Early in my career as a yoga student, I attended a workshop with an accomplished teacher who made even the most difficult postures look effortless. At some point during the weekend, while talking about the importance of yoga in her life, she told me about meeting her future husband. When he asked her what was so great about yoga, she taught him shavasana, the corpse posture. Afterwards he said, “This is terrific. If this is what yoga is about, I want to do it.” And he did. The last I heard, they were living happily ever after.
It’s easy to underestimate the corpse pose.
It may seem odd that of all the asanas she could have taught him, she chose the corpse pose. It looks simple—any fool can lie on the floor with his eyes shut. And what’s the point, anyway? It’s easy to underestimate the corpse pose. When we think of asana, we usually conjure up images of gymnastic contortions, intricate positioning of muscle and bone to achieve a position impossible for the unpracticed—in short, physical effort and skill on the muscular level.
Shavasana doesn’t strike most of us as either interesting or exciting. So why bother with it? Because the benefits are numerous, and it is the basis for many other spiritual practices. Shavasana is often used at the beginning of an asana session to calm and center the awareness and prepare for the postures to come; it’s used briefly between poses to remove fatigue and the effects of exertion; and, most commonly, it’s used at the end of a practice session to rest the body, calm the mind, and allow for the integration and distribution of energy throughout the organism. The point is relaxation.
Most of us are intimately familiar with stress. Much has been written about high levels of stress in modern life and its negative effect on our health. Briefly, stress builds up during the normal course of life: when we nearly have an accident on the way to work, during a quarrel with someone who is important to us, or when unexpected houseguests arrive (stressful events are not necessarily negative). Whenever we feel physically or emotionally threatened the autonomic nervous system shifts into red alert—the “fight or flight” syndrome—at the expense of its maintenance and restorative functions, which include regulating the endocrine, respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems. If the nervous system is constantly aroused, the body does not have an opportunity to rest and heal. Nobody functions well for long in emergency mode.
The corpse posture helps the nervous system make the shift back to its restorative mode. This is particularly important, because the nervous system quickly turns on the fight-or-flight switch, but is slow to switch back to restorative mode. By initiating a state of relaxation and quieting our nervous system and physiological functioning in shavasana, we free up energy. Tension drains from muscles governed by the autonomic nervous system, giving us access to the energy formerly locked up. That’s why we feel refreshed after a relaxation exercise. We can also use this newly available energy to move us beyond our normal awareness, to free us from our defenses, to give us access to the unconscious, and to allow the creative aspect of our being to awaken. We can then tap the deeper levels of our energy.
To be relaxed is to let go into the present moment; to drop effort, judgments, “ought tos,” shoulds, and criticisms of ourselves, the situations around us, and other people. Relaxation requires trust. In the corpse pose, the front of the body and the vital organs are exposed and vulnerable. The eyes are closed, making it impossible to “keep an eye” on things. We have to “take it lying down.” The whole consciousness changes during a deep shavasana. We become fully aware of the present, yet are present in another realm. The mind is alert and watchful, yet steady and still. The result is a powerful refreshment for the mental and physical aspects of our being.
To be relaxed is to let go into the present moment; to drop effort, judgments, “ought tos,” shoulds, and criticisms of ourselves, the situations around us, and other people.
Find a quiet space and choose a time when you won’t be interrupted or disturbed. Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Use a blanket or thin mat if the floor is not carpeted. Begin lowering the spine to the floor by placing the forearms on the floor and curling the spine down, keeping the legs and pelvis still. When the full length of the body is supported by the floor, relax the legs, allowing them to fall gracefully out of the pelvis so that the feet turn out naturally. The tailbone will be in contact with the floor and the natural curve of the lower back will keep it slightly elevated. Make sure the flesh of the buttocks is down and away from the sacrum so the lower back can relax. The whole back side of the pelvis will feel broad and soft. If the lower back is uncomfortable, support the back of the knees with a pillow, or bend the knees and rest them against each other.
Now the lower abdomen can release, followed by the entire trunk. When this occurs, a feeling of opening will spread from the center of the spine. Keep the shoulders down, broad, and rolled under so that the insides of the arms are exposed, but the shoulders are still flat on the floor. The arms rest a foot or two away from the sides of the body so that the inner upper arm does not touch the chest. Make sure the shoulders are not contracted and are fully supported by the floor. The palms of the hands face upward, with the fingers curling naturally. You can use a pillow to support the forearms if the hands don’t reach the floor.
Place a flat, firm pillow beneath your head, especially for longer relaxation sessions. Let the head roll from side to side a few times to release the neck. Then center the back of the skull so both ears are equidistant from the shoulders. Keep the chin slightly in to soften and relax the front of the throat and jaw and lengthen the back of the neck.
Close the eyes. The activity in the brain is closely correlated with movement of the eyes, so keep them still and soft. It may help to wrap a length of cloth over the eyes, or to use a commercially available eye bag designed for this purpose to help release tension in the eyes, thus relaxing the mind. The other senses should also be quieted and turned inward by completely relaxing the face and jaw.
After a few minutes, adjust any unevenness in the posture. Let the spine lengthen, the shoulder girdle broaden, the pelvis broaden, and the head, neck, and trunk be straight. Correct yourself with minimum disturbance, then don’t move again.
Make the mind passive. When it watches and remains undisturbed, peace and serenity will follow.
A simple, effective technique for quieting the mind is to direct your attention to the breath, letting the mind merge with the breath as it follows the course of inhalation and exhalation. Let the breath become very fine while remaining steady and rhythmic. You need less oxygen as the mental and physical activities of the body decrease, so the respiration rate will slow naturally. The inhalation and exhalation should be of equal lengths, without a pause after the inhalation or a jerk after the exhalation. Try not to disturb any of the muscles in the body. Only the diaphragm will move slightly and smoothly, causing the lower ribs to flare a bit as you inhale. Make the mind passive. When it watches and remains undisturbed, peace and serenity will follow.
You may find it helps to cover yourself with a light blanket. During deep relaxation, as in sleep, the metabolism slows down and you may become chilly. In addition, the blanket adds a feeling of security and comfort. It provides a sense of protection which may make it easier to leave the body alone and move more deeply to the internal states of awareness.
Deep relaxation doesn’t occur until the mind is quiet—that’s what makes shavasana more difficult than you might suspect. Reducing tension in the body with asana will cut down on the chatter from body to mind, thereby quieting the mind somewhat, but we all know that’s not the whole story. You can’t stop your thoughts by force. You can’t try to relax, because the effort makes you tense. By definition, making an effort is not relaxing. We all have areas of the body that are out of our awareness, and lifelong habits of tension that can’t be released by force of will alone. The mind must become peaceful. So rather than forcing the body or mind, you focus and direct the mind—that is, you concentrate. It sounds paradoxical, but some of the more advanced relaxation exercises are simply concentration exercises.
“Relaxation and concentration are intertwined; one cannot relax the muscles of the toe if he cannot focus the mind’s attention to that part of the body,” Dr. Arya writes in Superconscious Meditation. A tense person cannot concentrate, and a truly concentrated mind can be achieved only if you are relaxed. Concentration is the direction and control of energy. Energy locked in maintaining a physiological state of tension/stress is not available for our conscious direction.
There are several relaxation exercises that can help release tension in the body and quiet the thoughts in the mind. One is to systematically and deliberately create tension in the body by exaggerating the existing tension. For example, first you tense the face, pulling all the muscles of the face toward the nose. Then relax the face. Next tense the shoulders by pulling them forward. Then relax the shoulders. Now tense the right arm, then the left. Continue down through the body until you reach your toes. Relaxation naturally follows.
Another relaxation exercise is a mental survey technique that works by bringing the mind with total concentration to specific parts of the body, moving from the head to the toes and back to the head again. Start by concentrating on the top of the head, forehead, eyebrows, eyes, cheeks, and nose. Pause and watch two breaths come and go. Then on to the mouth, tongue, jaw, and neck. Pause for two to four breaths before moving on to the shoulders, upper arms, elbows, lower arms, wrists, hands, fingers, and fingertips. Again pause and inhale and exhale two to four times. Now move to the fingertips, fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, upper arms, shoulders, upper back, and pause for four breaths at the heart center (center of the chest). Move on to the stomach, navel center, abdomen, pelvis, lower back, hips, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, and toes. Inhale and exhale four times. Feel your whole body inhaling and exhaling. Now reverse the order and proceed from the toes up to the crown of the head. Then bring your attention to your breath and observe its quiet flow. Surrender the body and mind and remain calm and passive.
Move out of shavasana very slowly and gently. Gradually allow your senses and mind to become aware of the external world while maintaining the peace and stillness of the inner world. When you are ready to move, wiggle the fingers and toes—the acupuncture meridians in Chinese medicine are said to terminate in there. Wiggling them stimulates energy along the meridians, or nadis, as they are known in yoga science, thus activating the major organs through which the meridians pass, and signaling the body that a new physiological/mental state of consciousness is beginning. Take a deep breath and draw the knees into the chest and then roll over onto your left side and come into a sitting position. Move slowly to maintain your centered and relaxed state of being. Sit for a few minutes to give yourself a chance to adjust to an upright position. Then open your eyes slowly and allow the new world to unfold before you.
Gradually allow your senses and mind to become aware of the external world while maintaining the peace and stillness of the inner world.
It may take some time to reach a state of deep relaxation and awareness—like any other posture, shavasana will become easier with practice. In the beginning you may fall asleep or find it impossible to quiet the mind or adjust the body so that you are comfortable. But gradually it becomes easier and the blissful state of silence is reached more quickly. If this posture is done regularly, the resulting balance in the nervous system and body and mind will relieve nervous tension, respiratory ailments, high blood pressure, and digestive disorders, and aid in recovery from illness or injury. Once you have experienced the new state of consciousness that arises as the usually outwardly directed energy flows inward to heal and revitalize the body and mind, you’ll be inspired to continue your practice.