by Ivana Grujic
In yoga, relaxation refers to the release of bodily and mental tension.
The majority of us experience a nearly constant state of low-grade muscular tension. Check in with yourself right now. You may notice this in your own body as a sort of gripping sensation. Keeping muscles in a state of constant alertness expends a great deal of energy, which then is unavailable when muscles are called upon to really function.
Our minds and bodies are inseparable. Our inability to calm our minds is directly affecting our bodies. The mind is constantly being drawn back to the plans and inventories of our lives, or checklists of our failures. The way the mind churns while we try to get to sleep at night can produce a feeling of restlessness akin to the buzz of too much caffeine.
This restlessness can manifest itself physically as constant movement or agitation. It can also manifest mentally as dwelling on the same thoughts over and over. We obsess - we can’t let go of the cycle of planning and evaluating our plans. We make judgments over and over again, scrutinizing who we believe we are and how we are doing.
The best thing we can do to counter this crazy human condition is to come back to simply watching the breath. This sounds simple, but can be quite hard to do. Luckily, yoga can offer some tools. Read on to learn about how to actively relax!
You can do this anytime, anywhere. However, beginners especially might find it helpful to do this practice after asana class, as the purpose of asana is to prepare the body and the mind for deep relaxation and meditation.
To practice systematic relaxation, at home or in the studio, you can try the following:
- Rest on the floor, lying on your back, allowing the body to sink into the ground or a blanket. You can get cosy, but avoid surfaces that are too soft.
- To start, just allow yourself to do nothing for a few minutes, as if you have no worries in this world. Allow your body to be still.
- If the previous action of no action feels okay for you, you could begin to deepen your breath.
- As you deepen your breath, begin to notice how your whole body is breathing. Simply continue to feel the flow of your breath, the rise and the fall, throughout your entire body.
- Continue doing this as long as it feels good.
- Congratulations, you did your first relaxation!
In yoga, lying on the floor like this is actually a pose called Shavasana, or corpse pose. Yes, it’s a little creepy, but it’s apt. :-)On the gross level, corpse pose brings many benefits. In seated or standing postures, the heart must work against gravity to pump blood to the head and circulate it throughout the body. However, when you are lying on your back, the heart is on the same level as the rest of the body. Placing the body into a horizontal plane, as in Shavasana, allows the cardiovascular system some measure of rest -- the heart doesn’t have to work so hard to move blood around the body.
Because the body is completely supported by the floor, the effects of gravity on the postural muscles are neutralized. This posture also has a relaxing effect on the nervous system. The head contains lots of proprioceptors - nerves which monitor where you are in space, and orient you in relation to gravity. Our brains are constantly working to keep us upright, using input from these nerve systems. When we lie down, the floor can support us instead of our muscles, so these nerves get to take a little break. This is part of the reason that we sleep lying down -- it takes a whole lot less energy from all the systems of the body.
In these busy times of ours, you’ll do well to carve out a couple of minutes for this practice. If you’re more comfortable being guided, get yourself to a yoga class! Your body will thank you, and your mind, too.