SHAVASANA: The “Corpse” Pose

Saddhu, the ascetic yogin who’ve renounced worldy affairs to practice the sadhana of their discipline towards an ultimate goal of moksha (liberation from the wheel of life), often take a unique approach to their meditation, contemplation, asana and pranayama.

Take the Aghori for instance. A sect of Shaivite ascetics who, as legends tell it, will take their bodies and minds to every extreme in order to find the balance between all of that. Extremes like total sense deprivation on the one end, wherein we may literally sit like a stone for days on end, wherein even the body fluids have ceased to flow and the sleep/wake cycles of brainwave activity do not fluctuate even a little, to wanton sexuality, gluttony unto cannibalism, rage and mania on the other end.

Well, legend surely has its basis in some semblance of fact, and it’s true that sometimes an Aghori may be found camping out in a graveyard, but that’s only because it’s so peaceful. Seriously! Have you ever visited a graveyard at night? Preferably when the weather is warm and the stars are bright; not a soul for miles (no pun intended). No one comes to disturb. You can make a small fire for your tea, dance happily in your worship.

It’s said that the corpse pose came about after some guy saw an Aghor Baba sleeping in a graveyard somewhere and put two and two together. Sure. All the asana have some kind of back story. After all, Patanjali only advocated for sitting postures, the better to promote one’s meditation which, after all, was the ultimate goal of his Ashtangha practices. Still, you will find yogin all throughout the Himalaya, doing their sun salutations in the morning among their other ablutions. Some may stand on one foot in a ring of fire. Some may bend both legs behind their necks and sit in prayer for some hours. But never will you find an Aghori sleeping on a corpse or otherwise pretending to be a corpse. No. This is not the way of the Aghor who are actually one of the most practical lot I’ve ever been graced to know.

Shavasana is encouraged in many modern yoga practices as that form which will lead one into a deep state of relaxation. In Yoga Nidra, it is thought to encourage the yogic sleep, a state of consciousness between wake and sleep. Here we might get into the science of intentional brainwave manipulation and what precisely occurs on the journey from beta to delta, and perhaps more importantly, the ramifications of being able to induce and support a conscious theta state, not to mention a waking gamma state. But getting back to the Aghori, this is how we feel about the corpse pose.

The purpose of the corpse pose is indeed to make you into a corpse in order that you become able to take full control of your prana and disengage the mind from the outside world. Shavasana means that not only the muscles, but the mind, too, becomes like a corpse. The Aghori do not sit on corpses in the graveyard; we sit on our own corpses! We make our own body into a living corpse, that is, let the body do what it does and perform its acts, meanwhile I am not there; I am someplace away from it. Parallels to this thought may be found in the Gita

Consider also in terms of pranayama, which means to control the prana. You do not necessarily need to hold the breath in order to control the prana. If the mind is controlled, the breath will slow and eventually stop automatically. Whenever your breath is slow, the mind is also generally slow. Similarly, when the breath is fast or shallow, the mind is often agitated.

In Patanjali’s Ashtangha, after pranayama comes pratyahara – sense withdrawal, or detachment of the senses from their objects. Senses like to eat things. Pratyahara can be interpreted to mean ‘against eating’ and occurs when the calmed mind stops craving sensory pleasure. When the mind has been calmed like this it is finally ready for dharana, dhyana and Samadhi – concentration, meditation and the perfect equilibrium of consciousness that is ordinary sadhana.