Your innermost nature is deeply relaxed. This may seem surprising, since experience often paints a different picture. In daily life, we frequently fail to see the hallmarks of deep relaxation—purity, contentment, and stability—within ourselves. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that simple yogic relaxation methods can awaken these qualities in us. Can a few minutes of repose actually connect us to the deeper layers of ourselves?
What does relaxation really mean? It means bringing yourself back to your own home.
To answer this question we’ll need to reflect on what we are trying to accomplish when we relax. Perhaps you think of relaxation as a stress-reducing practice, a moment of rest at the end of an asana class, or something to do when you are tired. In fact, true relaxation practice in the yoga tradition is much more than that. What does deep relaxation truly mean? It means bringing yourself back to your own home. It’s not about falling asleep or doing something entertaining. Yoga relaxation is more than overcoming everyday levels of tiredness. That you can do quite simply by sitting down for a few minutes, or getting some fresh air, or taking a nap, or having a cup of tea, or washing your face. The point is, superficial levels of tiredness can be removed with simple methods. What we are considering here is a much more profound level of relaxation.
Think about how you would feel if you were to finally arrive home after driving through a blizzard. The roads were icy, the car was slipping and sliding, you couldn’t see, it was a complete whiteout. You passed 18-wheelers on their sides in the ditch. You were so anxious and stressed! Finally you reach home. Your family is overjoyed to see you and gives you hot tea and cookies. You are safe and warm. You feel relieved. The tension and stress caused by your harrowing journey melts away. That’s exactly what happens when the mind and its faculties return home. Automatically you find yourself in a state of relaxation. What a relief! The burden on your mind vanishes. It feels so comforting. That’s called relaxation. It is a condition of your body, breath, mind, and soul combined.
If this relaxed state is a natural innate state of being, how do we lose it so easily? How do we get so far away from our home? The yoga tradition says vikshepa steals our relaxed state. Loosely translated, vikshepa means distraction, but actually it is more than this. Vikshepa implies that some force grabs the mind and hurls it. It is vikshepa that propels an arrow that has been shot into the air. The poor arrow does not have a choice about where it lands. Things grab us and hurl us away from ourselves. Sometimes we are aware of this happening, and sometimes not.
It is a mysterious process—we may be thrown into a dumpster, into a river, or on top of a gold mine. In each case, we do not realize what has happened. Suppose you land a job at General Motors with a million-dollar salary. You make an enormous effort to hold on to your money, expand it, and let your friends and colleagues know that you are the fastest-growing millionaire on the planet. What you may not recognize is how much exertion your body, mind, and senses suffer in the process. Whether you are aware of it or not, your entire being suffers from this exertion. Your life is stressful and you are stressed, regardless of whether or not you are conscious of it.
To unravel these stresses you must work in a conscious, methodical manner. No matter in which way, or where, or to what degree you have been carried away, you can bring yourself back. In relation to each stress and to each area of over-involvement, you must bring yourself back to your home. That’s pratyahara, the opposite of vikshepa (the process that grabbed you, hurled you into the air, and threw you to the ground with so much force).
Pratyahara requires that you see how your mind and senses became so entangled and involved. Then you can recapture them and gently pull them back to yourself. This is pratyahara—spiritually speaking, a “homecoming.”
“One who completely withdraws the senses from their objects, as a tortoise withdraws its limbs into its shell, his wisdom stands firm,” says the Bhagavad Gita. Like a turtle drawing its head and limbs into its home, you withdraw from the objects of your senses and from the entangled places of your mind. You are withdrawing your mind from your money, your car, your spouse, your honor, your self-image, your failure, your success, your loss. Thus you are freeing yourself from all that has grabbed your mind.
Then what happens? The virtue and brilliance of your soul will become established in its own abode—that is the meaning of the soul abiding in itself. All will find their rightful place. Instead of you following them, they will follow you. You are vast, and yet you do not know how much room you have for honor and insult, success and failure, love and hatred. When you practice pratyahara, everything will find its rightful place in the vast expanse of your consciousness, without exerting any burden on you.
Decongesting the Body and Mind
This is the theory behind the range of practices of pratyahara. But let us begin one step at a time. The first step is very simple: just make a decision to unload your burdens and start your journey home. Make a decision to reclaim your beautiful self—your body; your clear, calm, and tranquil mind; and the peaceful core of your being.
Then summon your willpower and determination. It is your sankalpa, your power of will and determination, that will infuse your relaxation practice with life. Without that, although you might make a resolution, by the second week you will have forgotten it. So make a decision. But as you do, remind yourself that the toxins in your body, the negativity in your mind, the rigidity of this stiffened shroud you are wearing on your body and soul, took many years to accumulate. It wasn’t created in one day. Therefore, you need a sustained, systematic process to undo it. Remind yourself that it took 30 years to become stiff in your lower back. It took 50 years to develop arthritis in your knees. It took 40 years to become so opinionated and stiff in your mind. And it took 30 years to develop calluses on your tender heart. If all this cannot be undone in the next few weeks or in the next few months, don’t be disappointed. Have patience.
Deep relaxation is not merely the physical act of lying down. Something very profound is happening. Your body is being reunited with your breath and mind.
The moment you make the decision that you are going to relax, the body starts secreting healthy hormones and sending wholesome messages to every cell, limb, and organ. Just as it takes less than a millionth of a second for chlorophyll in the leaf of a plant to become active when touched by the rays of the sun, so if you truly decide to relax, with full intention and respect for yourself, the vital centers in you, including the chakras and the most minute aspects of your body and mind, will get the message. It will happen instantaneously. Relaxation is not merely the physical act of lying down. Something very profound is happening. Your body is being reunited with your breath and mind.
What The Scriptures Say
The breath and the mind are best friends. The scriptures describe the breath as the queen bee, while the forces of the body, senses, and mind are portrayed as the breath’s worker bees. Wherever the queen bee sits, the workers gather around her. When she flies, they fly with her. Thus, wherever your breath is, that’s where your mind will be. Awareness of your breath creates awareness of the flow of vitality in you. With the aid of the breath, the mind can visit all the nooks and crannies of your being. And when the breath and mind are united in this way, all the other forces of your body immediately become active, full of joy and delight. Breath awareness is the true source of relaxation.
To put it slightly differently: When a dignified guest comes to your home, you spontaneously get up from the couch to offer the guest a seat. “Please come, please sit,” you entreat. This is similar to the body’s response to the presence of breath awareness. Your kidneys, bladder, colon, reproductive organs, and entire body give the mind and breath a place of honor. Every organ system is excited to experience the company of breath awareness. This is the beauty of coming back to your home during deep relaxation.
Relaxation is the process of clearing away, unblocking, and decongesting your body and mind. Physiological and psychological imbalances that once occupied space within you begin to clear away. When you have truly relaxed, you will notice that your blood circulates more freely, resulting in less constriction in the blood vessels. Thus, during deep relaxation, undernourished limbs and organs are not only cleansed but nourished and nurtured as well. All this is possible when your mind and breath move in the body harmoniously.
Unfortunately the mind has formed the habit of wandering involuntarily. It runs here and there. Although the breath is the mind’s best friend, out of habit the mind travels elsewhere. So you must train your mind in a systematic, methodical manner.
To control your mind, teach it to visit the vital energy centers (the chakras and marma points) in the body one by one. These vital centers are not physiological entities with exact shapes that you can picture in your mind. They are pure energy, not forms with shape, color, or size. None of the vital energy centers are exactly the way they are described in books. Sensing them is a matter of pure feeling. Over time, you will learn to discern the presence of these energy centers. The technique of systematically bringing 61 of these vital centers to awareness is a practice known as the 61-point relaxation. We’ll explain this practice in a moment, but first let us examine some practical considerations.
Seven Preparatory Steps
To begin, choose a regular time to practice. The best time is when your colon is clean, and you have brushed your teeth, rinsed your mouth, and washed your face. Choose a time when you are not tired. Normally, the morning is the best time for relaxation because you are rested and your digestive system is empty.
Start with a little gentle stretching, but don’t exert yourself too much. Just remove the stiffness that accumulated while you were sleeping. Then lie down on your back. Choose a clean, quiet place with a surface that is not too hard and not too soft—a carpeted floor is fine. If the floor is hard, spread a blanket underneath you.
You will need a pillow for your head and neck. The size should be just sufficient to support the contour of your neck and the back of your head. The pillow distributes the weight of your head so that it does not create tension. It should be soft, but not too soft. Cotton filling is the best. It provides shape and support, and can be arranged to fit the contour of your neck.
Next, cover your body with a blanket or shawl, even if the temperature in the room may feel comfortable. During relaxation the temperature of your body will drop, and you may begin to feel chilly.
Since you are trying to rest the senses, things like music and aromatic eyebag pillows defeat the basic purpose of relaxation. You are trying to bring yourself back to yourself and away from aromas, sights, and sounds.
Dim the lights and try to stay away from sensory stimulants, regardless of how soothing they appear to be. For example, since you are trying to rest the senses, things like music and aromatic eye pillows defeat the basic purpose of relaxation. You are trying to bring yourself back to yourself and away from aromas, sights, and sounds. Sensations, emotional attachments, thoughts pertaining to failure and success, to insult or honor—these are the things that trap the mind, the very things from which you are trying to extract the mind.
As you lie on your back, place your arms and legs in a natural position. Slide your shoulder blades slightly underneath you so that your arms rest comfortably on the floor a few inches from your body. Turn your palms up and soften your fingers and the palms of your hands. The exact position of your arms and hands is an individual matter and will depend on the structure of your shoulder joints, the tone of your shoulder muscles, and the thickness of your upper arms. The same is true of your legs and feet. Place your feet 10 to 15 inches apart, depending on the structure of your hips, pelvis, and thighs, and the comfort of your lower back. Let your legs rest, and release your feet to the sides.
Using your diaphragm, breathe deeply and gently, and let your breath be a continuous cycle. The inhalation is followed by exhalation, and the exhalation is followed by inhalation, so that there is no pause between the breaths.
The next step is to pay attention to your breath. This will automatically open the door to your inner self, allowing your mind to enter its own home and rest. For a couple of minutes, pay attention to the gentle rise and fall of your abdomen as you inhale and exhale. Notice whether the breath is noisy, jerky, or irregular. Smooth out the breath and ease any tension by relaxing the chest and throat. Using your diaphragm, breathe deeply and gently, and let your breath be a continuous cycle. The inhalation is followed by exhalation, and the exhalation is followed by inhalation, so that there is no pause between the breaths. If you breathe like this, your mind will automatically become centered.
A Guide to Deeper Relaxation
Now you are ready to focus your breath awareness systematically at each of the 61 points in the body. Begin at the eyebrow center and move systematically through the major energy centers in the torso and limbs, returning to the eyebrow center at point 61. As you travel through your body, inhale and exhale once at each point, so that the whole practice consists of 61 breaths.
Finish the practice by resting your focus at the eyebrow center and feel the breath simultaneously in all 61 points. Remain resting in deep relaxation for several breaths. Then take a slightly deeper breath, gently wiggle the fingers and toes, draw the knees up, and roll to your left side. Take another breath or two on your side before sitting up.
With regular practice you will gain sensitivity to your breathing, and your mind will become keenly familiar with your body. If you want an even deeper relaxation, you can take two or three breaths at each point. Breathing twice at each point, for example, gives a total of 122 breaths for the whole practice.
Over the first few weeks you may find yourself falling asleep and unable to complete the practice. You may discover that your body is tired, your mind is sluggish, and your breath is poorly trained. These problems make it difficult to reap the joyful benefits of yogic relaxation. You want to go to bed and sleep! But gradually you will become stronger. Then you will begin to see how this delightful practice can deepen even further, penetrating the deep recesses of your subtle body, the sukshma sharira, and guiding you to your inner home.
Energy Centers: Marma Points and Chakras
Energy centers are places within us where the subtle currents (or nadis) of life’s energies intersect. There are vast numbers of energy currents and centers in the body; each has unique attributes and characteristics. One may conduct energy in the form of love, while others may manifest as compassion, hatred, anger, or forgiveness. Each nadi is like a vehicle designed to carry a particular kind of thought or feeling, a unique kind of energy. The junction or the crisscrossing of two or more energy currents yields an energy center. The human body contains millions of them. According to the scriptures, there are as many energy centers in the body as there are stars, planets, and dust particles in the entire universe—a perfect equation between the individual and the cosmos.
The yoga tradition has identified several types of energy centers: sandhis (simple junctions), marma points (secondary energy centers), and chakras (major energy centers). You can work with each of these in your daily life through all the practices of yoga.
Consider the example of a river: where it curves or changes directions, or where other streams enter it, it may slow down, become stagnant, and accumulate sediment. This process of sedimentation has many negative consequences. Nadis (energy currents within us) go through very similar transformations. Relaxation and other yogic practices help us remove stagnation and open the flow of these energy channels. As we dislodge and purify the impurities that hide within us, we improve our health and well-being.