March 10, 2012

Just Shut Up & Lie on the Floor, Will You? ~ Linda Malone

That is pretty much just how I felt about what was being asked of me by my very serious, very spiritual yoga teacher every time my yoga class ended, and it would drive me absolutely crazy.

My yoga teacher would direct the sweaty tangle of bodies in the class to the floor, arranged in polite rows of enlightened skin and bones and breath. There we’d lie, moist heaps on our yoga mats, when she would make it very clear, in the nicest, most passive aggressive way possible, that if we could not ‘embrace Savasana’ by staying in the room, we were letting ourselves down, a lot. I would lie there, tense and waiting with bated breath, for someone, anyone really, to get up and leave first.

“Find Savasana”,“Love Savasana”,“Spend as much time as you can in Savasana”,“Be your Savasana”—I did not even know what the word meant, never mind trying to be in it.

Photo credit: Jennifer Ballard

I was in my early twenties and—at least I was convinced—that  I was pretty successful and very busy and somewhat important. I worked a great entry-level gig in a large multinational company. I had a Blackberry, dammit—long before any of my friends did. I worked on the weekends, I worked from 7 AM to 11 PM. I had shit to do, I had a lot of shit to do and lying on the floor was not one of the things I had the time or inclination to do. So I would lie there and wait. Teeth clenched, jaw tight, my fingers and toes curling and uncurling, holding and then un-holding my breath. The hands of time crawled over my face at a glacial pace, my little body buzzing with a small amount of resentment and a large amount of frustration.

Savasana means ‘Corpse Pose’—and this, according to my acerbic friend Shannon, was exactly where unsuspecting yogis came to die.

Suddenly a movement across the dark room, a shift. There, an elbow raised, first a shoulder, then an entire body unfurling itself from the warm floor boards. Water bottles being reached for, bare feet padding past me and there suddenly was my freedom sailing out of the room on the shoulders of my own personal yogi hero. I sheepishly grabbed my shit and scrambled out behind him, happy to let him take the silent admonishment of our teacher. As long as I was not the first one out, it was cool.

I mean, I was busy! I had lots of stuff to do—I thought—as I stepped over and beyond the pattern of bodies on the floor.

Clearly these people had way too much time on their hands. Nope, not me. I had no time because my life was full, it was connected, it was important and it was busy! I was not lazy, I was not a ‘hippie’—I had no time to be anything other than f-ing busy.

Yoga for me, at that time, was a thing that I did—it was an activity—just as much of an activity as was running or the gym. It did give me some really good reasons to buy hot-looking yoga gear in lots of very cool colors though. I practiced hot yoga at that time (and still do), which gave me an opportunity to enjoy being rather chuffed when my coworkers and friends would balk at me, incredulous that I was surely doing some crazy acrobatic yoga shit in insanely hot temperatures when they could barely take the stairs.

Photo credit: Jennifer Ballard

And so, at the end of every class, my yoga teacher would suggest that we ‘stay in Savasana’ as long as we could and that by leaving the room early ‘we would be losing an opportunity to experience enlightenment’. And this was all fine and good—but quite honestly she might as well have been speaking Japanese to me. We all know it is better to be relaxed than angry, it is better to be grounded than flighty, and it is better to be happy than sad. But the end of class ‘lecture’ (and that’s what it felt like) did nothing to clarify for me exactly how I could go from being in one place to the other. So I would lie there, moving my fingers or my toes in the smallest way, the equivalent of tapping, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for the right amount of time to pass so that I could get the hell out of there as guiltlessly as possible and on with my very busy, very important life.

I was so busy that my dentist had trouble keeping my attention long enough to try and tell me that I was grinding my teeth at night, and that my newly onset muscular neck problems were most likely to do with that. I was so busy that I would forget to drink enough water, or grab shitty food on the go, and my digestion was seemingly more and more off with each day that passed. I was so busy that my mind was racing at night and I had trouble falling asleep properly so I would get up in the morning never really feeling rested enough. I was so busy that at a yearly check up with my doctor, when she asked me how old I was turning at my next birthday, fingers tap-tap-tapping away at my Blackberry, I absent-mindedly quoted an age that was in fact two years older than I was actually turning. When she looked at me funny, it got me to thinking. I felt old—I felt a lot older than I was. And I was not happy—I was just f-ing busy.

Photo credit: Jennifer Ballard

So I started to really sit in that space. I paid more attention in class to what my thoughts were—what were my patterns? And I started to notice some very cool shit. I realized that when I was uncomfortable or irritated, I would hold my breath and clench my teeth. When I felt very challenged—physically, mentally or emotionally—I would forget to drink my water and instead focus my energy on blaming my yoga teacher for putting me in whatever position was causing me my discomfort. When I had a ‘crappy’ class, I could usually see that it had everything to do with someone around me getting on my nerves because they breathed the wrong way, or took my special spot by the mirror.

These were the same patterns I was exhibiting in my work and personal life!!

And then it started to become very clear—I was all about putting out—putting out blame, frustration, weakness and responsibility when what I needed to do was take those things and put them back inside.  So I started to lie on the floor at the end of the class. And not because I had to—but because I was curious about what might happen if I tried to ‘do’ this crazy thing called Savasana. Clearly my existent strategy was sucking in big way— ‘Carpe Diem’, I told myself—it was my time to try something new!

Savasana is not some random arbitrary yoga rule—some bullshit direction that you need to follow because you are in a yoga studio and that is how we roll in a yoga studio.

Savasana is an opportunity to embrace the very thing that strikes fear into the heart of any busy, important and logical person—Stillness. In those moments when you lie on the floor, and call it what you want— ‘Yoga’, ‘meditation’, ‘Stillness’, ‘Mindfulness’, whatever—in those moments, you first access the physical body through the practice of the Asana (poses) preparing the body by working it and tiring it out—so that you welcome the opportunity to be still more than you would have before that point.

You notice things like your breath and your movements, you notice your reaction to stress, do you hold your breath, clench your teeth? You observe those patterns and you start to try to stop repeating them. If you practice the active release of those patterns long enough, enough times on your mat, you will start to see that you develop the ability to refrain from participating in those patterns on a larger scale in the rest of your life.

Being still is not about being still because being still is nice. F **k nice. You need to learn to be comfortable in your own skin because if you are over the age of 16 and you are still not comfortable in your own skin, you have much bigger problems. Savasana is a space where you are actively ‘Letting Go’. Over the years, students, friends and family have discussed and debated with me the concept of meditation (and Yoga is meditation—a moving meditation). I have heard many times “but I just cannot seem to still my mind” or “my thoughts will not stop—how can I practice having an empty mind when I cannot stop thinking about my grocery list, my unfaithful wife, my disease, my dog, my boss” etc.

Photo credit: Jennifer Ballard

Thích Nht Hnh is a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Teacher, Author and Peace Activist, he re-imagines this dilemma in more workable terms, which ultimately helped me to see the way out of it very clearly. He maintains that it is just as much the Brain (or Mind’s) nature to think as it is the Heart’s nature to beat and the Lungs’ nature to breathe. It is an impossibility to try to stop the mind from creating thought.

Once you accept that premise, Savasana or meditation (and they are one and the same) becomes a much more palatable concept. It is OK if thoughts occur to you, but what you practice in Savasana is a letting go of the conversation around those thoughts, even if you have to refuse to engage with a thought every three seconds you are on the right track. Freedom or liberation (enlightenment) happens in the process—it is not an end result. You do not end up floating in an enlightened state that is free from the world and all of its realities at some point in your yoga practice. You reach a point, through the practice of meditation/Savasana/Asana where you are no longer attached to the realities of your world because you eventually come to understand that those realities, good or bad, are simply perception, and perception ultimately is fleeting.

Allowing the mind the permission to sit in this place will give the Body time to recoup, to manage its stress response. Savasana, or meditation, provides the Autonomic Nervous System the room to exist in its Parasympathetic Response State. The reason this is significant is because we already spend too many hours a day existing in the opposite state (Sympathetic Response State)—from Wikipedia:

“The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is responsible for regulation of internal organs and glands, which occurs unconsciously. To be specific, the parasympathetic system is responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest” activities that occur when the body is at rest, including sexual arousalsalivation, lachrymation (tears), urinationdigestion, and defecation. Its action is described as being complementary to that of one of the other main branches of the ANS, the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for stimulating activities associated with the fight-or-flight response.  Sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions typically function in opposition to each other. This natural opposition is better understood as complementary in nature rather than antagonistic. For an analogy, one may think of the sympathetic division as the accelerator and the parasympathetic division as the brake. The sympathetic division typically functions in actions requiring quick responses. The parasympathetic division functions with actions that do not require immediate reaction.”

The vast majority of us exist in a constant state of response to a low level of stress, constantly aggravating our sympathetic nervous system. We need to create balance or we begin to exhaust the adrenal glands and other systems and organs that are designed to respond to stress. We then end up putting pressure on our physical bodies making the process of finding mental or emotional peace even harder.

When I started doing yoga, I thought that peace was a place I had to get to. I felt like I was in Montreal but I had to get to Vancouver, and when you are walking, that is a long ass way to go. In fact, I was quite wrong. The place of peace I was looking to get to was in fact occurring in each passing moment—it was not somewhere away from me but precisely inside of the space where already I was. It is just that I was too busy to slow down and sit in it so I did not realize how simple it was.

The people who stay in Savasana are doing the hard work, it is not that they are refusing to accept what looks like frustration and resistance but instead they are accepting those things and simply calling them something else. In doing so, they are changing their perception of the experience. This way, with a lot of practice, at some point both good things and bad things will trigger the same reaction—stillness and acceptance (and in scientific terms an equal and healthy balance of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic response states).

The practice of sitting in stillness when all you want to do is buzz and move and flit from one thought to the next is what differentiates yoga from just exercise or sweating or stretching.

You practice Savasana at the end of the class so that you can experience Savasana—eventually in every pose… and then maybe a bunch of times throughout your day, ultimately you teach yourself to experience stillness (Savasana) in the very shittiest, hardest, saddest most upsetting moments you experience. Because that is when we truly know what Peace is. When you realize that all this time it is fully within your control to create this peace for yourself, regardless of what is happening around you. Right here. Right now. This minute.

So, just lie on the floor and shut up already, will you please?

More photography from Jennifer Ballard here.


Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul

Linda Malone, B.A.Sc, E-RYT 500, is a self Confessed Type-A Yoga Gurl & Founder of Iam Yoga Inc., Creator of Yogologie, Teacher & Entrepreneur, Lululemon Yoga Ambassador, People Connector, Runner, Cyclist, Foodie and a Big Dreamer.

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