I was recently reading excerpts from the book, Hatha Yoga, written by Swami Sivananda and originally published in 1939. He has a wonderful section on why relaxation is important. In my yoga classes, I like to remind students that while it’s important for the body to know how to work hard, it’s also important for the body to know how to relax. Normally, we think of relaxation as sleep. Some people think of it as laziness. But true relaxation is neither of these. Here’s what Master Sivananda has to say:
“Life has become very complex in these days. The struggle for existence is very acute and keen. There is very keen competition in every walk of life….
If you practice relaxation, no energy will be wasted. You will be very active, and energetic. During relaxation the muscles and nerves are at rest. The Prana or energy is stored up and conserved. The vast majority of persons who have no comprehensive understanding of this beautiful science of relaxation simply waste their energy by creating unnecessary movements of muscles and by putting the muscles and nerves under great strain….
Do not mistake laziness for relaxation. The lazy man is inactive. He has no inclination to work. He is full of lethargy and inertia. He is dull. Whereas a man who practices relaxation takes only rest. He has vigor, strength, vitality and endurance. He never allows even a small amount of energy to trickle away. He accomplishes wonderful work gracefully in a minimum space of time….
The science of relaxation is an exact science. It can be learnt very easily. Relaxation of muscles is as much important as contraction of muscles. I lay great emphasis on the relaxation of mind, nerves and muscles. For relaxation Savasana is Prescribed.”
And savasana, of course, is the “final relaxation” pose of yoga. This pose is practiced after all of the more active asanas have been completed. This pose is often only practiced for three minutes, but the full benefit is experienced when the practitioner remains in the pose for 5-30 minutes. Feel free to meditate on the breath or use a recording of yoga nidra during this time. And yes, this pose can be practiced all by itself!
Did you know the mental self-mastery of Yoga can help you manage insomnia? Here are some useful points from Nina Zolotow with Yoga for Healthy Aging:
“The first problem is what happens to your sleep when your stress response is triggered when you’re not actually in danger. Your reptilian brain, which triggers your stress response, is very primitive. And it has no way to tell the difference between something that IS dangerous and something that FEELS dangerous. So your stress response can be triggered when:
1. You’re worrying about the future. You’re not in actual danger, but your fantasies about dangerous or scary things that might happen can trigger your stress response. So then you’re losing sleep over something that not only isn’t happening now but is something that might not ever happen.
2. You’re remembering or reliving bad experiences from the past. Again, you’re not in actual danger at the moment, but your memories of frightening or infuriating experiences can trigger your stress response. So you’re losing sleep over things that have already happened and there is nothing you can do about in the middle of the night.
3. You’re thinking about something unpleasant or upsetting that isn’t personally dangerous. It could be something upsetting happening in another part of the world, such as a war or a famine, that concerns you but isn’t putting you in actual danger. It could one of life’s daily challenges that cause strong emotions for you but don’t actually put you at risk for death or injury, such as having a work deadline or needing to do your taxes. And it could even be something fictional, such as a suspenseful, violent, or disturbing TV show or book, that you watched or read just before bed.”
So, how do you short-circuit these thoughts? You can use the Yoga technique of slow, deep breathing – focusing all your attention on the movement of the breath. Be sure to get a good, complete exhalation each time. Or – perform a slow body scan, moving your awareness from your toes up to the top of your head, and back down again. In these ways, you teach your brain there is no danger at this moment, so it’s okay to relax and slip into sleep. All is well. Peace, peace, peace….
This topic (and image) from The Yoga Sutras came up in my yoga therapy training yesterday. It’s very important for us to be able to recognize the five kleshas (obstacles, afflictions, or poisons) when they show up in our lives – which tends to be many times each day. Notice that ignorance (of our True Self, or True Nature) is the root of the other kleshas. We don’t need to let these afflictions rule our lives.
Ego means focusing on “I, me, and mine,” being self-centered.
Attachment means clinging intensely to things we love.
Aversion means trying too hard to avoid things we dislike.
Clinging to life means fear in general or fear of death, aging, etc.
Yoga has had a major impact on my life since I first started practicing seriously in 2000. I came to Yoga as a fitness instructor and personal trainer (after taking dance lessons as a child), so I had a real appreciation for the physical aspects of the practice. What was new to me, however, was the mental/emotional/spiritual parts of Yoga. I swear these aspects have literally saved my life. I used to suffer from severe depression (including suicidality) and eating disorders, so the major lesson for me was learning to watch my own mind – learning that I had a choice what sorts of thoughts I allowed to occupy my mind. This is a great gift I offer my clients/students whenever I see a need for it.
For me at this point, Yoga is a complete lifestyle. Everything I do has some connection to the teachings and practices of Yoga. I use all six of the branches of Integral Yoga (raja,hatha, karma, bhakti, jnana, japa) every day. My familiarity with all of this makes me feel easeful with clients because I know I have the tools and the experience to share relevant practices with each person.
Since every person is unique, I strive to meet clients where they are. Many people have some knowledge of asana (yoga poses) and pranayama (breath work), but they might not have experience with meditation, chanting, or yoga philosophy for daily life. All of this contributes to mental health. I aim to give people an experience of the blissful True Self so they can carry that experience with them (remember and access it) as they go about daily life. This, more than anything, supports mental health. Vitality is the birthright of everyone!
Independence implies a freedom from being controlled or unduly influenced by an outside source. Spiritual independence suggests the freedom to live in harmony with the spiritual truth at the heart of our being. It implies freedom from depending on any outside source for our happiness, which becomes more and more possible as we begin to experience the profound and unchanging peace within.
Most of us experience daily ups and downs as the situations and events in our lives unfold. When things go our way, we feel pleased and cheerful; when they don’t, we may be disappointed and frustrated. This tells us that we have unintentionally tied—and thus bound—our happiness to the changing world of thoughts, feelings, relationships, external objects, name and fame, and so on.
It’s not surprising that the predominant beliefs of our culture have influenced the way we understand ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. All our lives, we’ve been fed the message that happiness lies in pursuing and holding onto, as well as avoiding, certain things. The teachings of Yoga help us understand that the more we depend on our reputation, bank account, achievements, or the admiration of others as the source of our peace of mind, the more elusive it becomes.
When we find ourselves feeling anxious or angry, it can be an eye-opening exercise to question ourselves, “What is it that I am wanting but not getting that is preventing me from being at peace with this moment?” Or we could ask, “Who is upset and who is aware of it?” If I am aware that I am upset, I can center myself in that awareness or Beingness that is the real “I”, and is always peaceful, balanced, and lacking nothing.
Working with the breath can assist us in this type of inquiry. Pause and ask: “Do I have to be upset or can I take some deep breaths and reconnect to the center of balance even as I pursue my efforts?” In such moments, it can be beneficial to challenge ourselves to find at least a foothold of contentment and remember that is our birthright.
If we are in touch with who we truly are, with a felt inner sense of contentment, our relationship to anything that we might acquire or achieve is dramatically different. We can still enjoy things that we accomplish or experience, but our happiness is not contingent on those things. We can still enjoy eating something, winning a game, and pursuing a career or a relationship, but we can also enjoy the process since we are not relying on the outcome.
Yoga teaches us that we all experience this spiritual independence when we are able to quiet our minds and its movements: all the worrying, obsessing, and mindlessness that often occupies them. Beneath the surface waves of the mind lies an ocean of peace, a deep sense of contentment and connection with all of life. Imagine going about your day with that feeling in the forefront of your mind. Over time, that sense of peace will permeate all your experiences.
Stilling the mind this way is no easy task, but even a little success through some form of regular meditative practice will give us a taste of that natural joy that is ever-present at the heart of our being. Better still, a whole lifestyle based on the teachings of Integral Yoga creates a comprehensive approach that addresses all the levels of our being, and provides fertile ground for growth.
This means adopting sacred standards, such as the Yama and Niyama of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as our guidelines for living. It means practicing asana, pranayama and meditation to calm and focus the mind. It means letting go of preferences that don’t really serve us and attuning to the inner wisdom that is always in service to the highest good of everyone, including ourselves. It includes an effort to disentangle our sense of self from the ways we have defined ourselves—witnessing the stories of the mind rather than being imprisoned by them. And, it embraces serving others with selfless love and care, without attachment to the result.
As our practice deepens, we experience moments free from past conditioning and begin to see ourselves and our relationship to the world in a fresh way. We begin to feel our connection to each other and all of nature. Over time, such a dedicated life will gradually restructure even the subconscious mind so that we are no longer compelled by old beliefs and fears, and are free to approach life with a sense of deep belonging, inner contentment, and wonder. This is true independence—the birthright that we are all meant to experience.