The first time I went to a yoga class I struggled through, watching the clock the whole time. I knew the class was an hour and fifteen minutes, so it was with a sense of incredulous blessing that I realized, with twenty minutes still to go, that we were winding down. The poses became slower and easier, and then the teacher told us to lie on our backs and make ourselves comfortable. She suggested putting our socks back on and pulling blankets over ourselves — I didn’t because I was still sweating, but I came to realize the wisdom of this advice later. The teacher dimmed the lights, put on soft, meditative music, and I suddenly realized that it was nap time! Just like in kindergarten, we all lay together on our mats and rested. It felt funny lying in such an intimate, vulnerable pose in a roomful of people, eyes closed as the teacher led us through a relaxation exercise. But I soon forgot about the others and reveled in the peace and quiet as my sore muscles came to rest and my mind settled, my body becoming chilly as the sweat cooled.
Savasana is the word both for the pose — on your back with your arms out at a slight angle — and the process of lying in that pose and going through the relaxation exercise. It happens at the end of every yoga class, and is a way of allowing the poses you have just done to settle into your mind and muscles. It is also a body meditation, similar to centering prayer and bio-feedback, two things I stumbled upon a few years ago in my quest for spiritual and physical health. Like centering prayer and bio-feedback, you are encouraged to take a passive attitude to your thoughts, to allow them without trying to change them, but without latching on to them, or identifying with them.
One analogy used in centering prayer is to see your thoughts as clouds going overhead: You notice them but they don’t affect you down where you are, and they blow past with the wind. For someone who has struggled with anxiety, this is incredibly powerful: I don’t have to try to STOP thinking the anxious thoughts, or to change them or replace them with positive thoughts — exercises which left me exhausted and twice as stressed out — but I don’t have to define myself by them, either. I can nod at them, even greet them with friendly acknowledgement, but then not concern myself with them. I sometimes picture them as clouds, and sometimes as an object beside me: there, but not a part of me. Observe your thoughts, my teacher Esther says, acknowledge them without trying to change them. So I notice: I am angry at my housemate for something stupid, I am worried about money, my back hurts. It’s okay. I don’t have to try to stop being angry right now, or stop worrying, or get my back to stop hurting. That’s just how I feel. It’s not me. My true self is deeper than those thoughts and feelings, is at peace.
I think that growing up and coming of age as a Christian, there were a lot of things I thought were sins that were just feelings, just me struggling to figure myself out, and figure others out, and find my place in the world. Repenting and trying to change those thoughts and feelings was a difficult, and unproductive process. I believe in sin, and in repentance, the Hebrew word shuv that means turning away from bad choices and back towards good, turning away from the wrong path and back to the right one, turning back to God. But I wish that I had known about savasana, too. I wish I could have given myself that space and gentleness, to not immediately identify my feelings as sins, and identify myself with them. Repenting of anger never helped me let go of that anger so much as gently acknowledging it, setting it next to me, and quieting my body and my mind. I can let it go. It isn’t me. I think if I had known how to do that it would have helped me to understand what the real sins were, what things were really pointing me away from God, which direction I needed to turn to go back towards God.
This evening, after a long day at work, I came home and made my way circuitously to my yoga mat. Full disclosure: while eating a healthy and nutrient-packed salad with spinach and lentils, I lay in bed and watched a reality TV show. I won’t even tell you which one; you might not respect me anymore. But, listen: I turned the TV off after that, lit a candle, and spread out my mat. It looked like heaven. It looked like this:
I did a yoga class called hiplicious, which was a lot better than it sounds. It was actually quite wonderful. As I lay down for the savasana, I closed my eyes, but after a while I opened them again. You’re supposed to keep them shut, but I’ve found that I have to concentrate to keep my eyes shut, and that makes the muscles between my eyebrows tense, and that hurts a little bit and so kind of defeats the purpose of the savasana. So I take breaks and open my eyes to rest my forehead.
And today I noticed something I never had before. Above, the white textured ceiling was bordered by dark wood paneling that matched the wood on the walls, and it created a framed rectangle the exact size of my living room. My living room is the place I spend more time than any other room (if you don’t count time asleep); it’s where I sit and work on my computer, sit and play on my computer, sit and read, entertain guests, and do yoga. I sit on the front porch sometimes, and hang out in my bed at night, but the living room is the space most full of me, my activities and my presence. And tonight I noticed that there is a space the exact same size and shape above it, with soft, white, textured paint and a dark wood border. It is my living room, but it is emptied of furniture, rugs, house plants, computers, tissues, candles — all the things that clutter the floor below. It is a framed, empty canvas, in the shape of my life, my living, my room. I realized that it perfectly represents the place I go to when I do centering prayer, or bio-feedback, or savasana. In this case the clutter is down below, and that beautiful, white, uncluttered space is above — exactly the shape of me, but empty of all of the thoughts and anxieties, habits and coping mechanisms, that make up my daily life. It is a blank canvas, where I can meet God and we can create something together. God is the paint, and I am the brush, or I am the paint and the brush and God is the artist, or I am the canvas only and God is all the rest: the blended colors of the full spectrum and the rocky pigment sparkling in the paint, the sharp edge of the palette knife and the rough horse-hair of the brush, the Artist waiting for his materials to settle down, to move all that clutter off of the canvas so he can finally begin.