View this post on Instagram
It’s near the end of the class, and we’re in Savasana, or Corpse Pose, lying face-up on the floor.
I’m guiding the yoga practice. I open my eyes and look around.
No matter how many times I’ve seen this state of pure relaxation reflected on their faces and the complete letting go of their bodies, I continue to feel awed by it.
As a teacher friend once said, “It is a cruelty to guide the students out of Savasana.”
I don’t want to disturb this deep state of relaxation and the very delicate web of energy that can be felt in the room all around us. I want this stillness in time to go on, undisturbed.
About 14 years ago, when I started teaching yoga, my 10-year-old daughter and some of her friends asked me to teach them a class. They didn’t know what yoga was, and they were curious. The next day, while driving my daughter and her friends to school, some of the girls who had not taken the class asked, “What is yoga?”
The girls who had taken the class tried to describe it, but the others couldn’t make any sense of the explanation. One of the girls finally said, “Well I can’t explain it, but there is something at the end called Savasana—it’s the best! You don’t have to worry about anything.”
That answer made me smile.
They had only taken one class, and they had already felt what Savasana was about. It’s not just a well-deserved rest after a yoga practice—it’s much more than that.
So, what makes Savasana so special?
The pose is just lying face-up on the floor. “Sava” in Sanskrit means corpse.
Most of the people who practice yoga will tell you they love it. In fact, there are some yoga T-shirts with the words: “I’m just here for the Savasana.”
It’s a requirement for Savasana that the person is relaxed and at the same time conscious. It’s not about going to sleep. As master yoga teacher Judith Lasater pointed out in one of her restorative yoga teacher trainings, “Relaxation is a must for Savasana, a first step. It’s not sleeping. Sleep and relaxation are two different physiological states. As a matter of fact, one can sleep and wake up tired and not feeling rested.”
Through the years I’ve seen a fair number of students fall asleep during Savasana, and I have never woken them up. Though it’s not the goal, maybe they were so exhausted that sleep was exactly what they needed. They were so relaxed and connected to their body’s need for rest that they just let go and fell asleep.
This conscious and relaxed state is not one that we tend to cultivate much in our modern lives.
We have come to define ourselves in terms of what we do, leading to feelings of not being or doing “enough.” Thus, we end up rushing around, thinking that we can get more things done than we have time for.
In this race to get a lot of things done, sometimes unforeseen events happen. A traffic jam, coming down with the flu, our car breaking down, or something else. So we end up rushing even more. All this running around, striving for something that is out of reach—there is only so much time—can end up stressing us.
And if, in the mélange, we begin to believe that a future moment will always be better than the present one—“when I lose weight,” “when I’m done with this project,” or “when I finish college”—we might lose our capacity to just be in the present moment.
Savasana is like an oasis in the midst of all this. It helps us counteract and balance our modern lifestyle in several ways:
>> It trains us to be in stillness. Laying down on our mats. Eyes closed. Conscious, aware, awake. Nothing to do. No multitasking. Cellphones out of our reach. No moving around or fidgeting. Just resting.
Savasana gives us a chance to be still and relaxed, to rest while awake, and not do anything.
>> It trains us to rest in the PNS or Parasympathetic Nervous System state without being asleep. It trains us to be “alert without tension and relaxed without lethargy.” (T.V.K. Desikachar)
The SNS is the one in charge of the “fight-or-flight” response in us. We need it to feel motivated, to have the determination and drive required to get things done, to have the instinct to take care of ourselves, and to sense danger and respond rapidly and adequately. It deals with the external in our lives, the crises of the now. Our daily lives require a good dose of what this state of being gives us. However, it has been demonized lately, because we tend to spend too much time in this state.
Stressful things that require us to respond in a fight-or-flight mode—like losing our job, a divorce, a tiger coming into the room, or a fire alarm—can all activate the SNS. But it also gets triggered by things that don’t require its response, like too much traffic or noise, the news from across the world, and the stories we always tell ourselves that make us rush and strive for things in the future.
Activated all the time, it has negative consequences on our mental and physical health. To function well, it needs to raise the body’s levels of adrenalin, blood pressure, and cardiac frequency.
To counteract this tendency and restore the balance between activity and rest, the PNS needs to be activated. This state is associated with “rest and digest.” It lowers the cardiac frequency, relaxes the muscles, improves circulation, and regulates blood pressure. It helps the body to digest, heal, restore, and regenerate. It reduces fatigue and induces calmness of mind. Not only does our body have the opportunity to improve and renew itself, but it also refreshes the whole being. While in Savasana, we cultivate this state.
>> Savasana induces a more peaceful state of mind. We don’t need to prove anything or to be approved by anybody. We can, for a few moments, forget about the to-do lists and deadlines and let go of trying to control that which is out of our hands. We just rest in acceptance of what can’t be changed in our lives with the neutral attitude of the observer.
>> Savasana gives us space to acknowledge and feel our emotions. Sometimes, while in the pose, the tears just start to roll down our cheeks, and we can’t stop them. I have experienced this. At times, I know exactly what reason or emotion is causing them, and sometimes I have no idea. So, I just “witness” myself.
I’ve seen this happen to students often, and sometimes in their very first class. Sometimes, it leads to confusion and feeling disconcerted or embarrassed.
Yogis believe that emotions that arise from circumstances or events that have affected us get stored in our bodies in the form of energy knots. During the yoga practice, while moving our bodies, we move these stored memories and emotions. In the stillness of Savasana, sometimes this energy finds the space to come out.
I find that once the yoga practitioners understand that this can happen because they are connecting to their innermost feelings, and creating the space for them to come out, the sensation can be relieving and sometimes healing. Maybe things that we didn’t know were bothering or hurting us come up; sometimes, it’s memories from our past. And we learn to acknowledge them, and to be with and simply witness these emotions. This whole process can be liberating.
Several pregnant moms have told me that while in Savasana, their babies move around a lot. For them, these are extraordinary moments of consciously connecting with their babies. They were totally relaxed with nothing to do—they could peacefully and consciously feel and witness the movement.
The stillness of Savasana creates or clears the space for all of this to happen.
>> Savasana carries on into our lives and manifests in the day-to-day of our lives in subtle ways. During a visit to the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston, I came across the following quote:
“…what is important is not so much what people see in the gallery or the museum, but what people see after looking at these things, how they confront reality again.” ~ Gabriel Orozco
It reminded me of Savasana. Not only does it have powerful benefits at the time of practicing it, but it also affects our nervous system, and consequently our minds. This can lead us to perceive ourselves and external situations in different ways. As Judith Hanson Lasater mentioned: “Relaxed and content people don’t tend to hurt themselves or other people.”
>> Savasana gives us the opportunity to connect to our innermost being. In my first year of practicing yoga, after an Ashtanga practice, something happened while in Savasana that was so powerful, I still remember it clearly.
It was as if suddenly, in the midst of that stillness, I realized, “Oh, I am not breathing!” I also noticed I had not been thinking, and that I had no knowledge of where I had been. I had not been dozing off—I had been completely awake. I’ve heard this, again and again, from students, too. “While in Savasana, I suddenly left. But I hadn’t realized it until heard your voice and came back.” When I ask them if they’d been asleep, many of them answer that they hadn’t.
For me, it was a memorable moment. A door was opened to the experience and awareness that there are other states of consciousness, ones that can be also accessed in a more direct manner through specific pranayama and meditation practices.
Savasana can be a well-deserved rest that feels like heaven. It can also be a way of training our nervous system to be in the parasympathetic mode, restoring ourselves in the process.
It might, on occasions, give us a space to access, acknowledge, and connect to our emotions. And maybe, in some very special moments, introduce us into another state of consciousness.
In either of the above states, for me there is always a richness and a wholeness to the experience of Savasana. It places me “in a space between sleeping and doing, the space of being.” (Yoganand Michael Carrol)