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Exploring the Rest

March 29, 2010

In Chapter 1, Verse 32 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is written, “Lying flat on the ground with the face upwards, in the manner of a dead body, is Savasana.  It removes tiredness and enables the mind and whole body to relax.” It is through Savasana— this stretching out and releasing all tension into the ground— that we will begin to explore the Royal Path of Yoga, of which asana is only one limb, in its entirety.  So lay down, find your breath, and reflect on these.

Let us refer to the mother of all Yoga texts: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, in which the Great Sage outlined the eight limbs of Yoga.  The first two limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas, concern the Yogi’s treatment of self and others.  They consist of ten “living principles” that are intended to guide the practitioner toward right behavior.  The five Yamas are: Ahimsa or non-violence and compassion toward all living creatures, including yourself! Satya is a commitment to the truth and observance of this principle means speaking, thinking, and acting truthfully. Asteya is non-stealing; this means not taking anything that has not been freely given including someone’s time or attention when they simply can’t afford to give it. Of course, it also means no shop-lifting. Brahmacharya is often translated as celibacy or chastity but a more accurate and realistic interpretation is the proper use of sexual energy.  Casual sex, hours of time and mental energy squandered on sexual thoughts and the pursuit of sexual gratification, and using sex as a vehicle for psychological manipulation or suppression are all examples of inappropriate uses of sexual energy.  From the Yogic perspective this energy should be channeled into your practice and partnership. And Aparigraha or non-grasping because Yogis should not only be physically flexible, balanced, and strong; these qualities should also be reflected in her mentality.

The five Niyamas address the yogis treatment of self.  Shaucha means purity and refers to cleanliness of body and mind.  In effort to honor the principle of Shaucha yogis practice many kriyas to cleanse the physical body, which in turn affects the emotional and intellectual bodies.  For example, cleaning the nasal passages every morning using Jala-Neti is known to having a calming effect on the mind and facilitates the opening of ajna chakra. Santosha is contentment but should not be confused with complacency.  The spirit of Santosha supports an awareness of the steadiness of self, so that we aren’t jerked violently about by the constant change that is inevitable in living.  We meet all situations, glorious and horrible, centered in the self. Tapas is your fire, it’s what makes you tick, and it’s also a Spanish appetizer but that’s beyond the scope of this article. It is important to cultivate Tapas in order to fuel your perseverance and properly focus your energy. Swadhyaya is self-study– Yoga is in essence a methodical approach to self-realization, if you are on the path your are engaging in self-study. Swadhyaya reminds you to check in and observe yourself: are your thoughts and actions in alignment with your intentions? Isvarapranidhana is submission to the Divine, which compels us to focus ourselves on our efforts rather than attaching ourselves to anticipated outcomes.

The third limb is Asana.  Many people only know of this third limb and consider Yoga to be a series of physical postures that increase your balance, strength, and flexibility. Asanas are incredibly powerful and will improve your physical and mental health through consistent and mindful practice but they alone do not make Yoga.  There are said to be thousands of asanas and that each express specific insights or attitudes discovered by the practitioner on his journey inward.  Asana are especially brilliant because all eight limbs practically converge in the correct practice of asana.

The fourth limb is Pranayama or the study and manipulation of the prana, which is usually interpreted as breath but is more specifically defined as life force.  Pranayama is considered a vital tool for those who are preparing for meditation.  It is best to begin by cultivating breath awareness before delving into more intense forms of pranayama.  Just as you must learn to stand on your feet before you stand on your head.  As our mind, mood, and thinking are profoundly influenced by our breathing, the Yogi consciously works with the breath and prana in effort to quiet the mind and nourish the body. Pranayama will be explored at greater length in future articles.

The fifth limb is Pratyahara which means sense withdrawal.  The Yogi practices sense withdrawal to limit the influence of external distractions.  As the practitioner learns to ignore the itch, the smell, the heat, and so on, there will be fewer impulses to fidget and let the mind wander.  This too, is a crucial step in preparing for meditation.

The last three limbs all refer to different levels of meditation: Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Dharana is a state of complete absorption that is can only be achieved after the mind and body have been cultivated by the first five limbs of practice.  When one reaches the stage of Dharana he can brag on his resume that he is a skilled uni-tasker for he can direct his focus completely.  The mind isn’t running, skipping, and wandering but is pointed.  Dhyana is meditation.  This is the stage in which the yogi’s concentration has become so fluent that he is transformed by the focus.  This, in turn, leads to Samadhi or Bliss.  Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi will each be featured in future articles.

Practice: Hello! Are you still there?  Is that you snoring? Savasana’s not for sleeping! It’s for self-study!! Now that the eight limbs are fresh in our minds, let’s observe their convergence in Savasana. Sit with your knees bent, legs slightly spread, and feet flat on the floor. Slowly extend your legs out straight; you don’t want to lean the body to the right or left.  Slowly bring your entire body to the floor.  Rest the arms along your sides with your palms facing upward.  Adjust the arms and shoulders to create space between the shoulder blades.  You may put a small towel under your head and neck if you find this more comfortable.  Consciously scan the whole body willing each muscle to relax.  Bring your attention to your right thumb, each finger, palm, back of the hand, wrist…continue like this through the entire body.  Remain aware of your breath.  When you have finished scanning the physical body you can move into the subtle body.  Imagine first the root chakra.  As you inhale travel into the center of that space, make contact with the origin of the root at the end of the inhalation and briefly hold the breath.  As you exhale experience to softness that spreads from the center outward, unlocking tension that crowds into the inner softness and space.  Continue this practice with each of the seven major chakras. Experience each center as vast and supple. Remain in Savasana at least another ten minutes.

Chakra Map

Notes: Savasana can be practiced at the beginning of your practice, within your practice between strenuous vinyasas, and at the end of your practice.  There are many variations of Savasana that aim to deepen the practitioner’s relaxed state.  This asana is useful in cultivating Pratyahara and mind/body awareness.  Savasana is also a useful pose for practices in breath awareness, Yoga Nidra, and chakra work.  If you are uncomfortable laying flat on your back, try using a small towel under the head and a bolster under the knees.  You might also try rolling onto your belly with your forehead and nose on the floor and arms extended over the head, hands stacked, and palms facing downward. Savasana is also known as Mritasana or the Corpse Pose.

This article originally appeared on under the title The Eight Limb Corpse.

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