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Arbitrary Conventions?
Feet and Turning Around for Shavasana

by Elonne Stockton

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You might wonder why you’ve been asked to take your shoes off before entering a yoga shala, or why you’ve been asked to turn around before taking shavasana/final relaxation.

I grew up wearing my shoes inside, and I never really thought much of it. The first time I was asked to take my shoes off I did it out of respect for the place and the owners rather than because I felt it was necessary. Now, after having lived in Asia for 7+ years (and having lived and worked in yogic environments for 11 years), I automatically take my shoes off before coming inside, and the idea of bringing dirty shoes onto a clean floor where people are walking barefoot seems unthinkable.

In India, like in many countries in Asia, feet are seen as unclean. In India it is also rude to point your feet at people, step on people, use your feet to move or pick-up things.

If you are in a yoga class and before shavasana the teacher asks you to turn around there are a few reasons for this:

  1. Again, feet are traditionally seen as unclean/dirty, and it is considered rude to point them towards the teacher, who represents the lineage that has been passed down and all of the teachers before them. You turn around so your feet are pointing away from the teacher.
  2. The front of the room is usually where the altar space is in a temple or a yoga shala. Out of respect for what that represents you would want to turn your feet away from the altar space.
  3. Usually you practice facing east or north, to take in the positive vibrations coming from those directions. You may also find that your concentration and efficiency are improved if you face east or north when you are working and that you sleep better if you sleep with the back of the head facing east or north. So when you lie down to take shavasana you would want to turn around so that the top of the head is facing east or north, rather than west or south. The effects are subtle and become clearer over time with continued practice.

You may not feel the difference between facing east vs. west, or believe there is a difference. And you may think, “I am not Indian; this is a cultural thing that I do not need to follow.” It’s even likely that your teacher won’t be Indian, and I, for one, would never force a student to turn around if they did not want to. In fact, although I may turn around myself, I don’t always ask students to.

But, as it is with many of the conventions in a practice, it is good to understand reasons behind behaviors and actions that might otherwise seem silly or arbitrary; understanding puts you in a better place to make your own choice about whether or not you will conform to them. Unfortunately, the answers are often vague or non-existent, and we must practice long enough to gather experience, withholding judgment at least until we can have an informed opinion.

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