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)
"Pastures in the sun"...... For some reason that phrase conjures up deep feelings of peace and contentment for me. I see horses grazing in a field, trees moving in a gentle breeze, and I can faintly hear the sound of running water.....and my whole body just sighs a big "ah". Mind and body together jettison any tension or anxiety and move to a state of deep, peaceful well being.
I have read that it is in moments of deep relaxation that our bodies do the best quality repair and maintenance. During most of our day, our energy is elsewhere diverted into thinking and doing things. And when we are overly busy or stressed, not much energy goes into the processes of digestion or cellular repair. If our body moves into a state of high alert, digestion shuts down in response to the flight or fight chemicals that are released to support the escape or combat we would be preparing for if we lived in earlier times. Even in sleep, we are usually subconsciously processing the events of the day. No wonder we have so much dis-ease.
Taking time to relax every day is one of the most loving things you can do for your body, even if it is just for a few moments. Whether it is imagining your "safe space" or perfect retreat, meditating or hypnosis, or simply staring with an empty mind at the ocean or moving water, that quiet time supports your body's ability to thrive in the physical world. One of the most healthful things you can teach your children (perhaps even as you learn yourself) is the gift of relaxation, the slowing of the breath, the quieting of the body and mind..... spending time in restorative moments.
Charly Hill is a Life Skills Coach and Self Empowerment Teacher.