We lie on our backs in shavasana, the corpse pose. According to the yogis, this pose mimics the death of our practice, the end of the struggle, and it is a necessary and restorative step before we'll roll onto our right side in the fetal position to symbolize our rebirth. Each yoga class offers an end and a beginning -- in that order.
Every shavasana is a challenge. While it's a relief to lie still on the mat after an hour and a half of bending and balancing, binding and hovering, it's never easy to quiet the mind. Did I remember to take the chicken out of the freezer? What am I going to wear to work tomorrow? Was my son really at the movies and not drinking in the woods last night? Uh oh, what's that twingey feeling in my lower back?
The music helps. Some instructors play a soft, slow pop song, or an old folk song, one even plays Bach, but I like the Indian music. I used to think I favored this because it made the practice seem more authentic, tied it to its Hindi roots, made it about more than just exercising in a hot room. But tonight's shavasana showed me the real reason, and it has nothing to do with the tone or the tempo, the melody or the harmony.
This shavasana started the same as all the others, with the instructor telling us to let our bodies sink into the mat, release all tension, and focus our vision behind our closed eyelids on a space in the middle of our forehead. There was the usual rustling and shifting, the sloshing sound of a few of us sneaking a last sip of water. I heard the instructor fiddling at the front of the studio, and imagined her scrolling through the playlist of calming sounds on her iPod.
But instead of sound coming from the sidewall speakers, I heard a strong intake of breath from the center of the room, followed by the deep, resonant beginnings of a full-throated ooooohhhhhhmmmmm. And then something even more remarkable happened. At the end of the long syllable, just at the space that usually fades to silence, the voice rose again in song. It was our instructor, and she was singing to us.
For what might have been an hour or might have been a minute, her voice filled the space in the room in a way that no recording, no matter how masterfully engineered or how expensive the sound system, could match. Technology and electronics can never replicate the connection that happens between the live human voice and the live human ear. Sound waves take on a different dimension when they float through the air of shared experience.
I lay on my sweaty mat, enraptured. It came to me that she wasn't singing in English, that the sound of her words was reminiscent of the Hindi songs some instructors choose for shavasana. Long 'a' vowels stretched into aaaaahhhhhsss, whispered sh's sighed and soothed. Her voice rose and fell in a meandering stream of sound without meaning, releasing us from the temptation to concentrate on the words, coaxing us to hear only sound and intention.
And without warning I flashed on those long, dark nights when I sang my children to sleep. First when they were in my arms and later when they lay sprawled in their cribs with only my palm on their back, I could sense the imperceptible (and some nights, interminable) shift from awake to asleep. Sometimes the song ended before sleep came, and so I invented new verses or sang nonsense words or, when exhaustion sapped me of all creativity, resorted to a melodic string of la la las.
On the hardwood floor of the yoga studio I suddenly understood why mothers in all cultures from the beginning of time have known to sing to babies long before their children will ever begin to understand what they're saying. A little bit of magic is lost when sounds become words, when "Hush, little baby, don't say a word, Papa's gonna buy you a mockingbird" begs the question: what's a mocking bird, and why would I want that?
So, who knows what our instructor was singing to us? It might have been a recipe for chicken curry, or an ode to Hare Krishna. The language barrier didn't lock the gates of true meaning; it opened them. Freed from the responsibility of pondering words and phrases, I could accept this song for what it was: a gift.