“Relax.” It sounds so simple, and yet, in a paradoxical twist, this can be one of the most difficult types of practices. We are conditioned to overexerting—to trying too hard—and in the process holding tension that we did not even realize we were holding. These patterns become a kind of vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes it more and more difficult to relax. Yoga offers methods of systematic relaxation that help us do more than unwind at the end of a long day (though they also do this). By following these time-honored techniques, we learn to reset the clock of our body and mind. Relaxation will make us better meditators, and it will also make us more peaceful, effective human beings in all dimensions of our life. Through yoga relaxation, we learn to embody the maxim: “Try less; be more.”

Why Relaxation?

Relaxation skills play an important role in learning to meditate. They restore balance and replenish energies that have been unsettled by the stresses of daily life. Relaxation rests the senses and initiates the process of pratyahara (sense withdrawal). It prepares the body and mind for refined states of concentration, offering a preview of meditation. Formal relaxation exercises are practiced in reclining postures. At the end of the relaxation, the practitioner sits up for meditation. But meditation is often practiced without a formal relaxation preceding it. During sitting meditation a brief survey of the body (from the head to the toes and back to the head) can be used to quiet muscle tensions that might otherwise disturb the sitting pose. As a result, sitting proceeds with minimal effort, and attention is directed to the concentration process rather than being defused by inner tensions. Systematic relaxation can also be practiced after asana practice, or as a stand-alone practice. It helps restore vital energy to our body, calm our nervous system, and undo the stress that has taken a toll on our mind.

Systematic relaxation restores vital energy, calms our nervous system, and undoes stress.
The Art of Yoga Relaxation

As yoga practitioners, we are accustomed to the satisfaction of making an effort and seeing a result. After all, this is how we progress in our practice. But in yoga relaxation, subtle overexertion—making too much of the effort to relax—is a common experience. This might seem puzzling, given that relaxation by nature implies letting go of effort. But anyone who has practiced is well aware of the impulse to “try to relax.”

Calming one’s effort and finding the natural experience that serves as the underpinning to relaxation is an interesting and complex process. So to get started, let’s review the basic technique of relaxation. It is refreshingly simple:

  1. Rest on your back, using a thin cushion to support your neck and head.
  2. Calm and deepen your breath, feeling the sensations of the breath emptying and filling you.
  3. Practice a systematic relaxation method.
  4. Feel the breath as if the whole body breaths, relaxing your mind and body.

Now let’s use these steps to recognize and relieve telltale signs of strain.

A Still Posture

What’s needed first is a still posture. But switching from our normal patterns of movement—conscious and unconscious—and the frozen patterns of tension (which can often appear in the guise of stillness) to true stillness is not automatic, at least at first. It requires awareness of our customary patterns, as well as practice of the method. I’m reminded of the first time I was allowed to stay up late enough to observe the New Year’s Eve transition. My brother and I made a tent by covering a card table with a blanket. Then we crawled inside and read books until midnight, when the New Year arrived. Of course, the New Year didn’t feel any different from the old year, so we shouted and blew whistles and ate food to make it all seem worthwhile.

To experience the magic of shavasana, wait for the stillness.

The transition from normal, everyday awareness to relaxation has a similar feel. During the first moments in shavasana (corpse pose), our state of mind is not much different than it was the moment just before lying down. It’s easy to feel the need to do something to make shavasana more relaxing. This could mean adjusting the posture or trying to hurry the relaxation along in some way. Be patient. As in most transitions, a reasonable amount of time needs to pass for the magic of the relaxation pose to make any noticeable difference—normally around 8 to 10 minutes. When left to its own devices, shavasana will produce a deep feeling of stillness that is truly relaxing. The trick is to wait for it.

Relaxed Breathing

Breathing is itself a relaxing experience. But during relaxation exercises, exaggerated and self-conscious breathing efforts are a common miscue. To reduce strained breathing, it is important to be able to shift your awareness away from the mechanics of breathing and to focus on the timeless feeling of emptying and filling that accompanies each breath. Once your attention has been focused on the feeling of breathing, relaxation is sure to follow.

An accurate understanding of the mechanics of breathing is important, too. Anatomically, shavasana is unusual because in it the secondary muscles of breathing are almost completely quiet and the ribs remain essentially motionless. Only the diaphragm plays a primary role in causing air to flow into the lungs.

Inhalations that markedly engage muscles in the rib cage or cause the abdomen to puff out disproportionately are signs of strain. Tensions that resist the easy flow of breathing must also be identified and calmed. With regular practice, all these signs of respiratory strain can be brought to the surface of your awareness and dealt with. Shavasana makes it possible to feel the motion of the diaphragm and to minimize any interruptions to its smooth, regular cycles.

Traveling Through the Body

Systematic relaxation techniques, the heart of the relaxation process, most commonly involve mentally traveling through the body from one area to the next. You usually begin by placing your awareness at the head, moving it down through the body, and returning it to the head. But there are many different ways to do this, ranging from relaxations focused on muscle groups to relaxations that follow the breath or travel along lines of subtle energy. From a yogic point of view, no method is purely physical; a deep relaxation ultimately produces a clearer and more joyful mind.

The most common relaxation technique is called “systematic muscle relaxation,” in which awareness is gradually led from the crown of the head down to the toes and back again, releasing muscle tension while maintaining deep, relaxed breathing. Here is the basic outline of the practice:

Lie in shavasana and breathe deeply and smoothly. Bring your awareness to the following areas and rest briefly at each of them:

  • Crown of the head
  • Forehead, sides and back of the head
  • Ears, temples
  • Eyebrows, eyelids, eyes
  • Nose (rest and pause for a few breaths)
  • Cheeks, jaw
  • Mouth, lips, tongue
  • Chin, throat
  • Sides and back of the neck
  • Pit of the throat, shoulders
  • Upper, lower arms
  • Hands, fingers, fingertips (rest and pause for a few breaths)
  • Hands and arms
  • Chest, sides, upper back
  • Lungs, heart, heart center (rest and pause for a few breaths)
  • Abdomen, sides, lower back
  • Buttocks, lower abdomen, hips
  • Hip joints, upper legs
  • Lower legs, feet, toes (rest and pause for a few breaths)

After relaxing and breathing to the toes, travel back upward, moving awareness through the legs to the base of the spine. Slowly travel up along the spine, relaxing the deep muscles of the back, shoulders, and neck. Rest at the back of the head and then at the crown of the head. Breathe as if the whole body breathes. Let the feeling of breathing fill your mind as other thoughts come and go. Relax your mental effort. Let the floor hold you.

Problem Spots

Yoga teachers who have guided students in relaxation exercises similar to the one above are familiar with an unusual reaction that some students have to it. After being instructed to relax their fingers, they will wiggle them instead. Similar moving and wiggling happens up and down the body, from top to toe, as they follow the exercise. The problem seems to be a loss of sensitivity, coupled with resorting to our customary patterns. Distracted by mental chatter, holding much more tension in the body than is comfortable to acknowledge, and accustomed to doing something when asked to focus attention, many of us slip into activity mode without even recognizing it—we move.

Yoga offers a number of ways to calm this reaction. Asana practice challenges muscles and stretches them out. After an asana session it is much easier to rest during the relaxation. Tension/relaxation exercises help in identifying areas of the body to be relaxed. They also prepare individual muscles for relaxation. And finally, repetition of the basic relaxation method is often all it takes to restore sensitivity. Teachers can help establish a relaxation habit by making sure they guide students in a relaxation exercise at the end of every yoga class.

Breathe as if your whole body breathes.

The habit of relaxation extends to sitting meditation. Often, reclining relaxation directly precedes meditation. Even when it doesn’t, the ability to quiet muscle tension and sit with minimal effort is essential to the meditation process. Once the body is relaxed and the nervous system calmed, energy can be redirected to the concentration process rather than diffused by physical agitation and unconscious strain. Good relaxation skills naturally shift awareness inward and underlie the process of meditation at every turn.

Going Deeper into Relaxation

The unique function of muscles is to contract. To employ a muscle, we consciously or unconsciously send it a “contract” command. The muscle’s response depends upon the intensity of the message we send. If the input is substantial, muscle contractions are rapid and strong. With zero input, muscles become completely quiet. The trick to relaxing muscles, then, would seem to be to turn off the message machine for a time.

Should be easy, right? Unfortunately, the habit of tensing muscles can be deep-seated and instinctive. Nature has armored us with reflexes that resist relaxation and call for gentle handling. And while yoga postures do stretch muscles and reset reflexes to calmer levels, deep relaxation requires even more than this. To relax deeply, we need to address the multiple roots from which muscles and other body tissues receive their input.

Nerve fibers directed to muscles are the final pathways leading from a number of sources. A shrug of the shoulders, for example, may signal a conscious intention to communicate a message. But it may also express disgruntlement, the discomfort of being cold, or a feeling of low self-esteem. Tight shoulders, locked in an achy shrug, may result from too much caffeine, computer fatigue, or a poor sleeping posture. And the shoulder tension that arises from protecting an exposed neck is often a physical metaphor for insecurity of a different sort—for anxiety that has gone deeper into the psyche than we wish it had.

Relaxation teaches us to work from inside out, not outside in.

Because muscle contractions arise from so many sources, managing them invariably leads us deeper into ourselves. We begin by examining the body itself. In the course of relaxing, we develop a new relationship with our thoughts and emotional life. We gradually learn to understand how factors in our environment (often factors of our own choosing) are being reflected in the body. Over time, relaxation exercises teach us to work from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.

Slow Down and Practice

As with any type of practice, be regular and give the process its own time. It works well to conclude your asana sessions with a relaxation exercise, but on the days when you don’t have time for asana, still do a complete relaxation. We’re all busy, but it helps to remember that the moments you spend moving inward in relaxation will replenish what the world depletes. Systematic relaxation is the means for slowing down momentarily—for learning how to respond to life’s challenges with more balance and ease. Relaxed effort pays dividends. As you’ll start to see, the benefits of relaxation linger long after your practice ends, infusing your day-to-day activities with vital energy—the sap of life.

Practice Resources

Source: Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation (Rolf Sovik, PsyD)