Help your students fully experience the benefits of Corpse Pose through the exploration of their anatomy.
Ahhhhh, Savasana. Our students so look forward to it. They just flop down on the floor, and deep relaxation overtakes them—right? This is the one pose, they hope, for which they don't have to process detailed instructions, or fuss with props other than a blanket for warmth.
Or do they?
Actually, with just a little attention to setting up the pose, our students' experience of rest and replenishment can be deepened. And who doesn't need to get maximum benefit from their rest time? So many of our students come to class exhausted and depleted that Savasana may be the most important pose we teach them. Not to mention the fact that if they leave class feeling relaxed and refreshed, they're more likely to make it a priority to get to class every week.
See alsoThe Subtle Struggle of Savasana
The Savasana Set-Up Counts
First, let's take a look at the big picture: How do your students place themselves in the room? Ideally, as the muscles relax in Savasana, the body should have room to spread freely on the floor, like an ice cube melting, losing its hard edges and forming a puddle. Any sense of being crowded by objects on the floor, or especially by another person, results in a subtle pulling-in action—there won't be complete letting go. Similarly, any body part touching a wall limits the sense of room to expand and leaves a subtle sense of compression rather than expansion. You may have to scan the room and invite students to move from a crowded area to one with more open space.
Now that your students are evenly spaced around the room, how can you help them use props to deepen their relaxation? It's important to remember that any pain, or even discomfort, results in muscle guarding and tension. So students will greatly appreciate any positioning that will help relieve pain and lead to a deeper sense of letting go. Lower back pain associated with hyperextension (overarching of the spine) is usually eased by supported bent knees, whether by a rolled blanket under the knees or a chair under the calves. This strategy works by putting slack in shortened hip flexors, including by releasing the iliopsoas, so they don't tip the pelvis to the anterior and pull the lumbar spine forward into hyperextension. The knee-flexed position also decompresses the lower back and lengthens the muscles there. Conversely, students with a flat back, or those with lower back strain due to forward-bending activities such as yard work or housecleaning, might feel best with a small roll under the lower back to support the normal curve.
See also Watch + Learn: Corpse Pose
Fine-Tune Your Corpse Pose
As you scan the room, take a look at your students' head and neck position as well. When the chin is higher than the forehead, the neck is usually hyperextended, or overarched. Cervical hyperextension while lying supine may be due to tight, short pectoral muscles in the chest, or tight muscles in the neck, including the sternocleidomastoid in the front and the upper trapezius and levator scapula in the back. As in the lower back, hyperextension in the cervical spine can cause pain and discomfort due to tight muscles and compression of the small joints on the back of the vertebrae. This head and neck position is also relatively energizing (think backbend yoga poses) and invites the inner gaze to look up and out. Correct this position by placing a firm, folded blanket under the head and upper neck—not under the shoulders, which would push them forward. This lift under the head will drop the chin, lengthen the back of the neck, and invite the inner gaze down toward the heart.
And speaking of the heart, positioning your students with an open chest not only deepens their relaxation but also makes room for the heart to pump blood and the lungs to fill more freely and with less effort. Study your students as they lie on the floor. Many students set themselves up with their shoulders curling forward and in toward their chests, especially if their arms are pulled in close to their sides. The chest drops and, again, there's the sense of compression and a limit to the ability to expand. Instead, while your students are settling in to Savasana, ask them to place their arms in the 90/90 position, which means 90 degrees at the shoulder (humerus, or upper arm bone, is on the floor and sticking straight out from the side), while the elbow is also at 90 degrees (the forearms are on the floor and parallel to the body, and the hands are resting, palms-up, beside the head).
This 90/90 position places the shoulder blades in an optimal position, which remains as you ask your students to straighten their elbows and sliding the arms down a closer to their sides (but not touching the side ribs). Coming into the pose this way leaves the palms naturally turned up and the chest effortlessly open. The spacious chest makes an open heart possible, and in the relaxed comfort of Savasana, your student may deeply experience ahimsa, nonharming for all beings.
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ABOUT OUR EXPERT
Julie Gudmestad is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and licensed physical therapist who runs a combined yoga studio and physical therapy practice in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys integrating her Western medical knowledge with the healing powers of yoga to help make the wisdom of yoga accessible to all.