Shava (शव, Śava) = corpse
Asana (आसन, Āsana) = posture, seat
Shavasana (शवासन, Śavāsana) = corpse posture
You enter the room, roll out your mat, move and breathe for an hour or more and then, bam, lay down and stop moving. For some it’s a welcome relief, for others a dreaded waste of time and for many it can be quite challenging. I see these reactions — and varying states in between — every day. So, wherever you fall on this spectrum, you’re not alone. Regardless your reaction, it happens, and so I’m hoping it will prove meaningful to explore….
Why do we do it?
Śavāsana is a time to balance out the energy and benefits from all the effort you’ve expended on the mat. When the asana practice that precedes it is done with thoughtful, purposeful movement and alignment we are giving ourselves the opportunity to undo patterns of thought and being that are not beneficial and replace them with ones that are. At the end of this time of right effort, our body and mind need and thrive from the opportunity to assimilate the healthy aspects and let go of the unnecessary parts.
This takes on greater meaning when we consider that we are working with five bodies (koshas), not just one. Typically we may just be thinking that we have one body — the physical body, which in yoga speak is called annamaya kosha meaning “food body”. In addition to that we have an energetic body (pranamaya kosha), emotional body (manamaya kosha), intellectual body (ajñamaya kosha) and a spiritual body (anandamaya kosha). Each of these is effected by every experience we have. The asana practice is a time wherein we are given the opportunity to set-up the conditions to take only those actions that support the health and wellbeing of all five bodies. This is part of the reason why it is so important to thoughtfully select the environment in which you practice to eliminate distractions and preoccupations of the body and mind and facilitate focus.
By turning our awareness inward we can increase our ability to perceive what’s going on within us and develop something called interoception. Interoception is insight on the physiological condition of the body and is associated with the autonomic nervous system and autonomic motor control. The autonomic nervous system is in control of the normally unconscious and automatic bodily functions like breathing, the heartbeat, and the digestive processes. With repetition, a cornerstone of yoga practice, we can then become better at tapping into what is going on within us and better deal with the stresses of life. It’s a rewiring of the nervous system that supports steady engagement in the world.
How do we do it?
We get into the posture by lying flat on our back, taking the legs apart about the width of the mat (wider of shorter depending on your body size), allowing the legs to relax, externally rotate and the feet roll out, laying the arms out to the side about eight to ten inches from the body with the palms facing up and the hands open. (Side note, a way to maintain alertness is to actively outstretch the fingers since we tend to keep our hands somewhat closed in a protective way similar to the way we tend to close in around our hearts). The shoulders should be dropped down and away from the ears and the head resting flat with a slight tilt toward the chest. Lie face up with eyes closed and breath on automatic.
You may find it beneficial to purposefully bring tension to the muscles and then release into the resting state. Those of you familiar with Ashtanga know that at the end of the practice we take three seated postures, the first two of which are in a fairly relaxed state and then the very last one we lift up (utplithi) and contract most all the muscles of the body as a means of drawing our energy inward and upward in a focused, conscious manner. We do this in preparation to then let go and relax into a resting state.
Remain in this still state until your breath and heart rate become relaxed, ideally for ten minutes or more (some say five minutes for every 30 minutes of practice). Now, due to the impatience of Westerners and the accelerated pace at which we’re living our lives, classes keep getting shorter leaving limited time for this resting element of the practice. So, we try and get at least five minutes, more when possible.
While in śavāsana we remain relaxed but awake maintaining a level of mindful awareness and detachment — observing the thoughts, feelings and sensations of the mind and body without attaching to them and turning them into something more. It is a conscious asana where you are fully awake and deeply relaxed at the same time, which is not always an easy balance to attain.
Upon conclusion of śavāsana it’s important not to just jump up and go, but rather take a few breaths to begin moving the body and making one’s way off the mat.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says that “Like a house protecting one from the heat of the sun, Hatha Yoga protects its practicer from the burning heat of the three tapas.” The three tapas refers to the physical, environmental/natural, and spiritual challenges/sufferings we face as we move through life on the path of yoga. Asana practice is a method for building and developing a strong, steady, and able house for ourselves. A house that serves to protect the yogi, keep him sure-footed, and protect him from the pains of life. Sometimes by overcoming or preventing/avoiding unnecessary pain and sometimes by enabling one to deal with the pain and carry on.
Physical pain refers to the ebbs and flows encountered by our bodies. Disease, illness, emotional and mental anxieties, depression, injury and so on – the myriad of challenges we all face at various points in our lives. The environmental pains come from the unpredictable, uncontrolled continually changing earth — flood, drought, earthquake, intense heat and cold. These natural disruptions wreak havoc on the body and mind. Then comes the spiritual hardships, all of which are grounded in avidya (yogic dirt) the confusion and grasping to make this temporary house — our bodies — a permanent identity. It’s the ego driven lack of understanding and acceptance of impermanence that supercedes all of this. “Living without realization of the inner being”, according to Swami Mukitbodhananda. It’s on all three of these levels that the śavāsana resting practice becomes critical for allowing the full benefit of our efforts to transpire.
What happens on a physiological level?
Each and everyone of us started off as a single cell. That cell began dividing to form an embryo consisting of three types of tissue: endoderm, mesoderm and ectoderm. The endoderm formed our internal organs, the mesoderm our bones and other connective tissues, and the ectoderm became our largest organ – our skin. Interestingly though, the ectoderm also formed our nervous system thereby linking our outermost physical form with the innermost. In his book on anatomy, Ashtanga Yoga Teacher, David Keil, writes “The nervous system embodies the connection of mind and body. Nerves reach from deep within the protected layers of the spine and skull to make their way throughout the body, getting into every nook and cranny. The nerves send information to the body and receive information via the brain/mind on all the activity going on in the system. Thus, the mind and body are one, plain and simple.”
Śavāsana is a time to allow that communication to consciously turn the body off, stop movement and allow the rates of respiration, blood pressure, and brain activity to decrease. Muscular and skeletal tension is consciously relaxed. Over a longer śavāsana, muscular tension may expose and release deeper layers of stress in the muscles.
What happens on an energetic level?
During the asana practice we are working to direct, gather and contain our prana – our lifeforce and send it up sushumna nadi (the main energetic channel that runs the length of our spine). Conscious, steady work with breath and bandhas (energetic locks) are a means of conducting this effort. When we get to śavāsana we let go of all that internal energy work and allow it to disperse evenly throughout the body. It’s my feeling that this is a felt experience – this is the hallmark of the resting state that brings a sense of renewal and vitality as we rise again and carry on with our lives.
A funny little glitch in this discussion comes when we dig a bit deeper into the true meaning of the word śavāsana. A corpse is stiff. The body without breath, without prana, experiences rigor mortis and stiffens. So, the 5th and 6th series of Ashtanga (which very few humans on the planet have managed to attain) actually include a posture wherein one lies flat on the mat and tightens up the body. This is considered by some to be the true practice of śavāsana. So, when you take class with an Astanga teacher, instead of instructing corpse pose, they may very well just say “take rest” and this is why.
What happens on a spiritual level?
Śavāsana provides an opportunity to explore the fifth limb of yoga — pratyahara. Pratyahara is a purposeful withdrawing from the senses and gaining mastery over the external pull of the outer material world. It’s through repeated attempts at going in – wherever we can cultivate it – that we develop the ability to move beyond the kleśas (the forces that corrupt the mind: ignorance of our true nature, unhealthy ego, attachment to what we like, aversion to what we don’t, and clinging to life) and toward yoga (samadhi, enlightenment, peace, equanimity).
There may also be an element of Iśvara pranidhanani — one of three components of kriya yoga and one of the five niyamas) — this is the concept of letting go. Surrendering some part of yourself to the greater whole. Giving yourself over to the process and over time cultivating a level of faith that allows you to be exactly where you are.
Another way that I’ve experienced this posture — a way that I found inspiring — is as taught by Jivamukti Yoga co-founder, David Life. David takes it to a deeply spiritual place by conjuring up samsara — the cycle of birth, life and death that we are all experiencing in this body. It was born, it’s currently alive and it will die. Most people shy away from discussion, recognition and contemplation of this last, inevitable phase of life, but not the yogi. For the yogi, like śavāsana, it is quite possibly the most important phase upon which to focus because it provides the possibility of final liberation (nirvana or kaivalya) and the release of one’s spirit from samsara. So, David would say that each time we rest in śavāsana at the end of our practice is an opportunity to let go of some aspect of ourselves (hala hala – the poisons of the mind) and get up off the mat lighter and more prepared for that final stage — death — because whatever we don’t resolve, we take forward with us into the next cycle.
Just like other aspects of yoga practice, your experience of śavāsana may ebb and flow with the changes in your life. Some days it may be easier and/or feel more beneficial than others. That’s OK. Give yourself permission to roll with it and take this time to relax and recharge.