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.