By Katelyn Gingras
When I first started practicing yoga, I had no idea what the significance of śavāsana was. All I knew was that after a hot and sweaty hot yoga class, I loved that I had the opportunity to lay on the ground and do nothing for a few minutes. Looking back, even though I wasn’t consciously aware of its importance, I benefited from those few minutes immensely, maybe even more so than the entire 50 minutes of dynamic movement.
In the Western world, there is such a heavy focus on “hustle culture”. We are so often encouraged and rewarded for being so busy that we can’t even stop to think, let alone rest. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I loved śavāsana so much. It was one of the only opportunities in my life at the time when I, a.) could unapologetically lay on the floor without guilt (because someone else was telling me that it was ok to do so) and b.) could consciously and intentionally rest.
Now, years later, with a moderate amount of self-study and a 200hr yoga teacher training behind me, I have a deeper understanding of śavāsana and the importance of it within the context of a yoga practice. While I’m going to share some of what I’ve learned with you here, please know that it isn’t always necessary to have a cognitive or intellectual understanding of something for it to benefit you in some way. As I’ve learned through my yoga practice, so much can be revealed to you through consistency and first-hand experience.
Śavāsana is a Sanskrit word that can be broken up into two parts. Śava, meaning corpse, and āsana, meaning seat or posture. An alternative name is mrtasana, where mṛta means death in Sanskrit. Now, you might be thinking, “that sounds kind of morbid”, but when the mind becomes clear and thinking falls away our identities fall away with it. We become no one, with no to-do lists or obligations, no conflicts or celebrations, no time or space, just presence. This is the essence of yoga, the union of mind, body, and spirit, where we’re able to realize that we are not our thoughts or the story we’ve built around our personalities. Some might even compare this experience to that of a little death or the death of our ego’s. When I refer to the ego, I don’t mean ego defined as an inflated sense of self, but ego, as defined by the part of our being that is associated with a separate sense of self. Ego, as the individual “I” that exists separately from everything around us. This is where we can glimpse some of the greatest gifts that the practice has to offer us. But how do we get there?
In the physical practice of yoga, it is through asana (postures) that we are attempting to purify and remove blockages within our energetic body to allow prana (energy) to flow freely within us. When we lay on our backs at the end of practice, we allow all the prana within our bodies, that has shifted and changed within us from pose to pose, to settle and integrate into our tissues. Śavāsana, as stated in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika written by Svatmarama, is defined as “Lying on the back on the ground like a corpse ... It removes fatigue and gives rest to the mind.” (Svatmarama, 2002, p. 26). What I interpret this to mean is that the purpose of śavāsana is to restore the body to a state of vitality and to calm the turbulence of the mind. While this clear and concise statement simplifies the purpose of the posture, it is certainly easier said than done.
There’s a good reason why śavāsana is often touted to be the most difficult posture to master in the yoga world. Many people struggle to find the necessary stillness in their bodies when practicing this pose, let alone stillness in their minds. Also, a certain degree of concentration or focusing one’s attention is needed, and to do that, one needs to be relaxed. I don’t know about you, but relaxation is not high on my list of qualities as of late. And I think that we live in a world where one needs to have a certain degree of privilege and ability to be able to relax at all. However, it is a huge accomplishment to be able to do so in this pose and you can receive so many mental and physical benefits if you’re able to settle in.
It can take a lot of time and practice to enter a state that allows the mind to rest in śavāsana. So, be easy on yourself if you feel frustrated if your thoughts won’t stop racing, and you struggle to find serenity. You can’t bully or shame yourself into relaxing, a little self-compassion can go a long way. If you’d like, you can try out these two simple techniques that may eventually allow you to relax long enough to find moments of pause between your thoughts while practicing this pose.
The first technique you can use is a body scan. As a disclaimer, not everyone responds well to focusing on the sensations they experience in their bodies, therefore this approach can have the opposite of the desired effect. In this case, focusing on external stimuli may be more helpful, such as sounds or smells. However, for many it is an incredibly effective method that starts by focusing the attention on the crown of the head, just noticing any sensation. No need to fix or change anything, just slowly moving the attention to the face, around the eyes and mouth, and down the neck. Then moving into the upper limbs, the shoulders, arms, forearms, hands, and fingers. Then to the front side of the body, the chest, and abdomen. Then to the backside of the body, the upper back, and lower back. To the hips and buttocks, and then down the legs, past the knees, the ankles, feet, and toes. In the end, taking a moment to tune in to the entire body as a field of sensation, and the feeling of it resting on the ground supporting it.
Another technique is to allow your body to breathe itself and watching it do so with your attention. What this means is that you refrain from consciously controlling the breath in any way, almost like noticing your breathing from out of the corner of your eye. Surrendering to the natural rhythm and flow of your body’s breath cycles. You are alert and aware of the breath, but not so fixated as to create tension in the body or mind. Continually bringing your attention back to this as your focus when you notice the mind wander.
As with any other asana, śavāsana can become easier with time, patience, and practice. Although it may appear as though you’re “doing nothing”, the benefits of mind, body, and spirit are immense. It’s not uncommon, when done often enough, to have moments of clarity or for aspects of our subconscious to be uncovered to us in this state of mind. I hope you’ll take the time to cultivate this important part of the yoga practice for yourself, and that you’ll come to experience its gifts firsthand.
Svatmarama, Swami. (2002). The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (B. D. Akers, Trans.). Yogavidya.com. (Original work published ca. 15th century C.E.).