Stability with Ease
Tadasana & Savasana: All Day All Night
I originally wrote the following as an article for Rooted Magazine. I have since continually revised it and have used it as the foundation for my teaching on the Principles of Alignment. The following words are the best encapsulation of my thinking on yoga posture that I have.
When I began to practice asana, there seemed to be a lot to memorize. I was confronted with this long checklist of seemingly unnatural and difficult to remember movements and positions for every part of the body. A given pose might ask us to do something with one leg, then another with its opposite. They are both hard to do, and now I had to do them both at the same time. But when I did that, it made this other part stick out, and that needed to change as well. Attending to this seemingly unrelated list of repairs made me feel inadequate and frazzled, which, I know, was the opposite of its intention.
Over time however, I adapted. My body grew into the shapes imposed upon it. Through repetition, I learned what to expect. Items in the list got ticked off quickly, and I made all the little alignments and subtle rotations with confidence. I eventually was able to move from one pose to another in a seamless flow, like a dancer performing choreography.
Learning and performing this choreography will certainly make muscles stronger, assuage stress, and lend a sense of accomplishment. But, how is this yoga? How does all this rote memorization and performance prepare us for breath control and then meditation? How do these achievements lead to union?
Well… they don’t, not if I and the rest of us are just making shapes. These shapes may be notes on the page, but they are not the music. Beyond this, we search for harmony in the body which leads to focused breath and attention. Harmony in the body echoes as harmony in the mind. Within this state of connection, the poses transcend the arbitrary, and the heretofore hidden poetry of the body is revealed. The body becomes like a piano when the right keys are pressed together just the right way to form a chord. This state of connection leads us to the essential work of asana: developing stability with ease, Sthira Sukham.
The concept Sthira Sukham is normally associated with the seated posture used in meditation. The idea is that, while seated, you need to not fall over. At the same time, you need only exert a minimum of conscious attention in doing so. So, you learn right posture. You find a sacred geometry, a peaceful arrangement where the body can hold itself up by itself. This practice of right posture is indeed the meaning of “asana” and applies to all the physical poses.
Two of these poses transcend being shapes; they are the epitome of asana practice: Tadasana and Savasana. Sthira Sukham is experienced through them. They are the two essential experiences in physical practice; and every posture endeavors to remember them. Held with this, we find harmony.
Tadasana is also called Mountain Pose. In its verticality, it represents Sun or “Ha” energy in the physical practice, otherwise known as “Hatha”. It’s standing. It is standing of a highly particular sort. In it, the body is totally exerted and yet, from the outside, it appears as though nothing is happening; such engagement transcends effort. That is because the various movements are combined and balanced into stasis. By total integration, it is strong in its stillness.
This integration is done by exerting pairs of movements. (There are always pairs of movements that compliment each other. We always reach both ways.) The feet press into the floor, and that movement leads to a rising up, an elongation of the legs; and the whole body grows taller. The thighs rotate inward and behind; that makes the hips jut backward; and that is balanced by tilting the hips under. The upper arms rotate open, widening the chest; and then the ribs are absorbed inward, broadening the back of the heart. The sum of these movements, while they don’t necessarily appear to have done anything, makes the body expand, facilitates energetic flow, makes all the parts connected to every other part, and lends great stability. This Mountain embodies Sthira Sukham in that the internal forces of the body create stability, obviating any need to move.
Savasana is Copse Pose. It is horizontal; it is Moon, or “Tha”. Now, while we often use the term “surrender” to refer to it, let us clarify. In savasana we don’t just “give up”; we don’t abdicate our practice to randomness or chaos; we are not taking a rest. When we surrender, we are surrendering to something. When we surrender, we are making an offering to Atman. We do more than let effort subside; we let effort perfect itself; we let what is thrown be caught.
Perhaps if, as Marianne Williamson says, our greatest fear is not that we are powerless but rather that we are powerful beyond all measure; then maybe, embedded in all the effort and ambition we exert in making shapes, is the doubt — the shame — of not deserving that which we seek. If so, when we practice release, we practice finally allowing ourselves that power
Savasana is not like sleeping; it too is highly particular, not casual or random. In this practice, we orient the body to minimize uneven pressure; we generally come to left/right symmetry; we open the arms and legs so that hips and shoulders do not need to hold them up; and we spread the whole body wide and long, making the most contact with the ground. Where is the stability in that? In this case, the strength comes not from the body but from what surrounds it. There is gravity which presses down, and there is the floor which won’t budge. I sometimes imagine in Savasana that I am a grain of sand between two great fingers. With stability coming from gravity and floor, surrender is possible.
This surrender is the opposite of ignorance. Here, we are not omitting our thoughts and feelings from our attention. Rather, we allow them to pass through with equanimity so that we may observe. Acceptance obviates the need to shut down.
If there are only two experiences of asana, then what are all the other poses for? The absolute, changeless essences of Tadasana and Savasana can not be experienced without being challenged, without being moved or changed. The other postures lead us to fall down, sometimes to disarray; and we search for Tadasana and Savasana to help us stay up and stay together. The other postures we practice take us on a journey from which we endeavor to return home. As such, these essences should be understood not as a thing discrete we accomplish and then possess, but rather as something we continually find, reinvent over and over again, diving through layer after layer.
Take, for example, the very important Adho Mukha Svanasana, Downward Facing Dog. It is unstable and requires work to stay up. But the movements one makes to do this are the same as one would do in Tadasana. Actually, down dog is just Tadasana folded over; each half is doing it. There is the same upper arm rotation mated with the pressing in of the ribs. There is the same pressing of the feet, the internal rotation of the thighs. Except, now that we are folded, the hip flexors have an opportunity to elongate and seek Savasana against the stability of the arms and legs. It is an opportunity not really possible to explore in the straight Tadasana. And, only with the hands on the ground is it possible to practice surrendering those nether regions under the shoulder blades. Without those parts being challenged and subsequently supported, we would not feel them enough to know how to surrender them.
Those very same Tadasana movements are present in Side Plank, Vasisthasana, except now we are knocked over. Because we are on our side, the lower knee and hip have a tendency to collapse downward. That elongation from inner arch to inner thigh is now challenged. But, the solution remains the same: come back to mountain; extend the leg and bring the hips back in line. Another day, same song: Tree, Vrksasana. Here, not only is the solidity (balance and centering) of the standing leg challenged, but also the raised hip must be extra vigilant in its pressing down so that the hip can level out and approximate standing on both feet.
It is said that there is a forward bend in every backbend and a backbend lying within every forward one. All that means is that the more obvious movement of rounding over or backward is complimented by a subtle, complimentary, and opposing movement, like we do in Tadasana. As we forward bend, we resist the rounding of the lumbar by using backhanding (cow lift) energy to elongate that lumbar region as we fold. Conversely, when we backbend, we scoop the tail under to maintain length and healthy space in the low back. This protects us from injury by reestablishing stability and integration, regaining an aspect of standing straight up. When we move one way, (not so secretly) we move the other way too; the point was never to go one way or the other; it is to expand and to deepen, to shine a little brighter.
If Tadasana is the union of the body, then, Savasana is the union of the mind-body. I sometimes say in class that there are two stages to every pose: one where you do the pose and one where you accept it. There is the will to move; and there is the grace that makes available the room needed to move into. The state of acceptance is an experience of Savasana. There is your intentional mind which places you in an awkward place that the body resists; there is the awareness that leads to compensation, a source of stability; and then there is the cessation of dispute between body and mind.
We experience this dynamic, and sometimes this drama, when practicing Kapotasana, Pigeon. As we fold over over our bent leg and try to put our head to the floor, we notice that it hurts. The body rebels but the mind insists. Any bystander can witness the product of this disagreement: the head, the locus of intention, is pointing down while the rest of the spine arches away from the pose like a scared cat. In this case, the necessary compensation is often best found in external support, like a block or even better a thick bolster under both hips. From the strength provided by that supporting device, the torso joins as one, finds the hip crease, and folds from there. The navel might even reach the shin, and the whole, straight spine lies down, held in carefully negotiated, deliberate agreement.
Over and over again, the physical poses provide the opportunity for us to rediscover stability and ease in the form of Tadasana and Savasana. Our physical practice is both greater and simpler than the vagaries of technique or performance.
I hope that these words find you when you find yourself bent over and twisted, standing on one leg while the other hangs in the air — on the mat or wherever. Know that, despite all appearances, deep inside you are a mountain.