I am reminded by the bells at the cathedral at the end of my street, and by the growing size of the crowds flowing in and out of it each Sunday, that Easter is coming in a few days. Although I left the Catholic Church that I was raised in many years ago, my experience of a life guided by the yoga philosophy that replaced it as my spiritual practice has revealed some valuable parallels to the lessons taught around Easter.
Although I am no longer a churchgoer, Easter remains my favorite holiday because of the practical and necessary lesson about the human potential for release and renewal that it teaches. Whether you see the story of the crucifixion and resurrection as fact or fiction, it holds a great deal of value to anybody who is seeking to have a more whole and peaceful experience of life. For the yoga asana practitioner, a version of the Easter narrative can be experienced and learned from each time you get on your yoga mat. And this can happen with great potency in the final moments on the mat, before you get up and go about your day.
From this perspective, the entire asana practice can be viewed as a preparation for savasana, the corpse pose that happens at the end. In the physical practice of yoga postures, we prepare the mind for the deep stillness of savasana by simultaneously focusing on the two qualities that define asana. They are sthira, the unyielding holding firm of a particular part of the body; and sukha, the conscious letting go of another part of the body. This simultaneous cognition of opposites expands awareness away from the binary nature of the human mind, which tends to divide the world into this or that; and reveals to us the more accurate picture of the universe taught to us by the ancient yogis and confirmed by modern quantum physics. That is, that all is one. That experience is not this or that, it is this and that. That is why the practice, and the wisdom that comes from it, is called yoga, union.
The universe itself is simultaneously expanding and being bound to itself. So, in asana, by repeatedly endeavoring to place this pair of things, holding firm and letting go, previously perceived as opposites, in the same space at the same time, we gain insight into the actual and immutable nature of the universe, of which we are a part. We are no different from the universe we inhabit. It is by this practice that we discover the true, unchanging self. And by doing this, we prepare the mind to let go of the things that are not part of the true, unchanging self. It makes us able to shed identity with things like how advanced our yoga practices are, our appearance or age, our relationships, income and job. Then we are ready to embrace savasana fully.
In savasana, we play dead, taking the practice of simultaneous cognition of sthira, or grounded-ness, and sukha, or spaciousness and ease, to a whole new level. We do this by imagining the body releasing itself back into the earth from which it is made, while we imagine the soul expanding upward, above and beyond the physical boundaries of the body. And we are able to do this without fear because of the asana practice that just happened. That concurrent awareness, in asana, of firmness and space, over time, allows the ego self to stop driving experience as much as it would typically like to, and allows the inherent wisdom that underlies it to begin to take over. It prepares us to tell ourselves, for a moment, that we are not our bodies; and that we will continue to exist in some form long after life as we know it leaves the body. This is corpse pose.
In savasana, we begin to experience the truth that we are far greater than the physical body, and far greater than the ego construct that we use to navigate the material world. We experience expansion and oneness. That is also the lesson that I take from Easter. In the narrative that is the origin of the holiday, a very wise man teaches that forgetting that we are part of the infinite, and instead embracing the temporary experience of the material world, is a path to misery. And this lesson is taught when he chooses to give up bodily life and go to the realm of the unchanging unalterable aspect of the universe that exists everywhere, and within each of us. He teaches us that we are made of the infinite, experienced by humans as love. And while the process of death is ugly and sad, it results in a resurrection of self, where one is able to wisely wander the material world without forgetting the real self, the one that never dies. This is something we can do every time we practice yoga asana.
A student a long time ago told me that when she is in savasana, she imagines becoming a pile of dried up, old dead twigs that get more and more brittle and fragile with each passing breath. Then she sees them dissolve into dust, which blows away and disappears. After a moment of experiencing the world without a body, she begins to see herself manifesting again as a body on her yoga mat, and she breathes life into this new vehicle for experience that she has gifted herself. Then she gets up and walks away, more wise and more alive than she was when she released her body into the earth and caught a glimpse of her soul as it always has been: unbound, free, and perfect.
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