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.

I Took My Cadaver Gums On Museum Dates And Got Fresh

“I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel.” Mary Shelley

As my dentist stitched cadaver tissue onto my lower gums Tuesday afternoon, I grinned inside my brain while the assistant suctioned out my saliva. Each of the two pieces were shaped like Gothic windows, about the size of thumbnails. I was the grateful Frankenstein-ian recipient, about to give monster life to a deceased stranger, through one of my best features, my smile.

In my Novacane state, I couldn’t help but admire the delicious irony and selfless beauty. Not only had I found this terrific medical professional four years ago on LivingSocial, all my writing about body donation had come full circle. Before this dental surgeon applied the cast, a big dollop of what felt like cake batter, she let me have a look at her neat stitches. “Nice,” I said with a sloppy tongue.

“I’m glad you think so,” she said, masked and leaning over me in Christian Louboutin heels. “You’re one of the few people who could stand to look at that.”

With prayer and good luck, her handiwork would hold fast my new gum line, which had been continuously eroding due to aggressive brushing and a tight tendon in my lip. Last month during my regular cleaning, she told me I was starting to get bone loss because there was less gum for adhesion. When this doc explained the procedure, I reported that I am a living cadaver at NYU. She responded that she graduated from NYU. With her usual humor, she worked with me to negotiate a price.

Before Tuesday’s operation, I went for a quick ice skate in Bryant Park, to up my endorphins and to give my nerves a dose of joy. Through the discomfort, I was able to maintain some of that brightness. I theorize that I felt less pain because I was complicit.

Now home recouping, I’ve made a point to get out once a day — to get to know my new gums and for them to see New York. (For all I know, my donated parts are from Alaska.) Yesterday, my tissues and I went to the Rubin Museum, where we hit a meditation and had just enough energy to sketch a Tara mask.

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This afternoon, we went to the Cloisters, near my apartment. I wanted to sketch medieval playing cards featured in the latest exhibit. Some of them depicted inside jokes lost on a modern-day New Yorker. For example, a woman milking a bull needed a better punch line. Another showed a lady admiring poop in a urine glass. (Who has urine glasses these days?) Yet each detailed card looked like a miniature Valentine, and I yearned to spend time with them. Unfortunately, I was feeling too weak to stand. So I parked myself on a stone bench and sketched this Annunciation relief from the permanent collection:

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Am I a great artist? Nope. But my gums don’t know that. These new suckers are total flirts too, slutty even. At the bank, they made me hit on a whole group of firefighters who showed how much I turned them on by laughing at me.

“You’re cute,” I found myself saying to them.

“Which one?” a guy in suspenders asked.

“All of you.”

And this is just the beginning. My tarty tissues are still healing in their cast.