I am not sure when I came up with the phrase—the penultimate yoga pose—but I’ve been saying it for years.
I slowly guided my students into Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Shvanasana) and addressed the newbies in particular: “Voila, the penultimate pose. Now, you know that you’re really in a yoga class!”
At my studio in Raanana, Israel, I recently led 17-year-old Sam, his mom and her best friend’s husband, Michael, (here on business) into Adho Mukha Shvanasana.
Since the 40-something-year-old pulmonologist had never practiced before, I tossed out my line: “Voila, the penultimate pose.”
“So if that’s the penultimate, what’s the ultimate one?” Sam’s mom chuckled, as an English high school teacher she knew the nuances of words.
“What do you mean?” I said. I loathed high school English so much that I avoided taking any English or literature classes in college.
“Well, penultimate means second to last. So, if dog is second to last, then what is the ultimate pose?” she asked.
She had me; I was stumped. At a loss. Embarrassed. No, mortified.
Probably even red in the face if it had not been completely dark outside and the lights were low. In my mind, I had used ultimate to mean “best” or most fundamental rather than last.
The word most likely comes from Latin, I thought to myself, and to my recollection neither my high school nor my university had offered that dead language. Even if it had, I would never have elected to take it.
I tried my hardest to stay focused on their session, moving them from dog into plank, back-and-forth five times. As it is one of my favorite ways to help students build their internal body heat and feel their strength.
“I’ll get back to you,” I said, never quick with comebacks. So slow, in fact, I suffered throughout childhood with my older brother whose biting tongue left me speechless at every turn.
At night in bed or worse, the next day, I’d stew and think about everything I should have said. Now, all these years later, I just let the question settle and nestle, swishing around my mind.
Mostly, during the one-hour lesson, I thought about the poses, their meanings and value. I thought about Shoulder Stand, dubbed queen of all poses, which is said to help us develop the more feminine qualities of patience and emotional harmony. It neutralizes the nervous system in contrast to its counterpart Headstand, which heats and energizes us and is considered the king of asanas.
“Who are we competing with here?” Michael asked. They were lying on their backs for Bridge pose, with 15 minutes to go.
“Funny question. I’ve never been asked that before. Are you a competitive athlete?” I replied.
He shook his head—yes—as if I hadn’t already known the answer.
“So in yoga you’re not competing with anyone else. But you’ve probably figured that one out.” He laughed, as I continued. “In a way, though, it’s like you’re competing with yourself. To stay aware of and continuously breathe. To strive to find some quiet inside that head,” I was thinking and talking simultaneously.
After Bridge, I had them keep their knees bent, bring their feet and legs to touch and put a block between their knees. They had done quite a few back bends, so I wanted them to release their lower backs.
“Squeeze!” I commanded. “Keep breathing and hug into that block.” I could see their inner thighs tremble.
All the while, I kept asking myself what was the ultimate pose.
When does someone really know they’ve arrived? When they’re on a mat, practicing this thing we call yoga, and they get it?
What one pose epitomizes all of that?
They removed the blocks and slowly bent one knee at a time into their chests and then toward their armpits for Happy Baby.
“From there, slowly extend your legs on the mat for the final resting pose, Savasana.” Mother and son knew where they were going since they’ve been practicing for a few months now.
Michael did not. Sleep deprived due to jet lag, he was awash in the intense demand of the practice, so he followed along cautiously. I let them settle. Tuck their shoulder flesh under, allow their palms to turn up, their feet splay apart, heavy into the earth.
“The goal here isn’t to fall asleep, rather to stay aware of each breath. To breathe and empty out the mind while the outer, physical body relaxes,” I explained.
I watched and listened as their inhale and exhale took over.
“This is it. The ultimate pose,” I blurted out.
For the first time in my 10 years of teaching, I realized that Shavasana is the ultimate pose. When we’re in it—relaxed in our body, conscious of our breath, but quiet in our mind—that’s when we know we’re practicing yoga.
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