Searching for Relaxation: How to Stay Awake During Shavasana

February 4, 2015    BY Bran Cassidy

I awoke with a great snorting. It was the dream with the bunnies again. I can’t ever seem to get away…. I sat up and opened my eyes. Spread out around me were 20 or so friends and coworkers, all lying in the corpse pose at the end of a morning asana class. 

The instructor smiles and silently mouths, “Good morning.” As he continues with the relaxation exercise, I observe the class. None of them are snoring or noticeably dozing. The room feels calm, but there is the unmistakable presence of consciousness—awake, fully alert, and resting in self-awareness. They all looked so…into it. How did I get so out of it?

Why Not Sleep?

It’s helpful to remember that yoga evaluates the overall state of the mind and body by the relative proportion of three inherent qualities: sattvarajas, and tamas. Sattva is associated with calm awareness. Rajas is the principle of movement and activity. When out of balance, it can lead us off on mental tangents and manifest in the body as twitches and jerks. Tamas is the force of gravity and gives a sense of groundedness. In excess, it can be felt as a restrictive heaviness, dragging the conscious mind into sleep. Falling asleep during relaxation practices is usually a sign that the quality of tamas is excessive or the quality of rajas is deficient. The practice of systematic relaxation requires a balance between rajas and tamas so that we are grounded and comfortably present in the body, but at the same time alert and mentally attentive. When both of these conditions are present, our consciousness can rest in sattvic self-awareness.

It’s helpful to remember that yoga evaluates the overall state of the mind and body by the relative proportion of three inherent qualities: sattva, rajas, and tamas.

The practice of systematic relaxation is a time for quiet observation of the body. In practical terms, this consists of bringing our awareness to different parts of the body in an established sequence. It’s a bit like shining a flashlight around a dark room and taking an inventory of what is there. The more we shine the light of awareness around, the more familiar we become with our bodily furniture and its arrangement. Giving attention to each part of the body brings our awareness to habitual patterns of muscle tension and highlights areas that might need a little extra attention during asana practice.

There is so much in our room (the body) that we can easily overlook something. That is one reason a system is essential to the experience. Having a set sequence to follow ensures that we don’t miss any part. Following the same sequence every time creates a pattern for the mind to follow. With repetition, this pattern becomes ingrained in the mind. And when this happens, you can devote less of your mental energy to remembering the sequence and are free to concentrate fully on more subtle aspects of the self.

Systematic relaxation refreshes the body and mind, but it has more important implications for yoga practice. It is a deceptively simple process, but diligent practice can open the door to a rich interior landscape. When done after asana practice, it helps the body integrate the subtle changes induced by the postures and reinforces those changes on a deeper level. As a method of drawing attention inward (pratyahara), it helps the transition into formal meditation practice. And perhaps most important, it encourages a relaxed, observant state of mind in daily life.

None of these things happen, however, when we are sleeping. The benefits of systematic relaxation come from the attention we bring to the practice itself. If that isn’t enough to keep you awake during relaxation practices, consider the effect your nap might have on those around you in a class: it’s really hard to concentrate on a subtle experience of the self when the person next to you is engaged in some not-so-subtle snoring.

The benefits of systematic relaxation come from the attention we bring to the practice itself.

How to Stay Awake

Most people agree that it’s easier to stay focused (and awake) during relaxation practices when there is an external source of directions to follow. A well-balanced asana class should include a brief relaxation practice, and there are many fine relaxation practices available [online or on CD] for home use. Try to choose one that is fairly simple and that focuses your attention inward rather than on intriguing melodies or complicated visualizations. To make the experience more personal, you could record your own favorite systematic relaxation exercise. Your capacity to remain awake will naturally increase with regular practice, and you should be able to internalize the exercise in short order. This will free you from instructors and recordings. 

It is also helpful to maintain a systematic relaxation practice outside of regular asana classes (you’ll make it through the practice with much more alertness by doing some asana or stretching first to energize the body and shake off any feelings of sloth and inertia). Because the body expends a good amount of energy digesting food, a full stomach might cause sleepiness, so it’s best to wait two hours after meals to do a practice. And finally, avoid doing the practice in bed—you’ve already got a (good) habit of falling asleep in that space.

When the mind begins to drift away from waking reality, there is a crucial moment in which you realize, I’m falling asleep. Being aware in that moment is the first step toward pulling the mind back to the practice. Remind yourself that you are determined to stay awake and complete the practice you have begun. Sometimes that level of awareness is all it takes to establish a new relationship with your mind. But if that doesn’t work, give the mind a little activity to balance the resistance of tamas.

Being aware in that moment is the first step toward pulling the mind back to the practice.

When you know you’re falling asleep, it’s time to direct the mind to a more dynamic object of attention. The most readily available object is the breath. While still quite subtle, it is more tangible than the sensations of the resting body, and its natural movements should give the mind just enough activity to overcome sleepiness. Yoke the mind to the breath and observe how the body reacts to the influx of refreshing oxygen. You will find that the breath lengthens and deepens when you give it your full attention, but there’s no need to get involved with this process.

If following the breath doesn’t give your awareness enough stimulation, shift your focus to the body, which is considerably more tangible than the breath. Try lightly tensing and releasing a specific muscle group (an arm, a leg, the face). Coordinate the muscle activity with the breath so that you tense on exhalation and release on inhalation. With the mind yoked to the body and breath, there is little room for it to wander off into slumber.

As long as your awareness is firmly in your body, you will get some benefit from the practice, even if you are not following a formal systematic relaxation sequence. The mindfulness you cultivate while attending to the body and breath will transfer to a systematic relaxation practice as your capacity increases. When you feel confident that you won’t drift into sleep, go ahead and pick up where you left off in the relaxation practice. If you are following directions from a taped or live teacher, don’t worry about having missed parts of the body, just jump back in wherever they are. If you are doing the practice without an external source of directions, pick up where you left off. This trains the mind to follow instructions and finish what it starts.

If these more tangible sensations don’t bring you back to waking awareness, you can roll over into the crocodile pose and proceed with the exercise in that position. The crocodile is still a resting pose, but it is very difficult to fall asleep in that position.

An overactive schedule, stale food, and a sedentary lifestyle all erode your vitality. The physical aspects of yoga can provide an antidote, but only if we create the space in our lives to practice them with our full attention.

Keep in mind that a persistent inability to stay awake in relaxation practices may signal chronic fatigue, which is an increasingly common condition. It sounds strange, but you can be too tired to relax. An overactive schedule, stale food, and a sedentary lifestyle all erode your vitality. The physical aspects of yoga can provide an antidote, but only if we create the space in our lives to practice them with our full attention. The best way to make sure you stay awake during a systematic relaxation is to establish regular sleeping habits, get sufficient nourishment, and exercise regularly. In other words, take good care of yourself. It also helps to use relaxation practice as a preventative measure rather than an emergency intervention. And remember that practically everyone falls asleep during relaxation practices at one time or another, so don’t be too hard on yourself when it happens to you.

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