Malasana, or yoga squat, and savasana, or, as I like to call it, lying flat, are postures that can be practiced by almost anyone with proper modifications. Whether 18 or 78 years old, we are all in the process of aging, so my interest lies in what can be sustainable practice for a lifetime. Each of these poses has the potential to evolve and expand as we commit to deliberate practice of them. If you are already a yoga practitioner and are trying to help a loved-one start their own practice, these two poses, mindfully modified for age and injury, could be a fantastic place to start. There is a lot of study and scientific evidence for the efficacy of each and sometimes this science is a helpful nudge that can be the deciding factor in someone who is a little hesitant to begin.
With malasana, or the beautifully translated “garland pose,”it is important to be mindful coming in and going out. There is much evidence that standing and sitting are tests for longevity, assessing flexibility, strength and balance. The squat, I have come to see in my experience of looking at many bodies and feeling it in my own, is something we can work towards as a resting pose. It is easy to recall photographs of indigenous people squatting at rest. This pose can become biomechanically comfortable if we take time to cultivate it. We can add the benefits of mindfully entering and exiting it as well. I have seen over the years, almost all of my students, despite age but barring injury, come comfortably into a squat with practice, surprising themselves.
“Corpse pose,” or savasana, is a posture for wholeness with endless benefits. I will focus on only two of these, however. In the beginning of my practice, I dreaded this posture because I was so uncomfortable in it. It was supposed to be a resting place but it was one, for me, of turmoil. I eventually came to realize why it was so uncomfortable. Because of the postural habits I had acquired over my lifetime, my musculoskeletal system was imbalanced and arranging it into balance under gravity was painful. When I started paying attention, however, I realized how gravity was allowing me to regain balance. I see it in every long-term student too. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the ubiquitous FHP (Forward Head Posture). In this pose, the forehead rests above the chin, which may require propping with a folded blanket or pillow. Over time, a change will become obvious by having to lower the props under the head, or coming all the way to the ground thus witnessing the gradual lessening of FHP. Everyone I work with has lowered or removed props and this is a direct product of the balancing of the spine.
The other amazing benefit of lying flat is as a tool to train the nervous system when practiced everyday. In our modern world, we are mostly in a sympathetic, or fight/flight, state. As we deliberately arrange our body and commit to stillness incorporating breath, the system naturally begins to open up to the parasympathetic, or rest/digest/heal state. This pose gives us the potential to come into balance on two levels, with the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system.
From a standing position, separate legs 2-3 feet apart. Make sure your kneecap aligns with your second and third toes. Drop your tailbone and lift your low belly to create a neutral pelvic alignment powering up your core, glutes and thighs. Bring your throat back aligning ears over shoulders and shoulders over 18 asaNa Magazine | July 2017 hips. Place your hands together at your heart and press into your palms to open across the collar bones. When descending, allow your legs to support you and keep ears, shoulders, and hips aligned. It is important to keep the spine long and the core engaged in order to not put too much pressure in the low back or cervical vertebrae, training towards healthy posture and movement.
Once squatting, nestle your outer, upper arms on the inside of your knees. Press into your palms and open across the collarbones again. This pressing action also protects the knee joints and you can sneak a peek to see if your kneecap is still aligned with your toes. Bring your weight into the heels as you draw your tailbone towards the ground and assess if your neck is properly in line with your shoulders by drawing your soft palate up and back slightly. Begin by staying for a minute but lengthen the time as this posture opens up for you into a resting pose. Stand up slowly the same way you came down, keeping spine long, and ears, shoulders and hips aligned. Watch for rounding.
To modify use a hard-seated chair. As balance, flexibility and strength are cultivated, lower the height of the prop to a block or remove any props. A wedge under the heels (a rolled up towel or folded blanket) may also help.
Flat Arrange your body very deliberately on the ground. This is important for gravity to do its work. Open your legs away from each other and allow your feet to flop out. Open your arms away from your side, turning palms up. Assess whether you need a prop under your head if your chin is higher than your forehead. Once it is just right, lengthen your neck, and rest on the lower back of your skull. Begin with the heels and move your awareness up your body to what is touching the ground, making sure left and right sides are equally balanced. Once still, allow your front body to to melt towards your back body and your back body to relax into what is supporting it. Pay special attention to relaxing the facial muscles including the jaw and tongue. Then begin with an inhale at the tip of your toes all the way to the crown of the head and an exhale from the crown back to the toes. Notice the gaps between the inhale and exhale and vice versa as you continue with this full body breath. Start out with a few minutes and then add or subtract time as needed.
To modify, begin on a bed if you are not yet able to get on the floor. Add a prop under your head at the appropriate height. If your low back feels painful to the point of discomfort, add a bolster, or rolled up blanket under your knees. Stay aware of when these props can be modified as gravity does its work.