Friday, April 17, 2020

Achieving Deep Relaxation with Savasana

Water Lilies by Claude Monet
by Nina Zolotow

Although Savasana is the name of a yoga pose, it’s also the practice that you do while you’re in that pose. This Savasana practice is what turns a position that you take all the time in bed or on the grass under a blue sky into an experience of deep conscious relaxation. Without the practice, you’re just, you know, resting on the floor. (Of course, resting in a comfortable position is okay, too, if that’s what you’re after.)

For the Savasana practice, from beginning to end—as you set up in, rest in, and come out of Savasana—set an intention to stay present and perform all your actions with awareness and care. There are four basic stages to the practice:
  1. Aligning Your Body
  2. Quieting Your Body
  3. Quieting Your Mind
  4. Staying Present
Here are some suggestions for how to practice the four different stages.

Stage 1: Aligning Your Body

After you choose the version of Savasana that you want to practice (see Eight Ways to Practice Savasana (Relaxation Pose) and have set up any props you need, you’re ready to carefully lie down and arrange your body—and that means every single part of you, including your arms, your legs, your torso, and even your head—in that pose. 

Once you’re in the basic pose, bring your attention to your legs and arms. Move your feet so they are eight to ten inches apart from each other. Then, move your arms away from your body so your hands are six to eight inches from your body, with your palms facing up. If there is anything on the floor that is now touching any part of your body, move it out of the way. The idea here is to reduce the stimulation to your body-mind that physical contact with objects or your own body parts creates. 

Next, make whatever subtle movements you need to, to make your position as symmetrical as possible. Check that your head is evenly between your two shoulders and is not turning to one side or the other, and that your eyes about equal distance from the ceiling. And if your weight feels uneven on the two sides of your body, shift around so it is as even as possible. 

After you’ve made all these adjustments, your alignment is close to “anatomical neutral,” the position your body is in when you are not activating any of your muscles. When you are in this neutral position, it’s possible to relax your body completely. And your complete lack of muscular activity, except for the muscles used in breathing, also helps quiet your mind.

Stage 2: Quieting Your Body

After you’ve finished making adjustments to your pose, you are now entirely supported by the surface on which you are lying. You no longer need to contract your muscles to hold yourself upright or partly upright, and you can simply release your body onto that support and allow your muscles to soften and melt. Because we’re so used to contracting our muscles—even when resting—it may take some time for you to let go completely. 

At this point, it’s time to make a commitment to remaining still for the rest of your time in the pose. Staying still helps reduce external stimulation, which tells your nervous system that you’re safe and starts to quiet your body as well as your mind. 

Finally, bring your awareness to your sense organs. Even after you still your body, there’s still a lot to hear, smell, taste, and feel, and you’ll continue to notice the light (or lack of it) in the room even with your eyes closed. And all these sensory impressions stimulate your brain. So, take a few moments to consciously relax your sense organs. Let your tongue rest on the floor of your mouth. Allow your eyes to soften back toward your skull and try gazing with your closed eyes under your cheekbones. Relax your ears, your nose, and your skin, consciously withdrawing your awareness from your senses of hearing, smell, and touch. 

Stage 3: Quieting Your Mind

After you have stilled your body and quieted your sense organs, you’re ready to turn your awareness inward. Rather than just letting your mind wander as you would if you were lying on the grass in a park, choose a focus for your mind that you’ll use throughout your time in the pose. Maintaining a mental focus helps you stay alert in the pose, allowing you to reap the benefits of conscious relaxation, rather than simply falling asleep. It also helps you stay present in the pose by anchoring you in the here and now, rather than ruminating over the past, anticipating the future, or drifting off into fantasy.

Here are some suggestions for a mental focus in Savasana:
  • The gradual relaxation of individual parts of your body (sometimes called a body scan), usually starting with your toes and working your way up your body.
  • Your breath, which you can observe as you do in seated meditation.
  • A mantra that you recite silently to yourself.
  • A peaceful image, such as a beautiful place in nature or place where you felt happy and at ease.
In this reclined meditation, practice concentrating the same way you do in a seated meditation. When you notice your attention wandering, without judgment, gently return your attention to your chosen focus. For example, if your breath is your focus for your practice, continue to watch your breath for the entire practice, and each time you notice your mind wandering, gently bring it back to your breath again.

As you continue your concentration practice, you’ll notice that even as your mind still wanders periodically your thoughts will gradually slow down and you’ll feel calmer and quieter. This is a result of the relaxation response, which is triggered by your concentration practice. With time, you may even reach a deeper state of relaxation, in which you may feel as if you’re floating, notice dreamy images flitting through your mind, or completely let go of your connection with external reality. 

Stage 4: Staying Present Throughout

I suggest you stay for at least 10 minutes in Savasana because it takes 7 or 8 minutes to trigger the relaxation response, which is when your nervous system fully calms down and enters you into the rest and digest state. Of course, you can stay even longer if you like. 

After your time in the pose is up, you should be feeling very quiet and relaxed. To maintain that feeling of peace, stay present and aware as you come out of the pose, which should be a slow process. You can start by opening your eyes just a crack, keeping your vision passive as you let the light in the room fall into your eyes. Then ease back into movement by slowly wiggling your fingers and toes and then maybe stretching your limbs a bit. 

When you are ready to come out, again, focus on moving slowly, because quick movements are stimulating. So slowly bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the ground or on the prop you’re using for your legs. Then, slowly turn over onto your right side and rest there for a couple of breaths. When you’re ready to come to a seated position, rather than leading with your head, use your hands to slowly push yourself up to a seated position, allowing your head to release downward until you are completely upright. Finally, when you are seated upright, slowly lift your head.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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