I love savasana. I love it so much I’ve even contemplated buying one of those “I’d rather be in savasana” T-shirts. And, really, what’s not to love? At the end of a sweaty, intense yoga practice, nothing feels better than surrendering the body to stillness in savasana, or the corpse pose. No more movement, no more fancy breathing, just a moment of profound repose before rejoining the flow of a busy life.
Despite the outward simplicity of the pose, we yoga teachers are forever stressing the challenge of getting savasana just right. “Corpse pose is a real yoga pose, no different from triangle, tree and cobra,” we insist; “in many ways it’s the most important one of all.” Speaking in dramatic tones, we describe savasana as a death meditation and characterize the practice of yoga as nothing less than a training program for living and dying with grace.
Being a reasonably diligent practitioner, I figure I had more than 3,000 corpse poses under my belt when I tried ayahuasca for the first time; yet it wasn’t until I took savasana on a thin cotton mat in a jungle hut assisted by the Amazonian “vine of the dead” that I really began my tutelage on the subject of my own death.
The “vine of the dead,” or “vine of souls,” as you can imagine, is not something to be taken lightly. The ritual around the sacred plant medicine in South America encourages reverence, introspection and careful intention setting. A yoga teacher friend, who had lived in Peru while studying under the guidance of some of its most respected ayahuasca shamans and curanderos, gave me some practical email advice on the eve of my first ceremony: “The spirit of ayahuasca will speak to you, so get ready to hold up your side of the conversation.”
If I had to put into words my reasons for traveling to Peru, I would say I was there “to let go and let God,” as the expression goes. I knew I was carrying emotional baggage and I was ready to set it down. “Take from me all that is not free,” I prayed as the shaman bathed us with flower water at sundown by the Amazon River, leaving petals in my hair and a scent that deterred biting and stinging insects. “Take from me all that is not free,” I prayed as the shaman blew clouds of mapacho, sacred tobacco, to offer protection from enemies and negative energies. “Take from me all that is not free,” I prayed as the shaman blessed a small cup of ayahuasca for me with an icaro, a medicine song, whistled under his breath, “…and please don’t let it be too scary.”
As the syrupy medicine gurgled its way through my system, I emitted a series of small burps and farts and blushed hotly in the dark. How mortifying: I was hoping for a transcendent experience and here I was preoccupied with my hominid digestive tract and an overblown sense of propriety. “Stay a while,” I pleaded with the medicine, hoping I wouldn’t be the first to throw up. Embarrassed, anxious and suffering, I suppressed the mounting nausea—until the big guy to my left liberated me by purging noisily. As soon as I let go too, all feelings of self-consciousness gave way and I heaved a lifetime’s worth of tarry goo into a plastic tub at my side, writhing and churning to get it out.
I was so light after the purge I could have twirled around the ceremonial hut kissing and high-fiving all of the lovable beings in attendance that night. As my concerns receded on an outgoing tide, the self formerly known as me became sublimated into its component parts—breath, DNA molecules, carbon atoms and skittering electrons. The cloud of my awareness continued to grow and dissipate into an immense, glittering dance that was already underway. “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful,” I exclaimed. “It’s like… like… like Dippin’ Dots!” No joke, it was all cheerful, gem-colored Dippin’ Dots-including me. As this was clearly something worth celebrating, I gleefully danced myself out of existence, at least in my mind’s eye.
The next time I experienced my own dissolution, it happened during a ceremony with the Santo Daime, a Brazilian neo-Christian Church that uses ayahuasca, or Daime in Santo Daime parlance, as its sacrament. Because it was my first time, I was asked to sign a contract agreeing not to leave during the lengthy daytime ceremony, and was assigned a chaperone. My chaperone was an earnest, middle-aged woman with the meticulous dress and demeanor of an airline stewardess. Her job was to station herself by my side and guide me to stand, sit, sing, dance, and drink, as appropriate.
She led me to the women’s side of the room where we sat facing the central altar. As per the instructions circulated before the event, I was wearing a modest white dress and shawl purchased just for the occasion. The men sitting across from us, also in white, looked uncomfortable, as if their suits were on loan for the day. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one who thought white clothing was an impractical choice given the fact that ayahuasca stains?
The congregation sang a folksy hymn in Brazilian Portuguese as we lined up for the first of three cups of Daime served that day. It was thinner and more acrid than the jungle brew. When the sacrament began to work in me, less than an hour later, the room took on a magical patina. The church members transformed into figures from a Rembrandt painting while, miraculously, a framed image of the Virgin Mary began to breathe and come alive. She was divine with those soft, understanding eyes, and we gazed at each other for what felt like an eternity… that is, until nature called. I stood and woozily made my way to the bathroom where there happened to be a large mirror in a gilt frame. Goodness, the reflection in the mirror was something to look at—apparently white is my color. I hate to admit it but I got stuck in the mirror for ages making doe-eyes at myself… that is, until I remembered the contract and my chaperone. When I dutifully returned to my seat and met the eyes of the Virgin once again, she gave me a secret, knowing look. In that moment I understood that the hymns were also meant for me, the newest member of the Queen of the Forest Club. I smiled beatifically.
After the second cup of Daime, I couldn’t wait to get back to the bathroom mirror, but the next time wasn’t so pretty. You see, I appeared to have developed a disconcerting superpower: let’s call it microscopic vision. The face in the mirror was monstrous. I could see every freckle, crease and zit, every hair, pore and flake of skin. My heart sank as I watched the imperfections march across my face like an advancing army of mold in a time lapse film sequence. Soon there was nothing left above my shoulders but clumps of hair and decay.
“Easy come, easy go,” came my father’s voice, bringing with it a strange sense of perspective. I cautiously re-opened an eye and watched as I continued to fall apart, piece by piece, until I emerged, finally, as an elaborate cathedral of bone. Think Tim Burton meets Gothic architecture meets the Flintstones. Rather than stepping onto the set of a Tim Burton movie, I had become the set of a Tim Burton movie. Still, I could feel the breath, familiar and reassuring, as it blew through my hollow form. I knew I had seen this place before and I knew I would see it again. I stepped in closer, pressed my forehead to the mirror and tried a gappy, jack-o-lantern smile.
The cathedral of bone is now a regular stopping point for me during ceremonies. It feels like a vestibule, or maybe a mudroom, of sorts; it’s a place to put down my material concerns before entering the non-corporeal world. I can’t truthfully say that I like it and I don’t often linger there, but I do bow my head and lower my eyes on the way through as a gesture of respect.
Ironically, the one time I came to ceremony seeking direct access to the realm of the dead, I was denied the privilege, or so I thought. The private ceremony took place in our living room on the night of the spring equinox, just days after my grandmother died. Distance and ugly family politics had kept me from her funeral and, although I was twisted up inside about the loss, I just couldn’t cry. My husband and I reached out to a friend, a local shaman, who had coincidentally lost his mother-in-law that same week, and we agreed to hold a ceremony to honor our mothers and our mother’s mothers. How perfect, I thought, since ayahuasca is generally understood to be a female spirit—some even call her Mother or Grandmother Ayahuasca. Who better to help me commune with my departed grandmother?
As the ceremony opened, I accepted the medicine without my usual trepidation. It was much easier to swallow knowing my grandmother had swallowed more than her share of bitter pills during her long and tumultuous life. I sat up straight, got focused, and waited for the familiar feeling of lift-off, but nothing happened. The first cup didn’t have any noticeable effect, aside from making my innards sensitive. Hoping to reach escape velocity, I jumped at the opportunity to take a second cup. It was a doozey, and I braced myself for a hyperspace flight to the bardo, the liminal realm of the afterlife.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I landed with a thud on a dark, rain-soaked city street. Looking around I saw parked cars and street lights and traffic signs. I knew where I was, and it was definitely not the bardo. This city was I place I knew intimately but hadn’t seen in more than a decade. I was confused: this place couldn’t have been further away in my mind from my grandmother. “This can’t be right,” I thought, and tried to refocus my intention. But, try as I might, the medicine kept plopping me down in the same old place, a place I had defiantly left behind at the end of a shitty relationship.
Have you noticed that some relationships are more real than others? More sharply defined somehow? This was one of those relationships. Okay, it was really, really good but it was also really, really bad, and the combination of the two made for an impossible situation. What do you do when the love of your life has a bad day? What do you do when the love of your life has a bad year, or four? What do you do when the love of your life, thrashing wildly in distress, shouts and shoves and breaks and hurts? What can you do, really, when you come to hate the love of your life?
The relationship was painful; the break-up was not. After years of struggle, I mechanically packed a small bag one day, bought a train ticket and walked away from my former life without turning back — without so much as a tear. It felt good to start over: new place, new job, new clothes, new friends. Simple. At the time, I thought it was the easiest break-up of my life.
That night, during our living room ceremony, a badly overgrown retaining wall in my mind gave way, and I found myself deep in the mess I assumed I’d long since left behind. I had no choice but to be in it. There, I was in it. I was there in it. And the tears came. My God, how I cried. I cried for myself and for him; I cried over lost hope and ruined plans; I cried over the ways my heart had hardened around the experience of unacknowledged hurt; I cried about the coming of loathing, false strength, and cool composure; and I cried about the stony distance that crept into all my relationships thereafter.
That night in ceremony, I also cried for my grandmother, a rock—no, a gem—of a woman who survived a war, lost a child and buried not one but two husbands who treated her like a second-class citizen. I cried for my grandmother who suffered in silence; I cried for my grandmother who never had the freedom to walk away; and I cried for my grandmother who was finally free. In the end, I cried tears of gratitude for my grandmother and for Grandmother Ayahuasca who, by allowing me to mourn what was lost, freed a part of me too.
I’ve noticed that at the end of good yoga classes, the students tend to leave things behind: mats, jewelry, and even shoes on occasion. I used to think forgetfulness was a side-effect of the endorphins. Now, I wonder if it’s not an outer manifestation of a deeper letting go—a letting go of the need to hold it together so tightly, a letting go of dogma, and a letting go of fear. One of my teachers likes to say about savasana: die today and you’ll live the rest of your life free from the fear of death. I’d very much like that on a T-shirt.
This article by Padmani originally appeared on Reality Sandwich.
Image by Morgan Maher, used courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.