Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Shavasana is a yoga pose. It means corpse pose, or dead man's pose. Sounds gruesome.

This image isn't exactly shavasana, but it's close.

This past week marked the 10th anniversary of the premiere of LOST, which is, by my reckoning, still the greatest television show of all time, followed closely by The Office and Air Wolf. Here's a discussion about its rightful place in the pantheon. 

My purpose in posting this image is two fold: first to commemorate this anniversary by paying homage to Jack Shepherd, the ultimate hero.  (Runner up: Stringfellow Hawk.)

But second is to illustrate how I feel at the end of a yoga session. That is, dead. But not in a bad way.

Let me explain.

I think there may be no more powerful practice on earth than the gentle practice of yoga. I say this not just because I'm married to a yoga instructor, or because I recommend yoga to my patients all the time, or because I discovered in yoga a sanctuary, a temple, an oasis of spirituality that revived me while traversing the desert of my disaffection from Mormonism. 

I say it because the heart of yoga, like no other practice I know, brings into balance some of the most powerful, pervasive dichotomies that shape our lives: yin and yang, mind and body, strength and flexibility, discipline and relaxation, precision and fluidity, rationality and creativity, expression and silence, remaining grounded and becoming transcendent, holding on and letting go, just being and always becoming, and, metaphorically, life and death. Sun salutation and shavasana.

These dichotomies are active in our lives most of the time, and I often have a hard time reconciling their competing agendas. Except in yoga. In yoga, I breathe in, breathe out. Reach for the sky as I plant my feet firmly on the ground. Then forward fold, reach down and barely touch my knees. Let my mind focus, let it wander. Fingers kind of brushing against my shins, when I really force it. Fill my body with light, fill my mind with darkness. Okay, not even getting close to my toes, but you know what? That's alright, I'm not going to sweat it because I'm doing the best I can and there must be some genetic flaw in me that will prevent me from ever touching my toes with my legs straight, and I'm okay with that. Yes, even if everybody else in the class can somehow touch their forehead to their glutes like they were made of silly putty, I'm not comparing myself to them, I'm just concerned with my own efforts, and dang, how can anybody do that?

So yoga has powerful metaphorical meaning for me. As I get older, I want both my body and mind to remain fluid, flexible, adaptive. I used to think that being "firm as a rock" in faith or politics or opinion or relationships was a desirable thing. And of course constancy, commitment, loyalty and reliability are all essential traits for becoming the person I want to be. But I've seen it happen so often that those traits, when left unchallenged, stiffen into intolerance, close-mindedness, laziness, cynicism, and self-righteousness, especially as the body and brain age. 

That's not a destiny I aspire to.  Don't want to spend my whole life cultivating awe and wonder, being regularly humbled into recognizing how little I actually know, only to become deluded with a false sense of certainty and sanctimony in my old age. Thus, each week as I strain to hold onto Downward Dog for just another five seconds, or wobble precariously through the final flow of Warrior Two, I imagine that I'm creating in myself not just muscle flexibility, but mental flexibility.  Core strength of body, core strength of spirit. It's soul power, baby, all over again.

There are some aspects of traditional yoga that I don't particularly like. Elizabeth has had to study it all, the different deities and literalisms and prayers and rituals that have been built up around the practice like any other dogmatic religion. People love themselves some structure, a format, the "right way," the "only way." But unlike other orthodoxies, yoga peddles its wares softly. None of that stuff really matters anyway, and yoga is fine with that. It just wants to bring you into its healing, balanced, life-affirming heart, and whatever vehicle or tradition gets you there is just fine.

Whether through cosmic convergence or random chance, the first yoga instructor Elizabeth and I ever had was Monique, who teaches Beginner's Yoga at Club USA. I imprinted on her like a duckling to its mother. I continue to go to her class twice a week, and I feel a void when I miss it. Other teachers just can't quite measure up. She challenges me without overwhelming me. She's always positive. She always reminds us to "Let your body tell you what it wants to do today." Even as Elizabeth has progressed to expert level yoga, she still enjoys going to Monique's classes. Unlike many instructors, Monique isn't afflicted with "Yoga Teacher Voice": that blasé monotone that seems unnaturally calm, even lifeless. Monique is chipper, sometimes silly. She makes little asides about her kids and life. She imparts tiny pearls of practical wisdom, a motivational speaker when you least expect it, just when you're exhausted and at your most impressionable, like this gem from last night, "Each of you has such tremendous talent and potential. Never be afraid to share it. That's what you were born to do!" I'm not being coy when I say that, amidst all the turbulence of my own mental life, I appreciate such clarity and simple wisdom. Yes, I think. Maybe that's all there is to it.
After fifty minutes of twisting, snapping, cracking, and popping, Monique guides us into final relaxation, or shavasana. This is what I crave. This is why I'm here. This is why I've tied myself in knots for the last fifty minutes. Lay flat on your back. Hug knees to chest. One leg in the air, then spinal twist. Switch legs. Again flat on your back, arms to your side, palms up, hips open, eyes closed. Breathe in and out deeply through your nose. Let go of all the tension and frustration in your body. Find an image that is calming. Focus on it.

I've developed a dozen images to choose from. A placid mountain lake in summer. A silent forest in a winter snowfall. A sunlit turquoise beach, waves in sync with my breath. Sitting in a hammock, gently rocked by a breeze, looking up at the trees. A bird soaring through a canyon. A disembodied "I" silently floating towards a glorious desert sunset. 

I go into a zone. A zone of remembering and forgetting. A zone of letting go. A zone of simply being. It's almost like, after an hour of physical exertion, I have to be given permission--by Monique, by someone other than myself--to completely relax and open my mind.  I often try to meditate by myself, but I'm never more mentally ready for it than during shavasana. And it's in that moment, within the mental worlds I've called forth, that I glimpse it. Not for long. But I taste it. The Tao. The Way. The Mind. The Kosmos. God. The Eternal Now/Here. The Ocean of One Taste. The Fullness That Is Empty. The Emptiness That Is Full.  

And then it's gone.

"Coming back to my voice. Bringing your awareness back into the room. Move your fingers and toes. Roll onto your side in a fetal position, like you were going to sleep."

(At this point, Monique's simple wisdom is imparted: "You are great. Life is amazing. You can do it!")

"Now sit up. Open your arms wide and take a deep breath. Gently roll your head from side to side, forward only. Right ear to right shoulder. Left ear to left shoulder. Give yourself a hug. Uncross.  Give yourself another hug. Thank you so much for coming to my class today and sharing your presence. The light in me honors the light in you, which is the light in everything. Namaste."

And with that, the class is over. Me and thirty other yoga students peel ourselves off the floor, roll up our mats, and head back into a world that is so often anti-yoga, that is everything but calm, balanced, gentle, enlightening. But I feel prepared, rejuvenated, centered in a way that nothing else does for me now.

I wish it could last. But shavasana can't. It's short and sweet. It's not life. It's a metaphor for death, a preview of that rest and ultimate Oneness that someday awaits us all.

And that brings me back to Jack Shepherd. After confronting the unsolvable mystery of the Island, after dodging death and traveling through time and facing betrayal and confronting both ultimate evil and soul-numbing ennui, our hero Jack finds himself stumbling through a grove of trees, blood seeping out of a fatal abdominal wound, strength and life slipping away. He collapses to the ground, rolls over and finds himself in the same place he awoke on the island six seasons previously, but now as a nearly-dead man, in shavasana pose. Is this coincidence? Metaphor? Intentional by the writers of the show? Or just me projecting my values onto my hero?  Does it matter? I'm going with it.
Jack breathes in, breathes out. A plane crosses through a window in the waving treetops overhead. He smiles. He knows his friends have escaped the island, a life and the future awaiting them. But not for Jack. His work is done. His dog curls up by his side. He takes a deep shuddering breath and closes his eyes for the last time. There is a wash of light, and the hero's journey ends exactly where it began.

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