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December 5, 2019

Savasana Anatomy Do’s and Don’ts

Admittedly, this is a picky post. But people do the darndest things in savasana.

(Skip straight to the video about this post here.)

If you teach yoga for long enough, eventually you’ll see some interesting alternatives during this time for relaxation.

There are gradients, of course: sometimes you see students (like Energizer bunnies) doing headstands and wheel pose well beyond the moment for stillness. (About this briefly: it appears to be human nature to fidget, “do”, and need “more”. Teachers can gently remind students how precious relaxation time is, ask them if they have a request for certain poses in your classes, or wait it out so that students “get the movement out of their system”).

More often, yoga teachers witness awkward positions and strange use of props in savasana itself.

Creative interpretations of corpse pose usually are intended to stretch or support a goal, but often reinforce poor anatomic patterns.  

Here are some examples:

  • Yoga block under the head (pressing the head 4+ inches forward of the rest of the body)
  • Rolled up or folded blanket under the back (exaggerating one’s natural lumbar / low back curve, and pressing low ribs forward and pelvis into an anterior tilt)
  • Unsupported baddha konasana (knees wide out to the side, feet together, creating a passive stretch to one particular angle of muscle fibers the inner thighs. This is inevitably uncomfortable after the reflex cycles are complete – within 2-3 minutes.)
  • Passive chest stretch – (with either a rolled up blanket or a block under the thoracic spine. This forces the upper spine opposite its natural direction).

Before dropping more details about our skepticism on the above “variations” of savasana, know these four foundational beliefs behind our analysis:

Foundational Beliefs About Savasana

  • Savasana is a pose and a time for full, deep relaxation. Savasana is a pose for stillness, particularly between the ears. Attempting to change or stretch your body during that time appears contrary to the intent of this set-aside time in yoga class
  • In theory, healthy humans should be able to be comfortable for 10 minutes lying on our backs. Adding a little general padding, like a dense yoga mat or woven blanket, will obviously be more comfortable than concrete, but we survived millenia without memory foam.
  • There are better (restorative yoga) alternatives for creating a comfortable Savasana. Restorative yoga poses support the structure of the body in a way that is conducive to mental stillness.
  • Humans are extraordinarily resilient. We are the cockroaches of the mammal world. Ten minutes in an awkward or non-anatomically suggested shape isn’t likely to break us. But, as yoga is about the subtle as well as the gross, can we do it better?

Tadasana on the Back

In an ideal world, if the surface is soft enough, we would all be comfortable laying down for 10 minutes flat on our backs. After all, the most efficient upright skeletal alignment is head over ribcage, ribcage over pelvis, pelvis over feet. Tadasana (mountain pose) on the back should be accessible to the vast majority of humans.

Certainly some people have skeletal differences that make a flat-on-your-back position inappropriate. Pregnant women may be really uncomfortable laying flat due to pressure on the aorta.

Instead of pressing parts of the spine forward, try allowing the spine to settle down. (Supine restorative poses are fantastic for this.)

What’s wrong with a block under the head

Any time you use an external object (pillows included) to push your head sharply forward of its natural position, you create a shearing force to the ligaments of your neck. As a one-time practice, no harm will come, but consistently using a 4″ (standard height) yoga block as a pillow during savasana is not common sense for your spine.

(Some people teach fascia release to the suboccipital muscles using a block under the head. We aren’t keen on that either.)

Alternatives: place a lightly folded blanket under your head to support where your head naturally lands in relation to the rest of your back, and scrunch up the blanket to fill in (not push forward) the curve of your neck.

Folded Blanket or Blanket Roll Under the Low Back Lumbar Spine

Similarly, although it may feel nice in the moment, if your low back is uncomfortable lying flat on your back, that means this:

The slight flexion (rounding) force of gravity on your spine is enough to make you uncomfortable. You probably need to gradually expose yourself to a wider variety of positions, forces and loads to improve your body’s resilience. To put that another way: do a wide variety of poses other than backbends. Consider adding some core strengthening and stabilizing, and aim for all 6 movements of the spine when you practice.

Alternatives: Try rolling up the blanket and placing it (or a bolster) under your thighs slightly above your knees. Or try Viparita Karani (Legs up the wall pose).

Legs up the wall pose (Viparita Karani) – an alternative to a rolled up blanket under your back.

Unsupported Baddha Konasana

Taking unsupported bound angle pose, or baddha konasana, during savasana implies that you are using this relaxation time for stretching your inner thighs.

If you subscribe to the belief that savasana is a time for relaxation, mental and physical, you may also believe it is not a time for stretching. That includes passive stretching.

There’s much to say about passive stretching (see minute 42 and beyond of this conversation on yin yoga), but despite the fact that it is passive, it is doing something. Savasana is about not doing.

There are also important considerations to the idea of “Owning” your joints’ full ranges of motion. In other words, strengthening while creating mobility is arguably more valuable than simply stretching to create more range of motion that you cannot control.

Alternatives: with the rolled up blanket under your thighs, allow your thighs and knees to roll outward (externally rotate). This is a natural, comfortable place for the hip joints known as “open pack position”. Or try a restorative version of baddha konasana with blanket rolls or wedged blocks under your knees so that no stretch is felt.

Passive Chest Stretch

Again, if you agree with the foundational beliefs about savasana above, there’s no need to do or achieve anything in savasana — even a passive stretch.

What’s more, a healthy thoracic spine has a slight kyphosis, or backward curve to it. Pressing the apex of that curve forward — opposite its natural position — has the potential for unintended consequences and musculoskeletal injury.

Alternatives: Try flipping your palms up and taking your arms slightly wider. This will create a feeling of expansiveness across the chest. While in this position, invite fuller breaths that move your upper chest and ribcage – not just your abdomen.

Please check out the video below for some good visuals to make sense of this post AND to learn the trick for blanket roll placement that makes your hips happy.

Your Turn:

What do YOU think? Agree or disagree with these ideas and beliefs about savasana? What do you notice students doing during relaxation?

Comment below and let us know!

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