Monday, December 27, 2010

Shivasana

I have written about this theme before, but it came up in a recent conversation and I wanted to share about it again. Much of Buddhist and Hindu meditation practice uses Padmasana or the Lotus Posture. Buddhists add a little more to this teaching by sharing the Vairocana Posture which is the Lotus Posture with a number of wise check points, like whether your teeth are lightly touching or whether they are clenched. It is a wise meditation pose in many ways. But I do not recommend using it, at least not immediately. Here are my reasons:

(1) As a healer, energy worker, and bodyworker, I have found that even many fairly advanced meditation practitioners, even teachers and Zen masters, have postural defects that I feel are exacerbated by prolonged use of sitting meditation. This also includes myself. If a person has the intention to master Padmasana, they really need to commit to a full Hatha Yoga routine and wisely master this whole yoga system. It would probably be wise to do other kinds of bodywork to support this. Most of us cannot really maintain a loose and erect sitting posture. We have been raised in a culture where unwholesome postural habits abound. We hunch forward too much and thereby put a strain at L4-L5 (lower back) and C1 (upper neck). One person that I worked with, who was a Zen teacher with about 30 years of sitting meditation, had to have a surgical intervention near C1. I have had a childhood scoliosis which is still slowly straightening out, but which still requires some strain to hold the posture erect. Prolonged sitting puts a vertical pressure at L4-L5. Also, because people normally do not really do Padmasana, but have an asymmetrical cross legged pose, the stretch to the lower back is unbalanced and can make the posture even more unbalanced. These things are correctable. When Padmasana is combined with a wise and devoted Hatha Yoga practice, it can even be healthful in the long run. But it needs this kind of support or a similar bodywork system to pull this off.

(2) If you are lying down in Shivasana and go through all the check points, checking your jaw to see if the upper and lower teeth are lightly touching, checking the shoulders to see if they are raised or dropped, checking the chin to see if it is pointed up or opened gently towards the heart, checking the lower back to see if it is relatively flat, checking the knees to see if they are relaxed, checking the ankles to see if they are relaxed, checking the palms to see if they are opened upwards and relaxed, and generally traveling with relaxed awareness through the body and intentionally relaxing as much as possible every part of the body, and then checking again a few times, then you can keep your spine loose and erect (straight). The support of a level surface helps to restructure the spine to become looser and straighter over time. I would still recommend some Hatha Yoga poses (asanas) to help even here, but you do not necessarily need the support of a whole systematic practice of Hatha Yoga. With Padmasana, more of your body needs to be in proper alignment and balance in order to hold it. With Shivasana, a little support is definitely helpful and a whole Hatha Yoga is very helpful too. It is no surprise that a very large number of Hatha Yoga teachers end their practice sessions with Shivasana.

(3) Inwardly, Shivasana is about totally and completely letting go of all effort, which is the final mudra of the Heart Sutra in Buddhism. With Padmasana, there is still a subtle effort required to hold the body erect. It is still possible to do the deep and full letting go in Padmasana, but it makes simpler and more logical sense to do it in Shivasana. All the effort of meditation is taken out of the practice from the very beginning.

(4) Many Buddhist teachers have not recommended meditating in Shivasana with eyes closed, because you are likely to fall asleep. However, this is really a minor obstacle. With daily practice, people will learn how to not fall asleep. I also find that people are spontaneously learning "Yoga Nidra" in the process. They are learning how to fall asleep and get regenerated by a deep sleep. The kind of sleep that you get through such a practice is deep and renewing. Also the kind of attention that requires effort and strain in sitting to keep alive does not long serve a meditator. Attention needs to have the quality of being relaxed and allowing. Beta frequency brainwave attention is usually tense and is the mastery of "type A" people who are productive in the world, but run the risk of aging and dying soon because of stress. If there is any risk in Shivasana in this regard is that when the right kind of attention is mastered, one can be both relaxed and alert, and one can regain so much internal energy that it is actually harder to fall asleep. Then Yoga Nidra needs to be mastered in order to fall asleep (BTW the secret is to just keep on meditating). I find that Shivasana is superior that even the Tibetan Buddhist Dream Yoga pose (this is like Shivasana but has the legs crossed and the body tilted at an angle, partly raised up). But either the Tibetan Buddhist Dream Yoga pose or Shivasana addresses similar postural concerns in a similar manner. I do recommend trying a variety of meditation poses to get some direct experience of these things.

(5) I do feel that it is good to "deep retreat" and have meditated for very long stretches of time, even 14 hours straight. Shivasana is vastly superior to Padmasana when it comes to handling these long stretches. I usually do some Hatha Yoga and bodywork before these long stretches of time, do Rebirthing breathing in a hot tub (or at least take a hot shower) before and after these long sessions, and drink some herbal tea. I find that hunger shuts down during these times. The body lowers its metabolism and does not need as much food. Usually a light soup, a small green salad, and some herbal tea is enough. Drinking some very pure water is helpful at this time, because the body kicks into regeneration mode and likes to excrete toxins into some surplus water. I do recommend microclustered/ozonated water if possible.

(6) Shantideva, the favorite Bodhisattva of the Dalai Lama, reached a very deep level of enlightenment solely through lying down meditation. Although story does not say which lying down posture he used, it was most likely Shivasana, since there is really no other lying down meditation that is as completely effortless. If it was not Shivasana, then it was a variation of Shivasana. At one point, Shantideva levitated while channeling the words of the Bodhisattva Mansjushri. For some reason, lying down meditation seems helpful for levitation. One will feel a lightness come into the body. Gravity is more of a mystery than we realize. We still imagine it as a kind of impersonal force pulling us down and do not see it related to "curved space" like Einstein did. I see it as "the embrace of the Earth" and much relaxation is about allowing ourselves to "be held" by the Earth, releasing ourselves into this greater power that meets us in "gravity". When doing Padmasana, one might still struggle to maintain erectness against gravity and not arrive at this space.

(7) There are deeper levels of meditation beyond the physical body, like moving into the dreambody and traveling to various places, like Sukhavati, the homeworld of Amida Buddha. When the physical body is totally relaxed and we leave in the embrace of the Earth, then we can peacefully let it go and travel to these worlds and learn much from them. There are Dream Yogas which can be mastered when our attention is released from the need to maintain our physical body and our physical life. Paradoxically, from this larger world and larger space, we can often more easily heal or help the physical body, our physical life, and our friends in the physical world.

(8) In Shivasana, one can immediately learn "psychosomatics", how our mind and emotions tenses and makes our body ill. One can become aware of all the tension we hold in our physical body and how we are causing it psychologically and how in order to relax the body we need to "let go". This becomes an ideal learning space for the deepest lesson in meditation.

(9) Shivasana is still "mudra yoga". By taking on the posture of an enlightened being we can learn to enter the mind of the enlightened being. There are Buddhist masters like Shantideva and the supreme Hindu master, Shiva, behind this one.

2 comments:

  1. I have been doing yoga and meditation for 35 years, since age 13, and I also find Shivasana to be an ideal posture for meditation, especially the deeper and longer you go. Although I do find padmasana excellent for seated meditation, as it provides a steady base for a relaxed, straight spine, in recent years it has aggravated my knees a bit despite my consistent daily hatha yoga routine.

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  2. Thank you for sharing. I have found that a rigid foam wedge under the sacrum and two thin soft pillows, one under each knee can sometimes ease the tension that padmasana sometimes produces. The key is to have the sacrum raised so that the knees drop down some. It seems that some subtle issues show up after we are long term with an asana. It seems that if we are sensitive to how the spinal vertebra pulsate to the breathing and gently up the vertebra that do not pulsate as easily that the we can evolve into a more loose and erect spine. I am still working on this even as I am writing these words. I also do some remedial work with my body, trading sessions with other bodyworkers for some fresh perspective and to avoid getting locked into subtle habit patterns that may neglect some things. Blessing in your practice, it sounds very fruitful.

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