Yoga isn’t much. It’s standing, bending, sitting. Yoga happens lying down. New to yoga, savasana is experienced as just that – you lay down. You don’t do anything. Teachers tell us that savasana is a pose, but it seems one devoid of application or concept. If anything we promise ourselves savanasa is coming as we move through an arduous practice of stretching, twisting, holding. Savanasana, say the teachers, is the hardest pose. “Most difficult for students”, said Sri K. Pattabhi Jois: “not waking, not sleeping”.
It’s a dying pose, a little bit of death, and they call it, in sanskrit, corpse pose. Little wonder we don’t get it or shift around it with over busy minds. We avoid the depths of corpse pose, just as we avoid our humanly death.
But yoga happens. Like a moldy growth or a stirring deep in the cosmos, tick tick ticking away unconsciously until one day it just appears different. It seems more than it was. Yoga isn’t much. Standing, bending, sitting. But it begins to seem quite profound. Sitting, bending, standing, we start to see, is everywhere. It happens differently for different folks, and differently at different places in our own process, but it will happen. Perhaps we simply feel so good, so clean or strong or relaxed after a practice, that we go back again. Perhaps we notice that our body has changed a bit, we stand differently, we breath a little differently, our digestion normalizes and becomes more prominent no matter what you eat. Yoga may change us suddenly, like a waking up. Or it may move through valleys and crescendos, hitting long plateaus where nothing seems to happen. Like finding eternity in the grain of sand, yoga is not much but also hugely important.
One of those changes comes when corpse pose starts to become difficult. It becomes more than simply a rest after class, an absence of strain.
We move through various loops of distraction. Patanjali called it ignorance, or avidya. Yoga wakes us up to that looping, making us aware of how little we are able to tolerate. We spend the majority of our brain time – and by extension our physical body’s energies – in worry, avoidance, planning, projecting, replaying.
We do this in our practice, as well. There is a spectrum. At one end, there is too much, and at the other, too little. Maybe a little like death, or sleep. Jois said that savanasana is ‘not waking, not sleeping’, and suggested this is why it’s so hard.
A busy mind is a consequence (and cause) of over straining in asanas. Sleep, or deadness, is it’s polar opposite, and happens to many of us in corpse pose. Of course, most of us feel the racing, drifting mind even while we lie still. Because we lie still, we feel it more. But the point of savasana, like the point of meditation, is not to fall asleep, to sit without thoughts, to completely clear the brain (impossible). The point is to fall awake.
The point of yoga in a daily practice is a billowing awareness and heightened sense of meaning and purpose, presentness, from moment to moment. On and off the mat. While we eat. While we speak. When we work. The teaching of yoga is how rarely we manage to do this. Most of us experience savasana, once we get to that deep core place once in a while, as something radically different from the moment to moment day of cares and frustrations, plans and intentions. Conditions and circumstances. The practice of savasana is to link the disparities, to teach us that deep core is always around, if buried.
In savasana, we don’t need to avoid. We simply notice, with evenly hovering attention, whatever shows up, and then allow it to pass on, to die, so that we can arrive in the present moment. Savasana offers the possibility of “a small death, every moment, every day,” says Pattabhi Jois. Much of what we notice in yoga practice is our patterns of attachment and repulsion. Swallowing or spitting out, digesting and evacuating, accepting and rejecting: all of these discriminative acts become ways of sorting out what we can tolerate and what we refuse. When the discomforting thoughts arise, when the sensations that pull us out of Savasana distract us, we tether ourselves to the present moment by not swallowing or spitting out the contents that emerge from the depths of our body and mind. Instead we lie down with all of our repulsions and all of our attachments, both of which are sacred, both of which teach us about our strategies of attraction and avoidance and where we are in relation to the present moment. Observing is surrender to the feelings that we have been avoiding. This surrender gives way to spaciousness in the mind and body. When one practices this way there is space enough for everything.
When effort ceases we are able, if only briefly, to die into corpse pose. The void is left when the self is absent. 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, as we allow our conception of the world to pass on, we experience the world as it is in itself. The gravity of savasana is surrendered to.
- Sitting still, lying still, is tremendously difficult for us at the beginning. Know this, and be willing to push through a little resistance. Most yoga classes encourage you to stay in savasana for two to five minutes. This is an under practice. I’ve heard that more traditional practice involves a savasana of at least 30 minutes. Expect that you will either want to get up and move on, or fall asleep. Recognize both as patterns of avoidance, ignorance, or avidya. Notice the urge and refocus. Being vague about your savanasa practice makes it easy to take lightly. Set a little goal. Stay for five minutes for at least four or five classes, and notice the difference. Stay until you are the last person in the room. Don’t be harsh when you break your goals, that doesn’t do you any good. Instead, notice it, and use it to further your awareness of how hard stillness is.
- Consider yogi etiquette: rather than rushing out of the room and back into your daily life after class, use quiet rest as an expression of kindness and deep regard for your teacher and others in the class: provide the quiet space for them to enter savasana. Practice, in the safe confines of a short yoga practice, the art of being non-obstructive, generous, and receptive.
- Savasana is as useful in opening a practice as it is in closing. Try to get to class early enough to have some time in savanasa before class begins. Use it as diagnostic and as preparation. Where are you, today? How is your body, today? What do you want to let go of, before you practice? Are there intentions you want to set? After class, in closing savanasa, you can recall that earlier one. It can be astounding how different our practice was from our expectation, and this before/after will make that more obvious. It is also a tool teaching you to bring awakeness more and more into your control – so that yoga is not something that happens for an hour on a mat in a room, but throughout your day.
- The physical aspects of savasana are surprising. There is a reason teachers call this the most important pose. They are not being wishy washy and trying to calm us down so we’ll be better people. They are speaking the truth of what the body needs. Metabolic processes happen at the cellular, organ, and organism level. You are breaking down and building up molecules. Anabolism (building up ) and catabolism (breaking down) both require energy. Catabolism is the breaking down and expressing, releasing, of larger pieces through the process of respiration. Most of your yoga practice is catabolism, breaking down, using up energy, making small tears on the fibers and stretching organs in new ways. Savasana is the necessary counterpart. It allows your body to rebuild, using the information and new structure you’ve just gained. If you don’t do savasana, you not only throw away most of what you’ve accomplished in class, you also lose the necessary repair and recovery. Every other posture will get better, faster, if you start to really enter savasana.
- savasana gives the nervous system a chance to assimilate the practice before returning to the stresses of daily life. The heart and breathing rates return to ‘resting’ or parasympathetic states, releasing hormones and enzymes that are responsible for sleep and wake cycles, metabolism, attention and daydreaming cycles, cellular regeneration, myofacial release,etc.
- savasana and meditation activate the limbic system, which is responsible for emotional processing, our sense of self and continuity, language and long term memory storage. It ‘stores’ what we did and felt in moving asana into our conscious and unconscious self.