“Savasana and Sanity”
By Liz Furl
Savasana is the last asana in your yoga sequence, the final pose, and the most difficult. There are two reasons to attempt it:
- To let the twisting, stretching, and fighting to balance on any number of limbs settle into your body as it loosens like a knot untying.
- To settle the mind into nothing but body, and then breath, and then—nothing.
This is the difficulty. Allowing your body to unwind itself is a joyous treat, but unwinding your mind is a piece of death that you slice yourself and serve with purpose. The goal is to let go of all thoughts, all traces of individuality and self, and embrace the void, enjoy it. The goal is also to remain completely aware of and within the present moment.
This pose is described in the tracts as “destroying fatigue of the body; quieting the agitation of the mind.”. . . Remain motionless with a sense or feeling of sinking down like a corpse… Exercise absolute resignation of will by trying to forget the existence of your body and detaching yourself from it.
This is what a panic attack feels like.
Something in the air will change, winds shifting, and your body will shift, too—it becomes a palpable thing you inhabit, a wool sweater shrunk in the wash that strangles with itchy hands.
The space just below your breastbone is wrenched and twisted, and the diaphragm just behind struggles to function. Your breath becomes quick and ineffective.
It’s as if you’ve begun an uphill run, pushing too long to reach the top, stubbornly exerting energy until something snaps and you stop, hands on your knees, bobbing up and down with great heaving gasps. Your breath is hidden in the trees along the trail, somewhere unseen while your lungs ache to gently expand and contract with fresh air, and the breath won’t come.
There is a feeling of weakness and a fear of being seen. Your eyes dart about, and when you look down at your hands, they shake in place. The body wants to be swaddled, but there isn’t a blanket; instead, your arms cross themselves over your middle, pushing back on the spot of tightness, and your hands grip the arches that connect your front to back.
The itchiness intensifies. Movements are simplified into quick, jerking things; your head jumps on its neck like the heads of scavenger birds.
It is best to be alone then, because you can wait in the silence for it to pass. If there are others, they may speak to you, ask questions that are transformed into interrogations, and nothing helps, the people, the questions, nothing.
You answer, shouting, because that’s where your breath has been, laying in wait to support volume. Timbre, on the other hand, is uncontrolled, careening all over the place. Somewhere inward, though, there is a strong and certain voice that sees all of this and states firmly that you’re crazy.
The voice has placed you in a category with homeless men wearing tattered Starter jackets, mumbling to themselves, and empty-eyed women shuffling down sterile hallways in johnnys, and elderly people who cannot recognize their spouses or children or grandchildren or even their own reflections in the mirror—you are in a manila envelope with these people, the crazy people.
So the tears come, like the sky tearing in half. It is loud and ugly, the hunger of an infant, or the pain of a man on too little morphine, and it lasts until there is nothing left inside you but the quiet that falls after the tornado retreats back up into the clouds. All that is left is the stunned rubble of what once was a town.
That is a panic attack. I used to have them daily.
While many consider this a simple posture at first, its simplicity eventually proves to be deceiving. The goal of the shava-asana is for the body and mind to be perfectly still and relaxed. Not only should the body be motionless and at ease, but the mind as well should be quiet, like the surface of a still lake.
Lie on your back, plant your feet as wide as your mat and let them fall outward comfortably, stretch out your arms at 45 degree angles to the body with your palms facing up, close your eyes, begin to notice your breath.
Discard self, insert awareness.
And if you split “savasana” in two—”sava” and “asana”—you have the phrase “corpse pose.” Flat on your back, splayed open, eyes closed, you are a dead person’s mimic, a death-pretender.
What you’re doing is ghostly: actively pushing the liveliness from your body, so that the rest of the world can come in. And you watch without acting, experience without thinking.
At the end of every practice, you lie still, and practice death.
Annihilation of the self is the access to the experience of yoga.
Anything could trigger a panic attack—a raised voice, some memento of my ex-boyfriend, an episode of “Lost,” once.
This was before my therapist suggested a psychiatrist, before I found out that psychiatrists are essentially chemists, tinkering with pills and brains with the detachment of a high school sophomore typing up a lab report.
This was before the first anti-depressant, the first increase in dosage of the first anti-depressant, the second increase in dosage of the first anti-depressant, and the decrease in dosage of the first anti-depressant. Also before adding the second anti-depressant, and the trials of two atypical antipsychotics, one of which my mother’s father took before he died of Alzheimer’s disease.
I had none of these things, so I treated my panic attacks with home remedies: wine to prevent attacks, my husband’s arms to quell an attack, and “Planet Earth” to fall asleep to after it was over; you can’t fall into a spell of anxiety while watching penguins and polar bears. It was a well-worn, but ineffective routine that we repeated day by week by month.
Then a friend of mine mentioned yoga.
The practice of savasana is the yogic way of letting unwanted elements within us die, empowering us to surrender to life. A relaxed consciousness permits us to fully live moment-to-moment experiences: the mirror to the soul gets polished, the heart opens and our inner teacher awakens. Ironically, being a corpse is the yogi’s quintessential wake-up call.
I have never accomplished a real Savasana, mainly because the body isn’t terribly involved.
I can empty my mind during Warrior Two; my legs are posed in an active lunge, pushing away from each other, my torso is turned sideways with my abs engaged, my arms are spread with one facing my front foot and one facing my back. I am thinking about positioning my weight on the back arch of my back foot and the ball of my front foot, pulling each arm away from the other, squeezing my core—there’s no room for thought; it’s all body.
But when I’m flat on my back on the mat with nothing to do but relax, my mind spins off and away. It’s a boomerang—I’ll start with I am breathing in, I am breathing out and then it careens away on its own before I catch myself, and guide it back.
I am breathing in, I am breathing out.
So much focus on living when I’m supposed to be in the practice of dying.
But I don’t panic anymore. That could be the cocktail of pills (five total) that my psychiatrist-cum-chemist has decided works for me, or it could be the knowledge that at any time, I can unroll the mat, turn on a video, and fill my body with purpose and movement before lying still, trying to empty myself out and let death in.
The word hatha means willful or forceful. Hatha is also translated as ha meaning “sun” and tha meaning “moon.” This refers to the balance of masculine aspects—active, hot, sun—and feminine aspects—receptive, cool, moon—within all of us. Hatha yoga is a path toward creating balance and uniting opposites.
I see Savasana as the strange attraction between breath and emptiness, life and death, anxiety and calm.
My days of panic are few and far between, more strange than familiar, though the memories are bold. On the mat, I’m shaking with straining muscles and afterward, I lay flat and try to reach the post-attack emptiness I used to know so well.
It hasn’t happened yet, but I hope one day to lead it back into me, without the wreckage, without the destruction, but just lightly, calmly touching on death.
Liz Furl is the co-founder and co-host of the LadyBits podcast on the 5by5 network and the founder and editor-in-chief of Real Talk. Both are geared toward twenty-something life shown in its rawest, realest light. Recently, she has also made forays into freelancing, and has published pieces with xoJane, The Daily Muse, Twenty-Something Living, and Pink and Black Magazine. She’s a recovering workaholic who has eschewed a 12-step program in favor of 24/7 support from her amazing husband and two ridiculous cats. You can find her on Twitter @LizFurl if you like irreverent musings, rants about minutia, and/or sincere appreciation for others, or on LizFurl.com.