"Power Through Repose"
v.19 | Excerpts from an 1891 practice manual.
Have I told you lately how happy I am that you’re here? Well I am.
There are only a handful of days before I submit my Master’s dissertation on śavāsana and I’m beginning to look a lot like a stray cat trapped in Nathan Fielder’s computer harness. My hair is unwashed and unkempt, my manners are feral at best, and I’m awful quick to agitate. The only effective balm is exactly what I’m writing about so feverishly — lying down. Even for just a few minutes. It’s like a whole-being reboot. But I’m not reinventing the wheel, am I?
In 1891 Annie Payson Call penned Power Through Repose, a short manual on relaxation. She includes what could easily be a present-day meditation script:
“We must lie flat on our backs, and try to give our whole weight to the floor…use your imagination to the full extent of its power, and think the whole machine heavy; wonder how the floor can hold such a weight. Begin then to take a deep breath. Inhale through the nose quietly and easily…As the air leaves your lungs, try to let your body rest back on the floor more heavily, as a rubber bag would if the air were allowed to escape from it. Repeat this breathing exercise several times; then inhale and exhale rhythmically, with breaths long enough to give about six to a minute, for ten times, increasing the number every day until you reach fifty.”
The title of Annie’s book was repurposed by Genevieve Stebbins who writes in 1892 that:
“Relaxation means recuperating dynamic power through repose.”
Annie and Genevieve lived and taught in a sociocultural landscape that envisioned women as fragile. This was, of course, owing to the stormy and easily overwhelmed female reproductive system. The 19th century woman was encouraged to avoid any activity that might threaten her sensitive constitution.
Women’s wellness then, although it championed liberation, still required an appropriate femininity and grace. This desperation for freedom wefts and weaves through Annie’s writing, but so too does her desire to stay within neatly defined prim and proper lanes. Annie also strives for a relaxation that doesn’t question larger, systemic and institutional stresses. She encourages the women she treats to find personal contentedness and relaxation, even in the face of abhorrent factory conditions. In other words, she’s advocating for more efficient workers, rather than seeking external change.
It’s a flawed text, and yet it’s absolutely relevant. In fact I think we still struggle with the same paradoxes. Below you’ll find more restful inspiration, as well as a piece by my friend Pranidhi Varshney on cultural appropriation in yoga.
Fatigued, but (em)powered through repose,
In four short vignettes, Lizzie Lasater and I chat about the social life of śavāsana. We talk about the textual history of the pose, its subversive nature, and practical ways to find more stillness in the day. You can watch them all on Lizzie’s well-resourced YouTube channel. And if you have a burning question on rest, please send it along. For every question you ask that I use in a Q+A, I’ll upgrade your subscription to paid for 3 months. Deal?
Artist Raquel Meseguer Zafe turns the simple act of lying down into a performance piece, challenging etiquette and refashioning shame as an adventure. She says:
“I experience chronic pain all day every day and that means I need to lie down. A lot…I lie down in trains, in galleries, on benches…it was a lightbulb moment to realize that I am able, but I am also disabled by a built environment and vertical culture that is simply not designed for me.”
Her call to lie down in public spaces is “an invitation to pause. To rest. To listen.” | BBC
Adapted from Key Points on How to Rest Well by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang:
Make space for rest. Set aside time for rest and build it into your schedule.
Set boundaries. It might be helpful to create a container for checking email or social, like limiting your “office hours” to specific chunks; remember that not every text needs an immediate response; take regular breaks from the screen.
Rest is a skill. Like anything, it takes practice.
Practice play. We tend to think of rest as separate from activity. But there’s a great deal of joy and restfulness to be found in extracurriculars. Swimming, hiking, climbing, music-making, knitting, cooking…make it playful.
Rest in community. Whether it’s collective rest, public rest, or yogic rest. We need support as we build better habits, rituals, and gatherings around rest.
And lastly, as Annie Payson Call wrote in 1891: “It is quite possible to make so desperate an effort to relax, that more harm than good is done.” Instead of seeing rest as yet another task, another yardstick by which to measure failure, be gentle with yourself. Go slow. Keep a light heart.
“In our quest to practice or teach yoga ‘the right way,’ many of us turn the yogic arts into a commodity that must be consumed and perfected through books, training, retreats, and endless online discussion.
As an alternative, I wonder if it would be more beneficial for those of us who are leaders in the yoga space to encourage practitioners to simply practice the way Indians do—as a lighthearted part of everyday life.”
— Pranidhi Varshney on reframing cultural appropriation in the yoga space
Hi Erica, just want to congratulate on you being on the home stretch of your masters dissertation. I love that the topic can also serve to carry you through it!
Thank you, Elly! It's helpful to really truly love the research 🥰 I'd love to hear how your scholastic journey is going? Academia is its own unique discipline and practice!