Contents of this webpage:
Relaxation is a skill unto itself
What to do before the Relaxation practices
Why do we call it "Relaxation"?
Not Autosuggestion, Hypnosis, Visualization, or Music
Attention and Breathing are two key principles
Give a restless mind something to do
Tense and Release Relaxation
Navel center with spinal breath
Ascending breathing (Shitali karana)
Chakra Meditation - bhuta shuddhi
Recording the practices
What to do after Relaxation practices
Relaxation involves the body and mind, along with the interaction between the two. There are many things one can do to relax, including physical and social activities, entertainment, or specific methods of relaxation and meditation, such as with music or guided imagery.
Diverting attention is not the best method: However, most of these are based on a strategy of diverting attention away from the inner activity of the body and mind. This is true for the external distractions and most of the inner visualizations that might be mere fantasies. One becomes absorbed in the secondary activity solely for the purpose of blocking awareness of other thoughts, such as of the thoughts of today's actions and yesterday's memories. This strategy of diverting attention is useful to some extent, but it does not go far enough.
Training in the skill, the art of relaxing: What is really needed is to train oneself in the skill, the art of relaxing directly, without needing to create a distraction for the mind. This is a tricky point to understand, since it is also a good idea to focus the mind for relaxation. However, there is an underlying skill itself, that of directly knowing how to relax, to let go of the thought patterns in the mind, and in turn let go of the tension that is being held in the body.
Move attention through your own being: The key principle in learning to directly relax is in moving the attention through different aspects of one's own being. This might be attention on aspects of the physical body, the breath, or the mental process. This principle is intertwined in the practical explanations that follow.
To just lie down and do a relaxation practice is a wonderful thing to do. It can definitely be done as its own practice, when one has a few minutes and just wants to let go by turning within. It is also a common and useful practice to do before yoga postures (asanas) as a way of transitioning from the external world.
Stretches and relaxation: However, in the meditative sequence, you will discover that if you do a relaxation practice after some stretches or yoga postures, you are much more able to explore within during the relaxation practice itself. Your attention is now easier to direct in a one-pointed way, and will go deeper. This in turn sets the stage for the subtler breathing practices and meditation itself.
There are many techniques of relaxation being taught in a variety of contexts, including for physical health, stress management, psychological inquiry, as well as spiritual purposes. Many of these methods are extremely useful and serve their practitioners well.
However, here we are addressing Yoga Meditation, which is a process of knowing ourselves at all levels, such that we may eventually come to experience ourselves at the deepest level, the center of consciousness that goes by many names.
It is a process of surveying inside: It has become common to refer to the surveying of the body and other internal states as a practice of relaxation. Actually, it is more accurate to call it surveying than relaxation, since the actual activity being performed is surveying. Some schools of meditation put their main emphasis on such practice.
The practices in Yoga are not merely means of inducing relaxation through an external stimulus or creating internal fantasies, though they are definitely relaxing. Rather, it is a process of surveying, introspecting, or exploring.
Become aware and let go of each level: There has come a confusion between yogic practices of self-awareness and other processes that induce states of consciousness, but not necessarily self-awareness. In Yoga, one is trying to become systematically aware of all of our levels of being, such that we may encounter and let go of each level, and gradually move to the direct experience of the center of consciousness.
Not autosuggestion: In Yoga, we are not using autosuggestion to bring relaxation, saying to the body or body parts that they should "Relax, relax, relax...." Such techniques can be useful, but again, we are wanting to explore within (which also brings relaxation).
Not hypnotic suggestion: There is not a suggestion being given as is sometimes the case in hypnotherapy. To exclude hypnotherapy is not a criticism, but rather a simple clarification. Hypnosis may be a very useful process and some may find it a good adjunct to their practices. Interestingly, some descriptions of modern hypnosis techniques sound quite similar to meditation, although it is not our purpose here to delve into the differences and similarities.
Explore what is already there: These practices are not visualization exercises. We are not trying to imagine something that is not there, inside of us, but rather are attempting to explore that which is already there. For example, we are not visualizing beaches or mountains (which can be quite relaxing), but are looking for the subtle makeup of our own being. Even the points of light mentioned in the 61-Points exercise (below) are actually there, and will eventually be experienced by one who sincerely practices.
Music can have a very relaxing effect, but it is useful to discriminate between what is a relaxing activity and what is Yoga. Doing relaxing activities is a good idea, including music (as well as walking in the woods or by the beach, or doing some hobby with your hands). However, with Yoga Meditation, we are focusing internally, on what is, rather than creating an external diversion to induce a state.
These methods of self-awareness are also not religion, though some religions include various practices with body, breath, and mind. This is particularly visible in our modern world with some advocates of Buddhism and Hinduism who actively teach such practices in the context of their religion. It is also true with some practitioners of other religions as well, though somewhat less visibly. Unfortunately, some of the teachers claim exclusivity over the practices, as if those methods are only within the domain of their religion, and not universal.
The aspirant and practitioner of these practices will have to use his or her own sense of discrimination (buddhi) to determine that the practices apply to all people, regardless of religious affiliation. It is glaringly obvious, for example, that all people have a body and body parts to survey. All people breathe, and the principles of breath apply equally to all people in relation to their culture and religion (some need to adjust for health reasons). All people have the same blueprint of subtle body construction (chakras, shakti, kundalini), though the names and conceptualization of those parts may vary. (See also the article, Is Yoga a Religion?). Clearly, these various aspects of being are universal, and not limited to the domain of specific groups.
Two keys: If we explore within, with our attention, particularly in conjunction with breath awareness (which is the grossest aspect of the energy flowing throughout our body), the relaxation comes of its own accord. These two principles or practices, attention and breath, are the key features in the relaxation phase of Yoga Meditation.
The importance of attention and breathing in relaxation cannot be overstated. Again, the key principles for relaxation are:
These two work together naturally in allowing the relaxation of the physical body, as well as the mind.
It is extremely useful for a practitioner of Yoga Meditation to remember these two simple principles.
If the mind is restless, it does not want to "relax". The mind may want to open the eyes or move the body, which is the Manas (sensory-motor mind) wanting to express through the five Karmendriyas (elimination, procreation, motion, grasping, speaking).
There may be a temptation to increase the external stimulus, such as having music a little louder, or to divert the mind with even stronger visualizations. However, these miss the point of needing to train the mind. The mind itself must eventually be trained; there is no escaping this fact. To train the mind means not relying on secondary means, but working directly with focusing the mind itself.
The way to train the mind when it is restless is to first acknowledge that, for this moment, the mind is simply not going to sit still. Therefore, we give it something to do, but something internal, not external.
Focus on what is there, not some new fantasy: Also, we focus on something which is already there, not creating yet another fantasy in the mind. This is part of the beauty of the various Yoga "relaxations" (such as below); they focus on what "is" within our own body and being.
When we have accepted that the mind is restless, and are giving it something to do internally, that is reality based, then the next question is the speed at which the mind is allowed to move.
Slowly or quickly surveying: If the mind is restless, and you tell it to sit still, it fights. But if you let in move at a comfortable pace, it will be happy. Moving your attention from one "part" to another (shoulder, arm, wrist, etc.) can be too slow for the restless mind. Speeding up the rate of surveying can have a comfortable effect on the mind.
Think of times that you and a friend were walking somewhere, when you wanted to walk at different speeds, one fast, and the other slow. It is the same principle with attention or "relaxation" exercises; find the proper rate to move the attention, which is a bit faster when the mind is restless.
So, with the restless mind:
Slower comes in time: When it is comfortable to do so, slow down the speed at which you are moving through the body. The mind will naturally become even calmer.
This practice is very simple to do and will probably take no more than a couple minutes (longer if it is comfortable). The basic practice is simply to tense muscle groups, and then release the tension. You may find it comfortable to go through the sequence only one time, or to go through it several times.
Do both the tensing and the releasing with full awareness. There is no need to tense at 100% of your capacity--about 50% of your capacity to tense will be sufficient.
It is best to maintain breath awareness as you do the practices. You will come to experience the way in which breath is a manifestation of energy, and how that energy flows throughout your being.
After completing the Tense and Release practice, you might want to do it again, go on to the Complete Relaxation, or proceed to the next phase of Yoga Meditation, which is working more directly with the breath, such as starting with breath awareness or diaphragmatic breathing.
The Complete Relaxation is an excellent practice to do before meditation. It is subtler than the Tense and Release practice above (Body survey is online). Following is one of many versions of this practice:
Lie in the corpse posture with your eyes closed. Lie in such a way that your head, neck, and trunk are aligned. You want your spine to be straight, not turned left or right anywhere along the length of the spine. It is most comfortable to be lying on a soft surface, such as a folded blanket placed on top of a rug. To lie in a bed may not give enough support to your back and body. A thin cushion, maybe an inch or two, makes a nice support for your head. Allow the breath to be smooth, slow, and with no noise or pauses.
The Complete Relaxation can be done in a broad range of time frames. To learn to do this as slow as the length of time for one exhalation down, and one inhalation up, is very useful. To do the practice in about 3-4 minutes can be very relaxing, whether for a quick break in daily life, or preparation for meditation. If it is comfortable, spending a much longer amount of time can bring tremendous insights about the nature of your inner being, as well as deep relaxation, and preparation for deep meditation.
(Complete Relaxation is part of the Yoga Nidra CD)
The 61-Points exercise is subtler than the Tension/Release or Complete Relaxation practices (61-points is online). You will find that this leads you to a deeper state of calm and quiet.
As you go through the points, you may experience the points as gross body, such as skin, muscles, or bone, or you may experience the points as a feeling awareness. However you experience the points is okay--you cannot do it wrong. If you "see" with your inner eye, that's okay. If you do not "see" with your inner eye, that's okay too. You may experience darkness, or you may experience light, such as a point of light like a blue star. Any way that you experience it is okay. Just gradually, systematically learn where the points are and move from one to the next.
To move from one point to the next every couple seconds, or one or two breaths should be a comfortable speed. If you move too slow, you may find your attention drifts away, so it is better to go just a bit faster through the points. If you go too fast, you will have the benefit of easily moving through the points, but may lack depth in the practice. It is best to experiment with the timing.
The 61-Points exercise is an excellent practice for entering Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep), which is a state where you are in deep sleep, yet are awake. Yoga Nidra is deeply relaxing, and is used by the yogis to deal with samskaras (the deep impressions that drive karma) in their latent form.
(61-Points is part of the Yoga Nidra CD)
This is a simple practice that can be done as a practice unto itself, during meditation time (after having done any of the vigorous breathing practices, and before meditation itself), or as part of the preparation for Yoga Nidra. For relaxation, this practice is best done lying on your back in shavasana, the corpse posture.
(Spinal breath is part of the Yoga Nidra CD)
This practice is also done lying on your back, in shavasana, the corpse posture. It combines breath awareness at the navel center with the spinal breath practice.
This practice involves coordinating the breath with the inner motion of attention. Attention moves downward with exhalation and upward with inhalation, progressively moving to a smaller and smaller space (Ascending breath is online). Then, the process reverses through the same movements.
(Ascending breath or shitali karana is part of the Yoga Nidra CD)
Yoga Nidra is a state of conscious deep sleep. In Yoga Nidra, you leave the waking state, go to deep sleep, yet remain awake. There is a separate article on Yoga Nidra, including descriptions of the actual practices, which utilize, in part, the complete relaxation, 61-points, and spinal breath practices described above. There is also a Yoga Nidra CD available, which guides in these practices.
Bhuta Shuddi is a process of purifying the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space, which operate in conjunction with the lower five chakras. There is a separate article on Chakra Meditation - Bhuta Shuddhi, which throughly describes the practice.
It is very easy to make your own recordings of these relaxation practices. Just turn on your recorder, and read aloud the words written above. Pause for a couple seconds between each phrase (or pause for the duration of either one or two of your own breaths). You will find that this can be quite effective in establishing your own practices.
In the sequence of systematic Yoga Meditation, the surveying of body is followed by breathing practices. The principle is of going from gross to subtle.
By practicing systematically in this way, meditation comes much more easily, and is far less likely to end up in a mental battle.
Again, just after the relaxation exercises are the breathing practices. The grosser breathing practices still are body based, but nonetheless, are more interior than purely surveying the body. Then the breathing practices can become subtler and subtler.