Yoga Culture

Corpse Pose

By Charlotte Bell

A celebration of life. 

In 35 years of practicing asana, only rarely have I heard Savasana, yoga’s final relaxation pose, called by its literal name: Corpse Pose. Whoever thought of this name for a pose that so many list as their favorite was definitely not thinking about marketing it to future Western yoga practitioners. The person who came up with the Sanskrit name for Corpse Pose likely understood life and death differently from the way we do in the West. Yes, we all know death is inevitable, but we mostly don’t think it’s imminent—until it is.

In Downward Dogs & Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis, author Zo Newell recounts the story of a crying woman who asked the Buddha to bring her daughter back to life. “Bring her back to life!” she begged, “because you can!” The Buddha agreed that he could and said, “I will bring your daughter back to life if you bring me a measure of mustard seed from a house where no one has died.” Thinking this task would be simple, given that every home kept mustard seeds, the woman ran to every household in her village. But each one had seen death. By the time she returned to the Buddha empty-handed, she had begun to accept the truth: “We are of nature to die. There is no escaping death.”

In this culture, we jokingly refer to “death and taxes” as inevitabilities that all must sooner or later face. Depending on what one believes about life and death, both can be interchangeably understood as tragedy or cause for celebration. But in general, in the West we pigeonhole the inevitability of death as something to think about later, at some far-off time in the future. When we encounter the deaths of loved ones, we often tend to treat death as a mistake, as something that shouldn’t have happened.

Of course, the passings of those close to us feel tragic no matter what the circumstances. It is natural to mourn the loss of treasured relationships. But death is written into our DNA. Our bodies grow sick, grow old (if we’re lucky) and die. It is not a mistake.

Buddhism and other spiritual systems of the East understand death as the natural culmination of our lives on Earth, rather than an aberration or the ultimate punishment for original sin. In fact, many Eastern systems consider preparing oneself for the moment of death to be a foundational practice. Because Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual systems believe in the continuity of life—whether or not that life manifests in a body—the moment of death is one of our lives’ most powerful.

According to Eastern philosophy, our last thought, the thought we have at the time of death, determines our rebirth. This is why practices that develop lovingkindness, wisdom and compassion are so important: Whatever we have practiced in our lives will arise at the moment of death. So the practices that develop these wholesome qualities not only make our present lives more peaceful and fulfilling, they determine the trajectory of our next life.

In his book, No Death, No Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the Buddhist concept of the continuity of life: “The Buddha said that when conditions are sufficient something manifests and we say it exists. When one or two conditions fail and the thing does not manifest in the same way, we then say it does not exist. According to the Buddha, to qualify something as existing or not existing is wrong. In reality, there is no such thing as totally existing or totally not existing.

“ … We may be in a room that has no television or radio. And while we are in that room, we may think that television programs and radio programs do not exist in that room. But all of us know that the space in the room is full of signals. The signals of these programs are filling the air everywhere. We need only one more condition, a radio or television set, and many forms, colors and sounds will appear. It would have been wrong to say that signals do not exist because we did not have a radio or television to receive and manifest them. They only seemed not to exist because the causes and conditions were not enough to make the television program manifest … Just because we do not perceive something, it is not correct to say that it does not exist. It is only our notion of being and non-being that makes us confused.”

So according to Thich Nhat Hanh, having no body doesn’t mean consciousness doesn’t exist. It simply means that a body—like a TV set—is needed to allow consciousness to manifest in form.

What does this have to do with Corpse Pose? When pondering the reason for its name, I’ve realized that Savasana is, in some ways, a rehearsal for death, as Eastern religions understand it. If given enough time (15 minutes or longer), the body falls into deep relaxation in Corpse Pose. In a sense, the body imitates the state of death. Indeed, in deep Savasana, the body often seems to disappear. But in Corpse Pose, consciousness stays awake and present, so while the body disappears, awareness remains, only to be reborn in a “new,” revitalized body after Savasana ends.

In many modern yoga classes, Savasana is an afterthought, a two-minute reward for putting our bodies through an intense workout. But it takes about 15 minutes for the body to move into physiological relaxation once we lie down. We simply can’t reap the benefits of Corpse Pose in a few minutes. In reality, Savasana is the most important pose in our practice. It is the culmination of asana practice, the time when we integrate what has gone before.

We can think of our daily yoga practice as a microcosm of the span of our lives. The physical postures reflect our lives’ aspirations and actions. Savasana reflects our “final rest” after a practice—or a life—well lived. We emerge from Corpse Pose with a brand-new body, a brand-new perspective, and a brand-new life.

Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on October 2, 2017.