While savasana has many acknowledged benefits and is a cornerstone of our ritual of practice, must it be the universal strategy? Must savasana always come at the same time: the end of class? Must it always take the same shape, or could we allow variations and alternatives? Could we even dare skip it?
Some of us savasana fans may appreciate the chance to tinker with a practice we appreciate—to move it, to include more of it, to modify it—while the savasana-resistant among us may appreciate knowing that not all teachers view savasana as an absolute must.
Some teachers and students may be better able to access relaxation or revitalization in other ways. Some students may even feel uncomfortable or vulnerable in savasana.
Certainly relaxation is necessary—perhaps especially so for some of the most energetic students who are least inclined toward savasana—and disrupting a class by walking out just as others are settling in to relax remains impolite. But as yoga classes become more inclusive, might it be fair to acknowledge that savasana may not work for everyone? Some teachers and students may be better able to access relaxation or revitalization in other ways. Some students may even feel uncomfortable or vulnerable in savasana.
Abbie Galvin, founder of the Studio in New York City, does not teach savasana. “Savasana is actually rather messy,” Galvin says, comparing it to a piece of paper not yet made into an origami shape. Savasana, which Galvin sees as lacking the form that could better provide a sense of containment, could, for some, “lead to anxiety rather than a feeling of safety.”
Galvin says, “If you read any teacher’s reasons for practicing it, they are pretty much the same: deep relaxation, rest, recharging, going inside oneself, a restorative experience after the exertion of a class.” However, Galvin says that she recharges differently. “My experience is that there is a more effective, efficient, and graceful way to access one's interior in order to restore one's ‘battery’ after depleting its charge with physical effort, and to get an insight from this esoteric undertaking of a yoga class...than being a corpse.” Galvin clarifies, “I don’t fundamentally disagree with its usefulness.”
Savasana is on offer at most studios, by most teachers; what she is offering is something different. (A few of those techniques are explained below, in number four.)
The suggestions that follow, inspired by Galvin and other experienced teachers, offer ways to reconsider savasana. Some make the most of savasana; some dispense with it. After any of them, your perceptions of savasana and the role it plays in your practice may never be quite the same.
Dr. Kirstie Segarra, yoga teacher, structural integrationist, and founder of the first structural integration program at a public college (UNM Taos), teaches savasana at the beginning of class for a few different reasons. “When I first started teaching, several students would get up and leave before savasana or get up during and never receive or avoid the benefits of the stillness and integration,” Segarra says. She found that by putting savasana first, it became harder for students to skip a pose she considers vital. In addition, “It made sense to me as a bodyworker who treats people who are lying down.” Since most students drive to her class, some fairly long distances and after hectic days, she reasons that many students may come to class with their psoas feeling tight and their “fight or flight” response activated. “I want to transition them to a ‘rest and digest’ response before moving into varied asana.”
Segarra’s approach sets the stage for a relaxed and receptive practice, and one with soft edges; its conclusion blurs into daily life. Segarra often teaches mindful walking and, with no savasana at the end of practice, students can walk straight out of class, keeping a yogic awareness of how they are organizing their movement.
Explore: While savasana at the end of class may help some students “absorb” the benefits of their practice and even facilitate a deeper relaxation, if you find yourself habitually rushing out of class before that final savasana, or if it leaves you feeling antsy, preoccupied by whatever it is you have to do next, or separates yoga from daily life instead of fostering continuity, try doing savasana first.
The Sivananda style of practice invites students into savasana multiple times throughout class. Anjali Sunita, founder and director of Baltimore Yoga Village and Village Life Wellness, teaches in several traditions, including Sivananda, in which she was trained through the Sivananda Yoga Dhanwantari Ashram in Kerala. Sunita says, “There’s a minimum of five to six savasanas in a Sivananda class.”
She explains, “Traditionally in the sequence designed by Swami Vishnu Devananda, who founded the Sivananda school, savasana is practiced briefly at the beginning of class, after warm-ups like sun salutations and leg lifts, after a sequence of inversions and their counterposes, and after forward bends and their counterposes.” Between backbends, students get to rest in a prone position—a sort of downward-facing savasana. Then, at the end of practice, students are given a savasana that is longer—at least ten minutes—with a guided relaxation that encourages them to relax their muscles and organs.
Sunita says, “I find that holding asana”—another hallmark of a Sivananda class—”as well as intermittent savasana also keeps me from moving too fast and supports a meditative intention to practicing asana.”
Explore: If you notice that you are disconnecting from your poses and beginning to move mindlessly, you may wish to move your attention inward by intermingling savasana with your practice.
As we relax, we seem to become more sensitive to asymmetry, and may find maintaining a relatively symmetrical body position in savasana important and restful. But it could be a worthwhile challenge to explore our ability to relax even if our arrangement is not perfect, so that symmetry doesn’t become an obsession or a prerequisite for relaxation.
This project asks us to consider the radical possibility that we can relax in our lives when things are not perfect; when there is a coffee ring on the table, or something left undone, or something on our minds.
Explore: While resting in savasana, especially in a class that plays with allowing asymmetry, move one limb farther away from you, or lift only one knee onto a bolster, only one hand onto a blanket.
Instead of savasana, Abbie Galvin closes practice with poses she considers “archetypal forms,” like plow, supported fish, or a forward fold like paschimottasana. She sees these poses as providing containment, “allowing students to go deeper inside themselves.” In Galvin’s view, these “interesting and nourishing” poses have the potential to elicit insight or stir the imagination.
Plow pose, for example, “allows us to become a snail in a shell.” In her view, plow offers sanctuary and sustenance. “A snail goes into its shell to repair the shell, to refuel, to feed itself.” As the pose takes us within, it may lead to self-remembering, “allowing us to mine our memories which are stored in our shell.”
In addition, “Listening to the oceanic sound that the breath makes while in these poses...nourishes one’s soul, making one feel stable, expansive, and fulfilled.”
Instead of looking at Galvin as tearing a page out of the yoga book, we could look at her as adding to it. According to her method, many poses could suddenly find themselves transformed into the grand finale of class. For those of us who love savasana, making another pose into our savasana could challenge us to break a habit: to see relaxation and revitalization as potentially deriving from many poses, not just one.
Explore: Let one of the other quieting poses that usually occurs toward the end of practice “count” as your savasana. Linger in it for a few minutes, and notice how the shape of the pose holds you. If you are a fan of restoration, skipping a savasana may be more doable after a practice that is restorative in itself, like this one (in which after a series of restorative poses, students are invited to stand in tadasana while maintaining their relaxation). Feeling bold? Let an invigorating pose serve as your closing posture.
Opening savasana up by replacing it with another pose, altering it, or moving it—even just a few times a year—challenges us to strip away, at least occasionally, even that which seems most essential, in order to reveal the extent to which our yoga practices are mutable and resilient, just like us.