I’m Just Here For Savasana

“Final rest” can lend itself to macabre thoughts. Contrary to the cute T-shirt slogan, the pose is serious – even difficult. In Sanskrit, sava translates into corpse. When we practice savasana, we arrange our limbs in a funereal manner, sometimes with a bolster under the knees and a blanket beneath the head.

In America, we don’t like to talk about death, even though we see it each time we read about another shooting, another vigil. In less sensational terms, how many of us have lost jobs, family members ,or even a beloved restaurant that closed and gave way to Starbucks? These are all deaths, but in our culture, we don’t have a healthy collective way to process or celebrate them.

When I approached my 40s, I wanted more calm in how I approached change. The laugh lines around my mouth reminded me that my body was only a temporary structure for my infinite spirit. While my muscles loved to run and stretch, my soul — which was so big it frightened me — also needed tender care.

For my body, I began researching anatomical donation. Eventually, I donated it to a major hospital (I’m still using it right now), even going on a tour of the gross anatomy lab and attending cadaver memorials. In order to move forward, I wanted a better relationship with letting go.

To my surprise, med students often told me about unusual forces within the lab. Their beloved cadavers — spread open with bone saws — held secrets of scars and old surgeries that made them as real as any yia yia or abuela. Despite religious beliefs, many of these future doctors felt like the bodies watched them, not in a threatening way, but with the benign matter-of-factness of elderly aunts at a wedding.

In the memoir Body of Work, author Christine Montross, a doctor and poet, describes cutting off the face of Eve, the cadaver she shared with her fellow students, one of whom had a panic attack. “Despite the inertia of the dead,” Montross writes, “they actively affect us. Even now as the term winds to a close.”

In Thai medical schools, Montross notes, cadavers are especially holy because most citizens are Buddhist and therefore reluctant to intervene with reincarnation. Students refer to their bodies as “great teachers,” giving them ceremonies before and after dissection.

In a dance of intimacy unknown to most of us here in the West, Thai medical students memorize their donors’ names, forever walking with the dead in order to heal the living.

When we lie down for savasana, we are likewise communing with our ancestors. Corpse pose is not for the weak, a powerful conduit between space and time that is more than a slogan.

This article first appeared in YogaCity NYC.

The Year In (Dead) Bodies

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1900: Medicine - Anatomy - Musculoskeletal (locomotor) system - Muscles. Drawing. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

In my personal research on donating my body to science, I encountered NPR reporter Fred Mogul at NYU School of Medicine’s most recent cadaver memorial in November. He was bugging the stage to collect touching speeches and songs sung by the Ketones, NYU’s medical school choir. I was representing The New York Observer for a 700-article, “The Kindest Cut.” My story centered around two second year students who lingered after the service to snack on bits of the remaining buffet. With me, they discussed the weirdness of dealing with disconnected hands and legs that looked like those of family members.

What impressed me was the admission that medical school was rewarding, but also really hard: “I never doubted that this was what I wanted to do,” said one of the future physicians. “I doubted that I was good enough to do it.”

Fred, meanwhile, had a longer-term project through NPR. He focused on a group of first year students and their relationship with donor Haig Manoukian, whom he met in a body bag on Table 4.

Haig was an Armenian-American whose parents fled the Turkish genocide of World War I. A musician, he played the oud and jammed with the New York Middle Eastern music scene before contracting prostate cancer. The choice to donate Haig’s body was his wife Michele’s. She considered many ways to remember Haig, who loved sharing his craft. Then she stumbled on body donation. “That pulled everything together for me,” she said. “I stopped crying. And I felt integrated. I felt like complete in some way. I just felt this is a real, this is the right decision.”

She said she hoped the students would make really good mistakes on him and feel all sorts of emotions, including humor.

“I didn’t want him to die, and I thought he’ll be alive in some way,” Michele said on NPR’s Only Human. “He won’t go into the dark. He’ll be in light. I didn’t care if it was fluorescent light. I wanted other people’s eyes on him. And I wanted their hands on him. I couldn’t let go. And so I thought, yeah, let’s do that. You know, it was selfish for me in a way, because I just wanted to think of him on 34 th Street. I didn’t want to think of him. I don’t know.”

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Fred Mogul’s wonderful reporting has been released in sections on NPR, “Every (Dead) Body Has A Story” and “A Guide to Donating Your Body To Science.”