used to think, ‘The workout is basically over. I just spent 7 hours in bed. I don’t need to lay around here now too!’
At some point I got that yoga isn’t really about the workout though. That physical benefits are a secondary gain. I stopped skipping Shavasana early on and it is rare when I see anyone else doing it in classes outside the city.
Today though, half the room had emptied before the five minutes of meditation were finished. They missed the incense the teacher walked around the room waving over the remaining bodies. They missed the chance to slow themselves down and set a more relaxed pace for the day.
More than anything though, they missed having to die.
Shavasana means ‘corpse’. A yoga practice typically starts in a ‘child’s pose’ and goes on a journey of extension and growth before winding down and completing in ‘corpse pose’. This is the cycle from youth, through life, to death.
By skipping Shavasana one is essentially avoiding death.
The irony in this being so popular in London (myself previously included) does not escape me.
The automaticness with which we move through an urban life is a pace absent from consideration of our mortality. Looking death in the eye is shockingly incoherent with this. When we do do it, usually without choice, it always slows us down. My point is that we wouldn’t lead such hurried lives if we remembered we are going to die. Avoiding looking at it, and avoiding doing it symbolically, are quite synonymous.
Besides skipping Shavasana as being reflective of our protection from the temporality of life, I also see it as a good example of how we want to go on a journey and get the benefits from it without actually completing it. We want to go deep, but not all the way.
After the Shavasana meditation, I always roll onto my side into a ‘fetal position’ before sitting up and ending the class.
This brief moment in fetal position after resting as a corpse is not only missed by those who leave the room, but it is missed by most yoga teachers too. In my opinion, this is the most important moment of a yoga practice. Fetal position, even briefly, is the moment of rebirth after death.
The full cycle of a journey always includes a death and rebirth of some kind. In fact, without this dying and being reborn, the journey never completes. And a journey that never completes was not a journey. You return to where you began and the entire time is wasted.
For me, as a fairly newbie, this is the practice of yoga – both on the mat and in life. The practice is to die and be reborn.
If more people in big cities were to remember they are going to die, and were willing to die as a practice, then the moving forests might not be so black and placid.
To all the yoga instructors out there, especially those in London and other big cities around the world: Please encourage your students to die and be reborn again!