The Subtle Struggle of Savasana

Don't underestimate the art of relaxation. Savasana can be the most difficult pose of your practice.
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Don't underestimate the art of relaxation. Savasana can be the most difficult pose of your practice.
savasana corpse pose

Although it looks easy, Savasana (Corpse Pose) has been called the most difficult of the asanas. Indeed, many yoga students who can happily balance, bend, and twist through the rest of class struggle with just lying on the floor. The reason is that the art of relaxation is harder than it looks. It doesn't happen on demand: You can't just say, "OK, I'm going to relax, right now!" (Just ask the millions of Americans who have trouble falling asleep at night.) That's why Savasana is such a gift. The pose sets up the conditions that allow you to gradually enter a truly relaxed state, one that is deeply refreshing in itself and that also can serve as a starting point for meditation.

When you first start practicing Savasana, it can be a struggle to relax in the pose; you may lie there feeling tense and staring at the ceiling. Or, like some students, you might fall asleep the moment you lie down. The essence of Savasana is to relax with attention, that is, to remain conscious and alert while still being at ease. Remaining aware while relaxing can help you begin to notice and release long-held tensions in your body and mind.

Savasana is a practice of gradually relaxing one body part at a time, one muscle at a time, and one thought at a time.When you do this practice day after day, it conditions the body to release stress and can improve your sense of physical and emotional well-being. But when you have allowed tightness and tension to build up in your body, relaxing—even when you lie down—feels impossible. That's why it's important to practice the other, active asanas before attempting Savasana because they stretch, open, and release tension in the muscles. They also help relax the diaphragm, so the breath can move freely.

Working with props to support one part of the body at a time can help you learn to consciously relax and refine your practice of Savasana. Elevating the calves on a support (see Step 1) relaxes the legs, which can become fatigued from yoga practice, exercise, standing long hours, or even from sitting too long. This variation also improves circulation and releases tension in the back muscles, allowing you to rest more deeply in your Savasana. Elevating the back and supporting the head, on the other hand (see Step 2), helps to open your chest, release the shoulders, and enhance the natural flow of the breath. If your energy or mood is low or if you hold a lot of tension in your upper back and shoulders, this variation will be good for you. Observe the breath as you practice. Spend several minutes here taking long and even breaths. You may notice that your brain becomes quiet and your thoughts slow down, allowing your mind to become clear and focused.

In the full version of the pose, you will rest your entire body on the floor. Extend your arms and legs outward from the torso evenly and symmetrically. Mentally scan the body from head to feet, gradually releasing each body part and each muscle group; take time to notice all the places where the body is making contact with the floor. With each exhalation, imagine each limb getting a little heavier and spreading out a little more.
If you feel uncomfortable in any part of your body, you may need further support. Use props to relieve any pressure and release tension so you can fully relax. Lying flat on the floor is an unusual experience and can feel strange at first, so be patient with yourself. Over time, you'll enjoy it more. Even if you feel like moving, try to stay there for a few minutes until it becomes easier. Gradually notice that a feeling of complete stillness draws you inside. You may notice that the breath has become quiet and almost invisible.

When coming out of Savasana, first take a few deep breaths. Give yourself a few moments to regain physical awareness of your arms and legs, and then slowly move your body with gentle attention.

A regular practice of Savasana will train you again and again in the art of relaxation, an essential quality for meditation and a true experience of yoga. As you release your physical body, you may even discover another part of yourself that is light and free.
Nikki Costello is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher living in New York City.

Prepare for Rest

Practicing Savasana before sleeping can promote deep, quality sleep. Position yourself in bed using the same points of alignment and supports you use for Savasana on your mat. Spend several minutes in the pose relaxing your mind.

Step 1: Support Your Legs on a Chair

Relax your back and relieve your legs.

Set It Up:

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1. Place your mat in front of a chair or couch.

2. Lie in the center of your mat with your knees bent.

3. Lift your legs, and place the back of your calves on the chair or couch.

4. Rest the back of the arms on the floor with the palms facing upward.

Refine: Adjust your support if necessary to be sure the entire calf, supported equally. Place a blanket under your head and neck (all the way to your shoulders) so that you can drop your chin and direct your gaze downward toward your heart. If you wear glasses, remove them. Place a cloth over your eyes. Turn the upper arm so that skin rolls away from the chest, and gently tuck the shoulder blades in toward your back so the center of the chest is broad and lifted. Be sure no part of the ;arm is touching the torso.

Finish: Relax the back muscles by allowing them to spread from the center out to the sides. Bring your attention to the whole back, feeling the back ribs in contact with the floor. With each inhalation, notice the back ribs spreading and the lungs filling. With each exhalation, notice them contracting. See if you can feel the floor with all parts of your back, from the pelvis to the head.

Step 2: Support Your Back and Head with Folded Blankets

Open your chest and observe your breath.

Set It Up:

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1. Place a bolster or a stack of folded blankets vertically on your mat and another folded blanket where your head will rest.

2. Lie back on the bolster or blankets with your knees bent.

3. Place the folded blanket under your head and neck.

4. Extend your legs one at a time.

5. Check that each leg is equal distance from the midline of your body.

Refine: Be sure the blanket is under the entire neck, all the way to your shoulders. If you wear glasses, remove them now. Place a cloth over your eyes before adjusting your arms. Extend the arms at the sides. The arms should be far enough away from the torso to allow the upper inner arm to roll away from the chest. Keep your armpit area open and the shoulders releasing down toward the floor. Spread and open the palms and fingers, and then allow the back of the hand to soften and rest on the floor.

Finish: Bring your attention to your breath. Simply notice the natural flow of your breath coming in and going out. For several minutes, observe the breath and focus on filling the lungs evenly, right and left. Consciously expand the chest both upward and outward as you inhale; release the breath slowly and smoothly. The practice of breathing consciously, using this support, will have a soothing and calming effect on your nervous system.

Final Pose: Savasana

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Set It Up:

1. Lie on your back with your knees bent.

2. Keep your head centered, not allowing it to fall to either side.

3. Extend your arms to the sides.

Refine: If you'd like to use a blanket under your head or something over your eyes, prepare that before adjusting the arms. Turn the upper inner arms away from the trunk, and gently tuck the shoulder blades in, bringing a little lift to the chest. Do this without overarching the lower back. Maintain the arm position, and then stretch the legs out one by one. Allow the inner legs to roll outward and relax completely.

Finish:Allow your breath to flow smoothly in and out. Close your eyes and relax the facial muscles, beginning with the forehead and eyelids. Then relax the cheeks, lips, and tongue. (Relaxing your tongue will release tension in the face, which has a direct effect on the brain and mind.) Relax the throat and neck. Continue to bring attention to each part of the body, consciously relaxing each part, starting with the head and traveling all the way down to your feet. When the physical body is still and at rest, the breath naturally draws you inward toward the essence of yourself. Rest with a spacious feeling of light in your heart.

Optimize Your Pose

Explore these modifications of Savasana:

  • To relax the eyes and mind: Gently place a cloth or eye bag over your eyes to block out the light and relax the pupils.
  • To relax the abdomen: Place a sandbag, block, or a few blankets horizontally across your lower abdomen.
  • To support your neck: Place a folded blanket or cushion under your neck and head until your forehead is slightly higher than your chin.
  • To relax the lower back: Place a rolled-up blanket or cushion beneath your knees.

Elements of Practice

We are used to engaging our muscles and our brains to achieve our goals, yet in Savasana, we must become equally skilled at letting all that activity go in order for the pose's beneficial effects to arise. It's hard to let go of the idea that everything important happens when you are moving and taking action. Yet a deeper part of yourself waits for those moments when you are completely relaxed to reveal its truth. A feeling of connection, clarity, all-knowingness, love, or joy may arise from this state of ease and relaxation—a taste of what meditation offers.