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Teaching Yoga

Sink into Stillness

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You rest on your mat, palms facing up, feet splayed apart. Energy pulses through your limbs. Your breath slows down as the cool air on your skin, the gentle weight of the wool blanket on your body, and the sound of buzzing traffic outside pervade your senses. Hovering in the magical realm between sleep and wakefulness, you settle into Savasana, the Corpse Pose, and a gentle smile melts across your face.

For many yoga students, Savasana reigns as the dessert of their class experience. The deliciousness of relaxed stillness offers the perfect counterpose to busy lives. You want your students to get the most out of Savasana as possible, but if you teach often it’s easy to get stuck in the same Savasana routine. Drawing from the wisdom of different yoga traditions may help you incorporate moments of meditative rest more effectively.

The Profundity of Stillness

Sava means corpse in Sanskrit, and Savasana is a preparation for a conscious death in which supreme consciousness that is everywhere and in everything is released,” says Suzie Hurley, Senior Certified Anusara Yoga teacher and director of Willow Street Yoga in Takoma Park, Maryland.

By emulating a corpse through conscious relaxation, one symbolically dies in order to be born anew. During Savasana we have the opportunity to relinquish our individual limitations in order to merge with a power greater than ourselves.

“Savasana is where people are most likely to experience the meaning of yoga, which is their conscious unity with Infinity,” says Erich Schiffman, author of Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness and a teacher at Exhale Center for Sacred Movement in Venice, California. “You lie there and look dead, but as you relax and sink into the feeling of the very alive energy that is being you, it literally feels like you come to life again.”

Before, During, or After?

Usually, people think of Savasana as the final pose of a class—as Schiffman notes, it’s “a time when the effects of the poses can soak in.

However, not all schools of yoga agree that it has to be at the end of the practice session.

“Performed at the beginning of a session, it is a way of settling into the feeling of peace so your practice comes from a centered place,” Schiffman says.

In the Bihar/Satyananda tradition, Savasana is often used before asana to release tension so that movements can be more conscious and integrated.

When Savasana comes first, asana practice goes from being “just a physical exercise to a meditative process with a quality of deep relaxation and presence,” says Swami Karma Karuna, a Bihar/Satyananda teacher and the founding director of Anahata Yoga Retreat in New Zealand.

Others choose to intersperse Savasana between other poses, as a reminder to relax on an ongoing basis.

Janice Gates, author of Yogini, the Power of Women in Yoga and the president of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, teaches in the Krishnamacharya lineage, with an emphasis on the meditative and therapeutic aspects of practice. In this tradition, one teaches Savasana during yoga practice as a way to rest between poses to regain energy and alertness.

Gates translates this into her teaching by asking students to pause between groups of postures to allow students to tune into subtle changes and to move into the next group of postures more engaged and mindful.

Measure Your Words

No matter where you place Savasana in your classes, the tone and volume of your voice, as well as your word choice, can either coax your students into stillness or exacerbate their tensions. Therefore, it’s imperative to choose what you say—and what you don’t say—carefully.

“Everything I say is geared toward helping someone immerse themselves in their conscious ‘now’ experience, to help them relax out of their incessant thinking into the awesome experience of the energy that they are,” Schiffman says.

For Sharon Gannon, cofounder of the Jivamukti Yoga method, this translates into having students silently say with the inhalation, “Not my will,” and with the exhalation, “But Thy will be done.”

“In this way,” she says, “the student offers the small self, the self of personality, to the higher Self, that which is eternal, boundless joy.”

Gates opts to give very brief guidance into Savasana at the end of class. She simply invites students to release the weight of their bones into the earth and to feel the support of the earth beneath them. Sometimes she also reminds them to release their jaws and soften their tongues and the eyes. Then she leaves her students to enjoy silence.

“I find if there is too much talking through Savasana, it becomes one more thing to follow, to do correctly,” she explains. “The pose is essentially about undoing and simply being.”

Getting Comfortable: Adjustments and Props

In addition to words and silence, there are other tools you can use to better ease your students into deep rest.

Gannon has developed her own aromatherapy lavender lotion to invite her students to calm during Savasana.

“Even in a large class at a conference venue, I try to touch every person and either give them a yogic neck massage or a foot massage,” she says.

Hurley finds that physical adjustments, especially those geared toward releasing the shoulders and lower back, make students more comfortable and, therefore, more relaxed.

In general, students can find a relaxed posture when you guide them to settle into a relaxed, symmetrical position. If you still notice discomfort in a student, consider offering props such as eye pillows, a blanket, or a bolster under their knees. Whatever adjustments you offer, be sure to do so during the first few minutes so that students then have a chance to sink into the pose uninterrupted.

Gates, advises teachers not to adjust students if they look comfortable and aligned.

Otherwise, she says “Allow students to rest in silence. Endless adjustments, can be distracting and rob students of the opportunity to connect with something deeper within themselves. Any unnecessary touch could take them out of that peaceful state that it has taken many of them the entire class to journey into.”

Pointers for Promoting Peace

Before teaching your next class, make a commitment to yourself to honor the power of Savasana. Whether you choose to offer the pose before, during, or at the end of class, keep in mind the following tips to better ease your students into stillness:

  • Stay Present: Don’t leave the room and come back when Savasana is over, Schiffman urges. Swami Karma Karuna suggests keeping your eyes open to be aware of what is happening in the room and not to fall asleep!
  • Value Your Voice: Vary the volume, tempo, and tone of your voice to both relax students and keep them alert as they slip into the state between sleeping and waking. Gates also suggests that you speak loudly enough so that your students can hear you clearly.
  • Set the Mood: Darkness has an immediate positive effect on one’s ability to relax, says Gannon. Draw the curtains. Play soft, meditative music or rest in silence. Turn off or dim the lights.
  • Be Spacious: Allow at least seven to 10 minutes at the end of class for Savasana. Guide students back to a seated position and gradually introduce light again. Engage students in appropriate conversation to gently bring them to alertness at the end of class before sending them out into the world.
  • Set the Context: For students who have a hard time keeping still, Schiffman suggests instructing them to find a comfortable position in which they won’t need to move for several minutes. Let students know that if they need to leave early, they should leave before Savasana, not during.
  • Offer Solace: When a student has an emotional release during Savasana, walk over to them quietly let them know that you are nearby. If it then feels appropriate place your hands under the student’s head or on her shoulders so that she feels your silent support.

By honoring a sacred space for deep rest, you offer your students the opportunity for a direct experience of union.

“You aren’t just relaxing your muscles,” Schiffman says, “You’re sliding into a conscious experience of what God feels like right there where you are. This is profound and will change the way you think about yourself and others.”