In some of my blog posts, I’d like to cover yoga poses (asanas) in a greater detail that we have time for in class.
Let’s start at the end.
Every yoga class, no matter the style, length, or teacher, ends with the same pose. In Sanskrit it’s called savasana (sometimes “shavasana”). In English this translates to corpse pose.
It is often called the most important pose in yoga as it gives the systems of the body (hormones, blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, muscle memory) a chance to neutralize and the benefits of the practice to be absorbed. Think of taking a turkey out of the oven – it’s good to let it rest for a bit so all the juices can settle in. It also provides an opportunity to practice getting into a state of meditation.
The benefits of corpse pose are many, including increased body awareness, relief from mild depression, reduction of stress, headaches, fatigue, insomnia and anxiety, and lower blood pressure.
Savasana can be held between 3 and 30 minutes, but in a class setting will most often be 5 to 10 minutes long.
To come into savasana, lay down, let the feet fall outward, and face the palms upward. Legs can be about a foot apart with the arms right alongside your body, or both the legs and arms can be spread wider into Pentacle pose (à la Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man). The eyes are closed and the breath returns to its natural rhythm. Scan the body and release tension anywhere it is found.
For some people, laying on the back can be uncomfortable so it’s important to listen to your body and use props to reduce strain or tension. Some common props that help make savasana more comfortable include:
- A bolster under the knees (to take pressure off of the lower back);
- A blanket under the head (if the chest is tight, this will help keep the head from tilting backward);
- A blanket over the body (to keep you warm – once we stop moving the body cools down);
- An eye pillow on the eyes (if you are practicing in a room with bright lights or are prone to visual distractions).
You can also do savasana with your knees bent and your feet on the floor, hip distance apart, knees falling inward. If you are pregnant and past the first trimester, you can elevate your head and chest on a bolster, on lie on your side.
Different techniques exist to encourage the body into its most relaxed state. It really is all about the power of suggestion. A few options are:
- Working from the feet up to the head, tense and relax each body part, one at a time.
- Silently name each body part and imagine it melting or getting heavier/softer with each exhalation.
- Imagine a wave (of water, energy, light) travelling up from your feet and relaxing everything it touches. You can work with the breath here: on the inhale the wave comes up to the feet, and on the exhale it travels back down. On the next inhale, the wave comes up to the knees, and on the exhale it flows back down. Continue this until your entire body is covered by the wave.
- Imagine the body as a sack of grain. For each body part, visualize rips forming in the sack and the grain pouring out onto the floor.
- Imagine the body as a suit of clothes falling through the air in slow motion and touching the ground, body part by body part. As each part touches the floor, all the wrinkles fall out of the fabric.
Pay special attention to the muscles of the face: tongue, jaw, cheeks, ears, eyes, and scalp. Most of our sense organs are housed here and by relaxing the face, it helps to dull stimulation from our environment, bringing our attention inward.
Once your body is relaxed and the senses start to withdraw, next comes the challenge of relaxing the mind, essentially preparing it for meditation. Ideally you are trying to achieve a deep state of conscious relaxation. This is different from sleep.
For most people, this is where our monkey mind starts to take over.
“We’re out of milk and eggs. I’ll pick them up on my way home”.
“I hope I turned my phone off.”
“Ten more minutes and then it’s back to reality…sigh…”
“I am such an idiot…”
“Why is she STILL talking…?”
“What am I going to pack for lunch tomorrow?”
“Don’t forget to email Janice.”
“I am HUNGRY.”
As in the rest of a yoga class, a common technique for managing the monkey mind is giving it something else to focus on. The breath is a great place to begin. However, breathing in savasana is different than in the rest of class as we no long work to actively control the breath.
As author Leslie Kaminoff puts it, this is “the most difficult breathing exercise of all: the act of being fully aware of – but not controlling – the breath’s movements. Normally, when you are aware of your breathing, in some way you alter its natural rhythm. When you are not aware of the breath, it is driven by a combination of autonomic impulses and unconscious habit. The juxtaposition of active awareness and surrender to the breath’s natural movements makes possible the powerful realization that true surrender is an act of will.”
To use the breath to focus the mind, we can:
- Observe the expansion of the ribcage on the inhale.
- Observe the release of the belly on the exhale.
- Notice the air (temperature, sensation, velocity) moving in and out of the nostrils.
- Count the breath from 27 backwards to 0. Mentally repeat “I am breathing in 27, I am breathing out 27. I am breathing in 26, I am breathing out 26”, etc. If the mind wanders, come back to 27.
- Use a mantra – label every inhale as “in” and every exhale as “out”.
It’s important to choose one technique and not jump from focus point to focus point during your savasana.
As thoughts enter the mind, it’s important to practice detachment from these thoughts and not get caught up in them. In Sanskrit, this process is called “dharana”. Some techniques for doing this:
- “Watch” your thoughts like you are watching TV, being curious and interested about them, without getting attached to them or emotional about them. Over time they may become stiller, quieter and clearer.
- Imagine you are looking through a giant fish tank. Observe how the open water allows light to shine through. Notice how fish may swim by but continue to gaze at the prisms of light and let the fish pass by. In the same way let your thoughts pass by and not engage in them.
- Focus on the blackness of the back of the eyelids and when images arise, gently paint them back to black.
Compassion is key. If you find yourself getting caught up in your thoughts, be gentle and just bring yourself back to whatever technique you were using. If we start to beat ourselves up about our monkey mind, we inherently create more thoughts, emotions, and stories. It’s a catch 22. Treat yourself as you would treat a small child, with loving compassion. Remember – the act of continually bringing yourself back to your point of focus is what savasana is all about.
I like this description from yoga teacher Nicole Markardt:
“Savasana is like swimming in the ocean. On some days the current of our thoughts surrender to the waves of our breath as we float through this meditative state freely. … Our minds fall away. … We can detach from fear, worry, and attachment. On other days … we resist. With this resistance comes the crashing down of our thoughts, like powerful waves that we try to swim against. The harder we resist worry and ideas, thoughts of yesterday and tomorrow crash upon us with great force. Class ends and we realize that Savasana never quite began.”
And psychotherapist Michael Stone about the power of our subconscious mind in avoiding the surrender of savasana (by either making us fall asleep or creating the mental chatter):
“We could say that we actively engage the imagination in order to avoid the void of corpse pose. This “void” is the inherent emptiness of the present moment. When there are no views, no conceptions, no thoughts, no ideas, the world is seen in its actuality, with no filters, modifications, interpretations, goals, and qualifications. In other words … we experience the world as it is in itself. The aim of yoga practice in daily life is to live vividly from moment to moment without being stuck in thinking or the idea of not-thinking. Wood floor, open window, blanket, cushion, t-shirt, wool socks – there is something profound just here.”
If you are able to get to a place where effort is no longer required to manage your thoughts, this is called dhyana, or the actual state of meditation. As you can tell by now, it can take a lot of mental work to get to this state. Just like building muscles, it takes time (sometimes months, years, decades) to develop the ability to quiet the monkey mind and achieve the state of meditation. The work it takes to get here has practical benefits in every day life – it helps you to be more present and in control of your thought patterns and emotions.
For some, this is the most difficult yoga pose. But just like everything in yoga, it’s all about practice.
What types of thoughts creep in during your savasana? What techniques do you use to tame them?
Datey, K.K. 1977. Stress and heart diseases and how to control it with newer techniques – biofeedback and Savasana. Paper presented at the International seminar on stress in Health and Diseases.
Fitz-Simon, Witold. 2010. Shavasana (Corpse Pose).
Kaminoff, Leslie. 2007. Yoga Anatomy.
Markardt, Nicole. 2014. Why Savasana Is The Hardest Yoga Pose…And How To Master It.
Saraswati, Swami Satyananda. 2013. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha.
Stephens, Mark. 2010. Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques.
Stone, Michael. 2006. Savasana: Corpse Pose.
Whiteman, Eliza. 2013. 5 Way to Enhance Savasana.
Woodyard, Catherine. 2011. Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. International Journal of Yoga, 4(2): 49-54.
Yoga Journal. 2007. Corpse Pose.