YOGA BASICS: Relaxing in Shavasana (Corpse Pose)

"LET'S ALL MEET IN SHAVASANA, ALSO KNOWN AS CORPSE POSE..."

One purpose of yoga is to help us carry out simultaneous self-analysis and self-development. We use awareness techniques and practice listening within so that we are better able to positively develop ourselves. There are many techniques and practices that aim at this; one of the most simple and profound is the practice of shavasana. In modern yoga classes-- across disciplines and around the world-- postural practices are ritually concluded with shavasana, also known as the corpse pose


 shavasana (sanskrit: śavāsana)

śava: corpse   āsana: posture


HISTORICAL + MYTHOLOGICAL CONNECTION

In yogic philosophy, the supine posture śavāsana was taken up for a practice known as yoga nidra (sanskrit: yoganidrā), or the practice of 'yogic sleep.'  Yoga nidra is a technique to go beyond the body and experience what is referred to as the subconscious and even superconscious states of the self as a means to achieve a state of profound meditation known in the Sanskrit texts as samādhi. Dr. Kamakhya Kumar, expert in yoga and allied sciences, states that yoga nidra allows a practitioner to enter into the "divine" core of life, to reach an experience often described as an ultimate bliss associated with the realization of the soul... a feeling of profound connection with a vast and universal cosmic consciousness. Yoga nidra as a practice inspires a 'sublime transmutation of the individual self.' Twelfth century texts describe yoga nidra as part of the practice of laya-yoga, or the yoga of dissolution. Supine postures, like corpse pose were taken up to ease the mind and body into meditation and a state of mental dissolution (cittalaya) where we are said to dissolve into the depths of our selves. It is not the typical 'one-pointed awareness' often talked about in traditional, seated meditative practices. The result is instead a feeling of full absorption, supreme wonder and delight often depicted in images of the god Vishnu (Viṣṇu) laying blissfully on the cosmic ocean in a state of floating awareness or "God-Conciousness" ... (as they say in sanskrit: yatra yatra, tatra tatra: wherever [the mind] goes, there it wanders). 

Visnu depicted in a state of cosmic sleep

Visnu depicted in a state of cosmic sleep

Many modern yoga classes around the world today have practitioners enter into shavasana, or corpse pose, together as the final posture of an āsana class. Instead of a true yoga nidra practice, a shavasana meditation or relaxation practice is observed for the last 5 to 20 minutes of yoga class as an informal way of experiencing the phenomenon brought about by yoga nidra.


HOW TO: SHAVASANA (the corpse pose)

  • Begin by lying down in a supine position, on your back.
  • Stretch your entire body long: on an inhale, reach your arms over head and point your toes as they reach down.
  • With an exhale, bring the arms to the side of your body, with the palms facing up and the shoulders are relaxed down.
  • Allow your entire body to relax and feel that it is being supported by the surface of the earth. If this position is uncomfortable, especially in the upper body, consider placing a cushion, or rolled towel under your neck. 
( illustration from  Y  ou Forever  -T. Lobsang Rampa   )

( illustration from You Forever -T. Lobsang Rampa )


DISSOLVING DEEPER: A GUIDE TO RELAXING THE MIND AND BODY IN SHAVASANA MEDITATION

 

1. Feel into your physicality: begin with a body scan.

Check in with your physical body first and allow yourself to fully relax before attempting the practice. Drop any emotions you have about rushing back to your to-do list, or thoughts of being stuck in worries of the past and anxieties of the future. Your attention must be on the now. Any resistance will prevent you from having a full-spectrum experience. With the eyes gently closed, begin by placing one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest, or leave the arms down at your sides with the palms facing up if that is more comfortable.

Allow your entire body to settle and be supported by the surface beneath you. Bring your awareness to each part of your body moving either from the crown of the head to the toes, or from the toes to the crown of the head. You can try isolating and tensing each area for a few seconds and then releasing if it helps you to bring relief and relaxation. Be sure to unfurl the forehead, release between the brows, unclench the jaw and relax the tongue. Concentrate on melting away tense expressions on the face and let the facial muscles release. Bring your shoulders down away from your ears. Allow the throat to open. Release the ribs and chest especially by taking a deep inhale and exhaling with a sigh out of the mouth. Watch the chest sink as you release whatever tension is restricting your natural breath. Release the grip from your belly and allow your hips to feel heavy into the ground. Relax your thighs, allow your knees to rotate externally and allow your feet to gently and naturally splay out to the sides. You can also try a guided body-scan with a teacher or by audio. 

2. Tap into the breath: calm the nervous system.

It all begins with the breath. The breath is the only part of the Autonomic Nervous System that we can consciously access; we use the breath to our advantage to tap into and influence our central nervous system. As you follow your breath as it moves in and out, become aware of the subtle movement of the body rising and falling as you inhale and exhale. Focus on the movement of the belly and the lungs. If you notice your breath seems short, forced or shallow, slow it down and breathe more deeply and fully through the nose.

As you exhale, relax the stomach completely. Try lengthening and extending the breath, observing the pattern without pause. Counting your breath is a good way to keep the pattern nice and even (breathe in for a count of 3, and out for 3 and then gradually lengthen, adding one second to each inhale and exhale). When this becomes comfortable, consciously relax the muscles of the body as you exhale. As the body comes to full relaxation, you will slip into the subtle body and feel the sensations of heightened prana (sanskrit: prāṇa), or "vital life-force energy." 

3. Melt away tension, use visualization and welcome positivity.

Continue with the breath exercise for several minutes. Begin to visualize your internal body, following the movement of your breathe. You can use other visualization techniques, such as imagining the lungs and stomach as a bellows. As you inhale, it expands. As air enters the body the lungs, ribs and belly opens and grows. On the exhale air is expelled. The lungs, ribs and belly compress as air pushes forth, igniting your inner fire. Perhaps you are at the bank of a river, and the breath is the cool wind gently moving the surface of the water, creating a steady stream of ripples, or maybe you can see yourself floating peacefully with ease through the cosmos, letting the thoughts and mind-images pass by as you float on without attachment or reaction. Simply observe with attention. If you fall asleep, it is ok, but try to remain in your own internal awareness until you gently come out of the practice.

When you are ready, turn onto your side, using your hands as support for your head and bring your awareness back to the breath, simply oberving. After a few moments, slowly prop yourself up to a seated position, observe the sensations in your body and the feeling of rejuvenation and calm in the mind. Journal your experience or set an intention for the rest of your day :)

Try this practice for twenty minutes, set a timer and watch yourself drift into cosmic bliss... or not ;) Bon voyage my friends.



Resources:
A Handbook of Yoga Nidra --  Kamakhya Kumar
Mandukya Upanishad-- Trans. Eknath Easwaran

Yoganidrā- The Luminescent
MIT Medical - Sleep Resources

~cover photo by moisnomois