More often than not, being told to relax creates a frustrating antithesis. We all know it’s easier said than done, especially in busy lives, jam-packed with the 24/7 demands of smartphones. What’s more, relaxation is often equated with doing nothing, a luxury few of us seem to be able to afford.
Modern living tends to be so hectic that we rarely take time out to relax, to release built up tightness and tension in the body and allow the mind to be free. Far from doing nothing, relaxation is in fact an art, much more challenging than it may appear.
Unsurprisingly, relaxation is an important facet of yoga, in which we can integrate and go deeper into the practice. Whilst a well-rounded yoga class may be deemed relaxing in itself, there are three particular aspects of yoga which provide a deeper sense of relaxation. If you’re feeling overworked, over-tired or overwhelmed, read on to find out how these practices can relax you back to balance.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Every yoga practitioner has their favourite variation of child’s pose; knees wide or together, arms outstretched or alongside the body, maybe even prayer hands behind the neck for a yummy stretch through the triceps (go on, try it!). Balasana is a restful pose, usually interspersed between more challenging asana to cultivate a sense of balance between the two.
Child’s pose allows time for the body, breath and mind to unite, whilst creating space to turn inward. In doing so, this relaxing pose centres, calms and soothes the mind, countering stress and anxiety along the way. (Learn more in Child's Pose: 4 Reminders You're Never Too Old (or Too Advanced) for This Yoga Posture.)
In balasana, the inward fold of the body sends a signal to the nervous system that it’s safe to rest and let go. Reminiscent of the foetal position, this pose is a subconsciously symbolic indication of safety and security. Physically, the body and senses are turned away from the external environment, making it possible to tune out noise and distractions.
In lives so often bombarded by an overwhelming amount of sensory input, child’s pose allows us to focus solely on ourselves, on the here and now. As such, it is a deeply therapeutic posture, not only to be practiced for a few breaths at your local studio, but an undeniably successful tool to soothe even the most stressful of days. (Learn more in Stress vs Self-Care: How to Elicit the Relaxation Response.)
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
If you have ever been to a yoga class, you should be well acquainted with savasana. Practiced for 5 to 15 minutes at the end of any asana class, it’s that moment of sweet stillness that so many of us look forward to. Savasana sets up the conditions that allow a truly relaxed state to occur gradually, whilst also creating time and space for integration of the practice that came before it.
Although this seemingly inactive period may seem like a good excuse for a nap, savasana is certainly not an opportunity to sleep. The intention is to relax with awareness, to walk the tightrope between being alert and at ease. Remaining conscious while relaxing in this way helps you to notice and release long-held tensions in both body and mind. (Learn more in End Your Practice (and Your Week) in Savasana.)
Sometimes dubbed as the hardest pose, busy minds may find it excruciating to remain still in a world where we are constantly on the move. With a million things lingering on your to-do list, it can feel rather indulgent to lie around and do nothing. And yet, the stillness of savasana has a lot of physiological power.
Whilst it’s stress-busting benefits are unmistakably evident to most who have given it a go, recent studies have even proven the positive impact of savasana on cardiovascular health. Next time you are thinking of skipping savasana, think again; it a vital part of any yoga practice and the ultimate fast-track to total relaxation.
Yoga Nidra is a powerful guided relaxation technique, used to engage in sense withdrawal (pratyahara). Otherwise known as yogic sleep, Yoga Nidra is practiced in savasana, offering stages of body scan and breath awareness that promote deep rest and relaxation. (Learn more in Pratyahara: The Fifth Limb of Yoga.)
Through this practice, it is possible to explore the layers of both the physical and subtle body, allowing for an even more profound sense of release. As such, Yoga Nidra tends to leave practitioners with a sense of rejuvenation usually only found in sleep, restoring body and mind in a remarkably short space of time.
Interestingly, there is neurological reasoning behind Yoga Nidra’s similarities with sleep. Several studies have used electrophysiological monitoring to reveal that the practice emulates brain activity consistent with deep physical relaxation (alpha and theta waves) and even non-REM sleep (delta waves). Indeed, experienced practitioners report entering into a state of conscious sleep, in which lucid dreaming and vivid imagery are common.
Perhaps due to the sleep-like state it encourages, Yoga Nidra is immensely calming for the nervous system, thereby helping to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety. Research suggests that the practice has a significant positive impact on a wide range of physiological variables such as blood pressure, pulse rate and respiration rate, whilst also improving memory and learning capacity. Yoga Nidra is clearly a potent practice, offering a life raft of calm amidst the stormy seas of stress.
Do Less, Experience More
This is by no means an extensive list of techniques, and there are plenty of styles of yoga (such as Restorative and Yin) solely devoted to offering a complete sense of relaxation and release. When it comes to relaxation though, it really is a case of each to their own – whilst some may float from a Restorative class on a cloud, others may find it mentally torturous. (Learn more in Yin Versus Restorative Yoga: What's the Difference?)
Regardless of how you choose to relax, the key thing is to make time for it. Relaxation is the fundamental foundation of self-care, it provides one of the most direct ways to improve productivity and paves a sure-fire path to a more peaceful, joyful experience of life.
By taking the time to actively slow down and do a little less, it is possible to experience so much more.