In which the soup pot rests, and the flavors meld.
—by Charlotte Bell
Back in the 1980s I regularly attended an hour-long early morning asana class. The class was usually vigorous, as morning classes often are. While I enjoyed starting my day with asana practice, I always felt a bit agitated—sometimes even a little nauseated—afterward. With only an hour, the teachers wanted to fit in as many poses as possible, which didn’t leave time for Savasana (Final Relaxation).
What drew me to yoga in the first place was the light, clear, quiet state of my body/mind that I felt after practice. Without Savasana, the early morning class felt like any other exercise class.
This is going to sound strange, but Savasana is probably the most challenging pose for most people. Not because of the position itself—lying on your back with the proper support is actually pretty sweet—but because it requires a lot of your mind: more presence, patience and attention. In other poses, we’re feeling sensations in our bodies that demand our attention. In Savasana, with little to no body drama, our minds tend to wander. We get bored. And there are few things we Westerners fear more than boredom.
I once heard meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein say, “We are all sensation junkies.” It’s true. Think about the films, music, sports and even ways of practicing asana that are most popular. They’re all about nonstop action, one strong sensation after another. In and of itself, sensation is not negative. The problem arises when we avoid quiet and subtlety, and are subsequently deprived of the opposites that bring equilibrium to our lives.
Savasana gives our bodies a chance to integrate the benefits of the asanas we’ve practiced. Judith Lasater says it takes our bodies 12 to 15 minutes in Savasana to come to physiological relaxation. That’s just the first stage. After that, we can move into pratyahara, that rarefied state where we hear sounds, feel the sensations in our bodies, smell whatever is in the air, but nothing that comes in through our senses disturbs our tranquility. As we deepen in pratyahara, we can taste the settling of our minds into silence, the definition of yoga.
Here’s my favorite metaphor for what Savasana does: When you cook a pot of soup or a batch of homemade tomato sauce, that soup or sauce always tastes better—more cohesive—after it’s been left to sit a while away from the fire. That down time allows the flavors to blend, to integrate. If you taste the soup before it has a chance to sit, often certain flavors will stand out—or even poke out—and can taste harsh. After resting, the flavors unify, each contributing a subtle essence that defines the whole.
Here’s how: Set yourself up so that you feel supported and comfortable. This can include a mat and/or blanket under your body, support under your head and/or under your knees if your low back is uncomfortable when you are supine, a blanket over you for warmth, and an eyebag to keep the light out. Lie on your back, arranging all your support props with care so that you don’t have to readjust them. Lie with your arms at about a 45-degree angle so that your armpits feel open and relaxed. Close your eyes, turn your palms up, and let your legs roll out comfortably.
Surrender your body to gravity. It can be helpful to mentally move through your body from head to toe, relaxing each body part as you become aware of it. Spend some time in your head, relaxing your brain, facial muscles and scalp, eyes, inner and outer ears, jaw, roots of your teeth, throat… then move down your torso and out into your limbs. Once you’ve moved through the whole body, settle your attention onto the wave of your breath as it moves your body from the inside. Let your mind be open to whatever sensations arise. There’s nothing you need to do. Just be.
When it’s time to come out, do so gradually. Bend your knees and roll onto either side. Rest there for a few breaths before returning to sitting.
In my home practice, I leave 15-25 minutes for Savasana. Sometimes I’m “cooked” in 15 minutes. Sometimes it takes 25. By “cooked,” I mean the state where my body feels more like a field of energy than a solid mass. My mind is fully present, but not sticking to thoughts. Thoughts may be floating through—most of the time they are—but awareness experiences them as part of the present moment, fleeting and transparent.
In yoga practice, Savasana is the most important pose. All the others we practice lead to it. As 2012 winds down, take time for Savasana. Give yourself some time out to integrate all you’ve learned and experienced in your yoga practice and in your daily life.