The Yoga of Exhaustion
by Dr. Lorin Roche
A Meditation On Fatigue From The Radiance Sutras, A New Translation Of The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra
There is a Yoga of tiredness – thank God. And we are all good at it. Everyone I know is running themselves ragged, which is part One of the Yoga. Part Two, diving into the samadhi of rejuvenation – not so much. We aren’t as skilled at cultivating deep states of relaxation. Is there is a cultural taboo against rest? Who stays in savasana long enough to be fully restored?
We each have our own ways of wearing ourselves out: multiple jobs, commuting, classes, trainings and exercising before and after work. There are so many kinds of fatigue – physical, from long hours of work; emotional, from pressure or worry; and mental, from unfinished projects that keep on nagging us and demanding our attention. We each have a hundred or more sticky notes circling in our minds, adding an unknown burden to our general tiredness. There is the fatigue just from being awake for a long time and of doing one thing – like sitting, or standing – for too long. Then there are other, newly-minted syndromes such as Reality Show Fatigue.
It is an art to experience just the right kind of tired. This practice focuses on wearing yourself out physically, and then, with the attentiveness of a yogi, entering shaking exhaustion and finding therein a gateway into kshobha Shakti, the vibratory nature of the life force. In The Radiance Sutras, a translation of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, Shiva says:
Wander and wander to the point
Whirl until you lose all control,
Dance until you are ready to drop.
Fall to the Earth.
Surrender to the swirl of sensations
Surging through your form.
Dissolve in awe as arising energies
Continue to dance in your inner world.
Beyond motion and commotion,
Become the body of ecstasy.
भ्रान्त्वा भ्रान्त्वा शरीरेण त्वरितम् भुवि पातनात्।
क्षोभशक्तिविरामेण परा सञ्जायते दशा॥ १११॥
bhrāntvā bhrāntvā śarīreṇa tvaritam bhuvi pātanāt|
kṣobhaśaktivirāmeṇa parā sañjāyate daśā || 111 ||
Inserting word boundaries (losing Scrabble points but gaining readability) and giving the letters a buzz cut to remove the diacriticals (ś) – we see:
bhrantva – wander about, across country, or whirl around and around;
sarirena – support, one’s own body, bodily strength, “that which is easily dissolved”;
tvaritam – very quickly, at once;
bhuvi – on the earth, touching the earth;
patanat – the act of flying or coming down, alighting, descending, throwing one's self down at or into;
kshobha – shaking, trembling, agitation, disturbance, tossing, emotion; (in drama) an emotion that is the cause of any harsh speeches or reproaches; a strong current of water; also the Original Motion, the Primordial Whirl that set Creation in motion, the ecstatic vibration that disturbed the great cosmic peace; (kshobhana is one of one of the five arrows of the god of love);
shakti – power, ability, strength, might, effort, energy, capability, faculty, skill, effectiveness, efficacy of a remedy, regal power, the energy or active power of a deity personified as his wife and worshipped by the shakta (sect of Hindus), the female organ (as worshipped by the shakta sect either actually or symbolically), the power or signification of a word, the power or force or most effective word of a sacred text or magic formula, creative power of imagination (of a poet), help, aid, assistance, gift, bestowal;
virama - cessation, end, sunset, resistance or abstention from;
para - far, distant, remote (in space), opposite, ulterior, farther than, beyond, on the other or farther side of, extreme, previous (in time), former. Ancient, past; Later, future, next. Following, succeeding, subsequent. Final, last. The Supreme or Absolute Being, the Universal Soul. The highest point or degree. The wider or more extended meaning of a word;
samjayate – to be born, arise;
dasa – state or condition of life, period of life (youth, manhood, etc), circumstances; the fate of men as depending on the position of the planets, aspect or position of the planets (at birth), the mind.
The Sanskrit here is breathtaking. There is so much meaning encoded in these 32 syllables, it would take a whole book to unpack. Let’s take a few steps, knowing this only hints at the full impact: “Wander across country until you can’t take another step. Dance until you are exhausted. Then at once, throw yourself down on the Earth, surrender to gravity and the trembling tiredness. Open your attention completely to the power of the shaking. As the sensations fade away, you will enter a sublime state of rest, absorbed into the divine power of life renewing itself.” To add a couple of words of Sanskrit, “Meditate on the kshobha Shakti, the trembling energy, and follow it into the divine state of restoration.”
We all know the magic that happens when we lie down and surrender to fatigue – it is bliss. Maybe you have forgotten, but you certainly experienced it when you were a kid. You can begin to remember if you work your muscles really hard and then “immediately throw yourself to the ground.” The buzzing of fatigue is a relief and a joy like nothing else in the world. It is quiet ecstasy and you earned it.
The gateway to this state opens wide when I go a bit past what I think my limits are, and right there at the point where my body melts, give in. There is a subtle science to it, an exactitude of timing, which is where the art comes in – we have to monitor our own bodies and sense the right moment. This is the edge athletes are always riding. If we go too far and become injured, that is the wrong kind of ache and pain. It’s slightly scary to go there, past the point where you are running on fumes. There are weird sensations, like being an empty shell, with no more to give, totally spent. Then you have no choice but to surrender completely. When you do give in, it is scary to feel the intensity, the utterly desperate need for rest. That is where the ecstasy is, right there in the aching – life’s restorative powers go to work, healing, regenerating, renewing. You are in the arms of the Goddess. Shakti is making you whole again. You may know more about both exhaustion and the bliss of savasana than you think you know. Go ahead and explore.
A different kind of fatigue, the worst, is that of not living your life energies - all the work you are not doing, the love you are not giving, the life you are not living. This can happen to any of us at any time, as new capabilities come online and ache to be used. Meditation changes us, the way great art does — we are awakened inside, and gifts we didn’t know we have want to come out and play. Maybe a chakra we haven’t inhabited before opens up and starts to flow with energy that we don’t know how to utilize. Or maybe a combination of several chakras, a blend of energies, becomes possible because your yoga practice has matured. Suddenly you have the ability to make your voice be heard; or you learn how to respond to what other people need without their asking, and make them happy. You now have a new talent and it wants action. You are faced with the weird challenge of having to figure out how to work that part of you so that it gets good and tired. Maybe you start a business or start putting on parties. Meditation can be a useful tool here to get a positive cycle going. You dive into meditation and feel your energies, no matter how much they ache, and you go into action and live what you can. You just deal, second by second, and deal yourself into a better day. That is all we can do.
Learn to Discern
One sacred function of a meditation practice is to study the kinds of exhaustion your body and mind and emotions are experiencing. As you witness each molecule of fatigue, it teaches you about itself. As you bathe in the life-giving restorative qualities of prana, you learn to be more elegant in your use of power. There is an ache that comes from extending yourself in a good way, right up to the appropriate edge. When you hit this mark, you are worn out and slightly injured, but a meditation and a night’s rest can fully restore you. Exhaustion teaches us and strengthens us. Life rebuilds our bodies stronger than before.
The Sanskrit root tan, of tantra, has a cluster of meanings including: “to be protracted, continue, endure, stretch (a cord), extend or bend (a bow), spread, spin out, weave.” This suggests that tantra is the skill of extending ourselves and then tending to our exhaustion. When we are working to the max, when we are putting everything we have on the line, we can feel our bodies, minds, and hearts humming with power and intensity. Then when we rest, we feel the currents in our circuits like a quiet song that fades into silence as we fall into delicious exhausted sleep.
We all have our ways of getting there: running, long hikes, intense Yoga classes, trance dancing. My favorite way of getting exhausted is swimming in the ocean and then pulling in at a beach and sinking into the warm sand with an ahhhhhh. I actually love swimming against the current, through the chop, so that I am immersed in waves on all sides. Then when I stop and rest, the undulation of my internal waves continues inside my body. I am in the inner ocean. Another way of using the body to achieve a fine state of tiredness is to walk for six or seven hours across the countryside. Don’t forget that you can wander, ramble, and meander, smell the roses as you go; you don’t have to be marching.
When you throw yourself down, you will be in an undulating, rhythmic state, in which attention fluctuates between deep restfulness and vivid sense memories of action. As your muscles relax and let go, you will feel intense, continually changing sensations while your body replays the motions you were just engaged in. The feeling is of alternating rest and restlessness. Attending within, you’ll be absorbed in your experience. Then attention will suddenly shift to scan the outer world and you’ll feel tempted to jump up and go do some item on your to-do list. Don’t resist this process, welcome the restlessness — it is just another sensation and part of the cycle. If you have time, dive back into the buzz of fatigue and see where it leads you. The speed of the cycle varies, sometimes every few seconds, other times every few minutes. Some day, give yourself a forty-five minute session.
If the word savasana sounds too formal for you, you can call it layasana, a made-up word from laya, “lying down, melting, dissolving, to be absorbed, rest, repose, residence, dwelling; Mental inactivity, spiritual indifference, sport, diversion, merriness; Delight in anything, an embrace,” + asana, “sitting, sitting down, the postures of yoga, halting, stopping, encamping, abiding, dwelling.” Whatever you call it, ride the rhythms of your experience and don’t block anything out. Welcome every sensation and emotion. Again and again the sensations of fatigue will call you, and as you attend to them, you will melt into them, dissolve into the primordial swirl of Shakti and drink of the elixir of pranashakti.
Once I worked on the massage team at the Iron Man Triathlon in Kona. The athletes start out by swimming 2.4 miles; then they jump on bikes and cycle 112 miles around the island, sometimes on roads that run through the middle of barren, baking lava; then get off the bike and run 26.2 miles. I was really just there for one friend, a dentist from Japan who I had been swimming with. He wanted me to be there at the finish. When he came in, sometime around 9 at night and lay down on my table, his legs were in a state I had never before perceived in human flesh: his tissues were infused with spirit and he was vibrating like a hummingbird. His body was a mantra, a buzz and hum of life celebrating, renewing, surrendering. It was angelic. It was as if he was being beamed up. Although he was giving over his body to the fatigue, his spirit was flying. Every cell of his body was at one with the soul. That kind of exhaustion takes weeks to recover from.
Whatever your day is like, whatever kind of fatigue you are experiencing - physical, emotional, mental - find a safe place and uninterrupted time to surrender to your internal movement and follow it into silence and utter rest. If you can be in a state of open attention as you lie there, feeling the immense currents surging through you, you will enter bliss. At first it may be startling, and then you will remember, “Ah, I know this state. This bliss is mine.”
Dr. Lorin Roche has been practicing and teaching from the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra since 1968. He has a PhD from the University of California at Irvine, where his research focused on the language meditators generate to describe their inner experiences. The Radiance Sutras, a new version of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, is available from Lorin’s website: lorinroche.com. Email comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra describes 112 Yogas of wonder and delight for touching the divine in the midst of daily life. Dr. Roche does one-to-one coaching with individuals wishing to evolve their daily meditation practice and trains yoga teachers in how to teach meditation. Call (310) 570-2803 for more information.
Come to Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, California, for delicious retreats that will rejuvenate your meditation practice. Esalen.org.