“Every pose is designed to prepare the body for savasana,” I remarked near the end of a weekly yoga class I teach in Estes Park, Colorado.
The words were hardly out of my mouth when a student turned his head to me, lowered his eyebrows, and drew them together to form an impressive peak over his third eye chakra.
“What in the hell is this lady talking about?” his eyebrows said.
Savasana, or corpse pose, is a peak pose. It isn’t just filler time or time to grab a quick nap before hustling back to our busy lives. The purpose of savasana is to learn to just be, a colossal challenge. Savasana can be practiced in many ways, including focusing awareness on the breath or guided muscle relaxation. The mind has a tendency to wander or check out and go to sleep, but the practice of savasana trains our minds to observe and be aware of the stillness inherent in each and every moment. In savasana, we relax into the room, the mat, and ourselves and then try to let go of everything surrounding us. We release internal thoughts and move into a place of non-judgmental acceptance and awareness. This time of mindfulness is beneficial to every part of our being.
Practicing mindfulness, as we do while trying to stay present and aware in savasana, creates distance between reflexive thoughts and the totality of who we really are. Repeated thoughts wear pathways in our brains, and these thought patterns—sometimes stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our lives—become conditioned. When we create space through mindful movement and stillness practice, we are able to view our thought patterns more objectively and create new paths in our minds. We come to see the stories we’ve created about ourselves for the misconceptions they are and are able to reframe them in new, more useful ways.
But practicing mindfulness is not always easy. Some people have hyperactive minds (for a variety of reasons, including cultural conditioning, PTSD, anxiety, and chronic overstimulation), and for these folks, poses like savasana and seated meditation are extra challenging. The climb up Stillness Mountain is a few steps longer and a little steeper.
So, how do people with busy minds develop an awareness practice like savasana? Research suggests that a mindful movement practice can lay the foundation. Using mindful movement, the kind we engage in throughout an asana practice as a way to access the quiet mind of savasana, is comparable to learning to do handstand by kicking your legs to the wall. As you learn to be mindful and non-judgmental in asana practice, the mental muscles necessary for a stillness practice such as savasana are strengthened. Most of us don’t nail handstand on our first try. Savasana requires practice too.
Most of us don’t nail handstand on our first try. Savasana requires practice too.
Are the benefits of savasana really worth it? Maybe even more than we thought! New research suggests that the practice of mindfulness can actually transform your brain. A recent study measured the amygdala, the part of the brain that stimulates fear, and the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain related to concentration and decision-making, in people taking a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. After just eight weeks, the amygdalae of study participants shrank and their prefrontal cortexes grew thicker. Let me rephrase that for clarity: After just two months, the more complex decision-making area of the brain grew while the more basic reactive area shrank.
Or, as journalist Tom Ireland wrote for regarding the results of this study, “Our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.”
Considering the possible implications of these studies, I encourage you to embrace savasana as a way of life, not just as something you do on your mat at the end of every yoga class. Krishna Das said, “You can’t think your way out of a prison of thoughts.” But it seems that you can meditate your way out. Mindfulness will put you in touch with your body and spirit in ways you might not imagine. So calm your squirrely eyebrows and see savasana for the peak pose that it is.