Recently some friends told me about an excursion they made to a yoga class in a nearby city. The session was relatively challenging, strenuous enough for them to look forward to a guided relaxation at the end. But when the asana portion of the class was over, the teacher simply offered the chance to lie down briefly, with no further instruction. Within moments, students were leaving the classroom. And many of those who stayed treated the quiet period as lounging time.
My friends were surprised. Accustomed to more elaborate guidance in relaxation and even to a brief meditation at the end of class, they found an otherwise satisfying session incomplete and disappointing.
Curious, I asked a few more friends how relaxation was handled in the classes they attended in other parts of the country. Their answers seemed to confirm a picture. Asanas are almost always followed with some sort of cooling down period, but rarely is the relaxation elevated to the level of the posture work that preceded it. Instead, relaxation serves as a feel-good ending to a stretch-and-burn experience.
It’s important to make it more than that. The bottom line is that you are missing out on a lot if your hatha yoga class doesn’t include a healthy dose of yoga relaxation training along with the postures. Here’s why.
With only a little reflection you can observe an extraordinary fact about your experience of the world around you—it cannot really represent the outer world as it is. What we know “directly” about the world is the result of information gathered by our senses—the organs of taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing. These busy instruments of human awareness put an unmistakable human imprint on the universe as they gather it up for our consideration. But they do not give us the whole picture.
The movie series The Matrix illustrates this concept vividly. Here, apparently normal human beings perceive the world only through coded computer inputs. Those caught in this matrix, whose real existence is altogether different from what they imagine, can see through their illusion and discover the “real” world only if their slavery to the code can be ended.
This is not a new idea. Similar themes can be found in the Veda as well as in the literature of ancient Greece. According to these sources, the senses reach out to the world to encode it, and therefore the information we gather is a transformation of reality, not a direct import of it.
This does not imply that the perceptions we observe in the space of our minds are imaginary. From the yogic point of view, the outer world is both very real and very permanent. Yoga says that the senses gather their perceptions of this very real world, and then these perceptions are brought to consciousness, illumined in an inner space, the space of awareness, the space of the mind.
Then yoga takes a remarkable next step. It tells us that we can go deeper than the senses, that we can know ourselves and the outer world in an even more subtle manner—without being dominated by the operation of the senses. But to do this, we must seek a different kind of knowledge, a knowledge that requires us to relax the senses themselves. And this is where relaxation training becomes really interesting.
Most relaxation exercises are practiced in shavasana, the corpse pose. Here, the body rests on the back, arms and legs arranged symmetrically, neck and head naturally aligned along the axis of the spine. Except in relation to a dead body, however, the word “corpse” (shava) is rarely used in everyday conversation, and the startling name of this asana gives us valuable clues to both its practical and philosophical significance.
The total time for practicing relaxation in a reclining position is usually between 10 and 15 minutes. After that if you want to go deeper you can sit up and enter into meditation. Resting in reclining poses for longer periods may result in a loss of muscle tone that is not beneficial. To practice systematic relaxation at the end of your asana routine, try following this plan:
Rest in shavasana, letting your body become still.
Deepen the flow of your breathing and feel each breath emptying and filling your body.
Practice a systematic relaxation, or simply continue to feel the flow of your breathing.
Feel the breath as if the whole body breathes.
Let the space of your mind be filled by the sensation of your breathing; other thoughts pass by the edges of that space, but they do not disturb you.
Deepen your awareness of your own presence.
It is a basic tenet of yoga philosophy that the body is only an instrument, a dwelling for something far more refined and pure—an inner essence. This essence has been given many names in Sanskrit: terms such as atman, purusha, brahman,and shiva come to mind. In English it is often called pure consciousness, “the Self.” The aim of yoga is to gradually awaken us to this pure awareness, and thus dispel the pain and sorrow that accrues from falsely identifying with the “not-Self.”
A classic yogic description of the human personality refers to the Self as radiant, or self-effulgent—ever-wise, ever-pure, ever-free. But this Self is surrounded by five increasingly dense coverings that shroud it. Called koshas, or ºsheaths, these coverings cloak the pure light of consciousness, acting as vessels through which we experience life.
The outermost covering is the body. It’s here that we find the sense organs—and not just the five used for perceiving the world. Yoga texts mention five more senses that are used to act on the world rather than to gather information about it. They are the powers of locomotion (the feet), manipulation (the hands), elimination (eliminatory organs), procreation (the reproductive organs), and communication (the organs of speech). When all these senses are relaxed, we can move inward to more subtle dimensions of personality.
So what is shavasana? It is the posture in which we learn to rest the ten senses and to step away from our identification with the body.
So what is shavasana? It is the posture in which we learn to rest the ten senses and to step away from our identification with the body. Pure and simple, we are not the body, though we have a body and use it as our temporary home. But the body is a corpse, and we are the light dwelling within that corpse. Knowing this experientially, through systematic relaxation, is a profound step toward inner peace.
On the grosser levels systematic relaxation brings many other benefits. For example, in shavasana the heart is on the same level as the rest of the body. In sitting or standing poses the heart must work against gravity to pump blood to the head and return it from the feet. In the corpse pose the horizontal plane of the body makes the work of the heart easier, and the cardiovascular system rests.
What is more, the field of gravity acts on the body at all times, creating subtle tone in the muscles that normally support your posture. This muscle tone is rarely relaxed in a systematic way. In shavasana, the effect of gravity on these postural muscles is neutralized because the body is completely supported by the floor. This relieves muscle fatigue, allowing you to relax more deeply and making you aware of the dynamic forces acting on your muscles throughout the day. With greater awareness, you can make improvements in the way in which you manage your body. You can stand, sit, and move with less effort.
Breathing is profoundly changed when you rest in shavasana.
Breathing is also profoundly changed when you rest in shavasana. Muscles attached to the bones of the rib cage, which normally assist in breathing, can be relaxed. They rest while contractions of the diaphragm produce a smooth, steady rhythm that calms the nervous system. Tense muscles in the abdominal wall or rib cage that resist deep, diaphragmatic breathing can be gradually relaxed as well.
Psychologically, systematic relaxation reintroduces you to a stress-resistant relationship with your body.
Psychologically, systematic relaxation reintroduces you to a stress-resistant relationship with your body. Beneath the ups and downs of everyday life there is a profound state of balance, and by resting for brief periods in that state we create a resilient and stable mind. That is why each of us, on a deep level, craves relaxation—it revives our confidence and reawakens a sense of self-control.
As the body begins to rest, shavasana induces a deep sense of stillness. But this is not simply the result of a disciplined effort not to move. The stillness experienced in relaxation is much more profound.
Movements of the body involve the mind, the brain, and a number of elements within the body (nerves, muscles, bones, and joints, to name a few). Suppose, for example, that you are reading quietly when you realize that you are thirsty. Your awareness of thirst sparks brain cells into action. You begin to picture nearby sources of water in your mind. Soon impulses travel along nerve pathways, and your eyeballs move as you lift your gaze from your reading. Next come the series of arm and leg movements that bring you into the kitchen and negotiate the complexities of finding a glass and filling it. Finally, raising the glass to your lips, you swallow, pouring water into your stomach.
Movements such as these are the result of processes that arise in the mind, employ the nervous system, and become visible only at the end of a long chain of inner events. To relax, it is not enough to stem outer movement. We must learn to quiet the entire chain of events. And this requires patient practice.
One of the most powerful tools in this process is relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing. Experientially, it takes six to seven minutes of relaxed breathing before you will feel that inner letting-go that often seems to herald the start of something deeply restful inside. This means that a three-minute snooze at the end of class will probably not bring you where you want to go. You will need to learn to watch your breath for longer periods of time.
During relaxation exercises, however, the mechanics of breathing are not the main focus of attention. Yes, it is important to breathe diaphragmatically, but during relaxation your focus is less on the techniques of breathing and more on how it feels to breathe. Out and in. Emptying and filling. The breath cleanses and nourishes you without pause.
Breathing takes place without mental effort. It is an internal rhythm that you can learn to watch, much like watching the waters of a quiet stream flow past as you rest at the water’s edge. As time passes, the quiet movement of the breath will relax your nervous system and you will begin to notice a shift in the awareness you have of your own presence. Now your mind is not wandering to the past or future—disturbed by passing thoughts or feelings—or anticipating a rush of feeling that is missing from the present moment. There is a fullness in the present that requires nothing more.
This is the point at which the many relaxation techniques most yoga students have practiced begin. There are many versions of these yoga relaxation techniques—some focusing mostly on the body, some focusing on refining the breath, and some on directing attention to the more subtle energy systems within the body. Over time, your practice will continually evolve, ensuring that you will experience relaxation in all its dimensions while gaining a working understanding of the structure of practice.
No matter which method you have selected for practice on a given day, the final stage of relaxation remains essentially the same. You are breathing as if your whole body breathes. You have come to the gates of your mind, but you have arrived without the chatter of the senses to disturb you. Now you may enter into the mind itself.
Normally the space of the mind is filled with a variety of sense impressions, as well as thoughts and emotions arising from your unconscious. But now there is much less traffic. With your attention resting on the breath, the space of the mind is filled by the feeling of your breathing. Other thoughts travel along the edges of that space, but the main object of attention remains the flow of your breath.
Soon you begin to notice, however, that it is not the breath that is really the focus of your attention. It is the mind that you are relaxing. The breath is merely the means for that. At this point in the relaxation, you have gone beyond the breath and are resting in the space of the mind.