Savasana is a pose of conscious relaxation. Although many people fall asleep while practicing savasana, that is not the aim of this pose. In Light on Pranayama, B.K.S Iyengar says, “Some call it the Eternal Now, beyond space and time. Others call it the soul becoming one with the Creator. This can be experienced in perfect savasana when the body is at rest as in deep sleep, the senses as in a dream but the intellect alert and aware.”
Savasana is a restful pose, and the outcome of it is recuperation and rejuvenation. Sleep, however is not always restful, and it's possible to even wake from sleep and not feel rejuvenated. Why is this?
Studies have been done that measure the brainwave activity of those people who practice conscious relaxation and found that alpha waves (slow brain waves) increase in intensity and frequency during the practice. Interestingly, in similar studies done on sleep, these alpha waves are not commonly found during sleep, or aren't an overarching and ever-present component of sleep. During sleep, the brainwave pattern changes depending on the depth and stage of sleep. Further, sleep can be un-restful due to insomnia, vivid and disturbing dreams, frequent waking etcetera, etcetera.
With meditation and conscious relaxation however, the brain kind of downshifts to an idle, the alpha state, where sensory input is less, awareness is internal, and the brain is in a state of non-arousal. Alpha brainwaves are the resting state of the brain, and aid in contemplation, reflection, mental coordination, calmness, mind/body integration, learning and creativity.
Practicing meditation and savasana nurture the alpha state. With regular practice, the practitioner to more easily and readily achieves the alpha state. Studies have also shown that practices that employ alpha brainwave activity may have a regulatory role on sleep, meaning that people who practice conscious relaxation and meditation, sleep more deeply and more restfully when it's time to sleep.
As I've said before, savasana isn't about sleeping...but so often, people do fall asleep in savasana. If you aren't getting enough sleep, or enough restful sleep, falling asleep in savasana would make sense. My yoga teacher used to say, "if you fall asleep, you need the sleep." So true.
Sleep obviously has it's benefits: physical recovery, cognitive organization, improved ability to concentrate and learn, memory, and mood regulation to name a few. But, as the buddhist saying goes: "If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit; but whatever you do, don't wobble" - when it's time to sleep, sleep well and when it's time to relax, relax well.
As I've mentioned before, savasana is a practice. If you find you are falling asleep, try shortening the time you are in savasana. Decrease it from 10 minutes to 5 minutes to work on developing the ability of the mind to stay focused and alert without falling asleep.
The more you can train your body to be still, and your mind to downshift and idle in a relaxed state, the more easily and often you will stimulate the relaxation response, thereby making it more accessible. Overtime, your ability to stay consciously relaxed in savasana will improve, and perhaps your ability to sleep deeply at bedtime will improve as well.
"First, learn to achieve the silence of the body. Then control the subtle movements of the breath. Next learn about the silence of the mind and the emotions and then of the intellect. From there proceed to learn and study about the silence of the Self. It is not until then that the ego or small self (ahamkara) of the practitioner can merge with his self (Atman). The fluctuations of the mind and the intellect cease, the 'I' or ego disappears and Savasana provides an experience of unalloyed bliss." - Light on Pranayama, page 233
I was in a class once, and at the end, the teacher announced it was time for savasana. She invited us all to stay in savasana for as long or as short as we would like, and then walked out of the room. The only direction she gave, was to be quiet as you were cleaning up your mat. Could you imagine doing this for any other pose in a yoga class? This story highlights the lack of attention given to savasana. Just like any other pose in yoga, savasana deserves attention. In this post, I'll go into more detail about how to do savasana, which then, you can continue to practice. (See my last post about how savasana is a practice).
Time and place
First learn to silence the body
Then, the senses (This is the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga - pratyahara - turning the senses inward).
Then control the subtle movements of the breath
Then the mind, emotion and intellect
Coming out of savasana
Taking it off the mat
"In correct savasana there is minimum wastage of energy and maximum recuperation. It refreshes the whole being, making one dynamic and creative. It banishes fear of death and creates fearlessness. The sadhaka experiences a state of serenity and inner oneness." page 254 (Sadhaka - A seeker, an aspirant)
Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing by B.K.S Iyengar