How is your stress level lately?
Since 1966, when B.K.S. Iyengar wrote in Light on Yoga that “The stresses of modern civilization are a strain on the nerves for which śavāsana is the best antidote” (page 424), those stresses may have intensified for many of us, making savasana even more vital now.
“An entire class of savasana or restorative poses is often what the 21st-century citizen needs to counterbalance an urban life, but we 21st-century urbanites are often addicted instead to the heavy sensation of deep stretch, so we want a highly stimulative class,” says Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains.
Given our craving for intense stimulation, surrendering to savasana may not always be easy, but understanding the value of the pose may help to coax us in. I asked some experts for their thoughts. Here’s what Myers, Dr. Timothy McCall (“The Yoga Doctor”), Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Spiritual Head of the Himalayan Institute, Yogarupa Rod Stryker of Parayoga, Noah Mazé, co-founder of The Mazé Method, and Anjali Sunita of Baltimore Yoga Village had to say about savasana’s benefits and their suggestions for ways to make it more inviting.
“The main benefit of savasana,” says Myers, “is an act of self-remembering, a chance for the nervous system to appreciate the changes wrought by the exercise, for proprioception, interoception, and the autonomic balance to restore itself.”
This self-remembering may be possible because of the profound relaxation savasana offers. According to Dr. McCall, a physician specializing in internal medicine and author of , who can be seen on the YouTube channel Ask the Yoga Doctor, “The relaxation in savasana is deeper than the relaxation of just lying down on a couch; this has been shown in scientific studies. You go more deeply into toning the parasympathetic nervous system, getting into that rest-and-digest mode, that restorative mode, in savasana.”
Savasana offers a chance to release any tightness your body is holding onto despite, or even because of, your yoga practice. Noah Mazé says, “Savasana helps you release residual tension. This way you don’t carry all that tension into your next activities or train your body that it always has to be ready to go go go.” According to Mazé, “Even a short savasana can leave you feeling deeply rested and refreshed.”
What the Science Says
“Very few yoga studies study yoga poses in isolation,” McCall says. For instance, while the benefits of yoga have been documented as improvements in overall well-being and feelings of relaxation, it is not clear exactly which benefits derive from which poses. “So we mostly don’t know what individual yoga poses do; then again, we use them together.”
One study that looked at savasana specifically is Chandra Patel’s “Yoga and Biofeedback in Hypertension,” which appeared in The Lancet in 1973. In it, subjects with high blood pressure practiced savasana three times a week for 20 minutes, receiving biofeedback to let them know how deeply they were relaxing. “What she found was impressive,” says McCall. Not only did blood pressure drop notably for those who practiced savasana, but, as Patel’s follow-up the next year revealed, “Most of those drops in blood pressure were maintained by people who learned how to do savasana.”
Until there is more scientific support affirming savasana in particular, McCall says that we can “look to tradition, look to our own experience, and that experience suggests that savasana is indeed a very valuable practice and probably shouldn’t be skipped.”
Looking to Tradition: Historical and Spiritual Perspectives
Considered a modern-day master and living link in the unbroken Himalayan Tradition, Pandit Tigunait, who holds doctorates in Sanskrit and Oriental Studies, speaks to the history of savasana. "For ages, yogis have used savasana to calm the nervous system, energize the body, and revitalize the mind.”
According to Tigunait, savasana even provides a gateway to further spiritual development by attuning us to the body’s energies: “The spiritual benefit of savasana lies in an ever-increasing sensitivity to pranic flow. This sensitivity opens the door to the mystical/esoteric dimension of yoga.”
Yogarupa Rod Stryker, who has studied with Tigunait, also sees savasana as benefiting the subtle body. “Resting in savasana at the end of class may be the single most important asana when it comes to the physical practice of yoga,” says Stryker. “Throughout a class, the physical postures help to unblock the flow of prana (life force). The result is that the organs, nervous system, and brain are all nourished. This has a profound impact on the mind. However, these benefits do not fully blossom unless you rest. Only then do these energies become fully balanced and absorbed.” In savasana, “The mind experiences itself becoming absorbed into something greater than itself—shifting from fragmentation to unification—imbuing it with an experience of its source.”
Anjali Sunita, founder and director of Baltimore Yoga Village and Village Life Wellness, teaches in various traditions but has roots in the Sivananda ashrams, where savasana is key. In that tradition, the pose is integrated several times throughout the class. (Indeed, savasana is the subject of the entire sixth chapter of The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Sivananda progenitor Swami Vishnudevananda.) Sunita elaborates on savasana’s impact on the subtle body: “In those spaces of deep rest, we can also feel the energetic effect or imprint of the postures, how the prana moved, sometimes what organs were rushed with blood flow, what acupressure (marma) points were stimulated or opened.”
According to Sunita, in combination with devotional practices and the philosophical study, and perhaps with some help from divine grace, “One discovers that asana, including savasana, is not separate from meditation and meditation is not separate from daily life.”
Tigunait adds, “This seemingly simple relaxation technique is so profound that tradition considers it a foundation for practicing [tantric] disciplines such as prana vidya, agni vidya, and sri vidya. It is important to remember that just as life begins by taking simple breaths, profound practices of tantra and yoga can begin with savasana. Even in its beginning stage, savasana furnishes all the prerequisites for yoga nidra and meditative techniques leading to ."
Increasing Ease in Savasana
If, after exploring savasana’s benefits, you would like to make the pose a priority but find relaxing into it a challenge, there are a few things that you can do to make savasana more inviting, and even more valuable.
1. Pronounce it correctly.
The relaxation savasana conjures may well begin with the sound of the word. Mazé notes that the initial “s” is often mispronounced. “Śava means ‘a corpse, dead body,’ i.e., a restful state. The seed sound “ś” of śava is the same as the initial sound of śānti (peace, rest, calmness of mind).
“‘Shhh’ is the calming sound that helps a person relax,” he says. “It is not the same as the ‘sss’ of a snake.”
Experiment: Does softening the initial “s” set the stage for quiet, and make the pose even more inviting?
2. Do something active first.
Exertion before savasana pays off, McCall tells us. “One thing we do know from scientific research is that the relaxation will be deeper if first you’ve done something to, so to speak, burn off some of the steam.”
The exact reason for that, McCall hypothesizes, is that, “For one thing, if your mind is going a hundred miles an hour, you may not be able to relax at all in savasana, and sometimes a more exerting yoga practice can help you get to that place of relaxation.”
Experiment: Would upping the intensity of practice before savasana help you to be still?
3. Use props.
If you are restless in savasana, one radically simple reason could be that you are not perfectly comfortable lying flat on your back.
“If you ever feel tension in your lower back in savasana, try putting a bolster behind your knees, as that can often help promote relaxation in the pelvis and lower back,” suggests Mazé. “Additionally, placing a folded blanket behind the head can feel more comfortable, especially if the floor is quite firm, and promote a calming effect on the nervous system.”
Experiment: Would placing a bolster under your knees, a blanket under your head, or an eye pillow over your eyes make savasana feel more inviting?
4. Stay warm.
According to McCall, cooling off can actually be stimulating to our nervous systems.
“As we relax, the body tends to relax the tone in blood vessels in the arms and the legs, allowing more blood to go to the surface of the skin,” he explains. “When you get cold, the body closes down those blood vessels to some degree by activating the sympathetic nervous system, which is precisely the opposite of what we are trying to do in savasana.”
Experiment: When it’s time to relax, grab some layers, put on your socks, or drape a blanket over yourself.
5. Spend some time there.
How long do we usually give ourselves to rest in savasana?
“For a practice lasting up to an hour, savasana should be a minimum of 10 minutes; for a 90-minute practice, I recommend a 10- to 15-minute savasana,” Stryker says.
Without studies to draw on that compare any effects of savasana durations, McCall speaks from his experience, which may echo that of many practitioners: “After 8, 10, or even 15 minutes is when the deeper savasana seems to come.”
Experiment: Give savasana a few more minutes than usual to work its magic.
6. Try techniques that help you relax.
If your mind often runs wild in savasana, you may be heartened to know that the research by Dr. Herbert Benson and others at the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital shows that we can intentionally evoke what Benson termed the “relaxation response.” The opposite of “fight and flight,” the relaxation response is a physiology in which the parasympathetic nervous system slows heart rate, breathing, and metabolism—what we may think of as the “rest and digest” response.
According to the BHI, the relaxation response requires only that we give our attention to something repetitive and sustain that attention without judgment. Techniques suggested by the Benson-Henry Institute to induce this response are diverse, including diaphragmatic breathing, prayer, progressive relaxation, and even repetitive movements, like jogging and knitting.
Because the same strategy may not work to elicit relaxation in everyone, it may be helpful to experiment with options. In the classes Sunita teaches, she offers her students a few different routes to relaxation. In keeping with the Sivananda tradition, in which the final savasana “has a guided relaxation of each body part with mention of the internal organs,” Sunita offers a song-like progressive relaxation, or she alters the traditional savasana by strumming light guitar music, sometimes singing a devotional song or a Hindi lullaby. She then allows a period of silence, which affords “room to witness one’s own thoughts and emotions as a practitioner.” She says, “It is this silence that I find to be a golden aspect of the class.” She closes savasana with a statement that she heard repeatedly from her teachers: “I am not just this body. I am not just this mind. Relax. Relax. Relax.”
Experiment: What would help you sustain your focus without judgment in savasana? Relaxing your body progressively, tapping into the sound of your breath, or listening to a gentle song? Or is there a phrase that you find holds the key to relaxing?
7. Do it often.
“This is the problem with yoga,” McCall says, tongue-in-cheek: “It only works as long as you do it. The benefit is from the ongoing practice.”
With practice, we can get better at savasana. “Relaxation is a habit, a pattern,” he says. “By doing savasana regularly, making it part of every practice we do, we cultivate the ability to relax more deeply—and that ability improves over time.”
Experiment: Does savasana get easier the more you do it?
Overcoming our obstacles to relax so we can mine the benefits of savasana may require just what our active poses need: practice, practice, practice. Let the surrender begin!