Shavasana- Corpse pose. Full relaxation. A posture most commonly practiced at the end of a Yoga asana sequence.
B.K.S Iyengar ꟷone of the most influential Yoga teachers in the worldꟷ prescribed in his famous book, Light on Yoga to leave 15-20 minutes for shavasana at the end of each practice. In this posture, as Iyengar writes, the practitioner should imitate a corpse. He should maintain stillness of both body and mind. The practitioner must remain in complete consciousness in order to learn how to consciously let go.
This posture is one of the hardest in our practice. Therefore it is not surprising that contemporary practitioners are drawn away from Iyengar’s instructions to it. Light on Yoga was first published in 1966 and it is considered to be one of the best written sources in the field; it summarises a lot of principles that were not published as explicitly before and many that didn’t take the written form at all for centuries.
Thus it seems right to assume that practitioners used to practice long shavasana at a certain age and time. So what is happening now?
I would love to share with you two very different experiences I had while teaching this pose:
1. Once I was teaching a class and have finished all of my planed sequence about twelve minutes before the end. Consequently, the students got the treat of a longer shavasana. I probably missed something or just changed my mind in the middle about what posture to take next, like always. Anyway, the time planning did not turn out perfectly. The class was taught in a gym environment where I am expected to give a maximum of 5 minutes shavasana at the end. We were on minute number 3 and I was already sure that all of my students are a sleep or just waiting for it to be over. I woke them up and ended the class few minutes early.
2. Another time I guided a 3-5 minutes shavasana, at another gym, to the tunes of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonnet’, my favourite shavasana music. A student I haven’t seen before came over after the class and thanked me. She said that she experienced unique sensations during the shavasana; she described a vision of blue and purple colours and a floating sensation. She said it was a shame that we couldn’t have a longer shavasana, as the class is only 60 minutes long.
Through my ten-years-experience in Yoga, I have never practiced or guided shavasana for longer than 10 minutes. In more traditional studios an average shavasana lasts 5-10 minutes. After arriving in Melbourne I had to adjust to most local studios’ requirements of a maximum 5 minutes length relaxation. In some studios I was asked to guide a 3 minutes relaxation and then leave the room after the class to the use of students who wish to stay longer in shavasana. I frequently see students use the time of shavaasana to practice other postures, to get dressed or gather their things; sometimes students will thank me and leave the room during shavasana.
At the same time I must say that the requests for ‘hard’ or ‘advanced’ or ‘challenging’ postures only rise. Students enjoy me demonstrating a very tricky arm balances. They love to sweat and try new things. Binds, inversions and balance postures are gaining more and more popularity in my classes. It seems to me that contemporary practitioners are embracing the physical challenges of the Yoga practice. I even sometimes feel like I need to keep advancing my own physical practice in order to keep up with my students expectations. I should thank my students for the significant progress in my asana practice the past few years; I indeed am grateful for that. Asana is a major part of our practice and I always encourage my students to keep challenging themselves to find those postures that they still can’t do, rather than staying attached to the postures they have mastered. I preach it to my students but I actually feel that I have learned it from them more than from any other source.
I think that my role as a teacher is mainly to assist in guiding the student in the path he chooses himself. Many of us choose this challenging path of conquering the Yoga asana. We are a competitive, success driven society, we are up for all that is challenging and hard. So why aren’t we as driven to challenge ourselves and conquer shavasana? It is obviously harder for us all, this day and age, to let go and relax than to hold a dancer’s pose. Maybe we are actually avoiding the harder task of lying down with closed eyes and convince ourselves we are challenged more by standing on one leg.
I sincerely think that the fault for abandoning traditional shavasana is mainly on us, Yoga teachers. We are not very good at selling this pose! And it is probably because it is so hard for us to conquer to. It is hard to practice and it is hard to teach.
As teachers, if we want our students to enjoy shavasana, we need to market it in the same way we market other more ‘sexy’ asanas. In my classes I started to approach shavasana as a challenging posture. It is not enough to say that shavasana is the time to ‘heal’ and ‘recover’ and ‘relax’. These are not ‘sexy’ activities and they don’t imply any benefit to our contemporary student’s mind. I rather started to present shavasana as the hardest posture in our practice, as the time to challenge our mind and not the body. It is a posture that has a goal, it is done for the body and not by the body. It is the time for the body to absorb all the benefits of the practice and to gain self-learning; it is a process in which the mind must not interfere. Shavasana is not a time to ‘rest’ it is a time to ‘practice’ stillness, presence, non-attachment to the ego.
Shavasana is all about surrendering and letting go. As a teacher I guide the students to let go of all thoughts and sensations, and commit to not making this posture all about themselves, what would be serving only the ego. At the same time it is me who has to step back and surrender to the pose. I need not to interfere and let the pose do its own service to my students. I need to stop talking and guiding and making it all about me. I need to let go of my students and give them their space. In the case I described earlier (number 2) I have created a space for my student’s spiritual experience. Her experience could have lasted longer perhaps, however, it is only because I let her go she had the space for this experience at all. I stopped talking and guiding and gave her time to tune inwards where she found space for her own spiritual practice. This is why I believe that it is a good technique to leave the room during the shavasana or maybe enter shavasana with the students, setting a timer for myself.
Shavasana is also a lot about trust. Trusting the posture, trusting the teacher, trusting the space. We enter shavasana ꟷa state of nothingnessꟷ and we trust that we will come back from it and not disappear. Otherwise we can stay only on the threshold of the pose. As a teacher, I must trust my students when guiding them through the pose. I shouldn’t assume that they don’t have a full experience of relaxation. I don’t know what goes through their minds and I should trust them that they practice the pose in the best way possible for them, on that particular day on the mat. I sincerely think that it is me who made shavasana boring that time I described, in experience number 1. I did not trust my students enough. Maybe somewhere I still feel like I am doing something wrong if I stop talking; a moment of silence still might feel like forever. Maybe I am also falling into this popular judgment that if a class or a posture is not hard or active it is not good enough, not interesting enough. Or this common, ego-driven misconception that if a class is harder, it is better. I don’t know if that is something that we ever grow out of. My students are definitely those who inspire me to keep up and improving in this layer of my practice as well.
There is so much of a Yogi mental practice I discovered as a teacher, so much processes to observe on myself while teaching. I encourage my students to observe themselves while practicing, and I join them in this process. The realisation that I can still feel like I am a practitioner, a student, even while I am teaching a class, fills me with joy and gratitude.