The favorite posture in my yoga classes seems to be Savasana, the period of deep relaxation at the end of the class. Some of the students smiling refer to it as "dessert", the sweetness at the end of the main course. It is a time of deep exhalation, and is both the energetic integration of what we have done in class as we cool down and relax the body, and letting go to make room for what is new and fresh in the mind. Several students have confessed that when they first started the practice, they would use the time to think about shopping needs or arrange their schedule for the day, but now they cherish the opportunity to take fifteen minutes to not think, to not do, to simply be at peace.
This "not doing" is an inhibition of patterns of thought and tension that we might not even be aware of. To relax usually means to rest or engage in an enjoyable activity so as to become less tired or anxious; it also means to make something less rigid or tight. According to Dr. Timothy McCall in his book Yoga as Medicine, Savasana not only relaxes the body and the mind, it also relaxes the nervous system and the unconscious mind. Redirecting our attention to our breath rather than our thoughts invites a loosening of our inner holdings, the places where much of our chronic pain seem anchored. The more I work with chronic pain, the more I value the healing power of deep relaxation. Despite the apparent cognitive dissonance, chronic pain is sometimes a subliminal attempt to protect ourselves from something we fear, and the act of holding the protective shield has become exhausting and painful in and of itself. The common frustration I hear from clients with chronic pain is that they desperately want to be free of the pain and they recognize that there is a part that holds on tight, that is constricted, that is afraid to let go. Many of the energy psychology techniques work well with chronic pain and are similar to yoga in that they negotiate reorganization beneath the surface where the tension has been held, and do not necessarily require conscious understanding or revisiting the cause of the holding patterns.
When we deeply relax, we make room for new thought patterns that offer new creation options. It is hard to make our life different when we are thinking the same old thoughts. Especially when much of the ongoing stream of thoughts that flow continuously in our head is beyond our conscious awareness and is designed to maintain the status quo, the illusion of safely in what is familiar.... even if what is familiar is pain. A quote from the preview of the movie Eat Pray Love, based on the novel by Elizabeth Gilbert: "If you could clear out all that space in your mind you would have a doorway. And you know what the universe would do? Rush in. Everything else would take care of itself." Yoga, deep relaxation, prayer, and meditation are ways to clear out all that space.
So whether or not you practice yoga, try a simple relaxation exercise for ten minutes to reduce pain and alleviate stress. In a comfortable reclining position begin to focus on your breath. Observe the in and out of this simple energy exchange with the universe. Invite your body parts to relax using gentle injunctions such as "my toes are relaxed and free... there is no tension in my jaw". Direct your breath and compassionate awareness to any parts where you notice constriction or discomfort and invite those parts to relax a little more with each breath. If your mind starts to wander, lovingly bring it back and observe the whole process without judgement. When you feel your body begin to relax, let go of thinking and simply watch your breath, being aware of the pause between the exhalation and the inhalation. If you start to think again just notice it and redirect attention to the breath. Just breathe and be aware of breath.
The knowledge of the benefits of deep relaxation experience is not unique to yoga. The Alexander Technique suggests that 15 minutes a day in the founder's "repose position" will significantly improve health and well being. Biofeedback is a means of teaching the body to relax, and hypnosis and guided imagery work with relaxation on a variety of levels. I have heard it said that it is during deep periods of relaxation that the body best heals itself for the energy is not distracted into thought or action and can go directly where it is needed. "Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering." (From Pooh's Little Instruction Book, inspired by A.A. Milne)
Our breath provides an apt metaphor for how we live in the world. As we inhale we take in what we need to nourish us and as we exhale we release what has been used up. In and out; it is a natural flow that is controlled by both parts of our brain, conscious and unconscious. Its rhythm reflects our emotional states and its actions mirror our day to day activities of receiving what is new and letting go of what is done.
Death, economic loss, going to sleep, children growing up and away, relaxation, healing, hurricanes, falling it love.... these are but a few of the lessons in letting go that come with our earthly life. Some are exhilarating experiences. I remember a theatre exercise during college where I was asked to dive off a platform into the outstretched arms of the rest of the cast. Fear initially paralyzed my ability to jump, but when I finally let it go and flew through the air, my first thought after landing was that it was the most amazing thing I had ever done and I wanted to do it again. Other times 'letting go' experiences can feel devastating, with the only visible bright side being how we are able to draw together to support each other, as a tragic death in our town recently demonstrated. And some of our struggles with letting go simply and quietly erode the quality of our life; if we cannot let go our thoughts of the day, restful sleep eludes us.
If the exhale is such a natural thing, why is it so hard to let go? I suspect it is all fear based; holding our breath is a pretty common response when we are scared. Perhaps it is the fear of not knowing what will happen that drives us to hold onto what it is we think we do know, even if it is not a positive thing. Perhaps it is not trusting that we will be able to handle the next new thing that makes us cling to what is familiar, even when we have outgrown it. Perhaps it is simply not recognizing what we need to do and how to do it. The act of releasing is not always an automatic event, especially if some consensual belief has interfered either consciously or beneath our awareness. Surrender can take the shape of a three part process that includes first the awareness that I need to let go, making the decision to let go, and then taking the actions necessary to manifest the surrender. And sometimes we finally let go only to grab it back again, needing to repeat the process over and over until we eventually relinquish our fear and relax our grip.
There is a teaching story about a monkey who was delighted to find a huge jar of nuts during one of his excursions. He reached his hand into the jar and grabbed the tasty morsels, but was alarmed to discover that his fist full of nuts was too big to come out of the opening of the jar. As hard as he pulled, he could not get free and his unwillingness to release his prize in order to escape led to his capture.
Letting go is perhaps the most difficult thing we do. Did you know that some asthmatics experience breath impairment not because they cannot inhale, but because they cannot let go of enough of the old breath to allow room for new air to come in? As with our breath, releasing and letting go makes room for the new in our lives.
Charly Hill is a Life Skills Coach and Self Empowerment Teacher.