By Natasha Friedman
I’m talking about shavasana, the “corpse pose,” the position for deep relaxation.
It’s easy to perform. Lie down on your back, palms facing up and feet apart. But is that all there is to it?
The apparent simplicity of shavasana hides the immense benefits and subtleties of the pose. It has powerful effects on every level, from physical health to spiritual understanding.
In this article, let’s explore these benefits and the deeper meaning evoked by shavasana. I hope it will inspire you to give more attention to this pose and feel for yourself all it has to offer.
Physical benefits of shavasana
When I was a teenager, my singing teacher once told me that dogs are smarter than humans. Why? Because when dogs have nothing to do, they lie down. When humans have nothing to do, they run around looking for something to do.
There’s some truth in this. Our modern, Western societies are built on a “get stuff done” mentality. It’s a deep implicit belief that if you’re not doing something at every moment, you’re wasting your time.
Stress is the single biggest disease factor in the modern developed world.
The list of stress-related ailments could go on a long time: heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity, cancer, not to mention uniquely 21st-century diseases like adrenal fatigue syndrome.
Constant activity unbalances the nervous system, affecting everything else in the body. The human nervous system actually has two complementary “settings:” the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system puts us in “fight or flight” mode. We’re in high alert, ready to move, react and make changes.
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, we’re ready to run away from a saber-tooth tiger. Breath and heart rate accelerates, blood pressure increases and the digestive system shuts down.
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is “rest and digest.” It’s a relaxed mode in which vital signs slow down and digestion powers up. The body collects its energy and focuses on healing, cleaning itself and making itself stronger.
The body has an incredible ability to heal itself, but if it’s out of balance, if we never give it the chance to go into its healing mode, it can only put Band-Aid’s on the problem.
Over time, the results of stress will accumulate until the body will have to show a big problem – a major disease or healing crisis – just to get the attention it needs.
The practice of yoga in general is intended to balance the body’s energetic polarity. However, if I am a driven, goal-oriented, achievement-obsessed Western person, of course I will bring this same attitude in yoga. I’ll always be pushing my limits, trying to do better in the asanas and get better at yoga.
Not only is this missing the deeper purpose of yoga, it’s just reinforcing the same stress mentality, still overloading the sympathetic nervous system.
Shavasana is the best antidote. It’s impossible to “win” at shavasana. There’s no effort to be made, no progress to be achieved.
It brings a full dive into the parasympathetic nervous system. It allows us to experience, maybe for the first time in our adult lives, what it feels like to really relax. Just by dipping into this mode, the body can start to reset and remember how to heal itself.
Because it is a systematic, conscious relaxation, it is much more effective than just lying on the couch and spacing out.
Just 15 minutes of shavasana every day can do wonders for many physical problems. Especially those that relate directly to stress, like high blood pressure or insomnia, but allowing the body to go into healing mode will help with any disease.
Prana flows freely when there is relaxation. This is part of why we try to relax as much as possible in every asana and release any muscles that aren’t needed to hold the pose.
In shavasana, where no muscles are needed to hold the pose, energy can move and expand throughout the entire body. All the energies that we were actively working with through the asana practice can deepen and harmonize into a unified field. The effects of the practice become imprinted into the subtle body.
This free flowing of prana, combined with relaxation and a holistic awareness of the entire body, creates a unique opportunity to go beyond the physical body. We can feel the limits of the body dissolving into a field of awareness.
In this expansion, shavasana also offers a precious chance to feel Spanda, the Sacred Tremor of the Heart.
Mental and emotional benefits
As I mentioned earlier, shavasana is a time to integrate the results of the yoga practice, the time for any insights and changes to sink into the subconscious.
This process is necessary if we want lasting transformation. No matter how much we understand intellectually, no matter how much we try to fix things at the conscious level, the only way to change our reality is by changing our mind at a much deeper level.
Besides this, all the benefits for the physical body also carry over to the mental and emotional levels. A few minutes of total relaxation every day can help relieve anxiety and depression, and create breathing space in a busy life.
Remember that the body stores memories and emotions in its physical structure, especially the fascia system. When we practice asanas, many tensions and locked energies are shaken loose. Shavasana allows them to be released completely. Just witness them and let them go!
Shavasana can also improve your meditation, especially if you tend towards drowsiness. Usually we associate relaxation with sleeping. Then we try to relax in meditation, and of course, the habit kicks in and we start snoring on the cushion.
In shavasana, we learn to relax while staying fully alert, even while lying down. This helps go into deeper states while maintaining high clarity.
Shavasana has several profound meanings and associations within the yogic tradition.
There is a Sanskrit saying that Shiva without Shakti is shava (a corpse).
In Hindu iconography, it’s common to see forms of the Goddess standing or dancing on the prone body of Shiva.
Shiva, the masculine principle, represents pure consciousness. It is the Void that, paradoxically, is the basis for all reality. The space in which the dance of life takes place.
Shakti, the feminine principle, is universal energy, the sacred energy that points back to its source (Shiva).
Many spiritual traditions throughout history have only been interested in the transcendent, not the immanent aspect of divinity. The world of manifestation is dismissed as maya, illusion, impure, sinful or irredeemably broken.
It’s a view that certainly encourages hardcore spiritual practice, but it’s inherently dualistic. There can only be non-duality when we recognize all of manifestation – even the ugly parts – as an expression of the Divine Consciousness.
In Kashmir Shaivism, an uncompromisingly non-dualistic tantric tradition, the Ultimate is often referred to as Spanda (dynamic stillness, the primordial vibration of Consciousness), Paramashiva or Para Devi, the Supreme that is immanent and transcendent simultaneously.
Pure consciousness – without the principle of energy – is beyond any action or conditioning from the world of forms.
This long tangent brings us to the point that shavasana is meant to put the practitioner in touch with that transcendent principle.
It is an asana that encourages us to go beyond everything changing and relative. It reveals the most profound stillness, the dissolution of all forms into the Void.
As the “corpse pose,” shavasana naturally brings the practitioner to a contemplation of death.
Although it might seem grim at first, meditating on death is actually one of the most uplifting and motivating spiritual practices, because it reminds us of what’s important in life – and of just how precious this human life is.
In a way, the whole spiritual practice can also be seen as a process of dying: the death of the ego.
Ironically, it’s only once this has “died” that we can awaken to life as it really is. Beyond the parts of us that can change and die, what we really are is always alive and is the source of all life.
The process can feel like dying because it demands that we let go of everything that we are identified with, everything that we considered to be ourselves.
This feeling doesn’t come only before some grand realization. It can happen in a small way in any meditation, during a retreat or at any point when we’re about to move on to a new stage of our spiritual growth.
If you look closely enough, death is actually an aspect of every moment of experience. Nothing lasts forever, but actually, nothing lasts more than a moment. Everything is in constant flux. The cells in your body are decaying and reforming, particles are moving, time is passing.
The universe is constantly in a state of dissolving and reforming. The old forms are gone as soon as they appear.
This fact of subtle impermanence, as it’s known in Buddhism, shows that death is simply a part of life. It is a blessing. It allows for change, for evolution, and for all of life to take place.
Finally, shavasana is an invitation to experience one of the most important elements of spiritual practice, if not the most important: surrender.
In shavasana, there’s nothing more to do. No effort can or should be made. (Besides the effort to stay awake!) There’s no way we can push to do it any better.
We can only be still and open to receive grace.
However, it’s significant that this asana comes only at the end of a yoga practice, after we have made a lot of effort!
It’s like shooting an arrow from a bow. You draw back the arrow, concentrate on the target, build up powerful tension in the string, and then release. The arrow flies.
If you don’t build up the tension, or if you don’t let go at the end, the arrow will never make it to the target.
Surrender doesn’t mean not doing anything. It means doing as much as you can, as if your life depended on it, but while realizing that ultimately, you can’t do anything. Your efforts are just taking you to the point where you can see that you – the “you” that you think you are – is not the one calling the shots.
You can’t make water any wetter than it is. You can just build a better cup to hold it.
Shavasana is all too easily overlooked. I know many yogis – and I’ve definitely been guilty of this – skip it in their own practice. When you’re short on time, it can seem like a waste of precious minutes. It’s much more fun and flashy to go straight to meditation or pranayama.
However, I think that’s a mistake in the long run. Shavasana brings amazing benefits on all levels, and it’s the perfect way to tie together a yoga practice.
Of course, to really go deep into shavasana, it’s important to do it with awareness. Try to stay alert and awake the whole time, just as in a sitting meditation. Perform a systematic relaxation, moving your awareness gradually through your entire body.
Not convinced yet? Make a commitment to do a 10-minute shavasana with conscious relaxation (15 minutes is better, if you can) as part of your daily practice for a week. Just see for yourself what this simple but powerful practice can do.
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.