“Lie down, close your eyes and relax” – the words we all look forward to hearing at the end of the class, meaning we’ve worked through some sun salutations, practiced asanas and are ready to rest. After getting into a comfortable position, taking a cleansing breath or maybe an audible exhale, we find ourselves in savasana, also known as corpse pose.
I think savasana is perhaps the easiest asana to perform but one of the most difficult to master, a form of conscious surrender. In today’s fast-paced society, people are so used to instant gratification and efficiency, where we want effects of our actions to be nearly immediate, thus find it hard to take a moment to slow down. I know I definitely do, where I used to really struggle just lying still for a few minutes and always had the urge to fidget. Even when I did self-practice, I often left out savasana because I wanted to get back to my day instead of lying around. On the other side of the spectrum, some find themselves falling asleep, where they let go and lose focus, enjoying the pose a little too much.
However, savasana has many benefits both physiologically and psychologically. It is an opportunity for us to physically and mentally relax each part of the body, usually starting from the feet up. By taking time in savasana, we can absorb the energy from the physical asanas and dissolve any tension in our muscles, letting our body recover and rest, as well as taking a mental inventory and checking in with how our body feels. Besides that, we can allow our parasympathetic system to take over, where we can slow down our respiratory rate and heart rate, and give our bodies time for them both to return to resting rate. Although the autonomic system usually works unconsciously, in savasana we can consciously notice and register how our breath and heartbeat is slowing down, and in that way, feel more relaxed.
This increased awareness of our own bodies and the physiological processes that occur within it has been correlated with a lower incidence of anxiety and depression, where it helps to calm our mind, decrease fatigue and stress and even improve quality of sleep. In a study done by Kinser et al, “How Might Yoga Help Depression? A Neurobiological Perspective” it was found that certain areas in the brain associated with emotion and stress such as the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus, are all implicated when doing yoga. This was done using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which shows blood flow to certain areas of the brain and thus estimates brain activity. Through their research, it was shown that there is increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (responsible for executive function, abstract reasoning and working memory) when people have an increased perceived control, such as in savasana, which can help provide a sense of mastery and thus act as a healthy coping activity for those who may suffer from depression. In addition, the relaxation and natural breathing in savasana may increase vagal nerve output, which is one of the main nerves of the parasympathetic system (our rest and digest system). This increased parasympathetic drive also decreases blood pressure by decreasing signalling to the carotid and aortic sinus, thus bringing about even more health benefits especially for those with hypertension.
The challenge with this asana is that we really need to quiet the mind and be able to lie still, but it tends to resist deep relaxation. It’s about striking that perfect balance between being relaxed yet remaining aware and alert, striving to be achieve an attentive mind in an inert body. In the past few sessions, I’ve been working more on this and been able to be more focussed in savasana (but it’s still a work in progress…)
Slowly wiggle the toes and fingers, roll onto your side and slowly come to a seated position…