The Challenge and the Importance of SVASANA
We live in such a fast paced society that sometimes we make judgments that are too rash without taking the energy or time to do our research or listen to others. Before I fully immersed myself in teaching yoga and in the teachings of yoga other than the one of the eight limbs, the asanas, I found my self-practice to include a series of challenging sequences I developed for myself, inversions, arm balances, and some deep stretches, followed by a big squeeze of my knees to my chest. With eyes open the entire practice, I would then get up from my mat, roll it up, put it away, and go about my day. Did I benefit from the series of poses, inversions, and stretches? Sure, but I did not succeed in optimally slowing myself down and benefiting from the pure relaxation and surrendering of my mind and body to my yoga practice in what I now believe to be the most important pose of yoga, svasana. I did not learn the art of listening to my mind or a guided meditation without any distractions.
In my self-practice, which I have increased and relied on a lot since moving from NYC (where vinyasa classes were offered every hour on virtually every block of the city), I felt that I was always on a time crunch. With two toddlers, I tried to fit in yoga before they woke up or a quick yoga session before pick-ups, all the time feeling guilty that I should be doing something I could “cross off the forever to-do list” such as grocery shopping, putting away the dishes, doing the laundry, running errands, or working on the business side of running a yoga studio, which had always been on my radar as something I wanted to do. As a result, I felt that I should definitely do my favorite poses including arm balances and inversions, definitely couldn’t skip some of the key deep stretches that I know my body needs, but I never could find myself able to stay still in svasana without being in a class environment (I used to call “forceful svasana”).
I tried separating my yoga practice from my more meditative practice. Again, the only time I felt that I was capable of practicing meditation on my own was using guided meditations that I tried on different apps from my phone. I tried progressive muscle relaxation techniques, chakra meditations, visualization meditations, and guided breathing techniques (all of which I guide others through!). I tried changing my meditation times to the evening when I felt like it was easier for me to relax into the meditation as the day was nearly over and I had “accomplished” my “to-do” list. The problem with this was that half the time, I would fall asleep before halfway through the meditation was over. By the end of the day I found myself too tired to sit in a seated meditation, so I always chose a comfortable laying down position similar to svasana (sometimes even in my bed or an outdoor hammock). Usually, about an hour later my husband would wake me up and the kids would be in bed. Instead of feeling rejuvenated, calm, and at peace, I would feel grumpy, roll over, and want to continue sleeping without having had dinner or spent time in the evening with my husband. My switching meditation to the evening when I was too tired had backfired and I was not benefiting from its full effects.
As a yoga teacher, I’ve always included svasana at the end of my practice, and as a student in a crowded hot yoga NYC class I dreaded sitting in my pool of sweat in the hot room at the end of class and would count down the seconds until I could wiggle my fingers and toes and escape the hot room. Sometimes I became so overheated that even the ice cold washcloths that I brought into the class at the beginning of the class had become lukewarm and provided no relief from the heat; even their calming lavendar scent did not soothe me. Without feeling comfortable, it is virtually impossible to fully relax into svasana. I used to spend the whole time trying to find the cold part of my lukewarm towel to cover my face with.
Not until I broke my leg and decided to fully dedicate myself and my time to learning the other seven limbs of yoga, did I begin to completely appreciate the beauty, necessity, and benefits of being able to relax into svasana, without falling asleep. Although, I still feel that in a long, relaxing svasana it is completely acceptable and can be beneficial to take a snooze (I just gently give a nudge to our snorers), I also believe that there first needs to be sufficient time to concentrate on a guided meditation led by the instructor, or a more free meditation in which you rely on your own pranayama and sense withdrawal from the external environment, the slowing of your own thoughts and merging perhaps to one single thought or no thoughts of all, and just “simply being” in the present moment.
There is a form of yoga, yoga nidra, in which students are in a state between consciousness and sleep or what I usually call the “going to sleep stage.” Yoga nidra classes usually last at least 45 minutes with a complete feeling of wholeness of the self, greater understanding and intimacy with the self, relaxation, and reduction in stress levels. Most of the time students are in a svasana pose. We need to slow down and just “be” in our society where we are always on the go, creating lists that we need to check off as quickly as we can in order to feel a sense of “accomplishment,” or if we are spending time on physical activity we need to work as hard as we can in order to build up ourselves cardiovascularly or for those dieting, to burn off as many calories as possible. Not all individuals are necessarily ready to dive into a yoga nidra class without feeling fidgety and the discomfort of the stillness, introspection, and meditation for longer periods of time, but all individuals attending a yoga class should be able to at least attempt and try svasana at the end of an asana practice.
I, the biggest hypocrit of all as I have the most difficulty in slowing down and allowing my body to just be, to not focus on what I have to do and what time I’m wasting by letting myself be, need to especially make sure that I incorporate at least a five minute svasana at the end of my yoga practice. Laying in stillness withdrawn from thoughts and senses from the external world or even visualizing the self in an entirely different magical, safe, and peaceful world is perhaps more essential than moving through sun salutations at the beginning of a practice. When I think about my yoga classes, the longest pose we hold is svasana. It is the longest pose and also the last pose even if in some power vinyasa classes that are one hour svasana is held for only 3 minutes or so. This pose has the lasting effect that will carry over the benefits of all of our asanas that we meditatively link to our breathing to create a fluidity (vinyasa) in our practice, to when we leave the yoga studio and go about our day.
Many people wonder why yoga instructors prolong the movement out of svasana and into a seated pose. I remember in especially hot classes thinking to myself, “I can’t breath, now you want me to roll over onto my side curled in a fetal position and bring my hot body even closer together, creating more heat. When, oh when, can I sit up, inhale and exhale, chant om – which I don’t even think I have the umph to do, and bow my head in namaste and b-line it for the air conditioning outside of this studio trying not to slip on any sweat.” My, clearly, not calm mental spiral and desire to flee the calming svasana pose and gradual awakening back to my mat, is not the optimal svasana experience. In fact, I would call my experience in these situations not svasana at all. I simply could not do the pose given my level of discomfort. I could do chin stand, forearm stand, peacock pose, and “difficult” poses, yet I could not lay down and withdraw from my senses of the external world (the heat and sweat) and from my mind (I need to get out of here, please let this almost be over) into a calming, relaxing, presence in a safe and comfortable environment.
When yoga instructors tell students to prepare for svasana (when not in a heated class, often telling students to put on extra layers of clothing, cover themselves with a blanket, put on socks) this is so that the individual may be in a comfortable pose that will enable deep and full relaxation. The person with the bad back may have their knees bent towards the ceiling or choose to take restorative bridge pose for svasana. The decision of your comfort pose is left up to you; instructors merely make suggestions or adjustments. When the instructors ask to gently make bodily movements and roll to one side or the other, this is so we don’t shock the body into the real moment of being back on our mat in a yoga class and about to leave to resume daily activities. Unlike the experience of my husband suddenly awakening me from my meditative sleep and me feeling groggy, out of it, irritable, and far from relaxed, calm, and rejuvenated, the gradual return to one’s awareness of breathing, bodily presence, and mat enables an easeful transition back to the reality. This slow and peaceful transition from our safe and comfortable svasana, allows us to awaken when we are ready, retaining the calmness and rejuvenation attained in yoga class to face the rest of the day.
Since breaking my leg and spending more and more time concentrating on learning different meditation, breathing, and visualization techniques along with practicing repetition of mantras as part of my meditation, I now fully appreciate the importance and challenge of svasana to many. Now, when I teach a class, I take part in much of the class; I demonstrate poses and try to model poses as many students listen to my instructions, but are visual learners and really need the visual to fully understand the poses and transitions. I love practicing yoga, but the biggest difference is that at the end of class, I crave svasana as I watch the students in the class become more and more relaxed and distant from the external world. Sometimes I offer guided meditations, and sometimes I offer a few words and then tell my students to let everything relax and focus on their own safe and comfortable place with the goal being for them to lose themselves in the present moment in such a magical state. The benefits I receive from svasana as a teacher are the calm and peace that is created in the studio at the end of class. I let the calmness and peacefulness of the students in svasana extend to myself; I hold the present moment and delight in seeing individuals at such ease, but I also realize that I can no longer ignore this incredibly important pose in my own self practice.
Slowing down, letting ourselves just be, doing nothing but relaxing and focusing on calming thoughts or nothing at all, letting ourselves heal from injuries or illnesses without pushing our bodies forward before they are ready; these are all lessons I’m starting to learn and I want to extend to the reader. Even for the most OCD person that relies on that checklist, maybe for now writing in “meditation and calmness for 20 minutes” or even 10 minutes each day will allow you to feel “accomplished” (crossing it off the list) but also allow yourself to benefit from the soothing effects of relaxation and “simply being” in the present moment.