Heavenly Rest: Why Corpse Pose Is So Key

For the fullest experience of yoga and a deep connection with your vital energies, Savasana is one posture you can't live without.
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For the fullest experience of yoga and a deep connection with your vital energies, Savasana is one posture you can't live without.
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There I was, cocooned in warmth and darkness, feeling as light as air and as relaxed and carefree as a million-dollar Lotto winner on a Caribbean beach. I might have been a space traveler in suspended animation, rocketing off at light speed to a new solar system, or even an infant in the womb, except that I had a vague sense I was watching myself in a state of what could best be described as alert relaxation.

Begin to bring awareness to your inhalation...

That voice...so familiar. Cautiously, I opened one eye and found that I was not floating along on a river of soothing darkness or soaring through the outer reaches of the Milky Way, but lying motionless on the floor of Om Tara Yoga studio in Massapequa, New York.

When you're ready, gently roll to one side... observe how you feel...It was Maria Yakkey, my regular Thursday-morning yoga teacher. Soon, a half dozen classmates and I were alert and energized, sitting in Sukhasana (Easy Pose) with our legs crossed, bowing to the Divine within.

Namaste. Then class was over.

As I was clearing up my props, Maria came over to me. "John," she said. "You're really getting better at Savasana."

I almost dropped a pair of blocks on my foot. Better? At Savasana? You mean, my ability to imitate a corpse has improved?

"You used to be more fidgety," she said.

Understand: I'm an overcaffeinated, Type A, New York guy—and on top of that, I'm an avid marathon runner and gym rat. Of course I'm fidgety, and it's clear to me that I need yoga. Still, I thought, of all the things I haven't done well in my seven years of practice—which, to my mind, was almost everything—surely, lying quietly on the floor was the exception.

"So," I said, "I'm getting better at lying on the floor?"

Maria sighed and looked at me reproachfully. "Savasana is a lot more than just lying on the floor."

Now, don't get me wrong: I enjoy that delicious rest at the end of class. But until I gave it serious consideration, I thought of Savasana as a yogic chill pill, built into the end of practice to calm yuppies and soccer moms before they climb back into their SUVs and start texting their way to the nearest Starbucks.

But Maria is right. Savasana is much more. This traditional Indian yoga practice is a very purposeful resting pose. After a well-designed sequence, you should feel simultaneously invigorated and relaxed, your mind calm and focused. If you stay alert and keep your mind from wandering while practicing Corpse Pose, you're bound to reap enormous benefits. By lying down and resting after practicing asana, you can experience what teachers call Presence, or Being—that quality of awareness that is not dependent on your external circumstances, your body type, your personality, or your activities, but that simply is—the part of you that is present even when your body and mind have temporarily "died" from the duties and pleasures of daily life. In the quiet stillness of Savasana, your body and mind have a chance to synthesize all the actions, instructions, and sensations you experienced in class. It gives you an opportunity to integrate your experiences from practice so that you can carry that calm, heightened awareness into every situation you encounter thereafter. Many teachers consider it to be the most important asana, because this quiet, humble pose can bring you closest to the true spirit and goal of yoga, the realization that you are part of something larger than your individual self.

"How often in life do we give ourselves permission to lie still, relax, and just breathe?" asks Christina Geithner, a yoga teacher and professor of human physiology at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. The benefits of Savasana, says Geithner, who is also a spokeswoman for the American College of Sports Medicine, include reduced muscle tension throughout the body and engagement of the relaxation response in a quiet place without distractions. Plus, you let go of the concerns of the day.

"Body, mind, and spirit are re-integrated, and pleasant mental states are produced. It's a wonderful way of bringing the practice to a close in a calm, relaxing way before transitioning off the mat," she says.

Scientists and health professionals are now recognizing Savasana's worth, but its value to busy people (like me and probably you, too) has long been acknowledged by yoga teachers. Aadil Palkhivala, the founder of Purna Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Washington, relates that back in the late 1960s, his mother, a prominent lawyer in Mumbai, approached B. K. S. Iyengar to find a time-efficient yoga program. "She said to Iyengar, 'I don't have time to do a whole routine. What are the most important poses I need to do?' " Palkhivala says. "Iyengar's answer for her was, 'Two minutes Headstand, five minutes Shoulderstand, and Savasana for as long as you can.' "

Palkhivala hastens to add that this was not Iyengar's universal prescription for optimal practice. The abbreviated three-asana regimen, he says, was specifically designed for his mother to practice "only during her busiest periods. On weekends, she did a full practice." Still, Iyengar's inclusion of Savasana in this three-pose sequence suggests its overall importance.

No Napping, Please

Apparently, it's not uncommon for students to undervalue or misunderstand Corpse Pose. "I have students who try to sneak out the door just as Savasana is beginning," says John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga, based in The Woodlands, Texas. "They feel vulnerable lying still for 5 or 10 minutes." Others see it as siesta time or, oddly, time for a quick postpractice nap. "I have another student who falls asleep immediately," he says. "He just drops off like a rock."

But this master teacher educates his students around the world to understand that Savasana is not synonymous with napping or checking out in any way. In fact, it is just the opposite. This seemingly simple pose can lead, Friend says, to the "experience of ultimate freedom."

At its best, Savasana offers an opportunity to experience liberation—the freedom that comes when you release the ties that bind you to the external world. In such a moment, you free yourself to experience the Self beyond the limits of your own personal story of joy and suffering. In Savasana, Friend says, "The spirit, the very essence of our being, is not clinging or caught in the physical realm."

Corpse Pose Uncovered

In his book The Deeper Dimensions of Yoga, yoga historian Georg Feuerstein notes that Savasana (also spelled "shavasana" or "shava-asana") is discussed in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 14th-century manual considered to be one of the seminal texts of yoga. In the Pradipika, Savasana is touted for helping to ward off fatigue and to achieve mental repose.

According to Feuerstein, Corpse Pose "combines inner stillness with high energy, thus perfectly symbolizing the essence of yoga." He reflects on the yogis of old, ascetics who renounced worldly possessions. On the outside, these loin-clothed renunciants may have looked like the "walking dead," but as Feuerstein puts it, they were "full of life on the inside."

In modern times, perhaps this is what happens in Savasana: We allow ourselves to die a little bit—we let go of our worldly personas and our endless worries and to-do lists—and just connect with the source of life within.

Back in Massapequa, New York, people tend to think of dead bodies as being...well, dead. The name of this pose could be one reason it's misunderstood. " 'Corpse' is an unfortunate translation," says Richard Rosen, a Yoga Journal contributing editor and co-founder, with Rodney Yee, of the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California. "To us, that means a dead body. Indians have a different take. The way they understand it, this 'corpse' is physically inert, but very observant." And that's exactly the state this pose helps us achieve—tranquil mindfulness.

Since "Observant Dead Person" Pose or "Deceased on the Outside but Still Rockin' on the Inside" Pose are not likely to catch on as new names for this asana, "Corpse" Pose it shall probably stay. But as yogis, we can't let the morbid appellation disguise what is truly a vital part of a yoga practice.

Employee wellness manager of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, exercise physiologist Bill Baun recognizes Savasana as a form of mindful meditation. Thus, he sees it as extremely valuable, whether it's for helping the doctors and staff at one of the country's leading cancer centers deal with the stresses of jobs that often involve life-and-death situations, or for calming someone feeling a bit frazzled after a tough morning with the kids.

"These periods of deep relaxation allow you to step away from what I call the monkey chatter—the ongoing conversation you have with yourself—or from the boss that screamed at you an hour ago or from whatever else is going on in your life," Baun says. You then take that quiet "alert restfulness" back with you to face the world. "This is why it's important that the teacher brings you back to the present at the end of the session," Baun says. "Because you can then step back into your life, reenergized and revitalized." You can handle stressful situations more effectively and with less reactivity because you are aware, unhurried, and tranquil.

An Antidote to Stress

Yoga practitioner Tina M. Penhollow, who teaches the science of exercise at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, notes that Savasana helps to improve focus and concentration. She believes the pose can be beneficial for those who suffer from anxiety, stress, and insomnia.

Despite its many benefits for body and mind, more than a few practitioners still view Savasana as an afterthought, the yogic equivalent of the cool-down in an aerobic workout—ideal if you have time but not essential. Also, boring.

"I know that to many students it's not the most exciting thing to do," Rosen says. "But think of shaking a snow globe. You set it down on the table, and in a little while the snow settles back down over the houses and trees." Savasana, according to Rosen, is the settler of yoga. "Everything gets stirred up during asana practice, and you need to settle it back down. That's why it's a good way to end practice."

Some modern schools of yoga take this pose very seriously. Practitioners of Sivananda Yoga begin a 90-minute class with Savasana—to relax the body and prepare the mind for the work ahead. They also include it between the postures (allowing the breath to circulate freely and to both invigorate the nervous system and protect it from overstimulation) and then again at the end of practice, to bring the yogi back into balance.

"It gives a wonderful sense of calm," says Swami Sadasivananda, director of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center in New York City. "Savasana is an important time for students to assimilate all the benefits from the practice of asanas. During Savasana there is a complete recharge and rejuvenation of the body, mind, and spirit."

Going Deep

Palkhivala would agree, because he views Corpse Pose as a deeply profound experience. "This is when you can allow your body to relax, so there are no aches and pains, no tensions. It is at this time you can start doing the real yoga."

The real yoga, he explains, is the "act of union," between your "self with a small s, your ego, and your Self with a capital S, the spirit." Because you're encouraged to release your mind's occupation with the distractions of daily life, "Savasana is conducive to making that connection."

Of course, simply assuming Corpse Pose will not make the connection between the small-s self and the capital-S Self for you. But one of yoga's promises is that if you live your life with the intention and devotion to closely observe yourself with as much honesty as you can, the union of self and Self can truly be forged. Savasana creates the space for that quiet reflective inquiry and that union.

I admit that my ego is far from integrated with spirit: My male ego in class eagerly shows off my proficiency in Plank and Chaturanga, the only two poses I'm convinced that I can do "better" than my female classmates, who are far more flexible and adept than I am. Still, even though I'm far from perfect, I can feel perfectly at peace in Savasana. We all can.

Get Physical

In addition to the mental gains to be had, there are real physical benefits to Savasana, too. Feuerstein cites a study done in India in the '60s that demonstrated that regular practice of Corpse Pose could be effective in combating hypertension. It reportedly took patients about three weeks to "adequately learn" Savasana. (Again, with the learning and improving!) So it seems that, despite my flippant attitude toward the idea of "learning" this pose, it requires a proper technique, just as much as Down Dog or any of the other seemingly more active asanas.

Savasana Dos and Don'ts

Savasana's success starts not with instruction, but location: "You want a place that is quiet, somewhat dark...a place that is comfortable yet stable," Friend says. These conditions will help foster what he calls "an internal drawing in and settling" that helps clear the decks for the Savasana voyage.

Then comes a careful positioning of your body. Savasana, I discovered, is not just lying on the floor. "What's really important for a good Savasana is to lie in a neutral position," says Rosen. "Your head should lie square and equidistant from each shoulder." Arms should be by your sides, at a 45-degree angle relative to the torso. This keeps your shoulders loose and your breathing unrestricted. That means lying in a straight line, with your arms or legs not tilted or bent to one side, your head not drooping. "Stay in line as much as possible," suggests Palkhivala. "Energy flows in smooth lines. So if your head is crooked, your pelvis is tilted to one side, and your body looks like a serpent, the energy won't flow."

Are you comfortable? Straight, balanced, and relaxed as you lie on the floor of a dark, still room? Wonderful. Now comes the real work and pleasure of Savasana. "This is the time to go inside and find the spirit within," Palkhivala says.

Good luck, if you're anything like me.

"It's hard to stop the mind from wandering," Rosen concedes. "You have to continuously back off from your thoughts, from the stream of consciousness. Try to withdraw and look at them from above."

1,000 Ways to Die

The Savasana experience can be as diverse as the yogis who teach it. Maria, my teacher at Om Tara, creates a warm and comfortable atmosphere for Savasana in our Thursday classes. She draws the blinds, drapes us with blankets, places eye pillows on us, and after about five to eight minutes of darkness and silence, she gently guides us back from the inward experience of Corpse Pose to a full awareness of the room around us.

Jeff Logan, a certified intermediate level 1 Iyengar teacher, does it a bit differently at his studio, Body & Soul Fitness & Yoga Center in Huntington, New York. Savasana with him is peaceful but not quiet. He talks the class through Savasana in a way that is relaxing and, in the end, profound. Once everyone is corpselike, he begins to speak in a soothing voice. He has students scan their bodies, systematically releasing tension from jaws, arms, hands, abdomen, and legs. (As a marathon runner whose every muscle is often tight, fatigued, and holding on to yesterday's run, I'm grateful for this!) He has us relax our eyes into their sockets and encourages us to "let go" of our tongue, ears, and skin.

As he guides us from our internal experience back to the room around us, Jeff asks each of us to lie in a fetal position—"Like a newborn," he says. After he brings us up into a seated position, he invites us to open our eyes and greet the world around us like a reborn child.

This idea of Corpse Pose as a symbolic rebirth is intriguing. In Jeff's class, I ran with it. Like an infant, what I wanted to do now was eat. So, having thought about nothing, I started to calmly observe that I was thinking about lunch. Having successfully been a fidget-free corpse, I was ready to go about my day as an even more fully functioning, self-observing, live human being...with a little help from a well-done Savasana.

A Savasana to Die for

Follow Richard Rosen's nuanced instructions for what might appear to be a very simple pose, and feel your mind, body, and breath release deeply into Savasana.

Lie on your back and bring your body into as neutral a position as possible for you. Your brain experiences misalignment in Savasana as a disturbance, so the more you're able to bring yourself into balance, the more your brain will quiet down. Once this happens, what you normally perceive as the limits of your body start to soften and dissolve, and you begin to feel consciously expansive.

Place your arms by your sides at a 45-degree angle to your torso with your hands palms-up, each one resting on the same knuckle. Adjust your legs so that they're at equal angles from a midline drawn through your torso, with your heels only a few inches apart. Move your head so your ears are an equal distance from your shoulders and your eyes are an equal distance from the ceiling, so your head is not tilted or turned. The more you can bring your body into a neutral position, the more your brain can let go.

Once you're in a neutral position, make sure that your tongue is resting on the floor of your mouth. Your tongue has its own midline, so you want to be sure to spread the tongue from the midline out equally on both sides. Drop your eyes toward the back of their sockets. Soften your nose and deepen your ear canals so that you're listening to the sound of your breath from deep inside the back of your head. And finally, soften the skin of the bridge of your nose, or the space between your eyebrows.

Once you feel settled in your center and your organs of perception softening, visualize your brain inside your skull. Imagine that you can feel your brain shrinking, getting smaller and smaller, moving away from the inner lining of the skull. Then imagine your brain releasing onto the back of your head.

Keep your eyes as still as possible, resting in the back of their sockets. On your inhalation, receive the breath without effort. Feel your brain recede from your forehead and release toward the back of your head. On your exhalation, allow the breath to release gracefully.

For the next few minutes, it's important to stay as still and present as possible. Allow the mass of your body to sink onto the back of your body—onto your heels, your calves, your buttocks and torso, the backs of your arms, and the back of your head. Feel your connection to the floor and maintain an awareness of your breath and the ambient sounds from the room around you to keep you rooted to the present moment throughout your Savasana.

One way to gauge the time you might spend in Savasana is to plan to stay at least 5 minutes for every 30 minutes you've practiced. Otherwise, you can lie back and enjoy this delicious pose for 5 to 20 minutes.

Be guided into a deep Savasana using an audio recording of this practice at Heavenly Rest.

John Hanc writes for Newsday in New York and is a contributing editor to Runner's World magazine. He recently published his eighth book, The Coolest Race on Earth.