One of the things that makes yoga is special is the way it ends. Most, if not all sessions close with a few minutes of total rest, lying on our backs with the arms and legs out, in the posture known as shavasana. I happily confess that it is one of my favourite poses. But at the same time, I know that for many of us it can be a challenge. It doesn’t help that we’re often not taught what shavasana is really for, or how to practice it. Questions can arise, such as ‘what am I meant to be doing right now?’, ‘what’s the point of this anyway?’ and the classic, ‘can I fall asleep now?’ With this in mind, here are a few thoughts and pointers on this most magical of poses and how to approach it.
Setting Up for shavasana
First things first: shavasana is meant to be comfortable. For many of us, lying on the floor with just a sticky mat underneath us is an unfamiliar position to be in. We are much more used to lying on softer surfaces, like beds, which mold themselves to the shape of our bodies. Lying on the floor is going to feel different, but it doesn’t need to be uncomfortable. Given your body is unique, it is worth taking the time to ensure you’re actually able to relax into the posture fully, either by making adjustments or using props.
1: Traditionally, shavasana is done lying on the back, feet separated enough so the legs are loose and relaxed and the feet themselves can flop out to the sides. Mat-width usually works for me, though more or less may be better for you. Some people also like to drape the legs over a bolster at the knees to help release the lower back, or have a low blanket under the sacrum and tailbone to soften the contact of the floor.
2: The arms are usually by the sides, 1-2 feet out from the sides of the body so that the shoulders can relax and the shoulder blades rest on the mat evenly. It’s up to you whether to turn the palms up or down, but make sure the fingers are soft and relaxed (ie. don’t grip!). Some people prefer to bend the arms and place the hands over the lower belly – this can be a nice way to feel more centered and grounded and to invite a deeper belly breath.
3: The back of the head can rest on the mat or on a support such as a rolled-up blanket or low pillow, in such a way that the neck stays long and the head stays in neutral alignment. Occasionally I drape a scarf (or eye pillow if you have one) over my closed eyes to block out the light and help my face relax too. In colder climates you can also cover yourself with a blanket.
4: Once you are in the posture, briefly scan through the body and notice if you’re holding on or tensing up anywhere. Sometimes you may be able to release and let go without extra support, and other times you may need to adjust your position or use an additional prop.
Each time you end your practice and come into shavasana, let it be fresh: check in with the body and adjust, rather than just doing it by rote and assuming things are always the same. After asana practice, take a minimum of 5 minutes in shavasana, or longer if you have the time.
You can come into shavasana at any other point during your day or night; it doesn’t have to be done only at the end of an asana practice. I often take shavasana when I first get into bed at night, when I’m feeling fatigued during the day or in the pool after swimming (a floating shavasana).
What shavasana is not about
Before we go any further, just a quick aside that may help you get a better picture of shavasana. Even when you’re familiar the posture, engaging with its true purpose is not always easy. Here are some common ways we drift away from the essence of shavasana:
- analysing, evaluating or judging our practice;
- daydreaming, reflecting or getting distracted in thinking;
- planning out the rest of our day or night, or getting lost in worries, agendas, and future projects;
- falling asleep, though if this happens it may be what the body needs or a sign that we need to rest more
If you recognise yourself in any or all of these tendencies – don’t worry! These are normal activities of the mind and they happen to all of us. Take note of your habits and later on, you can explore what they may reveal about you. In the moment, just use your intention to gently bring yourself back to your bare experience and rest there (more on this below).
Stillness and Release
Now that we’ve established the form of shavasana and dispelled some basic assumptions, we come to the heart of the matter: what is shavasana really?
The word shav means corpse – so shavasana is the posture of a corpse, or dead body. Rather than taking this as morbid, I’d encourage you to explore the metaphor, as it has profound meaning. A corpse cannot move, so one of the ways you can take shavasana is as an initiation into deep stillness. Once you have set yourself up and achieved your maximum level of possible comfort, remain still and don’t fidget. The more we relax, the easier this becomes; and, despite what we may think, the more tense we are, the harder it is to be still. When you get the urge to move, fidget or adjust your props, is there some underlying tension, distraction or discomfort – whether physical or not – that you can sense underneath that urge? And is it possible to relax through or around the tension and let go of it, without having to move? Sometimes the answer will be yes, and other times it won’t. It is up to you to discover what’s really going on and respond appropriately.
On another level, the metaphor of the corpse reminds us of the ultimate release; namely, death. Shavasana encourages us to let go – either of our practice, if we’re doing it after asana, or of whatever has come before during our day that we are still carrying with us. When we come into shavasana after a yoga session, we acknowledge and accept the end, or the death, of our practice. It gives us the chance to let go of everything we’ve accomplished on the mat and see what remains. As a practice, it is incredibly liberating, and frees us from sticking to our ideas, hopes and fears about what we could and couldn’t do. It is a gesture of total acceptance and surrender – the practice is over, I did what I could, and now I’m moving on.
Integration and Assimilation
Shavasana is a chance to pause and find stillness after practice, before we re-enter the world. It is the resting place that lies between the realms of practice and ordinary life. It harmonises and integrates our actions on and off the mat at a somatic and subconscious level. One of my favourite ways to work with shavasana is to take it as a chance to soak in the residue of the practice (I got this cue from Richard Freeman). To me this means allowing the energy that has been activated, opened and released through asana to be absorbed deeply into the body and mind. Stillness and relaxation are a pre-requisite for this kind of integration. When integration happens, it is deeply restful and healing for the whole organism, which is why shavasana can sometimes feel more relaxing than sleeping. You could think of it as a kind of accelerated sleep cycle, in which the body and subconscious mind are given the space to process and assimilate whatever has happened during the practice period.
For me, the easiest way to enter this process is to rest my awareness in the totality of the body during shavasana (this is a cue I give very often in my classes). It is easier to do this after an asana practice as we are already attuned and present within the body, so we just have to stay there and let the magic happen. If distractions arise, let them go, return to the body and move the attention towards the backline or the back of the body, where there is more space and openness to rest in. In general, it is best to stay with the whole body (the totality), during shavasana, but sometimes we may be called to certain areas that are hurt, affected or in need of closer attention. The key is to trust the body and trust how we feel.
Being at Rest
Shavasana is a profound opportunity to train in being, rather than doing. We come into the posture as a gesture of our willingness to let go completely and not do anything for a few minutes. It is a teaching in non-striving: in seeing that, for these precious few moments, things are alright, just as they are.
Let the attention move about
—your stillness is undisturbed.
Notice and acknowledge this simple fact.
Then on that day, in that moment
when the mind strikes again,
this fact will remain unchanged,
for you will know
that nothing of significance is happening.
Nothing can alter your being.
Relax in the full joy of this knowing.
Here you are not a traveller
on the way to some place.
Not even Nirvana.
There are no maps for the omnipresent.
Here you simply are and have always been,
O Limitless One.
— Mooji, from ‘Writing on Water’