When Apple Fitness+ launched in 2020, I began doing yoga regularly. I got frustrated that nearly a quarter of a 20-minute workout was lying on the floor for Shavasana, seemingly doing nothing. I didn’t understand the point nor how it counted toward exercise minutes for my Apple Watch ring. Over a year later, I am just as confused. So, why do most yoga practices end in Shavasana, and what is its purpose?
Shavasana, aka the corpse pose, occurs at the end of yoga practice and is as significant as all the other asanas to obtaining a healthy and robust body. During this position, the mind is active, considering each physical element while the body relaxes and rests. Consequently, parasympathetic pathways ramp up, offering countless physiological, mental, and spiritual benefits.
Shavasana is the final asana of most practices, designed to maximize the physical effects of the yoga session. Focusing on active relaxation is an abstract concept in our busy lives, but it has multiple benefits worth exploring and practicing.
Build a Stronger Body and Mind
The primary purpose of the Shavasana position is to determine the gains you experience from the entire yoga practice. You are not lying doing “nothing” at this time; you should be focusing on the muscles worked, the purpose of your yoga exercises, and healing your body. You mentally encourage blood flow to the worked areas to clean out lactic acid build-up, hastening the recovery process.
You may have noticed your yoga instructor asking you to set an intention for your workout before beginning. I used to think, “get fitter” or “close my Apple Watch rings.” I’ve learned that a yoga intention aims to assess the muscles you want to work and the flexibility you want to achieve. Shavasana is the end of this mindful cycle. In short, yoga strengthens your body and mind by connecting the two during your workout.
Take Time to Relax and Relieve Stress
Modern Western society has conditioned us to discourage, even balk at the notion of doing nothing. Studies have shown that this “wasted time” is a more pronounced stigma for women, especially mothers. The concept of actively taking time to do nothing does not jive well with busy, hectic schedules. Therefore, performing Shavasana isn’t something that comes easily to newbies to yoga or those who haven’t researched the practice’s origins or health benefits.
Such mentalities have caused the Western culture to be a stressful one. A series of physiological changes occur when stressed, including increased blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate. Conversely, the digestive system slows, resulting in heartburn, bloating, or abdominal pain. These changes are caused by stress hormones activating our sympathetic nervous system, AKA the flight or fight response, when our bodies are on high alert, ready to flee or fight a life-threatening danger. While useful, our bodies start to fail when stress hormones are “on” all the time. Indeed, the incidence of stress-induced diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, asthma, obesity, hypertension, depression, Parkinson’s, etc., are rising. It’s crucial to reduce stress whenever possible, and Shavasana is an ideal tool to use.
If you’ve got a crammed schedule and yoga is the only “me” time you get in a day, take a longer Shavasana to relax and allow the parasympathetic side of your nervous system to take over. The parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” mode of your body, helping offset the damage caused by stress. In this mode, vital signs slow, and your digestive system can proceed normally. In essence, this is when your body can repair and strengthen because it is not using its metabolic energy to be on alert.
Correctly performing Shavasana is an ideal method to relieve stress and ramp up the parasympathetic pathways of your nervous system. However, relaxing and thinking about your body and not allowing your mind to wander to your daily life is a challenging mindset adjustment. Like all asanas, it will take practice. It’s essential to think about Shavasana as a significant part of the yoga workout and not signaling the end of your session. Be present and work diligently to not let your mind drift to the next thing on your agenda. If it does, lie in Shavasana longer to give yourself time to relax and be mindful of the physical work you have performed. Only by doing so is Shavasana better for you than, say, watching TV and relaxing on the couch. It is not the same.
Treatment for Hypertension (high blood pressure)
The link between stress and hypertension is well documented and Shavasana has been studied as a potential therapy to lower a patient’s blood pressure for decades.
One study demonstrated lower blood pressure for at least 35 minutes after a Shavasana session. Another small investigation showed patients could control their hypertension without drugs or reduce the dose of antihypertensive drugs they were prescribed. Both of these studies involve tiny cohorts, however, a review article that analyzed data from 6693 patients concluded that Shavasana significantly lowered blood pressure in the subjects. While it is yet to be a standardized clinical method of high blood pressure management, there is evidence that Shavasana could be a suitable non-drug method of treatment for mild cases of the condition or complementary therapy for more severe cases.
Reducing stress will have a positive effect on mood and emotions. Taking time to actively think of your body while in a relaxed state has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms and elevate anxiety. In a randomized study, the patients who practiced Shavasana for 10 sequential days self-reported better mood and outlook than those who did not participate in yoga.
Such studies are often criticized due to the self-reporting nature of the data. However, reduction in stress and anxiety by any method has been shown to improve mental health and many psychotherapists use a form of mindfulness or meditation in their treatment program.
By practicing Shavasana, you are not only improving your physical health but your mental well-being too.
Shavasana has evolved since its inception in the 15th century yet still has strong links to spirituality for some. In modern times, Shavasana is referred to as “corpse pose,” highlighting the stillness of the body and the finality of the asana. A corpse naturally brings forth thoughts of death and promotes many to use Shavasana to contemplate their mortal self.
While it may be an unpleasant thought cycle, death is regarded as a positive element on which to deliberate. It focuses our attention on what is critical and the preciousness of human life. Other asanas are better suited for such a spiritual journey that are more meditative for such work, but Shavasana can be used in this manner by some instructors.
Shavasana vs. Mediation
You can be forgiven for confusing Shavasana with meditation as they both outwardly look the same – lying on the floor with your eyes closed. Indeed, many people incorrectly use these terms interchangeably. While Shavasana is actively thinking about your body, meditation is an active process of clearing your mind.
You can use similar techniques as Shavasana during meditation, such as deep breathing patterns, mantras, or visualization practices, but the aim is to have a mind void of thought. Emptying the mind is a challenging process, and it is a distinctly different technique to Shavasana, with distinct goals.
Meditation does not enhance the asanas you have performed nor encourage healing and rejuvenation. Some yoga practices will have meditation followed by Shavasana, and you will use your Shavasana practice to deliberate on what you cleared from your mind during meditation.
How Long Should Shavasana Last?
To achieve the full benefits of Shavasana, this asana should last between 15 minutes to half an hour. Most yoga studios can’t allocate this sort of time to the pose, as most people want to get off their mat and carry on with their day. Also, unless you understand the benefits, you may question paying for a class when all you do is lie on the floor. For these reasons, most sessions are only around five minutes, which, while restorative, isn’t sufficient to get the full benefits seen in studies.
When working out at home, try to extend this time for as long as possible, especially if you have a specific ailment or condition that can be treated by alert relaxation.
Pronunciation and English Spelling
I’ve seen corpse pose frequently spelled in the English language in two ways – Savasana and Shavasana. There is a reason for the confusion and why both exist. Yet, neither are perfectly correct.
The word originated in Sanskrit, and the transliteration is śavāsana. So, you can see that when the diacritical marks are removed, you have Savasana. However, as it is pronounced sha-vah-suh-nuh, the phonetic spelling has become the norm. Hence, Shavasana, and why I have used that form throughout.
Shavasana is not wasted minutes lying on the floor at the end of a yoga practice. It is a crucial element of your workout, where you keep your mind active but focused on your body, healing the areas worked. Shavasana ramps up your parasympathetic pathways, relieving stress and its associated disorders. Further benefits include increased energy, mental stability, and spiritual awareness. It can be a complex asana to master, but one that will increase the power of your yoga practice once you have.