I’m going to go ahead and be honest here: I used to think the only important yoga poses were the ones I couldn’t get into.
I struggled mightily with many variations of inversions and arm balances, so naturally I assumed those poses were the mark of a “true” yoga practitioner. In truly (un)yogic fashion, I took them as an opportunity to be hard on myself — and my practice. “When I can rock a handstand in the middle of the room, that’s when I’ll really be a yogini.”
I suppose I shouldn’t have found this mindset too surprising. After all, I’d been unproductively raising the bar on myself for years, in many different capacities — always needing to achieve more, do more (effortlessly, of course — at least to others’ eyes). It’s also not at all shocking because I have a near lifelong relationship with dieting and disordered eating. I took any and every experience with my body (interestingly, positive or negative) as further evidence for why I needed to go on another diet — stat.
The Most Important Pose of All Time
So when I heard one yoga teacher I deeply respect share what she thought was the most important pose for yoga practitioners, I was stunned. And when I heard several more people reiterate it at different times and places (so I knew it wasn’t a conspiracy), I had to stop and give it some thought. That most important pose?
That’s right — lying on the floor, breathing. (I’ll wait while you pick your jaw up off the ground. I’m right there with you.)
After hearing this news, I started doing some research. And lo and behold, I think they’re right.
Not only does Savasana, or the relaxation pose often done at the end of yoga classes, give you an opportunity to relive your preschool nap time. It also activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Quick biology class flashback here: that’s the one that activates your relaxation response. In other words, if you (like many of us — definitely me!) live in a state of lots of stress, your body may often be in fight or flight mode (sympathetic nervous system). So when you can kick in that relaxation response, that’s when things start to shift — both physiologically and emotionally. This is when your body can start to heal.
My own experience confirms what my teachers told me — that this one pose is they key to the power of yoga. By activating the benefits above, it also does one more powerful thing for us: it begins to build our mind/body awareness. And the more we can sync those two up with mindfulness, the more present we can be for our everyday experiences.
I recommend starting with 5 minutes several times per week and working your way up to 15-20 minutes. According to Judith Lasater, an expert in restorative yoga, it takes the body a minimum of 15 minutes to fully relax. With that in mind, you may like to set a timer for the amount of time you’d like to practice. That way, you won’t be worrying (at least as much) that you accidentally fell asleep for an hour when it’s only been 3 minutes.
Now let’s get practicing:
- Lie down in a comfortable position. If you have a yoga mat, you’re welcome to lie on that on the floor. But if you don’t, or that doesn’t sound comfortable, no worries. Another beautiful thing about this pose is that it can be done almost anywhere. So find somewhere you’d like to lie down and go for it. If you’re physically unable to lie down, find another comfortable reclined or seated position that works for you. The power of the pose comes from resting into some kind of support (like the floor, a chair, your bed, etc.), so whatever that looks like for you is perfect.
- Once you lie down, take a moment with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Rock your knees gently side-to-side, like a windshield wiper on low. This will help your lower back to relax a bit as you settle in.
- If it feels best for your low back, you’re welcome to keep your legs right where they are. If it feels okay for you, though, experiment with extending your legs and lying down fully. Remember that just because you try one option it doesn’t mean you can’t go back. Let the gauge of what feels good be your guide.
- After you get yourself situated, begin by taking 3 slow, deep breaths. You may even like to sigh out the breath audibly, releasing any stress from your day.
Sometimes it can be quite challenging to relax in this position. It’s like telling yourself, “Okay, relax! NOW!” Doesn’t sound very relaxing, does it?
So what I suggest is following up your 3 deep breaths with a brief body scan meditation. The intention of this is to progressively relax the muscles of your body, giving yourself a chance to settle in. Give this a whirl:
- Begin by directing your internal attention, or your mind’s eye, to your feet. Take a moment here to just notice how your feet are feeling. You may feel sensations of warmth/cool or something else. From there, make any little movements that would feel good for your feet — perhaps moving them side to side a few times or curling the toes gently down and then opening them out wide. After half a minute or so here, your feet can slow down and still.
- Move from there up your body, continuing by directing your attention to your legs, hips and abdomen, hands, shoulders and jaw. These are all areas of the body that are notorious for holding tension, so checking in with them to see how they’re feeling and letting go — any amount — can be helpful for coming into this pose.
- After you make your way through your body, allow yourself to drop into the rhythm of your breath. You may like to establish the breath as a focal point — perhaps choosing something to say to yourself on each inhale and exhale. Examples include “inhale; exhale,” or “self; love.”
As you hear your timer mark the end of your time in the pose, take a moment to notice how you feel — so you might return to that feeling more often, both on and off your yoga mat, as my teacher Cora Wen says. Then begin to invite some movement back into your body, perhaps by wiggling your fingers and toes. From there, check in with your body. See what wants to move or stretch, and then make those movements.
When you’re ready to come out, slowly roll to one side. Pause there, lying on your side, for 3-5 breaths. This will help you to come up without dizziness. As you are ready, gently come up to seated, keeping your chin lightly tucked to your chest until you’re fully up. From here, you might like to move anything that feels like it wants to be moved, or you might be ready to go about your day (or night if you’re practicing before bed, which is a lovely way to prepare the mind and body for sleep)
Play with incorporating this integral pose – a primer on the benefits of yoga – into your life. It’s amazing what a little rest can do!
*First published in Wild Sister Magazine, Issue 9 — Reprinted with permission