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Relaxation - A Skill Unto Itself


Relaxation involves the body and mind, along with the interaction between the two. We address Yoga Meditation, which is a process of knowing ourselves at all levels, such that we may eventually come to experience ourselves at the deepest level, the center of consciousness.


Relaxation - A Skill Unto Itself
http://swamij.com/relaxation.htm

Relaxation is a skill unto itself  
Relaxation involves the body and mind, along with the interaction between the two. There are many things one can do to relax, including physical and social activities, entertainment, or specific methods of relaxation and meditation, such as with music or guided imagery.

Diverting attention is not the best method: However, most of these are based on a strategy of diverting attention away from the inner activity of the body and mind. This is true for the external distractions and most of the inner visualizations that might be mere fantasies. One becomes absorbed in the secondary activity solely for the purpose of blocking awareness of other thoughts, such as of the thoughts of today's actions and yesterday's memories. This strategy of diverting attention is useful to some extent, but it does not go far enough.

It is better to learn the art and skill of directly relaxing than to merely distract the mind.  

Training in the skill, the art of relaxing: What is really needed is to train oneself in the skill, the art of relaxing directly, without needing to create a distraction for the mind. This is a tricky point to understand, since it is also a good idea to focus the mind for relaxation. However, there is an underlying skill itself, that of directly knowing how to relax, to let go of the thought patterns in the mind, and in turn let go of the tension that is being held in the body.

Move attention through your own being: The key principle in learning to directly relax is in moving the attention through different aspects of one's own being. This might be attention on aspects of the physical body, the breath, or the mental process. This principle is intertwined in the practical explanations that follow.

What to do before the Relaxation practices 
To just lie down and do a relaxation practice is a wonderful thing to do. It can definitely be done as its own practice, when one has a few minutes and just wants to let go by turning within. It is also a common and useful practice to do before yoga postures (asanas) as a way of transitioning from the external world.

Stretches and relaxation: However, in the meditative sequence, you will discover that if you do a relaxation practice after some stretches or yoga postures, you are much more able to explore within during the relaxation practice itself. Your attention is now easier to direct in a one-pointed way, and will go deeper. This in turn sets the stage for the subtler breathing practices and meditation itself.

Why do we call it "Relaxation"? 
There are many techniques of relaxation being taught in a variety of contexts, including for physical health, stress management, psychological inquiry, as well as spiritual purposes. Many of these methods are extremely useful and serve their practitioners well.

However, here we are addressing Yoga Meditation, which is a process of knowing ourselves at all levels, such that we may eventually come to experience ourselves at the deepest level, the center of consciousness that goes by many names.

It is a process of surveying inside: It has become common to refer to the surveying of the body and other internal states as a practice of relaxation. Actually, it is more accurate to call it surveying than relaxation, since the actual activity being performed is surveying. Some schools of meditation put their main emphasis on such practice.

The practices in Yoga are not merely means of inducing relaxation through an external stimulus or creating internal fantasies, though they are definitely relaxing. Rather, it is a process of surveying, introspecting, or exploring.

Not Autosuggestion, Hypnosis, Visualization, or Music
Become aware and let go of each level: There has come a confusion between yogic practices of self-awareness and other processes that induce states of consciousness, but not necessarily self-awareness. In Yoga, one is trying to become systematically aware of all of our levels of being, such that we may encounter and let go of each level, and gradually move to the direct experience of the center of consciousness.

Not autosuggestion: In Yoga, we are not using autosuggestion to bring relaxation, saying to the body or body parts that they should "Relax, relax, relax...." Such techniques can be useful, but again, we are wanting to explore within (which also brings relaxation).

Not hypnotic suggestion: There is not a suggestion being given as is sometimes the case in hypnotherapy. To exclude hypnotherapy is not a criticism, but rather a simple clarification. Hypnosis may be a very useful process and some may find it a good adjunct to their practices. Interestingly, some descriptions of modern hypnosis techniques sound quite similar to meditation, although it is not our purpose here to delve into the differences and similarities.

Explore what is already there: These practices are not visualization exercises. We are not trying to imagine something that is not there, inside of us, but rather are attempting to explore that which is already there. For example, we are not visualizing beaches or mountains (which can be quite relaxing), but are looking for the subtle makeup of our own being. Even the points of light mentioned in the 61-Points exercise (below) are actually there, and will eventually be experienced by one who sincerely practices.

Music can have a very relaxing effect, but it is useful to discriminate between what is a relaxing activity and what is Yoga. Doing relaxing activities is a good idea, including music (as well as walking in the woods or by the beach, or doing some hobby with your hands). However, with Yoga Meditation, we are focusing internally, on what is, rather than creating an external diversion to induce a state.

Not religion
These methods of self-awareness are also not religion, though some religions include various practices with body, breath, and mind. This is particularly visible in our modern world with some advocates of Buddhism and Hinduism who actively teach such practices in the context of their religion. It is also true with some practitioners of other religions as well, though somewhat less visibly. Unfortunately, some of the teachers claim exclusivity over the practices, as if those methods are only within the domain of their religion, and not universal.

The aspirant and practitioner of these practices will have to use his or her own sense of discrimination (buddhi) to determine that the practices apply to all people, regardless of religious affiliation. It is glaringly obvious, for example, that all people have a body and body parts to survey. All people breathe, and the principles of breath apply equally to all people in relation to their culture and religion (some need to adjust for health reasons). All people have the same blueprint of subtle body construction (chakras, shakti, kundalini), though the names and conceptualization of those parts may vary.  Clearly, these various aspects of being are universal, and not limited to the domain of specific groups.

Attention and Breathing are two key principles
Two keys: If we explore within, with our attention, particularly in conjunction with breath awareness (which is the grossest aspect of the energy flowing throughout our body), the relaxation comes of its own accord. These two principles or practices, attention and breath, are the key features in the relaxation phase of Yoga Meditation.

The importance of attention and breathing in relaxation cannot be overstated. Again, the key principles for relaxation are:

- Attention to the various aspects of your being

- Breath awareness

These two work together naturally in allowing the relaxation of the physical body, as well as the mind.  It is extremely useful for a practitioner of Yoga Meditation to remember these two simple principles.

Give a restless mind something to do
If the mind is restless, it does not want to "relax". The mind may want to open the eyes or move the body, which is the Manas (sensory-motor mind) wanting to express through the five Karmendriyas (elimination, procreation, motion, grasping, speaking).

There may be a temptation to increase the external stimulus, such as having music a little louder, or to divert the mind with even stronger visualizations. However, these miss the point of needing to train the mind. The mind itself must eventually be trained; there is no escaping this fact. To train the mind means not relying on secondary means, but working directly with focusing the mind itself.

The way to train the mind when it is restless is to first acknowledge that, for this moment, the mind is simply not going to sit still. Therefore, we give it something to do, but something internal, not external.

Focus on what is there, not some new fantasy: Also, we focus on something which is already there, not creating yet another fantasy in the mind. This is part of the beauty of the various Yoga "relaxations" (such as below); they focus on what "is" within our own body and being.

When we have accepted that the mind is restless, and are giving it something to do internally, that is reality based, then the next question is the speed at which the mind is allowed to move.

Slowly or quickly surveying: If the mind is restless, and you tell it to sit still, it fights. But if you let in move at a comfortable pace, it will be happy. Moving your attention from one "part" to another (shoulder, arm, wrist, etc.) can be too slow for the restless mind. Speeding up the rate of surveying can have a comfortable effect on the mind. 

Think of times that you and a friend were walking somewhere, when you wanted to walk at different speeds, one fast, and the other slow. It is the same principle with attention or "relaxation" exercises; find the proper rate to move the attention, which is a bit faster when the mind is restless. 

So, with the restless mind:

Accept that it is restless.   
Don't just divert it; practice self-awareness and self-training.  
Give the mind an internal travel plan of where to journey.  
Speed up the rate at which attention moves through the points of focus.   
Remember to breathe smoothly, quietly, with no jerks or pauses, and at a comfortable, somewhat slow rate.

Slower comes in time: When it is comfortable to do so, slow down the speed at which you are moving through the body. The mind will naturally become even calmer.

Tense and Release Relaxation
This practice is very simple to do and will probably take no more than a couple minutes (longer if it is comfortable). The basic practice is simply to tense muscle groups, and then release the tension. You may find it comfortable to go through the sequence only one time, or to go through it several times.

Do both the tensing and the releasing with full awareness. There is no need to tense at 100% of your capacity--about 50% of your capacity to tense will be sufficient.

It is best to maintain breath awareness as you do the practices. You will come to experience the way in which breath is a manifestation of energy, and how that energy flows throughout your being.

- First, tense all of the muscles of the face, including forehead, cheeks, mouth, and upper neck. Then release with full awareness. You will notice the relaxation.
Gently roll the head from side to side, with awareness of the tightening muscles, and the feeling of release.
Tighten the shoulders, pulling them upwards and forwards. Then release.
Tense the entire right arm, from the shoulder down through the fingers. Do this without making a fist or lifting your arm off of the floor. Allow your attention to be deep inside the arm, not just on the surface. Then release slowly, with awareness.
Tense the left arm in the same way, and observe the release.
Gently tense the muscles of the chest and the abdomen, while continuing to breathe without holding the breath. Then release.
Tense and release the right hips and the buttocks.
Tense and release the right leg, down through the feet and toes in the same way that the right arm was tensed and released.
Tense and release the left hips and buttocks.
Tense and release the left leg.
While no longer tensing any muscles, allow your attention to drift back up through the legs, through the abdomen and chest, through the arms, and back to the face.
After completing the Tense and Release practice, you might want to do it again, go on to the Complete Relaxation, or proceed to the next phase of Yoga Meditation, which is working more directly with the breath, such as starting with breath awareness or diaphragmatic breathing.

Complete Relaxation 
The Complete Relaxation is an excellent practice to do before meditation. It is subtler than the Tense and Release practice above (Body survey is online). Following is one of many versions of this practice:

Lie in the corpse posture with your eyes closed. Lie in such a way that your head, neck, and trunk are aligned. You want your spine to be straight, not turned left or right anywhere along the length of the spine. It is most comfortable to be lying on a soft surface, such as a folded blanket placed on top of a rug. To lie in a bed may not give enough support to your back and body. A thin cushion, maybe an inch or two, makes a nice support for your head. Allow the breath to be smooth, slow, and with no noise or pauses.

Allow your attention to move through your head and face, including the top of the head, forehead, eyebrows, eyes, cheekbones, and nostrils.
Be aware of the breath at the nostrils for several breaths.
Continue to survey mouth, jaws and chin.
Then survey the neck and throat, shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, hands, fingers, and fingertips.
Feel as though you are inhaling from the tips of the fingers up to the shoulders, and then exhaling back to the finger tips. Do this several times.
Then move your attention from the fingers, back through the hands, wrists, lower arms, upper arms, shoulders, upper back and chest. 
Concentrate at the center of the chest, and exhale and inhale completely several times.
Be aware of the stomach, abdomen, lower back, hips, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, and toes.
Exhale as if your whole body is exhaling, and inhale as if your whole body is inhaling. As you exhale, let go of all tension, worries, and anxieties. Inhale as if you are inhaling new energy, as well as a sense of peace and relaxation. Exhale and inhale several times.
Then move your attention from the toes to the feet, ankles, calves, thighs, knees, hips, lower back, abdomen, stomach and chest.
Concentrate at the center of the chest, and exhale and inhale completely several times.
Survey the upper back, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, wrists, hands, fingers, and fingertips.
Feel as though you are inhaling from the tips of the fingers up to the shoulders, and then exhaling back to the finger tips. Do this several times.
Then move your attention from the fingers, back through the hands, wrists, lower arms, upper arms, shoulders, neck, throat, chin, jaws, mouth, and nostrils.
Be aware of the breath at the nostrils for several breaths.
Move your attention to the cheekbones, eyes, eyebrows, forehead and the top of the head.
For about one minute, allow your attention to be aware of the smooth, slow, serene flow of the breath. Let your mind make a gentle, conscious effort to guide the breath so that it is smooth, calm, deep, and without any noise or jerkiness.

The Complete Relaxation can be done in a broad range of time frames. To learn to do this as slow as the length of time for one exhalation down, and one inhalation up, is very useful. To do the practice in about 3-4 minutes can be very relaxing, whether for a quick break in daily life, or preparation for meditation. If it is comfortable, spending a much longer amount of time can bring tremendous insights about the nature of your inner being, as well as deep relaxation, and preparation for deep meditation.

61-Points 
The 61-Points exercise is subtler than the Tension/Release or Complete Relaxation practices (61-points is online). You will find that this leads you to a deeper state of calm and quiet.

As you go through the points, you may experience the points as gross body, such as skin, muscles, or bone, or you may experience the points as a feeling awareness. However you experience the points is okay--you cannot do it wrong. If you "see" with your inner eye, that's okay. If you do not "see" with your inner eye, that's okay too. You may experience darkness, or you may experience light, such as a point of light like a blue star. Any way that you experience it is okay. Just gradually, systematically learn where the points are and move from one to the next.

To move from one point to the next every couple seconds, or one or two breaths should be a comfortable speed. If you move too slow, you may find your attention drifts away, so it is better to go just a bit faster through the points. If you go too fast, you will have the benefit of easily moving through the points, but may lack depth in the practice. It is best to experiment with the timing.

Forehead, throat
Right shoulder, right elbow, right wrist, tip of right thumb, tip of right index finger, tip of right middle finger, tip of right ring finger, tip of right little finger, right wrist, right elbow, right shoulder, throat
Left shoulder, left elbow, left wrist, tip of left thumb, tip of left index finger, tip of left middle finger, tip of left ring finger, tip of left little finger, left wrist, left elbow, left shoulder
Throat, space between the breasts, right breast, space between the breasts, left breast, space between the breasts, navel, lower abdomen
Right hip, right knee, right ankle, tip of the right big toe, tip of the right second toe, tip of the right middle toe, tip of the right fourth toe, tip of the right little toe, right ankle, right knee, right hip, lower abdomen
Left hip, left knee, left ankle, tip of the left big toe, tip of the left second toe, tip of the left middle toe, tip of the left fourth toe, tip of the left little toe, left ankle, left knee, left hip
Lower abdomen, navel, space between the breasts, throat, forehead
The 61-Points exercise is an excellent practice for entering Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep), which is a state where you are in deep sleep, yet are awake. Yoga Nidra is deeply relaxing, and is used by the yogis to deal with samskaras (the deep impressions that drive karma) in their latent form.

Spinal breath  
This is a simple practice that can be done as a practice unto itself, during meditation time (after having done any of the vigorous breathing practices, and before meditation itself), or as part of the preparation for Yoga Nidra. For relaxation, this practice is best done lying on your back in shavasana, the corpse posture.

Exhale as though you are breathing from the top of the head down to the perineum at the base of the spine.
Inhale as though you are breathing from the perineum at the base of the spine, up to the top of the head.
Exhale and inhale many times in this way, exhaling down and inhaling up.
Imagine that the breath is flowing in a thin, milky white stream from top to bottom, and bottom to top. It does not matter whether or not you literally see the stream with your inner eye, but know that this stream of energy is actually there in the subtle body, and will someday be experienced directly.

Navel center with Spinal breath  
This practice is also done lying on your back, in shavasana, the corpse posture. It combines breath awareness at the navel center with the spinal breath practice.

Bring your attention to the navel center, and notice the motion of the abdomen and diaphragm area. Notice the physical rise and fall of the abdomen.
Stay with that breath awareness for some time, being mindful that the breath is smooth, with no jerks, no pauses between breaths, that it is quiet, and that the speed is just the right degree of slow.
After some time, allow the exhalation to elongate to a 2-to-1 ratio, where the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation.
Stay with this breath awareness for some time, and then, when it feels right, transition to the spinal breath.
Allow the breath to become ever slower and slower, but in a natural, gentle way, keeping the mind focused on the practice.
Exhale as though you are breathing from the top of the head down to the perineum at the base of the spine.
Inhale as though you are breathing from the perineum at the base of the spine, up to the top of the head.
Exhale and inhale many times in this way, exhaling down and inhaling up.
Imagine that the breath is flowing in a thin, milky white stream from top to bottom, and bottom to top. It does not matter whether or not you literally see the stream with your inner eye, but know that this stream of energy is actually there in the subtle body, and will someday be experienced directly.

Ascending breathing (Shitali karana) 
This practice involves coordinating the breath with the inner motion of attention. Attention moves downward with exhalation and upward with inhalation, progressively moving to a smaller and smaller space (Ascending breath is online). Then, the process reverses through the same movements.

Crown to toes: Breathe 10 times as if exhaling from the top of the head down to the toes, and as if inhaling from the toes up to the top of the head.
Crown to ankles: Exhale from the top of the head to the ankles and inhale back 10 times.
Crown to knees: Exhale and inhale 10 times from the top of the head to the knees.
Crown to perineum: Exhale and inhale 5 times from the top of the head to the perineum at the base of the spine.
Crown to navel center: Exhale and inhale 5 times from the top of the head to the navel center.
Crown to heart center: Exhale and inhale 5 times from the top of the head to the heart center.
Crown to throat: Exhale and inhale 5 times from the top of the head to the throat.
Crown to nostrils: Breathe 5 times from the top of the head to the bridge between the nostrils.
Eyebrows to nostrils: Exhale and inhale many times between the space between the eyebrows and the bridge between the nostrils.
Crown to nostrils: Breathe 5 times from the top of the head to the bridge between the nostrils.
Crown to throat: Exhale and inhale 5 times from the top of the head to the throat.
Crown to heart center: Exhale and inhale 5 times from the top of the head to the heart center.
Crown to navel center: Exhale and inhale 5 times from the top of the head to the navel center.
Crown to perineum: Exhale and inhale 5 times from the top of the head to the perineum at the base of the spine.
Crown to knees: Exhale and inhale 10 times from the top of the head to the knees.
Crown to ankles: Exhale from the top of the head to the ankles and back 10 times.
Crown to toes: Breathe 10 times as if exhaling from the top of the head down to the toes, and as if inhaling from the toes up to the top of the head

What to do after Relaxation practices
In the sequence of systematic Yoga Meditation, the surveying of body is followed by breathing practices. The principle is of going from gross to subtle.

First, we work with the physical body through stretches or yoga postures.
Then, we survey the physical body in the relaxation exercises.
Then, we begin the process of turning inward from the physical body by focusing on breathing practices.
Then comes meditation itself.
By practicing systematically in this way, meditation comes much more easily, and is far less likely to end up in a mental battle.

Again, just after the relaxation exercises are the breathing practices. The grosser breathing practices still are body based, but nonetheless, are more interior than purely surveying the body. Then the breathing practices can become subtler and subtler.