Lying on the ground as a position in which meditation techniques are practiced is not new to Indian yoga traditions. As early as the 12th century, there is historical evidence in textual records of using a supine posture to bring about changes in mental activity. The practice of lying on the ground like a corpse until the mind dissolves is described in a section on Layayoga (‘yoga of dissolving the mind’) in the 12th-century Dattātreyayogaśāstra (Birch & Hargreaves 2015, 11). This Layayoga technique probably derives from earlier Tantras, such as the Vijñānabhairavatantra, in which simple meditative techniques are taught for dissolving the mind (cittalaya). As a yoga posture, Śavāsana (corpse pose) is first described in the 15th-century Haṭhapradīpikā as follows:
Lying supine like a corpse on the ground is Śavāsana. It remedies fatigue and causes the mind to stop. (Haṭhapradīpikā 1.34)
In modern yoga, Śavāsana is often taught as a relaxation technique. In Swami Kuvalayananda’s (1933, 112) explanation of this pose, he says:
[I]t requires complete relaxation of the muscles […] a student should take a particular part of the body and thoroughly relax its muscles. Then he should concentrate upon that part and imagine that every muscle tissue in that part is further relaxed and is, as it were, collapsing.
In most yoga classes, Śavāsana is performed after a sequences of āsanas in order to release any residual tension in the body and to alleviate fatigue. If instructions are not given about how to deal with mental agitation and anxieties that may arise in such a posture, it could be the case that the practitioner is left to day-dream, fall asleep, fidget with the eyes wide-open or disassociate from bodily sensation. Alternatively, some teachers give instruction on visualisation techniques when their students are in Śavāsana, such as imagining that the body is floating or sinking heavily, or visualising peaceful scenarios, colors and shapes.
Research on mindfulness and relaxation interventions has shown that such methods can reduce stress and improve positive mood states when compared with a no-treatment control group (Jain, Shapiro et al. 2007). But what are the differences between mindfulness meditation and relaxation techniques? Even if the methods are different, are their effects different? If there is a difference in their results, should both be practised together and, if so, how?
The article by Jain, Shapiro et al. (2007) produced some interesting findings. The researchers compared mindfulness meditation with somatic relaxation training and measured changes in psychological distress, positive states of mind, distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviours and even spiritual experience in the participants who were involved in the study. While both mindfulness and relaxation training reduced distress and increased positive mood, mindfulness was more effective in reducing distractive and ruminative thoughts, which provided a unique mechanism, as the researchers note, for reducing stress.
Becoming aware of how mindfulness can cut cycles of distractive and ruminative thoughts adds an important dimension to one’s life skills and yoga practice. However, the effectiveness of mindfulness in reducing rumination does not mean that relaxation techniques should be abandoned. In fact, having a tangible memory of ease in the body, which is readily accessible, is a healthy antidote to a fast-paced lifestyle and can form the basis for learning meditative focus.
For most people, focus and concentration is only possible if the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) is predominant. One of the extraordinary effects of the meditative state is that it cultivates a sense of comfort along with alertness. The fusion of these two embodied qualities, which are normally contradictory, can lead many to experience transformative awareness. Idle time where the body is soft and the mind steady can be skillfully cultivated through deliberate intention and regular practice so that a sense of deep ease is achieved at moments throughout each day. A sign of ease is that one is able to hold one’s attention steadily without distraction.
Beyond the relaxation effect, mindfulness meditation refines particular skills that enable one to understand more clearly the nature of thoughts. Through specific techniques, thoughts are identified as:
- effervescent in nature and so they can rise and disappear without interference
- non-factual (i.e., thoughts are not a true and accurate account of reality but rather a subjective view)
- mood-driven (i.e., the type and nature of thoughts are intimately connect with one’s present disposition).
In fact, developing competency in mindfulness interventions has proven as effective as anti- depressants at preventing depression relapse (Williams & Kuyken, 2012) and offers a different relationship to distressing thoughts, feelings, and behavioural impulses (Vøllestad, Nielsen & Nielsen, 2012), which can lessen anxiety.
In the upcoming workshop at YogaJaya: A Proper Pause, Jacqueline Hargreaves will introduce techniques that induce a restful and receptive state. Participants will practice the skills that turn a restful posture into a meditative one while supine, moving and sitting. Participants will also find ways to cut through the negative cycle of thoughts, boost mood through improving attention capacity and bring about a freedom of choice by increasing deeper meditation and mental clarity.
Birch, J. and Hargreaves, J. 2015. “YOGANIDRĀ: An Understanding of the History and Context”. The Luminescent. Retrieved from: Accessed on: April 10, 2018.
Haṭhapradīpikā 1.34 uttānaṃ śavavad bhūmau śayanaṃ tac chavāsanam | śavāsanaṃ śrāntiharaṃ cittaviśrāntikārakam ||
Jain, S., Shapiro, S.L., Swanick, S. et al. 2007. “A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: Effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction.” In Annuals of Behavioural Medicine 33: 11-21. Retrieved from: Accessed on: April 2, 2018.
Kuvalayananda, Swami. 1933. Āsanas. Bombay, India: Kaivalyadhāma Lonavla.
Vøllestad, J., Nielsen, M.B. and Nielsen G.H.. 2012. “Mindfulness- and acceptance-based interventions for anxiety disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” In the British Journal of Clinical Psychology 51 (3): 239-60. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8260.2011.02024.x.
Williams, J.M. and Kuyken, W.. 2012. “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: a promising new approach to preventing depressive relapse.” In the British Journal of Clinical Psychology 200 (5): 359-60. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.111.104745.