What does the word relaxation mean for you? A chance to flop in front of the television, an opportunity to catch up on Facebook or some other networking site, or maybe even some time to read a book? You might even think of sleep as a form of relaxation.
A couple of dictionary definitions:
Relaxation: ‘a pleasant activity which makes you become calm and less worried’ (Cambridge) and
Relaxation: ‘rest or refreshment, as after work, or effort’ (Collins).
So, it seems that the above activities could constitute ‘relaxation’.
In yoga however, relaxation means more than any of the above. We are taught that to truly relax, rather than look outward to what are essentially distractions, we look inward to create a sense of harmony both in the body and mind. In this way we can let go, which many of us find difficult to do, both mentally and physically.
In my work as a yoga teacher and massage therapist, I know only too well how people hold tension in their body and find it difficult to let go of certain parts of their body. In forward folds, almost everyone, at first, finds it very difficult to let go of their neck muscles. Instead of the head hanging loosely from the neck, the head comes out of the neck at an angle, indicating an inability to ‘let go’. Many people do not realise that their shoulders are almost touching their ears. As soon as I put a bit of pressure on tense shoulders, they immediately drop, but it often comes as a surprise to the person who owns them!
These days, we often hear of people being ‘control freaks’; unable to cede any control, they find it difficult to delegate in the workplace or to ask for help from friends and family. They become stressed, unable to switch off from all the thoughts, concerns and worries going through their heads, and find themselves in a vicious circle, from which they are unable to break free.
Watching the television, playing a computer game, going to the gym can all help us to turn off for a while, but they do not deal with the underlying inability to just let go, to be, to think clearly and ultimately find a way of releasing our inner resources when we need them.
If we can learn some techniques we can learn to be in control in a way that is much healthier and which can help us to deal with the stresses of our lives.
There are many options available to us including yoga and meditation, but there are simple things that you can do yourself, to help relax the body and the mind.
The first one I ever learned in a yoga class is still the one I use if I find it difficult to get to sleep. I rarely get to the end and if I do, a couple more minutes of concentrating on the breath soon sends me off. It’s called ‘total body relaxation’ and it is good for getting rid of physical tension in the body. It can be used in other ways too, as well as for difficulty in sleeping. Taking a few minutes to do it in the morning before you get up, gets you in the right frame of mind, to start your day. If you find yourself flagging during the day and can find somewhere quiet to do it, either in a chair or from lying, it can boost energy levels.
If you are doing it from lying, you should be flat on the back, legs slightly apart and feet flopping out to the side. Arms slightly away from the body and palms facing upward, chin coming in towards the chest and the back of the head on the floor/bed. The head should not drop to either side. Once you are comfortably in this position, close your eyes and be aware of your breath, coming in and out through the nose. Take a couple of big breaths before you begin.
* Take your attention to your toes and tell them silently to relax
* Then move onto the feet and do the same
* From there move to the calves, then the knees and thighs
* Continue to give the same instruction to the hips and seat muscles, back, shouldes, arms and hands
* Then move to the abdomen, chest, neck, head, face, tongue, jaw and eyes
All the time you are doing this, your concentration is completely on the body and relaxing it. If you find that your mind wanders, you gently bring it back to the part of the body that you remember relaxing last.
The exercise is a mental one; there is no movement in the body as you move slowly from toes to head. All you are doing is telling the body to relax and it demonstrates how much your mind can affect the body. You may find at first that you still do not feel very relaxed but over time, with practice, you will discover that you can let go, and you can almost feel the stresses, worries and tensions oozing out of the body.
Once you have worked through the body, take a few moments to watch the breath again while continuing to enjoy the feeling of relaxation in the body. All your focus is on the body and the breath, so that you get some time off, physically and mentally, from what is happening in your everyday life.
Remember, you are not trying to do anything, just let yourself be. Easier said than done, but as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (renowned Indian yoga guru) said ‘practice, practice, practice and all is coming’.