Monday, July 9, 2012

It Sounds So Easy . . . Just Relax!

One of the many benefits people ascribe to yoga is relaxation. Even people who consider yoga physical exercise (and it can be) recognize that hopefully all yoga classes end with savasana, corpse pose. Many classes also begin with breath or with slower, meditative asana. It is a reminder to begin by going inward. Some classes, particularly restorative and yin classes, are particularly devoted to relaxation.

One of the most common statements I hear from people who go to yoga is, "I just feel so relaxed." Unfortunately, other common statements I hear from many people is, "I just don't know how to relax" or "I can never seem to relax no matter how hard I try."

One of the toughest asana lessons to fully comprehend, on the deepest levels, is that it is possible to relax in a posture even when it feels like every muscle is going to give out. That is another yoga paradox. It is a nice lesson for off the mat as well. We learn to find the calm amidst the storm. Thus, from deep breathing and restorative poses to intense and energetic asana, yoga is about finding the relaxation deep within us. And it is there for all of us. The difficulty is finding it.

How many times have you tried to relax and simply could not? Right now, do a quick body scan. Where are you holding tension? Your jaw? Your eyes? Your neck? Your shoulders? Are you able to relax those areas holding the tension?

Our modern world does not provide us the tools to learn how to relax. It does, however, provide us the tools to know how to be stressed out. We are expected to go, go, go, and when we finally stop, we are too exhausted to relax. We simply collapse. The tension continues, and headaches, low back pain, and bad knees result. We cover these aches and pains with medication hoping they will go away until the day the pain becomes so unbearable we have to decide between going over the daily dosage for a pill and actually learning to relax.

It sounds kind of funny, does it not? Learning to relax? Should we not already know how to relax? Is it not part of who we are? I think many of us have forgotten. It took me years of yoga practice before I could finally find moments of relaxation, and there are days, sometimes weeks, when I feel that I can no longer find it – even while practicing yoga.

What does it mean to truly relax?

It means more than sitting in front of the tv and vegging out. It means more than stalking people on facebook. It even means more than sleeping. Relaxing, paradoxically, is something we have to take time to do. It has to be done with intention. It is a time when we let our tense muscles release, our thoughts slow down, or at least no longer control us, and our bodies rejuvenate.

Restorative yoga is not designed to put us to sleep. It is actually designed to wake us up. Restorative yoga, like all relaxation practices, is designed to allow our bodies to come down from the constant fight-or-flight response and heal from the over abundance of adrenaline and cortisol. When we fall asleep, it is less a sign of deep relaxation than a sign of overwhelm.

So how do we train ourselves to relax again? It takes some time, but it can be done. We learn to pay attention. When we find ourselves reaching for the painkillers, take a moment and ask if it is possible to relax the muscles causing the pain. Sometimes just bringing awareness to the tension and consciously breathing into it will release it enough to decrease the pain. Sometimes we need to take a walk in nature or sit by the pool or sit on a yoga mat.

But we need to take time to relax. To truly relax. And of course, the days when it seems most difficult are the days we need it the most. There have been many times I have wanted to just sit in front of my computer (I do not have a television) and read facebook posts, but my entire being drags me to my mat. Those are usually the most deeply gratifying practices of them all. And sometimes they only last ten minutes, but those ten minutes of conscious relaxation are worth hours of productivity and health down the road.

The more moments like those we add to our lives, the easier it is to remember how to relax. It may take some time, but it is within each of us. 

Do you remember how to relax? What are your tools? Where do you hold your tension?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

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