Ask any yoga teacher what the most important pose in yoga is and she’ll say savasana, or corpse pose. Often teachers say that to startle their students, because it’s physically the easiest of all poses. In savasana, usually the final pose of a class, the student lies on her back with her feet flopped apart and her palms face up a few inches from her hips.
So why is this pose so important? Typically, teachers say it allows you to “absorb the benefits of your practice.” I think the reasons go deeper than that.
Modern life, for most Westerners, consists largely of sitting: our bodies sagging into an organ-crushing, spine-bending cascade of unstable cantilevers. And when we rise from our chairs, we stand with our weight on one foot or our shoulders rounded or our heads cranked to one side or our chins jutting forward. At night, most of us sleep in the fetal position, with one side sagging into the mattress, the other crimped into that sag. So savasana is one of the rare times when we are in an anatomically correct position, our spines straight and firmly supported, our shoulders allowed to fall back, our abdominal muscles released so that we can inhale and exhale without obstruction. The corpse pose actually resets our alignment.
If you don’t believe me, try this: if you suffer from, say, back pain, lie in savasana for a few minutes before you rise from bed. You’ll find that your morning achiness and stiffness evaporate as your body settles into a healthy position.
There’s another, even more valuable benefit that teachers often don’t mention: In savasana, you detach from the world of aspiration and action and reactivity. If you feel an itch or hear a noise or feel your sweat prickle, you’re instructed to observe without responding. You behave like a corpse. Indeed, the asana can be seen as practice for death. And because death is the thing most of us fear most, savasana can be a profound coming-to-terms. As a cancer patient, I found the daily practice of pretending to be a corpse the best treatment for my terror of what might lie ahead. Like systematic desensitization—a therapy in which patients with phobias are taught to relax as they’re exposed to the things that make them anxious—corpse pose helped me relax in the face of death. And in a funny way, facing death helped me enjoy life.