I was slumped on the floor of a dressing room in a large department store at 7:40 p.m. watching my teenage daughter try on what seemed like the 5,000th pair of jeans. It was taking “for ev-vah,” as she would say, and I was really tired. But more than that, I felt confused, like the protagonist in some bad dream, endlessly running from task to task. What was I doing here? Why wasn’t I home resting after a full day of teaching, writing, cooking, and driving kids around? For that matter, why do so many of us avoid taking a nice, delicious break every day?
The answer is complex, both in my life and, I’m guessing, in yours too. First, our days are full of tasks, appointments, and errands. Second, statistics show that we are working longer hours and bringing more work home with us than ever before. Technology has given us certain freedoms, but it has also enabled us to work all the time. It’s now easy to check a bank balance online at 1 a.m. or make that little business call from the car.
My favorite sign of overload is when I’m rushing around and I call from my cell phone to my home answering machine to leave myself a message about something that I absolutely must do that day—very efficient. I believe I’m not alone in this behavior; it seems we are all on overload much of the time.
What’s the result of this constant busyness? We’re tired and stressed out. I recently asked my yoga students to raise their hands if they had been stressed-out during the previous week. I got a near-universal show of hands and some incredulous looks. Why wouldn’t they be stressed-out? We now expect to be.
It should be noted that stress isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s a necessary physiological response when we perceive a threat. Take the example of a stranger following you down a dark alleyway—when you sense danger, your body responds by activating the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight response, and bringing you to a hyperalert state, ready to respond. (For a more detailed description of these physiological effects, see the article, This Is Your Body on Stress.) But when the body habitually and unnecessarily goes into this state day after day, our health suffers. Chronic stress can interfere with digestion, sleep, libido, fertility, and more.
What strategies can we adopt—aside from chucking everything and moving to a hidden paradise—to ease this sense of impatience and exhaustion? How can we quell the feeling that there are too many things to do and not enough time to do them?
Resting in Personal Paradise
I propose a formal relaxation period of 15 to 30 minutes per day, every day, in Savasana (Corpse Pose). Not only is Savasana (pronounced sha-VAH-suh-nuh) central to all traditions of hatha yoga, but it can be done with very little fuss. You can choose a simple version with very few props or a luxurious, fully propped, “Calgon, take me away” version.
Savasana used to be part of every yoga class. Sadly, I now hear from students that teachers skip it and recommend “doing it later.” Or I hear that some teachers do Savasana for five minutes. They may not know that it takes at least 15 minutes to relax deeply. In some countries, there is a siesta every day. I vote for a daily siesta in the form of Savasana.
There are many excuses for not practicing Savasana, and I’ve heard them all. Do it anyway! But first, you might need to reconsider how you think about time. The one thing most people say about time is that there is not enough. Here’s a radical thought: Everyone who is alive in the world has exactly the same amount of time each day. Some have more education, some have more wealth, some are in better health, but everyone has the same amount of time. It is how you use that time, and how you perceive the amount of time you have, that can increase or decrease stress.
The fact is, you might have to give up that TV sitcom or resist talking on the phone rehashing the same old thing, but if you assess the different time slots in your day, you’ll find room for at least 15 minutes of do-nothing rejuvenation.
Some people like to practice Savasana first thing in the morning as part of a regular yoga practice. Others use it as a midafternoon break instead of drinking a cup of coffee. Still others like to rest briefly when they get home from work, before the evening’s activities begin. Find a time that works best for you and practice at the same time every day. Also, consider using a timer. I find that a timer allows me to fully relax without worrying that I’ll end up lying in Savasana for hours, unable to get up and finish my day.
Think of practicing Savasana each day as a gift to yourself, your family, and the world. Taking a restorative break every day will not only make you feel better, it will likely make you more enjoyable to be around. When you’re relaxed, you’re less likely to overreact in the face of difficulty. A well-rested, balanced person is more likely to make choices that will affect the world in a positive way.
A Simple Setup
Here’s more good news: Everything you need for Savasana can be found lying around the house. The basic form of Savasana requires only a quiet space, a comfortable surface to lie on, and a couple of props. For the basic pose, you’ll need a support for your head, such as a small pillow or folded blanket, and a rolled blanket or large pillow to support the backs of your knees. For extra relaxation, I recommend a soft cover for your eyes and another blanket to keep you warm; you can also wear socks.
Lie down on your back. Place the small pillow or folded blanket underneath your head so the neck is well supported and the chin drops below the level of the forehead. Take a moment to relax the legs and let them fall open. With the palms facing up, spread the arms away from your body so the upper arms do not touch the sides of your rib cage. You should have an expansive feeling, as if you are taking up as much space in the room as possible.
Set your timer for 15 or 20 minutes (you can work up to 30), cover your eyes, and lie back. Take up to 20 steady, even breaths, gradually increasing the inhalations and exhalations. Then completely let go; release any controlled breathing, allow your body to drop into the floor, and observe your thoughts without reacting to them, as if they were clouds drifting past you in the sky. When you hear the timer, exhale and bend your knees to your chest. Roll to one side, letting the eye cover fall off by itself, and use your arms to sit up slowly.
Savasana as Stress Management
If you stay in Savasana long enough, you will eventually experience three different stages of the pose. The first is what I call physiological relaxation; it takes most people about 15 minutes. At first, you might feel like the mind is still revved up and attached to thoughts, feelings, and muscular movement. But gradually, the brain waves and the breath slow down, and the blood pressure drops.
As the mind and body unwind, the real Savasana can begin. During this second stage, awareness of the outside world begins to dim. You might hear sounds, but they won’t disturb you. Instead, everything will start to drift farther and farther away.
In my opinion, the second stage is the most healing for the body and comforting to the mind. A high school student once described Savasana to me as, “Your body sleeps and your mind watches.” I like this description, because the mind never completely quiets down, but as you loosen your identification with the physical body, you can disconnect from the constant whirl of thoughts. Then you can simply witness them, just as you would notice the rising and falling of your chest with the breath. As this happens, you’ll feel more at ease and willing to be where you are.
The final state of Savasana occurs when the mind completely lets go. It is thought that the brain waves slow down to their lowest frequency. You will feel disconnected from the outside world until the timer rings or your teacher’s voice brings you back to the present.
Give yourself time to drop into at least the second stage every day. Some days you will receive the third state as a gift, but don’t worry if you don’t. Just keep practicing and it will evolve.
I sometimes ask my yoga students if they think the world might be a better place if everyone practiced Savasana every day. The unanimous answer is always yes. So let Savasana begin with you, today. Instead of thinking of it as an unimportant finishing pose that isn’t really necessary, think of your active yoga practice as a preparation for the real, deep yoga of Savasana.