The Meaning of SAVASANA: The Art of Doing Nothing
Explore the deeper meaning of savasana in asana practice, the reason why you move into the fetal position before returning from your mat as well as guided meditations and gentle music tracks for your savasana practice.
When your yoga class comes to an end and the teacher invites everyone to lie down in Savasana, what runs through your mind? For some, those few minutes of stillness are an opportunity to relax and re-set before entering back into a busy life. For others, lying in Savasana or ‘corpse pose’ as it not-so-soothingly translates, invites a sudden stream of thoughts and worries, ruminations about work deadlines and the inevitable “what shall I make for dinner?” inner voice. For you, does Savasana represent a few minutes of relaxation, an inconvenient addition to your practice, or a posture wherein you actively practice what my friend and founder of The Movement (a hybrid online yoga studio and soon-to-be studio in Sussex) Emily Scott calls The Art of Doing Nothing. She says; “Savasana is sometimes known as corpse pose, but I think of it as stillness plus presence. There’s a power in the stillness as we continue to tune in, watch ourselves, let the ground fully hold us, and reap the benefits of doing absolutely nothing”.
Savasana was introduced to encourage the mind and body into a state of relaxation and recovery.
When the physical practice of yoga began – arguably some 5,000 years ago – the postures looked very different to the shapes we might recognise in class today, and the intention behind many of them was different too. Especially within the Tantra tradition, the focus was on the energetic effects of each shape, movement and breathing technique. Back then, the majority of known postures focussed upon raising energy, and other vigorous methods such as kappalabhati (‘skull-shining breath’), Bellows Breath, or kriyas like ‘Nauli’ (a technique involving using the abdominal muscles to ‘churn’ the stomach) looked to cleanse and purify the body’s physical and energetic channels. At the end of these forceful practices (in many contexts, Hatha Yoga translates as the ‘yoga of force’),
Definition - Meaning of Savasana
Savasana, or shavasana (Śavāsana), is a restorative asana that is a key component of yoga. It usually follows vinyasa or is practiced near the end of a yoga session.
To enter the pose, the body lies face-up on the ground. The legs are comfortably spread and the arms are relaxed alongside the body with the palms facing either up or down.
The term comes from the Sanskrit shava, meaning “corpse,” and asana, meaning “pose” or “posture.” The common English name for savasana is corpse pose.
Why Savasana is so important?
Absorb the benefits of practice: Savasana allows the body to absorb and integrate the benefits of your practice into your muscle memory, mind and nervous system. It allows the physical body (heart rate, blood pressure etc) and nervous system to return to baseline. It also feeds into our practice. Savasana is kind of like the pause button on your remote control, it gives your body time to absorb all of those wonderful poses you just did. It also enables you to bring your asana (poses) into your self-awareness via meditation. Savasana is a form of meditation. However, if you are one of the aforementioned people who don’t like it or your mind wanders, it may not feel like it.
Benefits of Svasana
While the asana requires less physical strength and flexibility, it challenges the mind and body in so many different ways. Savasana has:
- Mental benefits – Practice will increase body awareness and interoception. Interoception is insight on the physiological condition of the body and is associated with the autonomic nervous system and autonomic motor control.
- Physical benefits – Muscular and skeletal tension is consciously relaxed in this pose. Over a longer savasana, surface tightness melts away and exposes deeper layers of stress in the muscles.
- Spiritual benefits – Savasana is often the closing and final asana in practice, and it is a great time to channel energy inward to restore and revitalize the hardworking mind and body. Savasana provides an opportunity to explore the fifth limb of yoga: pratyahara. Very simplified, pratyahara is withdrawing from the senses and gaining mastery over external influences.
Why is savasana the hardest pose?
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.
Death As Part of Life
The first known mention of Savasana is in the 15th century text the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which says; “lying full length on the back like a corpse is called Shavasana. With this asana, tiredness caused by other asanas is eliminated; it also promotes calmness of the mind.” To refer to a ‘corpse’ is something Western practitioner tend to shy away from – our relationship with death, dying and the mystery of what may lie beyond is something so many of us are shielded from throughout childhood, meaning that when we have to deal with the passing of friends and relatives in later life we have no point of reference or tools to deal with it. Though it’s the only part of life we can really guarantee, we tend to spend much of the time in denial of it, thus adding more suffering to the process. In the East however, death is openly discussed and accepted. Death rituals and ceremonies are often public and seen as a common celebration in India, and in many parts of Asia, it’s not the death that is mourned, but the life well lived that is celebrated. Whilst we may not all choose to contemplate death whilst lying in Savasana, the posture can serve as a way to redefine our relationship with life; honouring all beginnings and ends, the necessary cycles of ups and downs, light and dark, and the opportunity to engage more with each day we have here.
Accepting Tiredness & Choosing To Stop
Something else we can learn from other cultures is the practice of taking regular breaks to rest when needed. From the Spanish siesta and the riposo in Northern Italy, to the hour-long post-lunch nap in China that is seen as a constitutional right; these cultures have normalised the practice of resting. Whilst taking naps and pausing to rest is a cultural norm in many parts of the world, in the US and the UK, we seem to have adopted the “you can sleep when you’re dead” ideal first coined by Benjamin Franklin. Resting or admitting the need to rest has for so long been a taboo subject amongst the ever-growing demographic with an ‘achievement’ mindset. Emily says; “In this fast-paced modern world, it is often easier to move quickly, flow faster, and stay in motion than it is to be still. Most of us are conditioned to push through our days, to grip our muscles to do more, and to not stop moving because we have so much to get done. We often find it difficult to ‘do nothing.’ But maybe doing nothing is the greatest gift we can give ourselves and Savasana is the perfect opportunity. Savasana is a chance to let the physical practice and the breathwork we’ve done start to settle and integrate deep in our being. It’s a chance to discharge the nervous system, reset and truly rest”.
The Art of Doing Nothing
How many times have you felt tired, exhausted or empty, but refused to let yourself rest? How many times have you felt the need to stop, nap or simply sit, but completely ignored this need in the pursuit of completing your to do list? With instant messaging, overflowing email inboxes, and an ever-demanding work and social schedule, there’s always something to be done, finished, achieved or improved upon.
Rest is a dirty word, slowing down is for the weak, and not getting enough sleep earns coveted badges of honour. Whilst we may be advancing as a society in leaps and bounds in terms of scientific discoveries, technological inventions and the ability to communicate across thousands of miles at the touch of a button, we’re moving backwards when it comes to contentment, stillness, quietness and self-acceptance. We’re moving backwards when it comes to listening to our innate needs and responding to them appropriately and naturally.
Maybe you allow yourself stillness and recuperation, maybe you know yourself, your mind and body, and what they require, and thankfully, the practice of actively choosing to do nothing is being championed by the wellness world more and more today.
Make friends with death: There is so much fear around the inevitable death we all face, yet Savasana is peaceful and unintimidating, there we can acknowledge our own transience.
When we’re tired, mood levels deteriorate rapidly, insulin resistance is compromised, and our ability to transform food to energy basically disappears along with any hope of having balanced hormones. Adrenal glands work overtime, and eventually we stop living and loving life and instead merely try to get through the day. What would happen however, if we just stopped? Stopped obsessing over fitting into clothes one size smaller, stopped trying to look like what we assume is ‘perfect’, stopped trying to win the productivity prize, the best mother award? What if we stopped trying to be anything other than the most raw and honest, natural version of ourselves? If we took more moments to stop completely – whether it be for a nap on the sofa, a meditation session, a moment of peace with a cup of tea, or within those minutes in Savasana at the end of a yoga class – perhaps we’d be able to tap into the deeper meaning behind the simple act of lying on the ground: to be still, to rest, to calm the mind, to hone the skill and practice The Art of Doing Nothing….
Tips to do Savasana
- Detach from judgment, stop being hard on yourself for thinking! It’s natural, it is not going to stop, but you can become an observer and not follow your thoughts.
- Adding on from above, simply label what is happening internally as ‘thoughts’ or ‘thinking’ they will lose their power and releasing them becomes easier.
- Focus on the breath just as you do in your poses, focus on the physical sensation of the belly rising and falling, or the feel of the breath at the nostrils, or you can count the length of the in and out breaths.