We hear it over and over: Savasana, or “corpse pose”. At the end of every yoga practice, be it at home or in a studio, we lie on our backs with outstretched arms and legs, and practice letting go. Sometimes it’s more difficult than others–our body might be spent, but our minds can continue to pull toward the next activity. And even when body and mind are centered from our practice, we don’t often consider the real meaning behind this pose because, well, it’s death.
Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to explore the concept of death more–specifically, seeing it as an opportunity to help me figure out how to better my life. When I lie in Savanasa, I try to think about myself actually being dead. That might sound morbid, but it’s been helpful in a few ways:
- My body releases more, because my mind gets more behind the idea that there’s nothing I have to do anymore–nothing matters.
- My mind lets go of all the piddly little “to do’s” and in the space that opens up, I can consider what’s really important and ask myself what it is I want to experience before I die.
- In this space I also ponder the impressions I leave behind. Would I be remembered as someone who ran around doing things, or as someone who cared about people and was fun to be around?
When I come out of corpse pose these days, I feel as though I’ve done a mini re-evaluation of my whole life, and it helps me make better decisions throughout the day. For example, this past Friday I was feeling overwhelmed at work–many dormant projects suddenly woke up, and I was multi-tasking all day to get things set up for a busy next week. But there was a baby shower for a colleague going on in the afternoon, and when I looked up at the clock, I had ten minutes to decide whether to make an appearance. Typically I would have worked through this “optional” event, but I decided these special moments were more important than work, and ran over to the party to congratulate the father-to-be.
Another way that I have found to safely contemplate death is to carry out an exercise recommended in the fabulous book called Learning to Breathe by Priscilla Warner. In it, she learns how to write Japanese death poems–four lines based on a simple predefined structure, ideally done for the new year. Here’s the one I wrote on January 1:
I’ve survived, achieved, struggled, controlled, and complained
For thirty-six years in this life
Releasing old views and limiting beliefs; increasing compassion, love and joy
Balanced through non-effort.
Re-reading this poem reminds me of how I’ve been, and how I’d like to be when I die.
Of course when someone you know and love passes away, or you are close with someone who’s going through a personal tragedy, it’s more natural to think about mortality. Whether it’s a colleague who has a sudden heart attack, a beloved pet you may need to euthanize, or close friends going through an incomprehensible loss, it is in these devastatingly sad times that we often stop to recognize just how blessed we are on a day-to-day basis. They are stark reminders that we should always appreciate each other, and all that we have.
But we shouldn’t wait for large, terrible events to wake us from our preoccupations, nor should we easily forget them and go back to living our lives blindly. Doing exercises like the ones I described above, or even drafting your own obituary (as I know a former colleague and friend of mine has done), can be really powerful. None of us really know when death will claim these bodies we’re borrowing, but when the time comes, it would be comforting to know that while our spirits were alive inside them, we really experienced all this world had to offer–we explored, we learned and taught, we deeply felt both joy and pain, we savored, we loved and were loved, and we were present in each and every precious moment. By contemplating death now, we can continually adjust our life’s direction, before we’re out of time.
What changes would you make to your life or how you’re living it right now, if you knew you wouldn’t wake up tomorrow? Start doing those things now.