You've just finished nearly 90 minutes of a grueling, sweaty asana practice. Nearing the end of that journey, you're on your back, perhaps in a twist, or a happy baby, or practicing simple pranayama. You know what's next; your body craves the release of final relaxation. The lights are dimmed, music lowered. You settle in, a blanket over your body as its temperature drops quickly. Feet turned out, palms up, the silence you crave now the reality you’ve been seeking.
Forty-five seconds later, you’re sitting back up.
I’ve had this conversation before, most recently after a rather unfortunate Anusara class that I happened upon: no yoga ‘style’ necessarily has more truth in it than another, nor is any the ‘best’ one. Different styles resonate with different people. That’s part of the beauty of the practice. When I’m told that a particular teacher has unlocked the most beneficial, most evolutionary yoga class, I’m pretty assured I want nothing to do with it. That's an issue of marketing and self-promotion more than any fundamental realization.
Yet if you’re practicing or teaching in the Hatha-Vinyasa tradition or any of its offshoots, Savasana is a pretty important posture. I’ve long argued that it’s perhaps the hardest pose to accomplish, because it requires you to do nothing at all. As hard as movement can sometimes be, stillness is incredibly demanding. In some ways, Savasana can be even more daunting than seated meditation. In that practice, you most often have a focal point—breathing, counting, a mantra, an inner mandala. In the Corpse Pose, you let even that go.
Also known as “Shiva’s Pose,” the end of the yoga class is a dedication to this ‘benevolent’ one. Known as the lord of yoga, it is Shiva’s ability to be a fierce ascetic, breaking down the constructs of the universe, that creates space for life to flourish. Thus his pose: the energetic and physical ‘death’ through deep absorption that reinvigorates and enlivens the yogi to continue living. I’ve heard a number of reasons why instructors consider yoga to be different than other exercise routines, but to me, this is the most convincing: a complete and total stillness as an integral part of the format.
In his book, Yoga as Medicine, Timothy McCall recommends staying in Savasana for 5-15 minutes, “the longer, the more beneficial.” Benefits are broad, though most relevant to Americans seems to be the softening of anxiety that deep rest offers. In his book, McCall utilizes this posture for a number of conditions, including helping alleviate symptoms associated with AIDS, diabetes, menopause, fibromyalgia, heart disease and weight loss. Yet you do not need a medical issue to benefit from the pose; the metaphorical rebirth alone offers the yogi a visual guide to what is possible within one yoga class.
So why the avoidance, then? I’ve noticed a number of reasons. The most prominent is that the instructor runs out of time. This is a shame: pacing is a crucial factor of good teaching. Trying to cram in as many postures as possible and sacrificing the final resting pose is bad form. You’re cheating the students out of that explosive release that is so much a part of why many people come to the practice. Reading long passes from books and personal poetry are other ways to keep the student away from the posture. You’re demanding mental attention, which is just as challenging as asanas, and so no actual rest is experienced.
As I’ve long felt in my own classes, there are times when I need to be the conductor of the process of yoga, and others when I need to sit back and offer the yogis space to lead their own practice. There is no better example than Savasana for giving them that time.