The majority of yoga classes conclude with a final relaxation, called savasana in Sanskrit, which has been translated to mean corpse pose. Participants lay on their back, palms to the sky, toes falling out and away from the body, eyes gently closed, with the aim of releasing all tension in the body.
Class after class I lead different groups of people through the process. While the approach to the pose remains the same, the ideas surrounding its practice are always changing. This past week, as the class settled into stillness, I found myself speaking to the paradoxical effort of letting go.
We're always doing. From our earliest years onward, we measure ourselves by what we do, often assessing the quality of our day, whether at work or home, based on the level of our productivity. All of this activity requires the mind to move, and when we make time for "relaxing", again we most often resort to more doing. Even with our body completely supported by the floor, we still affirm our sense of doership, engaging the muscles as if we need to actively resist gravity. Ironically, we find our selves subtly doing something even when given the opportunity to do nothing.
The physical and mental tensions of the body are intimately interconnected. They are often manifestations of one another; physical stress arising on account of mental stress, and mental stress arising on account of physical stress. We become so accustomed to this constant state of tension that it now requires effort and the development of a new skill to let it go; to be able to release the mind like we do the fingers of a tightly clutched hand.
When we detect mental tension, we can direct our attention to the contents of the mind. Watching the thoughts responsible, we can honestly assess whether or not they're worth continuing. If they're destined for suffering, we can apply the mental effort to let them go. We remain vigilant, keeping a close watch, at times encouraging ourselves to consider various valid, antipodal points that counter the troublesome point of view trying to take root (open minds drop thoughts!) Throughout this process we realize that we're only prone to settle on a default point of view, that it's not necessarily true, and that ultimately, we have the ability to choose. Intermittently, we can scan and release tensions in the body, while also deepening the breath in order to breathe relaxation into both our body and mind.
Through regular practice, we can catch the "hand of mind" in the act of reaching for troublesome thoughts, pulling it back just before it catches hold. Regularly applying this effort to let go of habitual, unskillful thoughts, we not only can eliminate unwholesome mental states that have arisen, but also prevent future unwholesome mental states from arising.