Skipping Shavasana – Nobody Wants to Die

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!

‘American Sniper’ Shot me in the Heart and Gut

Last night we went to see the new Bradley Cooper film ‘American Sniper’. As we crunched our way across the quiet, icy parking lot towards the cinema I was mildly aware of an ambient discomfort with going to see a film depicting real-life, present day war. By halfway through the opening scene, my wife was in tears and I was feeling an overwhelming sense of ignorance. The chomping sound of my popcorn stood out for me as a pitiful marker of disassociation from reality. I questioned my decision to be ‘entertained’ by a dramatisation of still unfolding, real world tragedy.

This new form of entertainment – action movie depictions of current, violent political events – is not something I enjoy. There is no ‘joy’ in watching people suffer and die. And yet, I am drawn to these films.

It is as if my curiosity for ‘what’s happening out there’ can be indulged, while keeping the rest of me at a safe distance. I get to quench my thirst for engagement in the world without risking anything, save maybe $20 and a night out.

In some sense, my interest in the recent youth rebellion/dystopian films (Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, etc) comes from the same place. A desire to feel part of the revolution without having to actually DO anything (except chomp popcorn). With these kinds of films, my inaction is not so confronting though. They are fiction and so easy to write off as ‘entertainment’.

With films like American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, this is not as easy to do.

My lack of strength and vulnerability around this does not escape me. In fact, it actually leaves me feeling a bit hollow inside. But there it is.

As we sat watching the film, I knew that for my British born wife, the extreme American nationalism behind each bullet that exploded from Cooper’s character Chris Kyle’s rifle, was even more unsettling for her than it was for me. As the ‘kill count’ tallied like in a video game, I watched with embarrassing disdain the screenwriters meek attempt to balance this with Kyle’s supposed focus on ‘lives saved’. They could have just as easily left it out and not shifted the perspective of the film.

What blew my mind is how strongly the film depicted the ‘enemy’ as evil and the US military as ‘good’. It was a modern day Cowboys and Indians¬†(in fact, Chris Kyle WAS literally a cowboy before he became Navy Seal). In the closing scene of the film, you see Kyle leave home with a man holding a sombre look on his face. The screen fades to black and in one line reads the text ‘Chris Kyle was killed by a veteran he was trying to help.’

From there, through the closing credits, you watch footage from the actual Chris Kyle’s military funeral procession through Texas. Thousands of patriots line the streets with flags and signs praising ‘The Legend’ and his 160 confirmed kills, the most in US military history.

Not for a moment does the film visit the irony that The Legend was himself taken by a bullet.

Not for a moment does the film visit the irony that The Legend was killed by a U.S. solider.

Not for a moment does the film visit the irony that despite spending years overseas taking the lives of men, women and children, The Legend was taken from his own wife and children in his home state.

Instead, the final image is of the actual Chris Kyle stood like Rambo, draped in two sachets of bullets, and smiling with pride.

Do I doubt that Chris Kyle’s sharp-shooting was instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of US soldiers? Not at all.
Do I doubt that Chris Kyle’s kills directly thwarted terrorist attacks by the people he destroyed? Not at all.
Do I have the balls to even face these questions on the ground in a war zone as opposed to pontification? Absolutely not.
Does this make my consideration relatively irrelevant? I’m not so sure.
In most obvious light, my choice to visit the true tragedies of the world through dissociative ‘entertainment’ may represent a lack of courage and an absence of impact. My fear of personal loss is certainly a contributing factor.
In less obvious light though, I wonder if my choice to stand on the sideline and watch armed with opinions instead of being on the field carrying explosives is a statement in itself.
In 1999 I withdrew my place in the USAF ROTC program at the last minute. I couldn’t stomach the idea that one day I may have had to kill people over what was essentially a misunderstanding. I couldn’t justify murder, even under the powerful spell of nationalism.
I do not believe going to see films like American Sniper means that I ‘support’ their ideology. These films emotionally engage me in the current and active story of the world. Maybe this engagement is what I need to stop standing there armed with opinions and to start speaking them.
Speaking is not something I, or anyone, did after the film. The theatre emptied in the same awkward silence that I remember during the closing credits of Zero Dark Thirty.
The crunch of the ice in the parking lot was even louder on the way back to the car. The discomfort was no longer ambient. It was in my hands and on the steering wheel now. I just watched it though, knowing this is what Kyle must have felt while holding the trigger of his rifle. And for a moment at least, despite wishing his killing legacy had not such an echo of unquestioned justification, I loved Chris Kyle for being human.
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