A soft voice floated upon my ears. “Please don’t get up; (pause) not just yet. Continue to breathe and let the earth hold your body.” Without hesitation I settled right back on the yoga mat breathing deeply. The melodious flute blending with the pitter-patter of the raindrops on the roof soothed my being. No cares at this moment, none at all. This was my Shavasana, today.
In yoga-asana practice, understanding the importance of Corpse Pose, शवासन, Shavasana, is essential. What does Shavasana mean to you? Do you feel the need to hurry out of class, skipping this final pose? Your excuses – chores, deadlines or a wailing toddler? No matter what the excuse, Shavasana is for you.
Often the word Shavasana is mistaken to mean relaxation. It is actually a posture in which one trains the body and the mind to relax.
In Samskritham the word Shava (शव) means “corpse” and Āsana (आसन) means “posture”. Some yogic texts refer to it as मृताशन, Mrutasana, dead man’s pose, describing it as – “lying full length on the back and still like a corpse.”
Shavasana as asana
Try keeping your body still – meaning no movement, without tension but in full awareness and complete relaxation. It is harder to do than describe it for a blog.
Go ahead – roll out your yoga mat.
Lie on your back with the legs spread towards the edge of your yoga mat. Begin to scan your body for muscle tension starting from the tips of your toes, slowly working your way up to the top of the head. Stop at the parts of your body that hold tension – like your lower back and hips, or neck and shoulders. Inhale – tense these muscles; exhale and consciously release. Repeat a few times. Don’t forget to relax your jaw, cheeks, forehead as some of us hold tension here.
When you are done scanning the body, let your hands relax to the sides with palms facing up in a yogic hand-seal – पुष्पपुट मुद्रा, Pushpaputa Mudra, (palms open and receiving) or in आदि मुद्रा, Aadi Mudra. (Aadi Mudra – Fold the thumb at the base of the little finger and bend the remaining fingers over the thumb forming a fist. Then place this hand-seal facing downwards on the floor/mat besides you.)
Comfort is crucial in this asana; slightest discomfort can be endlessly bothersome. You may try variations – like keeping the knees bent to support a tight lower back. Or use other props – blocks under the feet/knees and a blanket under the hip/lower back to increase comfort. There is a tendency to point the chin upwards crunching the neck. A blanket – flat or rolled up under the head will support the neck and relax the jaw. Now, you are settled in the posture of Shavasana.
With your eyes are closed, slowly deepen the breath using dirgha, long breath. Be aware of the chest and abdomen rising and falling with each breath. Merge into the rhythm of the breath, gradually relinquishing the control of the breath, mind, and the body to the earth for the duration of the asana.
Ideally 20 minutes is recommended. This may not be the case: 6-8 mins in a one hour class at gyms or 8-10 mins at studios seem like the best options. Accepted rule of thumb: stay until the heart rate and breath return to a resting rhythm – which may be different for each person.
Release Shavasana by slowly deepening the breath, gently flexing your fingers and toes. Exhale – bring the knees to your chest and roll over to one side. Pause here in fetal pose, Garbhasana, before sitting up.
Shavasana as Tapas
One of the meanings of the word Tapas is effort. It is categorized under ‘Niyama, Observances’ in the second limb of Raja Yoga. How often have you had the urge to disregard Shavasana, roll up your mat and rush out of class? Yes, it takes effort to stay, more to keep the body still and a lot more effort to silence the mind.
This effort, Tapas, when activated coaxes you to stay, trains you to stop all activity and promises you a gift of relaxation. Adequate relaxation is necessary for healthy functioning of the mind and body, clarity of thought, judgment and decision- making. Next time you’re ready to run out, stop and take a few minutes to quiet your mind in Shavasana. Without it, you’re doing your body a great disservice.
Think that Shavasana is equally important to your body and mind as any vinyasa practice. Activate your Tapas, effort. Please stay, enjoy the stillness and reap the benefits of this relaxing pose. With practice your effortful attempts (Tapas) to participate will slowly transform into effortless effort – not just to stay but to consciously realize the benefits of relaxation. Soon, without Shavasana your practice will feel incomplete.
Shavasana as Pratyahara
Pratyahara is the fifth limb of Raja Yoga that deals with training the senses. The senses constantly operate to keep you connected to the outside world. Throughout the class, the senses have to be attentive to the instructions of the teacher guiding you through the poses. When you pause to find your silence after moving into the pose, you are instructed to withdraw the senses inward and observe its effects. Practice of Shavasana gives your body extended time to turn inwards and process what just happened during your asana practice and prepares you for the outside world. Along with teaching the body to relax it also trains the mind to perform daily activities with equanimity.
In Shavasana, breath is a tool used to train the mind to be present. And to be present begins by training the senses to turn inward to become aware of the movement of your thoughts. Each time your senses and mind tune outward, gently direct them back inward, to the breath without judgment. This is your effort to induce Pratyahara.
After Shavasana, as your senses connect back to the outside allow yourself to be somewhat detached by not jumping back into the world of chatter. There may be days when you choose to leave the class in silence – to let the serenity of Shavasana infuse your footsteps leading to the car, linger on the drive back home and flow into your daily activities. Initially, it may be awkward or hard to let go of small talk after class, but notice how quickly you deplete your renewed energy by engaging in idle chatter immediately after Shavasana.
In a state of sensory withdrawal, it becomes easier to be aware of the breath and observe the activity of your mind. Here, Shavasana provides the space to begin the practice of Pratyahara, preparing you for deeper meditative practices.
Shavasana as Vairagya
The word Vairagya means detachment, to let go – not just physically, but also the mental attitude of attachment and possessiveness. Ignoring the importance of Shavasana, many think of it as simply taking a break after a vigorous asana practice.
Rest is important. It allows the body to let go of fatigue, and helps assimilate the energy generated through movement in yoga–asana.
But, to renew vitality of body and mind we have to detach from that which is not benefiting us now – in this moment. Then, it becomes important to ‘let go of the unnecessary, non-essentials’ in our lives – the stress, judgement and busy mental chatter.
In Shavasana, tell your mind to follow the inhales and exhales. Here, your effort to anchor the mind and steady the breath should not be too tense (I am trying hard but my body is not relaxing) or not too lax (I can’t stop thinking, let’s see if my body relaxes anyway). Still, try using long gentle breaths. Notice the body settling down. Gradually, let go of any specific breathing technique you may be using and allow the breath to move through its natural rhythm. This in turn slows down the turnings of your thought.
As the breath finds its way through the unrestricted channels of the relaxed body, visualize the mind unwinding itself out of the spirals of inflexible thought. When there is unobstructed flow of breath, the mind is able to operate free from habituated attachments. Detachment then is about shedding the constraints of old ideas, fixed habits, and unyielding emotions, so that we can see with clarity, forgive easily and live fully.
There are many; along with the ones listed above, a few additional benefits are:
- a decrease in heart rate and respiration rate
- a decrease in blood pressure
- a decrease in muscle tension
- a reduction in anxiety and stress
- an increase in energy levels
- an increase in focus and productivity
In addition, children love Shavasana. Although nap time or bedtime may be a chore, Shavasana is a frequent request at the Sunday school with kids and teenagers alike. When my six year old was asked to lie down in Shavasana in a kid’s yoga class, she could not lay still. There was always an itch or two that needed to be scratched, a neighbor’s mat that needed her assistance or the crack on the ceiling that warranted her attention. She wasn’t the only one – all her wiggly peers were alike. The teacher placed beanie babies on their bellies and asked them to watch these fuzzy animals move up and down to the rhythm of their breath. This movement was mesmerizing enough to lull them into a power nap.
I read somewhere that yogis believe that conscious, purposeful relaxation gives maximum amount of renewed strength in minimum amount of time. In other words, a ‘super’ power nap. After working your muscles hard for an hour or more, Shavasana allows the body a chance to regroup and reset itself. When you are gently guided to awaken, you will feel refreshed and renewed, energized and peaceful.
Although, it’s just a matter of relaxing your body, the demands of the day can be taxing for anyone. Your thoughts can yo-yo between what’s for dinner to submission deadlines. Or you may just fall asleep. This isn’t unusual as disconnected thought is one of several obstacles to truly appreciating the benefits of Shavasana. Be assured – Shavasana is one of the most difficult poses to master.
Yoga instructors insist that Shavasana is a vital part of any asana or vinyasa class. So, please stay but remember to respect your fellow yogi-corpses. Nothing is more disturbing than the end of class scrambling during this essential quiet time. Shavasana, corpse pose, is a metaphor for ‘dying’ and then coming back to life.
“In Shavasana, we relax completely, sustained by silence. In this expansive peace we open ourselves to the transcendent, slowly merging with timelessness.” BKS Iyengar
Saraswati, Satyananda. Swami. 1966, 1999. Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India.
Muktibodhananda, Swami. 1993. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India.