Shavasana and The Art of Deep Relaxation
The Importance of Shavasana
The Renewing Force of Deep Relaxation
In yoga we understand that to relax is a conscious act. Oftentimes the final pose of a yoga class is a relaxation pose of physical stillness, called Shavasana. For many, shavasana is the most difficult pose because it is achieved through choosing to surrender all control.. you soften into the back of your body, into the ground beneath, and then let go of your body completely… in a supine position you surrender yet stay awake.. and in that time you cultivate the skill of observing without evaluating. This shift of consciousness,
even at the most basic level, becomes a wonderful wellness for your body because it releases your organ systems, your bones and muscles, your nerves, your emotional body, and even your qi, from your mental stress.
Shavasana is accomplished through attention to your body as a whole and in parts. If sleep happens, it is no longer shavasana, but it is still a renewing sleep. A true shavasana is when your present moment awareness remains awake.
Shavasana is a great teacher! When practiced faithfully, the pose quiets your busy mind and your intuitive abilities awaken, sometimes with images, sometimes through feelings and sensations. Your physical body comes into a profound restful enlightenment. Deep relaxation, sweet, nurturing relaxation, is the balm that eases away all your stress, and breaks the constant stream of your habitual thought patterns,
unlocking the inner door of a quiet mind and a blissful being.
Here are just some of the benefits associated with shavasana relaxation:
1. Slows heartbeat; lowers and stabilizes blood pressure
2. Aids in a healthy digestion
3. Increases blood flow to your muscles and organs systems
4. Can lower cholesterol levels and lessen the severity of angina attacks
5. Helps to lessen many aspects of depression by creating a gentler more peaceful internal environment from which to contemplate and deal with the causes of depression
6. Has been seen to improve the body’s ability to regulate glucose in patients with the most common type of diabetes, which has its onset in adulthood.
7. Eases breathing and opens lung passages. Offers relief to chronic asthmatics by diminishing both the emotional disturbances that can trigger attacks and the constriction of air passages that limit breathing
8. Alleviates chronic or severe pain
9. Creates a more energetic state of movement and greater mental freedom for living
10. Steadies your sleep patterns; lessens insomnia
11. Hormone levels shift in favor of a stronger immune system
12. Increases efficiency of thought and action; increases coordination
13. Emotions flow more easily and difficult emotions resolve more quickly
14. Intuition is enhanced
15. Fewer headaches from stresses of all kinds
16. Clears and refreshes the mind, increases concentration and memory retention
17. Increases creativity
18. Diminishes mood swings
19. Increases peace of heart and mind and helps you to find your centered self.
Shavasana vs. our cultural experience of relaxation
Shavasana is different from what many of us might think of when we hear the word relaxation, both in its effects and in its methods. It’s different than seeking relaxation through entertainment, or by ‘getting away;’ which is a relaxation characterized by distracting yourself from the moment at hand, and sometimes taking on a busyness of packing in many activities and eating nutrient depleted foods. The popular idea of relaxation in our culture actually perpetuates many forms of stress, including emotional, physical and subconscious stress… which is most of our stress. Ever go on vacation and come home drained and afraid to head back into your life? After a few days at home, does your stress jump right back onto your back and shoulders, clouding your thinking and making it hard to feel your feelings? .. There ARE ways to merge the joys of vacation and fun times with a lasting quality of well-being.. ways that could include a yogic approach to relaxation.
Yogic relaxation attends to the moment and to your body in such a way that tension in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, organs, and the entire cellular structure, dissipates and becomes absent. It is a state of mind characterized by an absence of: stressful thoughts, negative self-talk, worries, desires, or any mind activity that creates currents of tension in the body. This kind of relaxation combines beautifully with a purposeful life of creating joy and peace, within yourself, in your home, at your work and in your play…
When you practice yoga with a deep shavasana, you allow a release of present or long oppressed emotions. You free your physical body from the burden of constantly restricting your emotional range according to what’s socially acceptable, because this relaxation helps you to inwardly expand which makes room for deep feeling. Deep feeling that’s rooted in your centered self.
bringing a greater sense of ease in your own skin.
Learning to relax with awake awareness is a process because it takes time to learn to truly relax, and then to nurture the focus needed to bask in it so that it becomes a regular experience amidst all the other experiences of life; an integrated part of each day. So much so that your body-mind is rewritten to deal with life from a place of ease and innate love rather than fear. So it’s very deep, long lasting, and it can become integrated into daily living.
When you relax in this way, you can enjoy your fun activities and vacations so much more.. and come home with a readiness to bring happiness with you as you live and work.
Shavasana counteracts the Fight, Flight or Freeze Response
In order for deep relaxation to be effective it needs to decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system reacts to stress by secreting hormones that create a readiness in the muscles and organs to face a threat, or to react in some way. Also called the fight or flight or freeze syndrome, it can be triggered by real danger as well as everyday stresses, worries or negative self talk, and does not require real threat or trauma to be detrimentally active in the body. In fact the kind of fight or flight most of us experience from our society is not clearly defined; it’s more of a gnawing, decaying force in our lives because there’s no clear beginning nor ending to it. Without a line of demarcation the body becomes locked in a constant state of threat readiness that is the opposite of being relaxed.
Fight or flight moves blood away from the prefrontal cortex, the mind seat of logic and reasoning, resulting in lower intelligence for the living of our lives. It also feeds your arms and legs with extra blood flow, depriving your internal organs, especially digestion, of the regenerative blood flow needed for a healthy gut.
With fight or flight, even at low levels, the body shifts out of a mode of growth and into constant self-protection. Part of the difficulty here is that in our society, the kinds of stresses that trigger fight or flight require a savvier, higher brain functioning solution. Trouble at work, financial difficulties, social pressures, political climate, environmental disturbances, everyday relationships- all of these ask us to respond thoughtfully and to think creatively.
Chronic stress requires a proactive approach
with eyes open to life in new and different ways.
Many people have real traumas, old or recent, to deal with and at the same time work to fulfill daily responsibilities, and so for some the stress base may be higher than the ‘norm’ to begin with. Add onto this the emotional and mental bombardment of simply knowing far too much of the world’s tragedies on a daily basis, far more than we can effect a positive change upon. In this kind of societal climate, how can the beautiful organism of the human body/mind cultivate a peaceful life-giving radiant experience of the day; the kind of daily relationship to life that heals through Being; patiently, trustingly, humbly? Well, this is definitely where the deep relaxation of yoga can be of great benefit and the unfolding experience of shavasana can be transformative.
Cultivating Deep Relaxation as a Step Toward Shavasana…
For most of us, just learning the process for true relaxation is the first and most essential step on the way to shavasana. By cultivating shavasana we find ourselves physically healthier and more peaceful in living. The ease of being able to think and feel more clearly can help us to take the steps we need in order to make deep yogic relaxation a part of every day – both in concentrated practice and as an integral part of life tasks.
We are all interconnected; the more we live that reality, the easier life becomes. As we nourish ourselves into wellness, we nourish the world.
THE PRACTICE for your First Steps toward Shavasana:
This simple practice is excellent for anyone with any degree of yoga experience, including no yoga experience.
Please read all the instructions all the way through and then go ahead and try it out. Make sure the TV, computer, radio, etc. are turned off, or if you’re in a co-living situation and can’t do that then you could try ear plugs or ear phones to help block external sound. Soothing, slow music softly playing is another option.
1..Rest into a comfortable reclining chair or lie down on a floor or bed, (or lie down while elevating your legs above your torso and/or with a pillow under your hips -my personal favorite). Close your eyes but do not fall asleep. Breathe slowly and comfortably. Do not work at it; enjoy the flow of your breath moving in and out. Let your thoughts focus on the sensations of your breath entering your nose and exiting your nose. Feel the coolness and the warmth.
2..Now begin at the crown of your head and with a breath relax your skull. With another breath relax your eyes into their sockets. Relax your ears, your inner ears, your jaw… Relax your lips, your throat and then soften your shoulders.. Continue in this way, moving down your body relaxing each part as you come to it. One breath at a time relax a part of your body. When you reach the soles of your feet, go back up to the crown of your head and do it again. Remember to feel and relax the back of your body as much as the front.. and relax your inner body.. your organs, connective tissue, and bones.
3..STAY AWAKE. (this might be the hard part :) and STAY FOCUSED ON THE PARTS OF YOUR BODY RELAXING (or this might be the hard part because sometimes your brain is just going to want to think about the stuff of your life).
4..Go down your body 4 or 5 times, teaching your body to relax, in parts, and as a whole.
5..When you’re finished with your practice and ready to come out of your focused relaxation, breathe much deeper and bring small movements to your fingers, hands, toes, legs… stretch and exhale through your mouth several times. Bring movement to your spine in twists or stretches or wave-like undulations.
6..I recommend practicing this every day for 3 months (mark your calendar and begin today :) and you will experience a healthy transformation of greater connectedness to yourself in so very many ways. If making time for relaxation practice for 3 months feels daunting, then please try 2 weeks. I hope you’ll like it so much that you’ll want to continue.
As your body learns to relax part by part, your body intelligence for being able to relax more reliably in all kinds of situations
will be on the rise!
Shavasana grows deeper and more profound through practice. In conjunction with a yoga sadhana and with the awakening of energy body sensing, shavasana shifts and changes. Deepening the practice is an art and skill for further discussion…
For more information and discussion on the effects of deep relaxation, you can google any of the following with a search about the benefits of deep relaxation:
Herbert Benson, director of the Division of Behavioral Medicine at Beth Israel Hospital
The Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and Ronald Glaser of the Ohio State University College of Medicine at Columbus.
Dean Ornish, director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in San Francisco
Richard Surwit, a psychologist at the Duke University Medical Center.
Paul Lehrer of Rutgers Medical
Mary Jasnoski, psychologist,
The Society of Behavioral Medicine in San Francisco.