Aug 11, 2012

Shavasana, Cupcakes, and David Rakoff

this post was republished by elephantjournal in a slightly different form, here.


Yesterday, I lost a dear friend. Many people lost him, because David Rakoff had more friends—real friends—than anyone else I know. And then there were all those people who never met him, but who nevertheless came to cherish his unique voice through his brilliant collections of essays (Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable, Half-Empty) and his contributions to NPR's This American Life. To say I know (alas, knew...) and love (tenselessly) David Rakoff feels a little braggy because he was the sort of person so many people wanted to know—to be friends with. I remember, for instance, when I still had an account on Facebook, somebody joking that he was so happy after David accepted his friend request because it made him feel "worthy"... David had that effect.

Even though the web seems to have exploded with David interviews, quotes, and photos today, I can't bring myself to talk in any detail about this insightful, hilarious, generous, beautifully mannered, and sometimes mysteriously old-fashioned person I've been fortunate to call a friend for over two decades. I'm just too sad. Anyway, this is a blog about yoga. So why bring up David at all? Because he had everything to do with my practice this past week—ever since it became clear that his death from cancer was, finally, truly imminent.

If you practice yoga seriously, you know that you can't really think about people—or anything else—when you're on the mat. It's simply not possible to think and practice simultaneously. The most valuable lesson yoga has taught me is probably that "single-pointed focus" is actually possible. And yet tiny thoughts do occur, bead-up like drops of dew or sweat, bubble to the surface and evaporate. Thoughts like:

I miss David.
David's dying.
David's so funny.
He loved those big cupcakes.
And those tiny custard tarts.

Last week, hundreds of "bead thoughts" concerning David surfaced as I practiced. These were so fleeting, they didn't have a chance to dig in and hurt. Or maybe it was just that they were so straightforward, so essentially factual, I had no reason to wrestle with them. There was no dwelling, no imagining (his pain, his fear, his approaching death, my loss—our loss, the world without David...). All of that happened later—during shavasana, or "corpse pose."

I've experienced the same shavasana phenomenon before, when a beloved aunt of mine died, when my husband's much too young cousin died, when my funny little dog died, and then my other funny little dog, and then my last funny little dog. Each time, shavasana revealed itself to be something much more than a "relaxation pose." Each time it was, frankly, a thoroughly unpleasant ordeal—a confrontation with mortality and all the inchoate confusion, rage, and fear that stems from that imponderable condition.

Instructions for shavasana are to lie flat on your back, arms to the side, slightly away from the body, hands facing up, head and neck relaxed, feet gently splayed. Basically, you're just hanging out, eyes closed, every part of you—limbs, belly, face, and breath—relaxed.

In his book Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy, Gregor Maehle says shavasana "prepares us for death," and I suppose that's true if you do it correctly. Because to maintain single-pointed focus during shavasana is an entirely different matter than doing so while practicing something more challenging—navasana (boat pose), for instance. Maintaining a single-pointed focus while doing pretty much nothing means to focus your attention on nothing.

Shavasana, Maehle writes:

...teaches us to completely surrender and let go. When the time comes to die, this ability to completely cease doing—to surrender totally—will enable us to abandon all identification with this body, this personality, and this ego. Then we can separate from this life as easily as a cucumber separates from the vine.

That cucumber-vine bit comes from a traditional Indian prayer, and alludes to the fact that, unlike tree-fruit, the "separation between the cucumber and the vine is peaceful and without external force." In shavasana, I have, on one or two occasions, sensed the truth behind this pretty but powerful metaphor. When you really participate in the pose, the nothingness of shavasana indicates something both awesome and fragile. Not the difference between life and death, but the porous connection between them.

I was not poetic or brave enough, this week, to contemplate that juncture with a single-pointed focus. Instead, I distracted myself with worries, fears, imaginings, and memories. I hunched my shoulders. I cried under the towel I used to cover my eyes. I sighed. But David would have found this more or less amusing, I think. The simple, human feeling, the sweet failing of it.

David appreciated movement—as a young man, he danced—but he had no truck with yoga or yoga-type stuff. The idea of karma, at least in its most popular, "you-get-what-you-deserve" formulation, was, to him (as it is to me), not just wrong-headed, but deeply offensive.  He was a tough, elegant, smart, funny, magical, creative, original, and essentially practical man. His humor was black, which is another way of saying it was wise. If I'd told him all these thoughts about corpse pose and cucumbers on the vine, he might have come back with something like, "Burgers and fries, everyone dies," which, for some reason, was a standing joke of his for a while, back when we were in college.

Of course, he was right about the burgers and the fries. And the cupcakes. And so many other things. He was one gorgeous cucumber. And I have a lot of soggy shavasanas ahead of me.


David, in the city he loved. March 2009.

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