I’ve spent the last two years recovering and rehabilitating from serious injuries after a much larger vehicle failed to stop and broadsided my vehicle as I was driving through an intersection. Recently, I was finally discharged from physical therapy and medically cleared to begin an exercise regime.
As part of my recovery, I’ve been walking a couple of miles almost every day for some months, and for a while, I’ve been longing for something more stimulating and challenging, something that would nourish my spirit as well as help my body. But my fear of re-injury is powerful and I knew that I wanted guidance. So, I signed up for classes at a local yoga studio with a teacher who is well-known for her expertise in helping students with physical limitations.
The final pose of almost all yoga classes is intended to provide deep restoration: Savasana, Corpse Pose, or Final Relaxation Pose. As I am learning, the ability to transition from an hour of challenging my mind and body to 10 to 20 minutes of absolute stillness, to consciously enable my mind and body to relax into simply being, takes intentionality, practice and patience. I was not surprised to learn that yoga practitioners consider Savasana to be the ultimate act of conscious surrender. To practice being a corpse is a difficult thing.
One of the benefits that I am experiencing is that Savasana enhances my awareness of how difficult it must be for patients to whom I provide spiritual care to relax and surrender into their dying processes. For many people for whom I provide care, especially for those who have resisted thinking about, preparing or planning for death, coming to the end of life is terrifying. For those dying on hospice service or in a hospital setting, there is the additional layer of how their dying process is being managed. For some, every possible medical intervention is being attempted and families are encouraging the dying person to “keep fighting” or to “hold on” until a family member can arrive from across the country or the world. Even for those dying on hospice or on comfort care in a hospital setting, caregivers, medical personnel and family members are monitoring, administering pain medications, visiting in order to say goodbye.
Whether the dying person’s favorite music is being played, a television is providing background white noise, prayers are being recited, medical personnel are answering questions from the family, calls are being made to provide status updates to family and friends far away, or plans “for afterward” are being discussed, there often a surprising amount of noise and commotion taking place around the dying person. Perhaps because Judaism so emphasizes the importance of our actions, it is difficult for us to accept the reality of death in our midst, to be present, quiet witnesses to the dying process.
When we recite the Unetaneh tokef on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we are reminded that every human being is “a fragment of pottery, a blade of grass, a flower that fades, a shadow, a cloud, a breath of wind.” We may intellectually understand these words, but, on psychological, emotional, and spiritual levels, how achingly sad they are and what a challenge it is for us to quiet ourselves sufficiently so that, as Jeremiah says, we accept the hard truth that “death is the way of the world.”
Practicing Savasana is an embodied experience of the reality that one day, each of us will assume the Corpse Pose. As a parallel to praying the Viddui of the Bedtime Shema, the regular practice of Savasana reminds us that intentional surrender calms body and soul, preparing us for a conscious final relaxation.
Rabbi Janet Madden PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.
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