I get a lot of questions about the difference between centering, meditation and savasana. And I totally understand the confusion. After all, they look pretty similar - you're still, quiet, eyes are closed, and ideally you're checked out from the outside world. Right?
Actually, they're three totally different and very important parts of the practice. I like to think of them as Pre-Practice, Practice, and Post-Practice.
This is your opportunity to transition out of your busy day and into your practice. Not all teachers offer a centering period at the start of their classes, but I find it very difficult to dive straight into my practice without taking a moment to slow down both my mind and my body. Usually, we come to the mat with racing minds and tense bodies. The goal of your entire practice is to alleviate both situations, and you have a much better shot of doing that if you take a few minutes up front to slow down your breathing, deactivate your fight-or-flight system, notice where you are holding on to tension and consciously relax those muscles. So basically, you're taking a few minutes to shed any surface-level physical and mental stress symptoms that may have followed you onto the mat, and prepare your mind and body for the practice to come.
The Practice (Meditation or Asana)
Despite what it looks like on the outside, I consider Meditation an active practice: it is the practice of actively clearing your mind. There are a variety of techniques you can use to help do this, from breath-work to visualization to mantras, but it all comes down to the same thing: you are doing work in order to calm, quiet, and clear your mind.
I've always considered my physical yoga practice (aka Asana practice) as a moving meditation - by shifting your focus to your body's movements, you're allowing your mind to calm and clear. It can be very difficult for the modern-day American to clear their mind simply by sitting still. Adding the layer of physical movement to the practice makes it much easier to quiet the mind, forget all that external stimuli that gets us worked up all day long, and turn our focus inward.
Teachers often say Savasana is your opportunity to "soak up the benefits of your practice." Physically, I don't really agree - the physical benefits of your practice are usually either felt while you're in the pose, or once you get off the mat and back into your everyday. But mentally, that's exactly what happens. You've used your practice to clear your mind, to give it a break, a chance to reboot. Savasana is your opportunity to discover what was hiding underneath all of that mental muck you just cleared away.
Here's my favorite way of explaining it: your mind is like a pond. When you come to the mat, it's usually muddied up with external stimuli: to-do-lists and worries and emotions and so on. You're simultaneously reliving the day behind you and fretting about what's to come. I call this the "hamster wheel" of the mind - mine is generally going at warp speed when I'm not on the mat. (Yes, I'm mixing my metaphors. Just go with it.)
Ok, so you come to the mat with your mind all muddied up, you hamster wheel a-spinnin'. You Center yourself - skim off that top layer of muck and settle into your practice. Then you Practice: you actively clear your mind, allowing the rest of that muck to settle to the bottom. Now it's time to take a look at what that muck was hiding!
This is easily my favorite part of this whole shebang. It's that glorious time at the end when you get to just lay still and see what comes up. And I've gotta tell you, at the risk of sounding woo-woo, I've had a LOT of really incredible revelations during Savasana. I call them my "yoga epiphanies," and they have actually become a big part of both my creative process and my spiritual one.
Creatively: When I find myself stuck in the midst of a creative project, my practice is the best way I know of to get my creative juices flowing again. What I usually do is start with a brain dump - for instance, if I'm trying to come up with a name for something, I'll just write a list of every single word or phrase that is somehow relevant to the thing I'm trying to name. Then I put the list down, and go practice. Without fail, during Savasana (if not sooner), at least one awesome idea will appear. I kid you not, this is exactly how I came up with the name for my Sanctuary retail line.
Spiritually: When I have a question in life, or am struggling with something specific, I come to the mat and set my intention around that. And without fail, every single time, I achieve some kind of new clarity around that question or struggle. Sometimes the answer appears, clear as day. Sometimes, it's just the next step that's revealed to me. Either way, I am somehow moved forward in my journey.
But it's not always fun and clarity and new ideas. If you've got something heavy going on in your life, chances are that it will get stirred up in Savasana (or possibly even while you're still in the midst of your practice). ESPECIALLY if you haven't been dealing with it off the mat. Whether it's because you've been in denial, too afraid to face it, or just too busy to even realize these feelings were happening deep inside of you...once that mind-muck starts to settle, you're going to be able to see what was hiding underneath. And sometimes, the view ain't so pretty.
But that's ok. It may be ugly, but it's important. It's there whether you face it or not, and the sooner you face it, the sooner you'll be able to get past it. In the words of Robert Frost: "The best way out is through."
So whether you're struggling with a creative block or something deeper...or even if you don't know what you're struggling with at all...this is how you can use your practice to help you work through it.
But if you'd rather stick to just using it to keep your hips loose and your injuries at bay, that's totally cool too. This is your practice. You do you, boo.