Savasana – The Science & Art of Chilling Out

savasana

Pop Tart Culture

It always puzzles me when yoga students roll up their mat and creep out of the room as soon as savasana commences. I wonder if these are the same students, who, when they do stay for the final resting pose, stare up at the ceiling, fidget incessantly, and suddenly seem to develop a demanding case of poisen oak on the tip of their nose. It’s not that these students all have ADHD or lower levels of self restraint than the rest of us; I think it has more to do with a lack of understanding of the value of this posture. I also think it also has to do with our culture where we associate being agitated and stressed-out with being productive and having a sense of self-worth. Like the comedian Brian Regan says in his skit about Pop-Tarts, … after the toaster instructions, then they have a whole set of microwave instructions… how long does it take to toast a pop tart?! A minute?! You don’t have that kind of time?! Listen, if you need to zap-fry your pop tarts before you head out the door, you might wanna loosen up your schedule.  So true! Whether it’s the way we prepare food or the time we take to care for ourselves. We act like lunatics rushing around with our schedules so jammed packed that we feel like chilling out for a few minutes is not worthy of our time!

The Cherry on Top

Almost every type of yoga practice or sequence ends with a final resting pose, savasana, usually done flat on one’s back with arms and legs stretched out, relaxing heavily on the floor. The use of props like a bolster under the knees or a blanket under the head may make make this resting posture most comfortable. The pose name translates in Sanskrit to “corpse pose”, not because the ancient yogi’s had a morbid obsession, but because the pose is meant to facilitate complete surrender and letting go – physically and mentally. The body and mind are still and quiet. So is corpse pose the same as a power nap? Not really. Lying down on your back sounds simple, but if you look up the posture on yogajournal.com, you will find that it takes 5 paragraphs of step-by-step instructions to tell you how to set yourself up in this uncomplicated pose – and that’s just instructing the physical aspects of the posture! The biggest reason for setting yourself up with care for savasana is so that the body is completely open and at ease and is no longer a distraction to the mind. Understanding the benefits, which are so worth staying on your mat for that extra 5 to 10 minutes, might be key to helping you experience those benefits first-hand.

I could go on for 15 pages about the benefits of savasana for every system in the body, for hormone regulation, for mental and emotional wellbeing, and for spiritual connectedness (whatever your religious beliefs), but since I’d rather you finish this and head off to your mat to practice, I’ll focus on just two areas of benefit: One from a western, more medical standpoint about the nervous system and the other from a more holistic Ayurvedic view about the flow of energy.

Maintaining Balance and Homeostasis of the Nervous System

Quick refresher: The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is made up of two main corresponding systems – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), associated with the physiological response of “fight or flight”, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), associated with the response of “rest and digest” or “feed and breed”. Good old Wikipedia draws out this phrase:To be specific, the parasympathetic system is responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest” or “feed and breed” activities that occur when the body is at rest, including sexual arousal, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination, digestion, and defecation.”  It’s no news flash that modern life keeps us in a state of fight or flight most of the time where our SNS is dominant. However, as Dr. Veronique Mead so simply states, “A healthy nervous system maintains homeostasis by balancing input from both branches of the ANS during activites ranging from relaxing, digesting and sleeping, to waking, feeling excited, and running.” Relaxing and lettting go completely in Savasana is one of the best ways to activate the PNS, receiving the benefits of better digestion, detoxification, and sexual health as well as lower heart rate, lower levels of the stress hormone Cortisol, higher levels or endorphins (“feel good” hormones), and increased resistance to infection.

Rivers of Prana

In the practice of yoga, the postures and the breath are used to cleanse, tone, and strengthen the whole body – each system – on a holistic level. From an Ayurvedic viewpoint, health is achieved when Prana, or “life force energy”, is able to move uninterrupted throughout the whole body. Sickness and disease are seen as the result of poor energy flow. Those who regularly practice yoga may be able to tune into their body’s subtle rhythms and notice where and when they feel “blocked” or “stagnant” in a particular part of their body. During a well-rounded yoga practice, stagnant and blocked energy channels are opened up and cleansed, and during savasana, Prana is able to flow freely through the body to any places that need healing and extra nourishment. This is one reason for the very open and easy alignment in this pose. There are no “kinks” or bent angles in the body. All the energy channels are wide open for life force to flow easily.

If You Skip Out, You are Missing Out! 

Like I said before, there are so many other benefits to practicing savasana, such as the integration of new neuromuscular patterns and the quieting of the mind that happens from withdrawing the senses. However, I think you will learn about these just from experiencing them if you give yourself the chance. So stay, surrender to the practice of letting go, and see what happens. And please, don’t eat pop tarts for breakfast, even if you toast ’em.

More GABA Please!

yoga woman

Last night when I walked out of a vinyasa flow yoga class, I felt that warm, glowing, calm  energy that keeps me coming back to my mat day after day. I was thinking about this feeling, the “yoga glow”, and decided it is the exact opposite feeling of anxiety and depression. It’s more than feeling well-rested and rejuvenated, and it’s different than the endorphin kick of a great cardio workout. My heart feels settled, my body feels light, and my head feels clear and calm. What’s happening in my brain to make me feel so chilled out and happy?

There are, of course, multiple reasons why a yoga practice makes you feel great – body, mind and spirit. But in particular, the activity of one little neurotransmitter, GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid), really sparked my interest to learn more. You see, GABA is mostly an inhibitory neurotransmitter, similar to serotonin. This means when we are stressed, frantic, or excited, GABA sends signals to tell the brain the chill out and calm down. In yoga speak, we might say it quiets the fluctuations of the mind. Studies show that GABA activity is measurably higher after a yoga session.

Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine, New York Medical College and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons hypothesized that low activity of GABA in the brain is linked with chronic pain, depression, anxiety and even PTSD. Studies show that a regular yoga practice can help keep your GABA levels up, helping to ward off the aforementioned issues. I say regular because you can’t try one class and expect your GABA high to carry you through the next week. Its just like sleep. Even though you slept well last night, you still need to head to bed tonight to feel good tomorrow!

If you really love to nerd out on studies, check this out: The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. This study compares the effects on brain chemistry of yoga compared to walking for exercise.

Or you could just take my word for it: Yoga is one of the best things you can do to keep calm and be happy.