The World Needs Savasana
By Elonne Stockton
Paul often says, "The world needs savasana." He explains that savasana is very difficult to achieve, and what we are talking about is not technically savasana, but rather what Pattabhi Jois would call "taking rest," or what Swami Vishnu-Devananda would call "proper relaxation."
It is not that the world needs more sleep necessarily. Maybe people are getting enough sleep, but their adrenal glands are overworked and exhausted. They wake-up still tired because their sleep gets compromised. Their overactive minds sabotage them and do not allow them to rest properly.
Savasana, according to the Hatha Pradipika, wards off fatigue and brings mental relaxation. It is a way to remove fatigue from the nervous system, which may come from either pranayama or asana practice. It could also come from work, family or other stresses of daily life.
I remember when I first started practicing as a teenager; I would rarely allow myself savasana. And with only books and tapes to instruct me, I could do whatever I wanted. As soon as it came time to take rest I was up and out the door. I didn't understand the importance of savasana and thought it was a waste of time. I had work to do, things to assemble. And because I negatively associated lying down with being lazy, naturally I didn't want to take savasana.
As I ran from school, to work, to practice, to the library, most of the time I was working on adrenaline, with little sleep, food or time off. It had been such a long time since I experienced deep relaxation that I forgot it existed, and I forgot why I needed it. I started to taste the benefits of relaxation when I was practicing the asanas, but it wasn't until I reached my early twenties that I realized I seriously needed to slow down or I would run myself into the ground.
Although I was out of balance, I was not abnormal. All too many people in modern society are overworked, undernourished (even if they are eating enough, it is often the wrong kinds of food), stressed, and their adrenals are spent. Whenever I teach in a city environment, people are so short on time that if class goes overtime even a couple of minutes people are out the door. In order to make sure they take savasana, I am extra careful to leave plenty of time at the end of class. Even so, I continue to see people twitching with anxiety a minute or two after the savasana begins.
When teaching in a retreat setting I also find that it usually takes people a couple of days to allow themselves to relax. When they arrive they are still on hyper mode, and the pollution of their stress often lingers, hovering overhead, for a few days.
I was one of the lucky ones who found a way out of the running around cycle of stress. When I found Sivananda in my early twenties, it was a timely gift. The moment I walked into the SivanandaCenter in Chelsea for the first time, my whole body relaxed. The Center smelled like a cross between vegetarian cooking and Nag Champa. People were dressed simply in sweat pants and loose-fitting clothing, no make-up, and I remember feeling pleasantly un-self-conscious.
Hanging on the wall in one of their practice rooms was a picture of Swami Sivananda with Sami Vishnu-Devananda (the founder of the Sivananda Organization) standing beside him. The picture was black and white, clearly old (it was from the late 40's), but for some reason when I saw the picture for the first time I thought it was current. It exuded love and happiness, the smiling faces of guru and disciple jumping out of the frame, and I thought, "I want to meet them."
Soon afterwards I realized my mistake, but the pictures, which filled the Center, retained the same sense of familiarity to me. Whenever I came to take classes and to attend satsang at the Center, I felt like I was visiting Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnu-Devananda. To this day I feel them with me, always reminding me to slow down and be mindful.
In Sivananda's all-level asana classes they do savasana after each pose. I practiced Sivananda yoga at a point in my life when I needed savasana more than anything else. I remember finishing my first class and feeling a deep sense of relaxation that I hadn't felt since I was a child on vacation. But there was something still missing.
I regret not having found Ashtanga earlier. If I had started practicing Ashtanga when I found Sivananda I might have developed a relationship with PattabhiJois. But as I reflect deeper, I realize that Ashtanga was not what I needed at the time, and if I had started at that age I would have approached it in the wrong way.
Later on, with the help of Paul and Richard Freeman, I found the softness of the Ashtanga practice, the beauty in the practice and the potentially restorative nature of the practice. But had I started earlier it might have exacerbated my imbalances. And it was with Sivananda that I began to tap into the lineage of pranayama that I practice now under the guidance of Paul and Tiwari. Had I turned Ashtangi in my early twenties I might not have discovered this precious jewel.
Even when practicing pranayama you can experience a strain on the nervous system. Tiwari will transition from pranayamas with the option of savasana, especially for those new to the practice. And while people often get frustrated doing savasana between each asana pose, they are more likely to allow themselves to rest when doing pranayama.
I think it is impossible to convince people of the importance of savasana, the importance of taking rest. It is something that each person must experience and accept individually. However, there is no way to deny the benefits once we finally feel this deep relaxation. Once we begin to get a taste of what savasana must be like, if we were to finally achieve it, we will never question its importance again.
How to Practice
Lie down on your back. Let your legs fall open and your palms face upwards so that the shoulders roll open. Close your eyes. Start with some deep breaths and slowly allow the your breath to fade to a subtle or almost non-existent breath. Allow yourself to move towards a state where the body and mind are still.
Take rest whenever you feel fatigue in the body, in the mind, whenever there is a strain on the system. That may be before practice, during practice, after practice or anytime during the day. If it is during practice, between poses or pranayamas, you can rest for a few breaths to a few minutes, without letting the practice get sleepy. If it is after practice or during the day, rest for at least five minutes, ten minutes is better and you can stay as long as you like without falling asleep.
Rather than looking at a watch or a clock, try to feel when it is time to come out of the pose. Listen for an inner voice telling you when you are ready - or not ready - to come out of the pose.
Any sweat that was on the body should have evaporated by the end of savasana. And you should come out of the pose feeling energized and fresh, ready to embrace the rest of your day!
Elonne has been a committed yoga practitioner and devotee since the early age of 14. She has lived and taught in the Bahamas, Canada, India, the United States, and Taiwan where she has taught asana, pranayama, and meditation at yoga studios, ashrams, resorts, schools, orphanages, hospitals, and clinics. In 2006, Elonne moved to Asia, where she met her teachers, Paul Dallaghan, O.P. Tiwari, and Richard Freeman. Elonne is a resident teacher at SYT and will be holding retreats throughout the year.