Śavāsana: The Gesture of Death

Hans-Georg Gadamer, in his monumental Truth and Method (1960) describes philosophical hermeneutics as a process of self-understanding; a play between the strange and the familiar, where all interpretation tells us as much about ourselves as it does about anything else. Gadamer’s work is concerned with the interpretation of texts, but here I want to examine this play between familiarity and strangeness in relation to yogic-tantric practice known as śavāsana.1

Yoga is an activity which has become familiar to most of us. Today it is a household word, everyone knows what yoga is. It is found in gyms and health clubs, in spas and studios, and we see images of yoga everywhere, in magazines, advertisements, and movies. Usually understood as a series of physical stretches, perhaps with some breathing, and often including some form of relaxation and perhaps a sitting meditation or mindfulness technique. And yet, yoga is a very strange activity. Through yogic-tantric practice, I take up my body, my unconscious activities, my everyday deeds, and my scattered thoughts, and I attempt to refine them into something unified and ultimately divine. This goes against our usual everyday understanding of the world as a place where we survive, manipulate, and project onto existence. Yoga has become familiar: a fitness program, a stretching technique, a way to de-stress. But I think there is a real need to preserve this strangeness of yoga-tantra.

In a hatha yoga class, there is usually a period taught as relaxation. This is often done at the end of a class, where we lie on our backs and relax. Here, I simply lie on the floor, a posture most familiar to me when I go to bed at night. To relax while lying on the floor might mean: to rest, to take a break, or to sleep. As an aside, when I teach yoga, I am often surprised that people think they shouldn’t sleep during relaxation, when sleep is a perfectly good form of relaxation. We also forget that sleep, with its dreams and our conscious absence, is a strange event too. Sleep is a form of relaxation which is all too familiar to us, and yet, one which we know hides some strange truths – such as dreams, a phenomenon we still do not understand. 

The posture most used at the end of a hatha yoga class is called śavāsanaor śanti āsana. These two postures are not quite the same, as captured by their two different names: śava means “corpse” and śanti means “peace.” Śavāsana in the West Bengali Tantric tradition, has our heels touching while our feet are relaxed, with our arms close by the sides of our body.2 This is the position of a dead body with feet tied together and perhaps wrapped in a shawl. Śanti āsana is more casual, with the arms and feet splayed out wherever comfortable. This is more a posture for/of “letting go,” as opposed to “bound together” which is captured in slight differences of body position. These differences have subtle effects on our practice, so it is good to recognize them and explore their feeling-sense through our body. Ultimately, in śavāsana, the aim is to consciously experience what it feels like to die; whereas in śantiāsana we aim to let go and relax.

Usually after a practice of movement and breathing with conscious awareness we are primed to relax more deeply. Hence, the benefit of śavāsana is felt most at the end of a complete yoga practice. Often, to help us relax in a yoga class there is soft music or a narrative for guidance. These help us to relax in a familiar sense, but they can also tend toward the hypnotic. Yoga-tantra is meant to be de-hypnosis from our conditioned experience of ourselves in the world. Similarly, śavāsana is meant to be a simple, quiet dying to ourselves. It is a practice to prepare ourselves for death, by relaxing into our anxieties and fears, rather than distracting ourselves from them.

Breathing, that original act which we each take at birth, is so intimate and familiar to us all. And yet, it is usually taken for granted: we forget that it was our first autonomous act. Hence, breathing is an ideal pathway back to ourselves: I take up my most estranged and life giving act and begin to familiarize myself with it once more. In yoga practice, we become intimate with our breathing by bringing ourselves back to it with awareness. Becoming consciously aware of our breathing moment by moment, as in sukha prāṇāyāma (which translates as “easy” or “pleasant breathing”), is the first stage of prāṇāyāma understood here as “breath control.” Conscious breathing is an ideal practice for śavāsana to help us remain present.

To go deeper, we can begin to regulate our breathing in a developmental prāṇāyāma or breath control. One technique taught by Swami Gitananda is called sāvitri prāṇāyāma. This brings another unfamiliar dimension to our practice: the polarity of life is added to our easy relaxation in the posture of death. Sāvitri is one of the names of the sun, a male name, and the name of his daughter too. There are many names for the sun in Sanskrit. Sāvitri is the name of the sun before sunrise, as it begins to shine forth from behind the horizon. Aruṇa, feminine by name, is the deep red sun at sunrise as it peers over the horizon and develops into a fiery orb. Sūrya is the name of the sun used for the day, from sunrise to sunset, as is well-known in the commonly practiced sequence of sūrya namaskar. Chanting the twelve names of the sun as the sun rises over the horizon every morning, reveling in the majesty of life energy, then moving in imitation of it, is the essence of this practice. Sāvitri, the name of the vivifying god means he gives life. He is an agent of life-giving, the sun being the symbol of this origin.  

Sāvitri prāṇāyāma, named after this vivifying sun god, is a rhythmic breathing practice in which a 2/1 rhythm is used (for all life has rhythm and Sāvitri was the god of movement and stillness). For instance, we breathe in for 6, hold for 3, breathe out for 6, and hold out for 3. Working with all four parts of our breath (In, Held in, Out, Held out) we begin to order them in a rhythm that “energizes our body.” Isn’t it interesting how the name of a god, an āsana, and our body all capture the essential qualities of movement and stillness at different levels: body, gesture, divine, cosmos? This multi-layered esoteric interpretation of our self as a part of the cosmos, albeit strange and inhabited by us, is both rich and necessary for a more holistic and integrative self-understanding to take place through yogic-tantric practice.  

What I am attempting to describe here is a subtle dimension of practice and self-understanding through which yogic-tantric practice can be understood as a bodily-gesture within the cosmos. All postures in yoga or tantra are really gestures that we might understand through the alchemical adage, “as above, so below” and vice-versa. I gesture to the cosmos, imitating the very “thing” of my veneration: as I hail their many names, breathe their rhythm, and imitate their movement, the cosmos responds, giving back that which is given. For example, we might imitate, in bodily gesture, a plant, an animal, or a deity, so as to gain a bodily-experience of “it.” This is yoga as gesture; in other words, āsana as mudrā.

From the perspective of yoga as bodily-gesture, śavāsana imitates a dead body, more aptly: the gesture of death. A tantrikawants to understand all dimensions of human experience, through his or her bodily-experience, and then to transcend them right here in our body-experience, thereby moving closer to divine incarnation. In short, to experience and become familiar with many lives in this one, including that process which is most strange to all of us: death. Death, for the tantrika, is a part of life, and it is experienceable.

Polarities run through all tantric practice and are the pillars of those practices; sun/moon, light/dark, tension/relaxation. Fundamental to yogic-tantric practice is the polarity of life-death. By combining the practice of sāvitri prāṇāyāma with śavāsana, we add the polarity of life to our posture of death: while lying here, we breathe life into our body, energizing and vivifying it. This brings harmony between life and death through our breathing and our gesture to the cosmos. Lying on the floor in the gesture of śavāsana, therefore, is much more than relaxing or sleeping. 

The total involvement and attunement to the cosmic ebb and flow which I suggest here far transcends any sense of relaxing as we might understand it on that first day of yoga, when we come to destress from our worldly worries. Śavāsana is available at any moment to anyone – as is the experience of divine harmony – but this requires the relinquishment of the familiar and the entanglement with the strange. For us to find peace in death and vivification in life, we must find a practice which balances them, so we can move freely between them, like a tightrope walker across a precipice. To walk the yogic life is to walk the razor’s edge between birth and death. And this practice is so simple. However, śavāsana with all its subtleties is easily lost if we fail to listen to an esoteric tradition which is so strange to our modern ears. By thinking and making it all too familiar, we miss the depth of experience open to us in simply lying on the floor, between birth and death, amidst life.  


  1. As a student of the Gitananda school of yoga and tantra, these two are seen as entwined, hence I refer to “yogic-tantric” practice throughout and use “yoga” and “tantra” interchangeably, as they are conjoined in Swami Gitananda’s system.
  2. I use “our” throughout to refer to our body. I consider it marginally better than “the” which makes it an object, and therefore, not “me.” I use “me” here to stand for a level of my Self, even if it is a gross level, and consider “our” as taking responsibility or possession of ourselves better than objectification.