Monday, February 26, 2007

Learning from a Corpse

No, I’m not going to enthuse about C.S.I. or, for you older yogis, Quincy. Today, I’m going to talk about what you can learn about yourself when relaxing in the final pose of a yoga class, Savasana (Corpse Pose). During interviews for my recent Yoga Journal article, I asked experienced teachers how yoga instructors could gauge if their class was successful. Several of them noted that the true sign of a good class was if the students were relaxed and quiet during Corpse.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense...the power of yoga is how it creates a sense of calm and well-being in the practitioner, no matter how energetic the sequence. This calm is evidenced by how much you can let go during the final relaxation. A teacher needs to watch for agitated movement, clenched fingers or toes, fluttering eyelids—basically signs that the students cannot release their muscles, even in a quiet, soothing environment. That means the work of the class was not calming and the teacher needs to find a way to help the students relax. Or, even if the students appear to be relaxed, their minds are still racing and the students, themselves, have to figure out how to quiet their thoughts.

I think Savasana is one of the hardest poses to do, because it is so difficult to completely let go and just “be in the moment.” Here are some suggestions on how to relax the body and, once the muscles are released, to still the mind.

-Start with the body. This is not meditation, so you aren’t trying to alter your consciousness; you are trying to get the muscles in the body to relax and soften, so concentrate on the smallest and move to the largest. Start with the fingers and toes, which have the fewest motor neurons and, as a result, are the easiest to release. Then move up the legs and arms to the hips and shoulder and finally into the torso. The postural muscles (abdominals and back) are some of the most complex and it is much harder to release contracted muscles here, especially because the contraction may be habitual if this is where your store your stress, (i.e. upper shoulders, lower back).

-Stay focused on the muscles. It takes a lot of concentration to relax the muscles and keep them relaxed, so work on maintaining a released state. Sense the softening of your body with each exhale and imagine yourself sinking into the floor. Keep deepening the “melting” feeling, so each breath contributes to your continued relaxation.

-Stay in the moment. For me, it is hardest to quiet and release the mind. As the body relaxes, the mind wants to keep working so you have to shut it off or, at least, slow it down. Sometimes just repeating a simple phrase is enough: “Air comes in, air goes out,” with each breath, for example. Or visualize a scene that will keep the mind focused on the moment: clouds moving by in the sky or water passing over pebbles in a stream. Corpse is meant to be an “active” relaxation, so you want to stay present and aware, not distracted with the mind wandering.

-Do Savasana regularly. Being able to relax, but not fall asleep or zone out takes practice. But, once you figure out how to get your muscles to release and your mind to empty, you’ve got a powerful tool to help yourself stay calm and reduce stress. In a pinch, I’ve found being able to just “be” for 10 minutes is almost as good as a nap in terms of revitalization (almost).

Work on this during your next practice. See if you can get to that place where the body is completely soft and the mind is conscious, but not working. And if it’s really difficult, notice why that is. Being aware of where you are tense and can’t relax will give you a place to focus on next time (maybe by including some poses that target that area). Collect your clues and crack this case! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.


Anonymous said...

Hi from a fellow Badger who now lives in Ply. Ma. check out my website, I really enjoyed your blog and wondered it you would like to write a little something for my website. I am off to a well-deserved vacation today but will recontact you when I return. Continued good luck. I go to Milw. to see my grandkids but Beloit it a little too far to go to one of your classes. Unfortunately I haven't found a teacher in Milwaukee that I like. I am a 500 hour Kripalu teacher and that makes me pretty fussy when it comes to mentors!

Brenda Plakans said...

Hello Badger!
I actually lived in Cambridge until I was 8 and still have lots of family in the Boston-area. The Wisconsin-Massachusettes connection continues!

Let me know when you get back from vacation...have fun.


P.S. You can also contact me at