In the beginning yoga class that I teach, a student I’ll call Chris finds savasana uncomfortable. Neither lumbar pain nor mental agitation is the culprit. She tucks her shoulders to open her chest, and she looks fine. But she never feels quite right.
She’s a side sleeper, so lying supine doesn’t come naturally to her. So, I am trying to help her find ease in stage one of savasana, the basic physical form.
Savasana and me
In my home practice (done at a community center, as I discuss in the footnoted posts), I skip savasana because I’m in a public setting. While I continue my downward dogs and backbends regardless of passersby, I am certainly aware of them; I’ll engage in small talk with the staff and custodians, or move to another space if I’m in the way. But I’m hesitant to lie flat on my back with closed eyes even for a minute. Savasana requires privacy, a sense of safety, no interruptions or inhibitions.
During classes, I’ve always welcomed savasana (unlike Chris, I am a back sleeper and lying flat on my back is a relief). But has my savasana practice developed over the years? During my first classes at a university gym, the setting was minimalist: large studio or even basketball court; only mats and straps; no heating system. But the teaching was excellent, and savasana was an “experience.” My body temperature would palpably drop during savasana, signaling the shift from action to relaxation.
Today that shift comes less consistently. While I can execute other asanas better than I could as a novice, my savasana has somewhat stagnated.
The meaning of corpse in corpse pose
Savasana translates to “corpse pose,” but yogis often brush off that word. Corpse = death. Relaxation has become the focus. In an online article, Judith Hanson Lasater wrote the following practical advice:
“[T]eaching savasana teaches much more than relaxation. It teaches clearly and concretely the importance of being[,] not just doing. Our culture is very much a “doing” culture; we value action and results over being and awareness. Savasana may be the only time during the week that the student is quiet and present, not acting, not achieving, not sleeping, just being present. This is the beginning of meditation and an extremely important gift you can give to your class. Always allow 20 minutes for deep relaxation.”
But should we also consider the corpse part? In her essay “Savasana,” Shambala Sun, July 2003, Tara Bray discusses this pose in light of her mother’s death at age 36, when she was 13. Here, doing savasana means facing the “little death” and contemplating one’s mortality.
Oakland yogi Richard Rosen’s thorough discussion, “Shavasana: Corpse Pose,” describes this pose as a symbolic dying, to release oneself from habitual ways of thinking and acting, to promote “genuine physical and psychological rest and self-recognition of our authentic nature.” Read his piece for detailed instructions and thoughtful comments on this ubiquitous but oversimplified pose.
Image: Paul Komarek