One day, many years ago, while an undergraduate at UC-Berkeley I was walking up Dwight Street from the student co-op in the direction of People’s Park. Maybe I was lost in a daydream, maybe I was thinking about assignments due.
All at once, I stepped into the surprise conjecture that everything in the universe is energy that recombines.
I was an English major who had taken a smattering of classes in South Asian Studies, animal behavior and geography. I knew and know little of physics or philosophy. But I had hiked and camped throughout Northern California and, before that, in my extended home territory of the mid-Atlantic and Appalachia. I’d paid attention to birds and trees, their calls and habits, their leaves and bark.
My grandmothers, who loved the Nevada deserts they called home, drilled in me the notion of the fine web of interconnectivity among all living things.
What I recall most vividly 30 years after the Dwight Street walk, is the sense of understanding developing in synch with my physical progression through space. I could see a tree, and see when it dies and decomposes that everything it was becomes something else. From the soil where the tree moldered, new life arises.
Could it be the same for people? I do not subscribe to the idea of past life experiences or reincarnation as sequential. What I could wrap my mind around was at a human life’s end, the energy that made that person diffuses, rehoming in another body at another place in time.
It may sound far out. I guess it is. I admit to sampling in those days the hallucinogenic drugs unrolled like a red carpet for curious natures like mine at the co-op housing where I set my hat.
In those days, and since, I’ve been driven by facts gathered myself or by others from primary sources and by experiences of a more organic and less intrusive nature.
Recently, I was reminded of that Berkeley morning when reading these stanzas from Yanjnvalkya, an Indian poet of the Upanishadic period, translated by yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein in The Yoga Tradition. It starts,
As a tree, or lord of the forest,
just so, truly, is man…:
his hairs are leaves,
his skin the outer bark.
Verily, from his skin flows blood,
as sap from the bark.
Therefore, when the skin is torn,
blood issues from him,
as does sap from a wounded tree.
His flesh is the inner bark,
his tendons the inner layer, which is tough.
Beneath are the bones, as is the wood.
The marrow is comparable to the pith….
Trees, like people, will die and decompose.
Apparently, by the time most of us notice a tree dying, it has been suffering for awhile. (Sometimes this is true of people, too.) A forest researcher in a news story on climate change explained how a tree has “a kind of heart attack” when dry ground leads to air bubbles forming in the tiny tubes that carry water through the tree.
Human beings have so much power, in the form of information and agency. This scientist’s analogy of the trees’ circulatory systems stopping up like the arteries of a heart serves as a reminder to have more heart, more love in the form of tender attention, for the landscape we inhabit and the landscapes of our bodies.
The gravitational field that holds together the human family is stories.
We yoga students, in group classes and solitary home practice, are bound by the historical landscape of tradition, its many participants through space and time. Even when practicing alone, we’re not alone.
Savasana is such a beautiful word that in the yoga studio we rarely offer the translation “corpse pose.” The posture is said to “reset” the nervous system as it moves into a parasympathetic state. The mind remains alert as the body lets go. In a class’s final minutes, I observe students packed tight in the room, drawn from multifarious places, supine like snow angels stopped mid-sweep, and think of this and that, of standing trees and tumbled ones, of the stories each life cradles. Every body as precious as the figures showcased in a hallowed museum.
Many mammals spend their lives belly down to the ground and die on their sides. We humans abandoned all fours to point faces forward and crowns to the sky.
We think the sky is above us but it’s all around us. Moving forward on an ordinary walk, we’re not much different from a river’s fish.
Then we stretch out to rest, sleep, make love and die, drawing closer to the earth and farther from the ceiling of sky. Corpse pose recalls that we are this and that: corpus, the hushed physical body, and our collected desires and experiences that walk us along time’s line. Savasana is a semi-final relaxation for the Final one. Maybe this is why corpse pose, like a 7-Up soda, is the pause that refreshes. We rise from savasana slowly and gently to sit up and face our world, and are glad of it. Asana as practice for the rest of life.
A boy I tutored years ago refused to read the last page of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. “I don’t want it to end,” he said. But we don’t know when we end whether it will really all be over. We read stories. We recite poems. We get up from the floor where we’ve practiced. All this is home practice, practice in finding a home in the body, the dignity of being alive.