Yoga is primarily thought of as a type of movement, but yoga is more than that. These notes aim to expand your knowledge beyond the physical practice of yoga and provide “stretches for your mind and soul.” The stillest of yoga poses, savasana, provides the clearest connection between the physical and mental benefits of a consistent practice.
How do you play Cemetary?
A favorite childhood game was Cemetery. Everyone but the cemetery watchman would play dead and the watchman watched for anyone who moved the slightest bit. If you did, you were out. The last one who successfully maintained stillness (or at least undetected movement) got to be the watchman in the next round.
My siblings and I quickly learned that lying on the stomach better protected your interest – eyelids flickered and regularly caused elimination. Occasionally, someone would actually fall asleep and snoring would be cause for dismissal, too.
Yes, my mother was brilliant to teach the five of us a game in which to win you had to be quiet and still. But we enjoyed the game immensely and played it all the time and even shared the game with playmates. As rowdy and lively as we could be (and we could be!), we were naturally drawn to this game of being still and quiet.
What is savasana?
Most yoga classes end with shava-asana or savasana, which means corpse pose. The object is to play dead (but on your back, not your stomach)
In this asana, you lie flat on your back with the feet slightly parted and the palms face up. The eyes and the mouth are closed. Sounds simple? The goal is to then relax the entire body with a slow, rhythmic breath that engages the diaphragm. Most find this challenging.
In fact, in a study on the medical effects of savasana, three weeks passed before the subjects adequately mastered this pose for the evaluation to begin. The tendency to hold onto tension is difficult to relinquish. Some area of the physical body throbs for attention. And once you master the relaxation of the physical body, the mind rattles on and beyond. In this pose, you strive to quiet and subside the consciousness.
All yogis – even advanced ones – encounter days when relaxing the body or mind is very difficult.
Often times, in this still, quiet pose emotions arise. One of my yoga teachers shared that tears arose every time she did savasana one summer. Her relationship was ending, and by August, she was ready to do what was true to her heart. All the savasanas allowed her heart to speak to her mind so she could act with clarity and allocated time for mourning so she could act with courage.
So why do we do savasana?
Iyengar says we do this at the end of our practice to remove fatigue.
This conscious relaxation invigorates and refreshes both the body and mind. (Light on Yoga, p. 422).
The pose also serves to transition out of the practice of yoga back to the rest of your life. In a lovely essay by poet Tara Bray, she searches for the origin of corpse pose while she reflects on the death of her mother. (Shambhala Sun, July 2003) I think she uncovered some truths about the pose:
- Death shows us how to live and then we die. Savasana: we stop, and we remember who we are.
- Mystery. Perhaps that’s the answer…Trust in what cannot be completely known. Mystery. Savasana. Death.
- And maybe Savasana is like coming to the edge, the border between one world and another so you can remember what it means to be alive.
In savasana, you achieve ease, lucidity and as Bray put it, There [in Savasana] is a certain vividness. The pose may be outwardly still, but the inside is fluid and all sorts of wonders arise.