Release and Renewal

Hashkivenu YHVH, Eloheinu l’shalom, v’hamidenu, Malchenu, l’chayim

 Lie us down to peace YHVH our Gd, and raise us up to life again, our King.

Lay your body down on the earth. Stretch your legs out in front of you and then let them be heavy against the ground. Allow the muscles of your face to relax and then to dissolve as your eyes sink heavy into their sockets and your tongue loosens in your mouth. Feel your front body begin to drop down into your back body. Now let your back body start to melt into the floor. As your body begins to relax and let go it signals your mind to follow. Savasana is the yogic pose of total and utter surrender. There are no movements or sequences left to occupy the mind. There is nowhere else to go other than to simply to be present with the body and the breath.

It is as our body releases into Savasana that the layers we build up around ourselves can begin to unravel. The shiny façade we create to project a sense of success and control can gradually become undone. Under the cover of the darkness of the room, lying on your back, arms by your sides, hands open – receiving. In this pose you are asked to do the most difficult of tasks – to descend deep within yourself. To access that place of impossible love and impossible loss where lies the tender vulnerability of what it means to be a human being.

Sava in Sanskrit means corpse, making Savasana the pose of the dead. It is the posture we assume to close almost every yoga practice. In the conscious relaxation of Savasana it becomes possible to let go of anything that came to the surface during our time on that mat. Through the process of releasing that which is no longer useful we can become reconnected, reinvigorated and reawakened to life. As one yoga teacher describes it, “By emulating a corpse through conscious relaxation, one symbolically dies in order to be born anew.”[1] It is the simultaneous impossibility and necessity of this task that makes Savasana known as the most challenging pose in all of yoga.

The challenge and import of release and renewal is one that plays a prominent role in the liturgy of our daily prayer as well. The core of a traditional weekday service begins with the recitation of the Shema—our call to one another to remember and honor the unity and oneness of all creation. The Shema is followed by the blessing for redemption, the Geulah, which leads directly into the Amidah, the central prayer of our service. During ma’ariv, the evening service, we add the blessing known as Hashkivenu in between the Geulah blessing and the prayer of the Amidah.

The Hashkivenu blessing opens with us asking Gd to lay us down to peace and to raise us to up to life again. Traditionally Hashkivenu is understood to be a protective measure against the dangers that nighttime can bring. Encompassed by darkness we cannot see to protect ourselves against any physical attacks by marauders. Sleep, according to the Talmud, is one-sixtieth of death.[2] As we prepare to lay ourselves down to sleep we are vulnerable to assaults on our psyche in the form reminders of our own mortality, of the day when we will lie down for eternity. Reciting Hashkivenu as part of our ma’ariv liturgy is important not only to ward off against nighttime fears, but also to create a sacred space for ourselves each evening to let the accumulated build up of the soul lie down so that we may be revived to life once again.

Adding Hashkivenu onto the end of the blessings around the Shema posed a problem for the rabbis of the Talmud. According to Rabbi Yochanan, the blessing of Geulah is supposed to be directly linked to the Amidah, without interruption.[3] In the morning service this poses no problem but in the ma’ariv service Hashkivenu comes between these two blessings, thereby breaking the connection between Geulah and the Amidah. The rabbis resolve this problem by classifying Hashkivenu as part of the Geulah blessing. By making the two into one blessing they thereby eliminate any separation and reestablish the connection between Geulah and the Amidah.

This Talmudic debate and resolution brings up two important points about Hashkivenu. The first is that Hashkivenu was an important and necessary part of the ma’ariv service such that the rabbis were willing to go through the work of creating the legal fiction of considering Hashkivenu as part of Geulah. In this way they were able to both maintain the structure of the service and to keep in Hashkivenu. The second is this classification of Hashkivenu as part of the blessing of redemption. In the Arba’ah Turim—Yaakov ben Asher’s 14th century code of Jewish law—he explains that Hashkivenu should be understood as an expansion and intensification of the theme of Geulah, redemption.[4] It is, as he says, like a “geulah arichta,” or “great geulah.”[5]

It seems to me that the core of the redemptive aspect of Hashkivenu is captured in the very first phrase of this blessing. The continual cycle of letting go in order for new life to arise is the essence of what it means to be redeemed. Without clearing away a space within ourselves we grow consumed by our day-to-day needs and accomplishments. It is only by challenging ourselves to lay down everything we think we are and everything we think we know that we can get out of our own way to become a vessel receptive and open enough to receive from the Universe.

As in Savasana, we request that our release and letting go clear the space for and stoke the flames of life within us. In yoga we do this through assuming the physical posture of a corpse to close our movement practice. In his forward to B.K.S. Iyengar’s seminal work Light on Yoga, Yehudi Menuhin writes that through a yoga practice, “with unflagging patience we refine and animate every cell as we return daily to the attack, unlocking and liberating capacities otherwise condemned to frustration and death.”[6] It is through our embodiment of death that we are able to become alive again. While in yoga the pathway to the Divine is paved by enlivening and opening up the body, in tefillah we prepare for the physical act of lying down to sleep by verbally praying to and blessing Gd. Whether by way of the physical or the verbal, as Mircea Eliade wrote of religious practice, by symbolically participating in the annihilation and re-creation of the world—in this case of our own personal world—we are created anew; we are reborn.[7]

“The most fundamental attitudes to life have their physical counterparts in the body.”[8] There is much within Jewish tradition that is resonant with this statement by yogi Menuhin. In Chapter 22 of Likutei Moharin, the collected teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Brestlov, the master discusses the importance of creating a connection between one’s body and soul. In section five he gives his interpretation of the phrase found in Isaiah chapter 58 “u’mibsarecha, lo titalam—and your flesh–don’t ignore.” While in its context this word flesh (basar) refers to one’s fellow human being, Rebbe Nachman reads it literally as the flesh of one’s body.[9] He goes on to teach that a person should show great care towards her body in order that all spiritual illuminations that are gained by the soul can be shared and felt by the body and that the body thereby can become a vehicle for spiritual practice.

Whether we are attempting to access release and surrender to the Universe through the physical posture of Savasana or the words of Hashkivenu, our task is great and daunting. If you have ever been in Savasana, you likely know how easy it is to go through an entire Savasana without letting go of a single thing. Our body may be in the posture of submission, but inside of our skull the mind is relentlessly working. How often do we go through the motions, saying the words of prayer without truly hearing the directives of the statements we utter? As we attempt to concentrate, all of a sudden the lists of tasks that we must get done, the calls that need to be made, begin to pop up in our head and fill our consciousness. It seems that as soon as we attempt to direct our energy and attention towards the task of surrender, we find a million reasons for why we must cling tightly on.

Ultimately these natural responses of resistance speak to just how terrifyingly risky our request is. Often we engage in both yoga and in tefillah in a communal setting, surrounded by community members, teachers, friends, and neighbors. I’m not sure what is more frightening: to allow yourself to be so deeply undone at home alone, or in a room surrounded by people, some of whom you know well, and some not so well, all of whom you interact with on a daily basis. The communal structure for both yoga and prayer allows us, for one hour of our day, to choose the opportunity to create a totally different kind of space. One where we can lie on our backs, eyes closed, vulnerable and open, hearing the rhythmic sounds of one another’s breathing, understanding the pains, joys, and sorrows we each experience without having to utter a word. Or to stand next to one another, devotional, pleading, stripped down to our barest essence, crying out together to the great unknown and in to our own tender heart.

In the words of the classic Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching:

If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.

Hashkivenu YHVH, let us release those heavy burdens we have been carrying all this time though we may not have even realized it. Let us set down that which separates us from ourselves, from one another and from You. Eloheinu L’shalom, towards the goal of shalom, of finding peace by reconnecting to the truth that we are whole and complete – shalem. V’hamidenu Malchenu, and by way of this release cause us to rise up, to stand tall and strong and proud. May we serve, in our own way, as the amudim, as the pillars connecting and channeling the holy life force energy from its source to all that it animates. L’hayyim, towards the goal of renewed life, of resetting old psychological and spiritual patterns so that we may be more awake, more connected, and more alive.


[1] Sara Avant Stover, “Sink into Stillness.” Yoga Journal online: http://www.yogajournal.com/for_teachers/2574

[2] Talmud Bavli Brachot 57b

[3] Talmud Bavli Brachot 4b

[4] Lawrence A. Hoffman, My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries, Vol. 9—Welcoming the Night (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005) 91.

[5] Orach Chayim 236

[6] B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (New York: Shocken Books, 1966) 11.

[7] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: the nature of religion (Florida: Harcourt, Inc, 1959) 79.

[8] B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (New York: Shocken Books, 1966) 11.

[9] Likuetei Moharan 22:5