I Stopped Chasing Savasana and Started Breathing Easier

Twenty five years into practicing yoga, relaxation still eludes me

Photo: Getty Images

I’ve practiced yoga on and off since I was 15, but my relationship with it has largely teetered between anticipation and desperation. As a teenager, I watched my father effortlessly slide into a headstand every morning. If he could make this look so easy in his 40’s, I figured it would be a cinch for me. I offered to join my parents in their morning yoga practice, being careful to make it seem like I was doing them a favor. But from the very first time I tried to wrangle myself into the poses our teacher was leading us through, it was clear I was never going to be an asana aficionado. I couldn’t wait for class to end each week. I knew what followed that inhumane hour of twisting and stretching: Savasana, the blessed final minutes of rest. Never mind that as the teacher gently droned about “consciously relaxing one limb at a time” and “letting your body melt into the floor”, I was mostly pondering how to get out of attending next week’s class.

Shortly after moving to the United States, I let a friend convince me to try yoga again. I’d had time to lick my wounds since my adolescent experience, and even though a physical therapist had once told me my body was “poorly proportioned for exercise in general”, I decided I was fine to take yoga out for a second spin, this time as an adult.

As I unrolled my mat in the mirrored studio space, I noticed I was the only Indian person there. It struck me as odd, especially considering yoga originated on the subcontinent. At the time, I lived in the heart of Silicon Valley, in a town with a large South Asian population. Yoga studios were almost as ubiquitous as coffee shops. Why was I the only brown person in the room? Had I chosen the wrong class? The reviews online had been glowing. I had already made eye contact with the teacher, so it was too late to leave, but I had an uneasy feeling I was about to be scammed somehow.

The class was fine. Better than fine, actually. The instructor was calm and capable, and everyone attending seemed perfectly normal. After years of practicing yoga in a loose tunic and pants, I didn’t know what to make of all the fitted leggings and sports bras, but that seemed like a superficial cultural difference. I went back to the same studio a few more times, trying different days of the week. Still, something just felt…off. I couldn’t settle into a groove, and when the instructor asked us to relax into Savasana, my body stayed stiff and alert, as though I was ready to launch myself out of there at a moment’s notice. I was pissed. Now that my body was finally getting the hang of the poses that had eluded me as a teen, my brain had found a new preoccupation, something to prevent me from relaxing and truly enjoying yoga.

Over the past many years, I’ve been hounded by similar, frustrating experiences at yoga studios across the Bay Area. My initial worries about racial diversity soon disappeared, only to be replaced by other annoyances that continued to make Savasana impossible. I tried Bikram yoga, but the heat and sweat were definitely not for me. There was no question of attempting to relax there; I just wanted to retreat from the excessive body odor. Prenatal yoga was next. Who was I kidding? Try finding a comfortable position to rest when you’re hauling a large, kicking basketball around inside of you. Most recently, I attended two semesters of Dance Fusion yoga at our local community center. When the sweet, sprightly instructor dimmed the lights and cued up Eva Cassidy to croon us to the finish line, the last thing on my mind was Savasana. I was hungry, I was making mental grocery lists, I was wondering if I needed a haircut. Once again, instead of bringing my conscious focus down to the mat, I was poised and ready for take off.

I decided to investigate. According to the sanguine Google search yogis,

“It is normal for the mind to try to resist deep relaxation. Savasana is the ultimate act of conscious surrender. It takes practice and patience to surrender easily.”

This seemed like a wholly unsatisfying response. Was I supposed to take the advice I gave my children seriously now? “The only way to get better at something is to practice,” I’d always told them. Ugh, did the words sound as hollow and unconvincing to my five and seven year old as they did to me?

My research also informed me that Savasana meant “corpse pose”. Perhaps that was the issue? Maybe my body was so brimming with vitality and life that even the idea of imitating a corpse was offensive to it? Ha. I couldn’t make that theory sound plausible even in my own head. Just when I had resigned myself to never unlocking its secrets, the turning point in my search for Savasana was brought on, unexpectedly, by pandemic life.

The phone alarm goes off at 8:13am, Monday to Friday. The boys’ schedules say it’s time to log into their laptops to start the online school day. I have an appointment to keep too, with my yoga mat. After chasing the kids around the house with motivational phrases like, “Did you brush ALL the way in the back of your mouth?”, and “No lightsaber duels until you make your bed!”, we all make it to our first meetings of the day.

Yoga class is online, the flavor du jour for pretty much everything these days. The first many minutes of practice are angst-free. I breathe deeply and find my flow-ish. I ignore the teacher’s repeated urging to try Crow pose — my recalcitrance is strong this morning — and focus instead on strengthening my Half Moon balance. Please don’t ask me for the Sanskrit names of the asanas. I have long forgotten, and there’s only so much time in the day for guilt and shame.

My yoga practice reminds me to focus on progress instead of perfection, but right now, giving myself a break feels like an equally valuable lesson.

Just as we’re asked to “ease our bodies into Savasana”, I hear it. My younger son’s “Ammaaaaa….” filters through the crack in the door. It’s a plaintive bleat that rises in volume and frequency as the seconds of my so-called rest tick by. (Unrelated aside: If my kids are sheep, does that make me their shepherd? Why does parenting today feel less like shepherding, and more like we’re all wandering through a desert together? This, and other pointless ruminations, deserve an essay of their own.)

It doesn’t matter how long my class runs. The call for help comes like clockwork. It’s almost like this child senses his mother is being asked to relax, something she doesn’t yet know how to do. And so, like a really twisted guardian angel, day after day, he rescues me from myself. My yoga practice reminds me to focus on progress instead of perfection, but right now, giving myself a break feels like an equally valuable lesson.

On my laptop screen, the yoga instructor is lying still, eyes closed, at peace. I rise, roll up my mat, and square my (now more limber) shoulders. Life calls. Rest can wait until tomorrow.

Written by

Often reading, writing, or teaching. Always cooking, baking, and eating. Words in Human Parts, Curious, Modern Parent. Connect on Twitter @purnima_mani

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