Whether it’s your first or thousandth yoga class, and regardless of your proficiency, your interest level, or whether you even believe that yoga “works” for you, savasana is one pose that will get to you. And not just because it’s relaxing. The word itself comes “from the Sanskrit word ‘sava’ meaning ‘corpse’ and ‘asana’ meaning ‘conscious position or seat,’” says Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT. But the derivation of the word – at least the corpse part – is a little ironic, since savasana is not at all about checking out. It’s actually about letting go of your thoughts for the opposite reason: To get back in touch with your consciousness, without the interference of your distracting (or worse, for many of us, destructive) thoughts.
The principle of savasana is simple. As Lasater says, “to practice Savasana is to choose to lie down on the mat and to be become an introvert for 20 minutes, appearing dead to the outside world.” The beauty of the pose is that attention can be completely focused inward, instead of outward, on your body or those around you. There’s obvious value in the more active postures, but savasana is all about the mind. In the pose, says Lasater, “the eyes are closed, we are not moving, we have an internal focus that is not disrupted by what we see or by stretching or by someone talking or by talking ourselves. So it is so much easier to see that thoughts are arising and that there is something behind them: the Watcher. This is also called awareness or consciousness.”
And this gets to the one of the fundamental aims of yoga (and maybe of life, but more on this in a sec): Getting to that place beyond thought. Learning to just be with ourselves and not to pay too much attention to our thoughts is one of the keys to yoga. Knowing that thoughts are just thoughts and that you don’t have to react to them – since doing so is the source of much of our pain – is a difficult reality to wrap your brain around, but very freeing when you do.
“Thoughts are never true,” Lasater continues, “they are just true for us. This is the differentiation is between consciousness and thought. Being at the mercy of believing our thoughts creates suffering. We have thoughts; they manifest from the brain, just neurotransmitters locking into receptor sites. We can use them and respect them but hold them for what they are: a thin reflection of the world.”
And savasana is just one way of stripping down all these neural firings to get to what’s underneath. In this way, savasana at its core is a meditation. “In fact” says Lasater. “I believe it teaches us the most important lesson we need in order to live a happy life. Savasana teaches us to dis-identify from our thoughts. Learning Savasana might be our first experience of learning that we are NOT our thoughts; we have them, but that is not who we are. Seeing this in Savasana is just the beginning. Meditation trains us to do it all the time.”
So if you’re using savasana to zone out or take a nap (and who hasn’t heard snoring during the pose?), try using it to actively go a little deeper. Turn your attention inward – and when thoughts do arise, just acknowledge them, and bring your attention back to where it was. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that “Meditation is not evasion, it is a serene encounter with reality.” The same is true for savasana. Get in touch with that pure consciousness behind your thoughts, and you’re in pretty good shape. If you can do this off the mat as well, you’ll be doing really well.
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.