Breed and Feed, or, How to Detox and Do Other Things Good Too with Savasana

I once described Savasana to my boyfriend–who doesn’t do yoga–as, “taking a sanctioned nap in public”, to which he asked quizzically, “You pay people to do something you can do at home?” I laughed, “I guess you can look at it like that.”

In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would look at it exactly like that. And when I didn’t know better, I saw very little value in Savasana, if at all. It didn’t help that in certain yoga tradition, the teacher simply ended class with, “Thanks for coming, now lie in your sweat and your neighbor’s B.O. I’m leaving the room for some fresh air.”

Ok, I’m being a brat, I know, my point is, in my experience, there’s usually very little instruction in how to do Savasana in most public yoga classes. If I don’t know what to do, I’m either going to pass out and fall asleep, or I’m just going to get up and leave.

If the value of Savasana isn’t widely taught and understood, fewer and fewer people will learn it, do it, care about it, and ultimately benefit from it, and that is a crying shame.

This leads to scenarios where students can complain to studio directors if a teacher keeps the class in Savasana for “too long”, and in turn the well-intentioned director, who want happy customers, will ask teachers to not do Savasana, or minimize it.

This leads to scenarios where, when Savasana time comes, for those who’ve come to know, love, and appreciate the nap (like yours truly), but don’t know the benefits beyond getting some much needed sleep, and therefore don’t do the appropriate practice in Savasana.

This leads to scenarios where, teachers go on yoga forum asking things like: “Why is savasana a key aspect to yoga classes? How do you explain it to your students who may feel they don’t need to pay someone to “just lie on the floor” for 5, 10 or more minutes?”

In this post and a few that follow, I hope to make a case for the yoga pose Savasana: what it is, how to do it, and why we care about it at all.

There are multitudes of interesting things about Savasana, but perhaps the most relevant topic to write today is something closest to home for most of us who just celebrated the Holidays Season in North America, starting with Halloween, then Thanksgiving, all the way to New Years.

That topic is digestion and elimination, or, the more trendy and PC word is: detox.

How Savasana helps with detoxing

I don’t want to rehash the list of benefits of Savasana that you can read everywhere. I want to talk about what happens in Savasana and how it helps you digest, or detox.

You may remember the autonomic nervous system from school, divided into sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. You may also know the sympathetic system is associated with the “fight or flight” response, nice and catchy and easy to remember.

Think quick! What’s the equivalent catchy response for the parasympathetic system? Wikipedia will tell you that it’s “rest and digest”. But, I’m here to tell you another one that’s much easier to remember: “feed and breed”. It’s much more colloquial and down and dirty, not something they always tell you in school, but our memory works best with down and dirty things, like learning swear words in foreign languages.

What’s involved in feed and breed? Put it another way, what’s *not* involved in feed and breed? Sometimes it seems like almost a full time job for some people in our culture to keep us preoccupied with those exact two things. Feeding and breeding are big business.

Now think about what prevents you from good feeding and breeding? Bad food, for sure. Bad sex, certainly. What goes in must come out, and if you can’t digest, pee, or poop, it is not a good day in any measure.

Think about the last time you were in the mood for love, were you in a fight or flight response? Were you stressed? Depressed? Anxious? Or were you more relaxed? That’s the parasympathetic nervous system in action.

Let’s have Wikipedia come to the rescue and articulate things more eloquently:

To be specific, the parasympathetic system is responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest” activities that occur when the body is at rest, including sexual arousal, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination, digestion, and defecation.

And the good people of Wikipedia (when they’re not showing creepy mug shots) have provided a useful acronym for the functions of the parasympathetic nervous system too, SLUDD: salivation, lacrimation, urination, digestion, and defecation.

Our days are filled with stimulating activities that call for a well functioning and active Sympathetic Nervous System: driving, work meetings, answering emails, giving speeches, working out, etc.

Yoga asanas demand quite a bit of us as well, thinking about what to do, where to move, protecting or preventing injuries, worrying about doing the right thing, looking good, etc.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is the counterpart of the SNS. It’s the Yin to the SNS’s Yang. It’s the eggs to the SNS’s bacon (for you bacon fans out there). It’s the coke to the SNS’s rum. Ok, I may be taking this too far, but you see where I’m going. These two systems go together.

The problem is we as a culture has gone so far off the Sympathetic Nervous System’s deep end, that we don’t even know how to relax. We think relax is sitting on the couch watching Dancing with the Stars with our favorite drink. We think relax is watching Tom Cruise scale up sky scrapers with a bare hand.

Don’t get me wrong, these are awesome. I have nothing against holding down the couch or Occupying IMAX. Those activities, however, are fun, but not necessarily relaxing as far as our body’s physiology is concerned.

Now, think about what happens to your nervous system in Savasana. Let’s set the mood: the lights are down so it’s nice and dark, you’re well covered and warm, your eyes are closed, the floor is dry, clean, and flat. You’re not eating, drinking, driving, walking, running, dancing, moving, talking. You’re lying flat down on the floor with all the props you need to support your body position and weight.

It’s the perfect trigger to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, aka, say it with me, the “feed and breed” response. This is where the PNS “mediates digestion of food and indirectly, the absorption of nutrients.” (Wikipedia entry on Autonomic Nervous System.)

“Great, I’m sold on that,” you say, “but why do I have to pay someone to do this?”

You don’t. Plain and simple as that. Just like how you don’t have to pay someone to watch you do pushups, pullups, or situps; how you don’t have to pay to have someone to time you to run around the block or up the hill.

Or, maybe we do have to pay someone to count our pushups and time our Savasana. We need someone to give us instruction, techniques, refinement, encouragement, and the big A, accountability.

If we don’t learn how to, and do, Savasana in class, if we don’t make it a daily habit under someone else’s watch, what are the chances we will do it on our own? If we don’t learn how to relax in a controlled setting, much like having training wheels on, how will we relax when we’re in “real life” and shit is hitting the fan? (Or… not coming out well?)

And… on that note, I’ll finish writing for now. But I am not done with all the amazing things that happen in Savasana and the benefit you get from it. So, ask for more savasana, and I hope you’ll come back for more soon.