Struggle to stay in savasana at the end of class? Wondering what the point is of just, well, lying there?
The calming of the mind and body at the end of your practice is an example of the fifth of the Eight Limbs in action and is called pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses.
Savasana is a wonderful opportunity to withdraw into the body and let the mind settle and come to stillness before continuing with your day. Let’s look at the last of the Eight Limbs in more detail and explore how Pratyahara moves into Dharana, single point of focus, and finally Dhyana, complete immersion into a meditative state.
BKS Iyengar describes Pratyahara as ‘detachment from the affairs of the world and attachment towards the soul’. We should be practising mindful movement matched to breath work (pranayama) during our asana practice, leading up to that blissful point where we lay back in our relaxation and absorb all the prana energy, moving from ‘fluctuating mind to stabilised mind’ as Iyengar explains it. We are not yet in meditation, which requires focus and concentration to achieve, but finding stillness and decreasing awareness of our surroundings. This is something we should be able to do anywhere to help us become calm. Being skilled at withdrawing the senses means we can tune out distractions in any environment, not just in a quiet yoga studio.
Savasana is a crucial aspect of our practice, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika explains, because ‘the mind which operates during waking consciousness relaxes and subsides. Even though it is a static pose it revitalises the entire system.’ Who doesn’t want that sort of inner peace? The practice of yoga nidra, a sleep-like state induced for relaxation can also have the same effect and help to wind down at the end of a busy day.
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Dharana is the halfway house between the unstructured sort of relaxation in savasana and complete immersion in meditation or Dhyana. It is a deliberate focus on an object, mantra or on the breath that eventually brings us to a meditative state and, for me, is often as far as I can get without distraction during my attempts at a meditative practice! The mind jumps from one thought to another and requires training to keep returning to the object of focus, which is the ultimate objective of yoga: to calm that fluctuating mind and bring it to blissful stillness.
Iyengar describes this state as ‘positively and thoughtfully thoughtless’, which is a lovely explanation of trying to sit back from the endless flow of thoughts we have every second and attempting not run away with them. We are aware and yet empty at the same time at this essential point that precedes full meditation.
Dhyana is full meditation, an elusive state but one worth pursuing for all the benefits it brings to mind and body. The physical practice of asana is really the preparation for the body to be able to sit still for a prolonged period of time in meditation, and it can be useful to remind ourselves of this when we become too preoccupied with achieving certain poses. Asana is all part of the bigger picture of yoga and not the main objective, although the concentration required in our physical practice can turn it into an active form of meditation.
Iyengar describes meditation as ‘fullness’; full in the body and alert in the brain, at one with consciousness and soul without any divisions. Achieving a meditative state allows energy to flow freely through the body and opens all the chakras or energy centres that run along the spine or sushumna nadi in the yoga anatomy of the ‘subtle body’. Energy rising through the spine and to the crown chakra, sahasrara, is how we achieve oneness with the universe and, ultimately, an enlightened state.
More scientifically, regular meditation has been recognised as altering the structure of the brain, reducing stress, aggression and over-reactive tendencies, which in themselves are wonderful reasons to practice if we find the more spiritual aims a little hard to grasp.
This post was written by Tracy Johnson, the founder of Brainbox Coaching and Empower Yoga Bristol. She trained under Sally Parkes and is a 200 hour RYT with Yoga Alliance. Tracy blends her yoga teaching with confidence coaching and stress management to create a holistic practice, and runs her classes with warmth and humour. She is the author of a careers guide, Working in Science, co-author of The Coaching Gurus, and writes for publications such as OM Yoga Magazine, Globe of Love, Happiness+Wellbeing, MindBodyGreen and has been featured in the Guardian, Body Fit magazine, the Bristol Post and Cardiff Life. She is also a career and confidence coach, self-defence instructor and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and is currently writing a book combining yoga with her coaching techniques for stress management. Follow Tracy on Twitter.