Everybody’s Favourite Asana: savasana

Are you a Savasana-fan or Savasana-hater? (Feel free to reply in the comment section below for a little totally non-scientific survey.)

Though this pose may seem as simple as taking a nap, those who can’t seem to find comfort in this asana know it’s far from easy.

What is this pose is all about?

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika from the 15th century is one of the most revered scriptures about yoga. It describes Savasana as follows: “With this asana, tiredness caused by other asanas is eliminated; it also promotes calmness of the mind.”

And Leslie Kaminoff writes in his book from 2012: “Savasana is said to be the easiest asana to perform but the hardest to master.” 

Savasana in uggboots  

Savasana, which means corpse pose is also known as Mrtasana (dead mans’s pose). It is done at the end of every asana practice. In some yoga styles, it is also practiced in between (certain) asanas. Sometimes even between standing asanas, like in Sivananda.

As Mark Stephens writes, it “is the ultimate asana for reintegration after practicing other asanas and pranayama.”  Leslie Kaminoff explains why it can be difficult: “… the challenge of maintaining awareness without effort or exertion is perhaps the most revealing exploration of body-mind integration we can engage in.”

Benefits of Savasana:

It is the pose during which we integrate the benefits of the yoga practice at many levels: physically, mentally and spiritually.

Physical benefits

First of all, in this pose the body can fully relax. All tension ebbs away, resting from the physical effort of the asanas. By consciously relaxing without falling asleep and breathing effortlessly, the body can truly restore. Other known beneficial effects are stress reduction, lower blood pressure, relief of headaches and better sleep.

Mental benefits

Are you having trouble mentally relaxing? Consider Savasana the best way to practice relaxation. Just like any other skill, relaxing can be learned. By lying still and minimising external distractions and sensory stimulation, you can increase body awareness and interoception. Interoception is the sense of the internal state of the body. This induces calmness and focus and can even decrease signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression or increase creativity and focus.

Spiritual benefits

As a spiritual practice, Savasana is an excellent pose to practice Pratyahara. The fifth limb of yoga and the first level of meditation is the practice of withdrawal of the senses. Close your eyes, squeeze all the air out of your mouth and don’t let yourself be distracted by what you smell, hear or feel. The practice of being with yourself and channelling all the energy inward is not easy but very rewarding when you manage.

The Pose:

  • Put on socks or extra layers if you expect you’ll get cold. It is important to stay warm. Have a blanket handy to cover your whole body if necessary
  • Lie down on your back.
  • Spread your arms enough to be able to rest the back of the hands on the mat/floor with the palms facing up without tension in the shoulders, the arms not touching the torso.
  • Allow the fingers to curl in their natural shape.
  • Spread your legs as much as is comfortable for the buttocks, thighs, calf muscles and feet to relax, the legs and feet not touching each other.
  • The body does not have to be positioned symmetrically, although with practice, you probably will find neutral alignment (as far as you body allows it) more comfortable as your body awareness increases.
  • Let the full weight of your body relax onto the mat, allowing for a natural curve in the neck, spine, arms and legs.
  • Once completely comfortable, take a big breath in and exhale with a deep sigh to signal your nervous system that it’s time to relax.
  • Allow the breath to flow naturally.
  • Stay fully aware of the deep state of relaxation you are in, scanning the body for pockets of tension that are possibly remaining or forming.
  • Keep practicing the art of letting go for at least five minutes, preferably for 10 or even 20 if you have the time!

Coming out of Savasana:

  • Come out of the pose very slowly, awakening your senses first and taking a few deep breaths before you move.
  • Make small movements first and if you feel like it, stretch and bend like a cat before rolling onto your right side. This stimulates breathing through the left nostril/ida nadi and helps keeping you in that beautiful zen state).
  • Keep your eyes closed and mindfully come to sitting. Enjoying the inner stillness for a little longer before closing your practice and getting off your mat.

Savasana with lower back support

Adjustments:

  • If you have lower back issues, a rolled-up blanket or a bolster under your knees is helpful. Make sure that your heels rest on the floor. If this isn’t enough, you can consider placing your feet on the floor mat-width distance apart. You can drop the knees inwards to lean against each other. Tipi Pose a.k.a. Constructive Rest is a great lie-down too.
  • If you are very tense in the upper back and find the throat, neck, shoulders or chest are strained without support, you can place a blanket underneath your head. The throat however, should remains open for the breath to flow smoothly. In other words, take care not tilt the chin down too much.
  • An eye pillow is a wonderful way to help rest the eyes. Especially people who (often without realising it) remain with their eyes open can benefit from this. Unless of course, this causes discomfort or stress, such as induced by claustrophobia.
  • Also a beautiful way to induce deep rest, is to place a folded blanket or a sandbag across your lower belly. This puts gentle releasing pressure on the area that is our centre of gravity when we are standing (the sacrum). The weight helps with the grounding and letting go.
  • If the body is relaxed, but the mind is racing, it can be helpful to repeat a mantra (e.g. I am fully relaxed) or to count the breaths.

Savasana with props

Contraindications:

* Anyone can do Savasana with the exception of pregnant women, particularly from the late second trimester onwards. Lying down on the back (or on the right side) can cause Vena Cava compression. The pressure on the vein can prevent blood from returning to the heart, decreasing the mother’s and baby’s oxygen supply.
* The best alternative for expecting mothers is to lie on their left side. You can place a block or blanket under your head, a blanket in between the thighs and any other support you need to be as ease.
* If you have low blood pressure, it is also recommended you come out of Savasana by turning onto your left side, in order to avoid compressing the vena cava. 

It’s all in the practice:

Remember, just like any other challenging asana, Savasana is a pose that requires plenty of practice. It is not easy to master the art of balancing between full awareness and complete surrender.

Sankalpa

Have you ever wondered how it works, sankalpa, that intention setting that the yoga teachers invites you to do at the beginning of a yoga class?

It took me a while to find a way that works for me but now that I have, I use it as much off the yoga mat as on.

My experience with fruitfully setting intentions does not come from studying the scriptures or from extensive meditation sessions. The health coaching skills that I picked up during my studies at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition were very helpful. But I mostly learned by doing and much of it by trial and error. You can scroll down to find a video in which I tell you about this wonderful, unexpected experience.

Yaisa on the Beach in Sellicks

Let me first list what I think intention setting is not about. It’s not about (and this is not an exhaustive list):
– asking to win the lottery or any other (materialistic) possession
– wishing somebody ill
– verbalising a wish and then letting go of any responsibility.

Consider this example: your car broke down and you have no money to fix it or to buy a new one. You have a serious transportation problem. As a sankalpa, it would be easy to express something like: “I want a new car” or “I need money to buy a new car.”

That’s the solution to all your problems, right? But does that sound like an intention that comes from the right place? If a friend would ask you exactly that in those words, would you be inclined to help?

Instead, look at the underlying issue. What are you not able to fulfill without transport? Who is going to get in trouble if you can’t drive? Perhaps, a better wording of your sankalpa is “I need a way to remain independent” or “I will do anything to keep my job” or “My children will not miss a single day of school.”

Already, the phrasing of your “wish” is less superficial. It’s not about you owning a car, but about the purpose of the car.

Broken 2CVBy Arnaud 25 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Next, ask yourself how you can inject this “request” to the universe with some positivity and conviction. There is a simple, grammatical solution to that. Rephrase your intention in an affirmative form and in the present tense.  So for example: “I am independent” or “The solution to my transport problem exists.”  Perhaps it doesn’t feel that way just yet, but by infusing yourself with this optimism, you tap into a pool of energy that knows no limits.

Another layer that you can add to your intention setting is to visualise the result. It only takes a couple of minutes. You can do it in bed, before you fall asleep. Imagine yourself driving a car to work or visualise getting a phone call from a colleague offering you to carpool. Smell the interior of the new car, hear the voice of your colleague. Don’t dwell on your current problems, instead focus on seeing, feeling, smelling or tasting the future. Visualising is a very powerful tool to direct every cell in your body towards a solution.

Once you have set your intention and done your visualising, don’t sit back and think that God (or whoever/whatever) will solve it all for you. I don’t think that that is how it works. I believe in Newton’s Third Law that action is reaction. You still need to keep your eyes open for solutions, explore your opportunities and do all the mundane things you can think of to achieve your objective. All the positive energy you put into finding a solution to your problem will reflect back on you and your will see it returned, somehow.

At Sellicks Beach

The last step however, is the most important one. And that is that you need to trust and surrender to the Universe, believing that it will present you with what you need and deserve. It could be exactly what you visualised in one of your fantasies or it could be totally unexpected.  Be open to whatever you are presented with and fully embrace it.

It could be that your neighbour breaks his leg and can’t drive their car for the next six weeks, so in return for doing his shopping, you can borrow his car for a while, giving you enough time to save money for a repair. Or your childless great-aunt passes away and leaves you and your cousins with a small inheritance, just enough for you to buy a second-hand car. Is the solution always perfect? Perhaps not. But it is a wish come true.

Just recently, as I was really hoping for a larger number of students in my Ashtanga classes, I set the following intention: “I am successful at sharing my love and passion for Ashtanga yoga”. I visualised full class rooms, spent a couple of minutes remembering the students that had come to my Ashtanga classes in the past but I hadn’t seen in a while and promoted my classes on social media with renewed energy. And believe it or not, but not only has the number of students been increasing since, but I even got asked to teach a new Ashtanga class at location where I had previously never taught. I would say, mission accomplished.

Yoga at Gemtree Winery

So now, let’s look at sankalpa from another perspective. A sankalpa does not necessarily need to be a solution to a problem. It can also be about something that you would like to invite into your life in a more general sense. A vision for your near or long-term future.

An example of this is the key word that I choose for my vision board this year: expansion. It does not concern an immediate or urgent situation, but it’s the state of mind that I wish to live in. For 2018, I desire expansion of my business, expansion of my knowledge and my skills so that I can help more yoga students and health coaching clients, expansion of my horizons by travelling and meeting new people…

My sankalpa could be: “I live an expansive life” or “My experiences continuously expand my life”, but in this case I kept it simple. It’s simply “Expansion”.  I repeat it like a mantra, I use the word as much as I can when appropriate and every time I undertake something, new or routine, I think: “Yes, this is expansion”. Heck, the whole purpose of this blog is about spreading the vibe even more!

Visionboard 2018

And surprisingly (or maybe not so surprising), since I have planted this seed deep in my subconscious, several really great things have been presented to me. Some totally unexpected, others as the direct result of long standing efforts.

There is one event in particular that was way beyond my imagination and that enriched my life in a sense that I have never experience before. I tell you about this story in the video below.

In the meantime, ask me any question you have about Sankalpa and feel free to share your experience with intention setting below in the comment section.

Have you ever set an intention with a successful outcome? Have you ever had amazing gifts presented to you in the most unexpected beautiful ways? I would love to hear from you

Practicing Yoga with a Frozen Shoulder.

During any respectable teacher training, the topic “yoga & injuries” is an important subject, from the angle of injury prevention as well as from the perspective of practicing with existing injuries.

Whilst I studied this during my 200-hour teacher training and additional yoga anatomy courses over the years, my single best lesson was the frozen shoulder I sustained in 2015.

Sharing my experiences with you, the mistakes I made as well as the positive decisions I took, will hopefully help those of you suffering from a similar injury.

In February 2015 I had a seemingly harmless scooter accident in Bali. I slid over a bit of mud on the road and fell on my left side, hitting the tarmac with my arm and shoulder and the side of my – thankfully helmeted – head.

 

Though I felt a bit bruised on the left side of my rib cage – probably because I elbowed myself upon impact – I didn’t think anything of it and travelled home as planned the next day.

Over the course of the following weeks, the pain in my ribs disappeared but I noticed a slight pinch at the front of my left shoulder joint. So I went easy on the yoga practice and decided that rest was the best thing to do.

I basically ignored the growing pain I felt in my shoulder, not only because I thought it would go away by itself but also because I was busy moving from Egypt to Australia.

Aside from a couple of random visits along the way to a physiotherapist and a chiropractor who couldn’t really help me because I was on the move, I pretended everything was in order which in retrospect of course wasn’t the case.

The sharp pinches in my shoulder were gradually becoming worse, especially when I was making sudden or large movements with my left arm. I tried to give my arm more “rest” by using it less. Consequently, my range of motion became more and more restricted. Within a few months, I could hardly extend, flex, internally rotate or externally rotate at the left shoulder joint at all.

In normal English, I couldn’t put my left hand in my waist, lift my arm high enough to shave my armpit, make a pony tail or pull the car door shut. By July 2015, it was even too painful to bring a cup to my mouth, open a jar, sleep on my left side, hold the steering wheel or shift gears, which in Australia you do with the left hand.

The pain would sometimes shoot down from the front of my shoulder around the shoulder joint, into the armpit, down my biceps and sometimes even reach my fingers.

One day, while cooking, I burned my left hand and in reaction, jerked my arm back. The ensuing pain was so extreme that I sat crouched on the floor trying to fight back my tears for a good two minutes. And it was not because of the burn.

Needless to say that by then I was unable to do any kind of yoga. Poses requiring the slighest arm movement were impossible. Even gentle, reclined and supported shoulder openers were not an option.

When I settled in Australia in September 2015, I finally had the time to do something about it. I saw an osteopath who advised me to get an ultra sound in order to confirm his suspicion that I had a frozen shoulder and an inflammation. Up until then, I had not even bothered to get a proper diagnosis.


The exact location of where I felt the impingement initially.

Adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder joint capsule) and bursitis (inflammation of the bursae) was the verdict. The first thing the GP advised me was to get a cortisone injection to reduce the inflammation.

I declined respectfully and went on a full fledged vegan diet, topped up with extra ginger, turmeric and garlic. Two weeks later, the inflammation was gone.

The inflammation was the biggest cause of the pain that I felt when trying to move. And if you can’t move, you can’t open a frozen joint. Now that the pain was gone, I was ready to start defrosting my shoulder.

Having read that a frozen shoulder can take several years to heal, I would, in my darkest moments, fear that my career as a yoga teacher was going to freeze too. However, the Health Coaching course that I had started, opened up a world of healing, food-based alternatives for me.

I continued a highly anti-inflammatory diet, with lots of green juices, no processed foods, very little articifial sugars, powerful supplements like Juice Plus, golden turmeric paste and healthy fats in the form of nuts, seeds, avocados and fish oil. Instead of asana practice, I took up running, the only physical activity I could think of that didn’t require shoulder “effort”.

The osteopath would (usually) gently work on the range of motion of my shoulder, loosening up the connective tissues around the joint and releasing tension from neck, spine and pelvis. An acupuncturist helped by bringing my energies back in balance, needling in my hips, legs, fingers and feet and sometimes even putting electric voltage on the needles.

The “dead” feeling I had had in my arm for months (despite the pain), was slowly dissipating and it was coming back to life. Deep tissue and hot stone massages further helped the releasing of tightness in my shoulder.

One interesting recommendation came from the acupuncturist. Traditional Chinese Medicine does not just focus on and treat the “afflicted” area, but considers any illness or condition an imbalance of the entire body. During the treatment he suggested that I stop using hormonal contraception.

Observing that I had a strong constitution and was living a pretty healthy lifestyle already, he repeated word for word what an Ayurvedic doctor had already told me two years prior: the only thing that was possibly creating an imbalance in my body was the IUD.

And though it was the physical trauma of the accident and my subsequent ignoring of the injury that caused the frozen shoulder, it was very possible that a hormonal imbalance was impeding the healing process. So I said goodbye to my Mirena and after 25 years of birth control, hello to a body free of artificial hormones (and hello to PMS, but that’s a different story).

Bit by bit, my shoulder thawed. I introduced asanas into my life again with restorative poses and plenty of props. Slowly but surely, I was able to join gentle Vinyasa classes, although for the longest time all my down dogs were three legged dogs (one arm, two legs) and my trees would have one very sad branch. Planks, chaturangas and upward facing dogs also started coming back into my practice.

My left arm, which had visibly lost muscle mass, was growing back in strength. I got back into my Ashtanga practice and by June 2016 I was able to do a solid headstand again.

It took another full year for me to be able to open my left arm properly in poses like Revolved Triangle, for the combination of abduction and extension was the most stubborn one to master again. I cursed my way through a lot of shoulder openers Yin style to get there.


Broken Wing, or Evil Shoulder Opener, as I prefer to call it.

Yet here I am, two and a half years to the date after the scooter accident, roughly two years after I started regular treatment and adapted my lifestyle to my situation. I finally feel I am back where I was before the frozen shoulder.

Did I heal thanks to the osteopath? Or was it the acupuncturist? Would I have healed just as fast if I hadn’t gone running? Was it really necessary to stick to an anti-inflammatory diet? Was the removal of the UID of any use? Would simple massages have been enough? Was it the restorative yoga that did the trick or should I have pushed harder in my yoga practice to heal sooner? 

Who knows. If you thought this article was only going to be about yoga poses, I guess I tricked you into it. Yoga asanas are not a miracle cure by themselves. It’s always a package deal. Yoga is about how you live your life, not just those 60 minutes per day on the mat.

This frozen shoulder has been the best teacher I have had.

I learned how to heal naturally (I did not take a single painkiller or other pharmaceutical in the process), was taught patience (still not my strongest virtue), experimented with modified yoga poses and yoga styles to adapt my practice to my capabilities, was introduced to therapies and healing methods I had never needed before. And I now also know from my own experience that ignoring a problem is not going to make it go away.

These lessons have not only made me healthier and happier, but also a more versatile and multi-faceted teacher and health coach. I hope that they can be of benefit to you just as much as they have to me.

Comments or questions welcome!