thoughts from the mat, part I

In many styles of yoga, sivassana, the corpse pose, is performed at the end of a practice to produce a deep relaxation that allows the body and the mind to integrate the lessons or experience of the day's yoga. Sivassana is a very difficult pose, although it looks a lot easier than arm balances or handstands: you lie on your back, heels touching, arms at your sides, palms up. And you are completely still, focusing only on the breath. As soon as most of us try this pose, the mind starts running around like a crazy monkey, chattering about the grocery list and due dates and did I remember to bring socks . . . the challenge is to figure out how to let the monkey go and to just be there for those minutes.

In Bikram yoga, we also do short sessions of sivassana in between each of the floor postures in the last third of the class. It is believed to help the body relax and return to homeostasis in between postures that detoxify the internal organs and open up the energy centers of the body. At the obvious physical level, if done properly, a one-minute sivassana can induce deep relaxation: the pulse slows, the breath deepens, all muscles soften.

This practice of short sivassana makes a lot of sense to me based on other forms of meditation and bodywork I've studied. I came to yoga only a year ago, after ten years of studying taiji and other Chinese martial arts. The first move of the taiji form -- from wuji to taiji -- from stillness/nothing to movement/presence, is incredibly important and subtle. Learning to feel stillness is the basis of understanding movement. In Feldenkrais bodywork, which I have found incredibly helpful for correcting knee/hip alignment problems and for relaxing my "computer shoulder," the enire practice consists of deep relaxation on the floor interpersed with small, gentle movements designed to reprogram your central nervous system.

American culture in general has little acceptance or patience with rest and stillness: we work hard, play hard. To sit and do nothing -- and especially to intentionally do nothing -- is very difficult. Yet it is in rest that healing and growth occurs: think of weight training. You work a muscle to the point of exhaustion, and then you have to let it rest for a couple of days so that it can grow new fibres. Training more frequently doesn't build more muscle, it actually tears it down faster than it can grow back.

Academic culture, in my experience, tends to fetishize the summer as a time of intense productivity -- yet no one I know ever accomplishes everything they had hoped. The ritual conversations ("how was your summer" "oh, I just didn't get enough done") are already happening in the hallways here at my department. But we need some rest and relaxation in the summer in order to recuperate and grow and be ready to face the new throngs of students in the fall.

Saying things repeatedly tends to make them seem more true. Last August, I tried this little experiment, which I'm going to repeat this year. Whenever someone asks "how was your summer," I just say "great." I might add "very relaxing." It kind of stops people short in their tracks, but then they smile and say "mine too." Which makes us all feel a little better. My closest friends might know more details about the full reality of my summer, which is a bit more complex. But why not repeat a good thing over and over in casual conversation in the hallways, instead of the usual self-deprecating criticism?