At the beginning of nearly all yoga classes I get people to lie down so they can relax. We do the same at the end of class. Most of us are very good at lying down but many of us are not good at relaxing--be this physically or mentally. Sometimes people think they are relaxing when they are not. I see this often at the end of the class when I go around to make adjustments as people lie in savasana (corpse pose deep relaxation pose) and ask them to relax as I move them into position. Here is what often happens:
Me (bending over a person reaching for their shoulder from behind so I can draw the scapula down, however, as soon as I reach under the shoulder it magically lifts without me doing more than touch it): Just relax
Student (lying in Savasana): Mmmm
Me (barely touching the shoulder, which somehow still hovers above the floor): Just relax
Student (lying in Savasana): Mmmm
Me (jiggling the shoulder a little in an effort to get the student to feel the tension and sense that they are holding their own shoulder up rather than letting go of tension and allowing me to hold it): Relax, relax, relax [soothing voice of course].
Student (lying in Savasana): Mmmm
Me (gently letting go of the shoulder, which stays in mid-air rather than fall to the ground because the student was the one holding it up anyway): Silence (speaks louder than words)
Student (opening eyes in surprise): I thought I was relaxing!
Aside from the fact that it must be slightly annoying to be told to relax when you think you are already relaxing it seems to me that this is one very powerful learning exercise in understanding how you can hold tension without even knowing it.
One of the joys of yoga is discovering yourself again. This includes uncovering 'secrets' such as the secret tension you might be holding in parts of your body. But tension does not have to be muscular. We can also hold tension in our breathing patterns (e.g., when we hold our breath or it becomes laboured or forced), while the tension we hold in our minds is more often referred to as stress.
Savasana is a great opportunity to consciously relax body, breath, and mind, and, like all yoga postures, to go within and experience what it is like to be yourself from the inside. There are many ways to practice savasana and many guided relaxations you can try. I like Erich Schiffman's description of savasana (he writes shavasana) in his book, Moving into Stillness. I have extract parts of his guided savasana that might help you consciously relax for you to try below (see pp297-299 of his book). You can read more from Erich's book at: http://www.movingintostillness.com/index.html
- Start in comfortable lying.
- Relax. It feels like melting. Do this by scanning your awareness around and through your body--the space inside your body and the space around your body--alert to where there is unnecessary contraction, discomfort, tension, or excessive energy. Let go of every hint of holding on.
- Start at your hands. Rest your awareness in the area of your hands: the palms, thumbs, fingers, the space between your fingers, the fingertips, fingernails, the back of your hands, the wrists, the space inside your hands, and the space around your hands. Forget about what they look like, what you remember they look like, and instead immerse your awareness in the way they actually feel to you now. Go into your hands and feel them. Gradually, you may begin to sense heat or warmth, then a pleasant, tingling, electricity-like sensation. Feel the energy in your hands.
- As your hands relax, feel them expanding. Feel them becoming less dense, less thick, less contracted--more spacious inside, more comfortable. Feel this happening and let them expand without limit. Notice how as they relax and expand, hands aren't there. as though there's just wide open tingling space where your hands once were. Enjoy the way this feels.
- All this new sense of expanded and tingling openness to flow upward through your arms at its own leisurely pace, until your hands, arms, and shoulders feel tension-free, transparent, clear.
- Direct your attention to your fee. Go into your fee and feel them. Relax the sole of each foot, relax the arches, relax the spaces between the toes, the top of each foot, the ankles, the heels, the space inside your feet, and the space around your feet. Feel the energy in your feet. Again, forget about what they look like, what you remember they look like, and instead immerse your conscious awareness in the way they actually feel.
- When the tingling sensation in your feet becomes established in your awareness as with your arms, now allow it to flow slowly upward through your legs, horse, and head--until your whole body is experiencing this pleasurable tingling vibration.
- Savor the way your legs feel: the ankles, calves, shinbones, knees, thighs, inner thighs, back of thighs, all the way up into the hips, pelvis, genitals, and buttocks. Feel the energy in your your legs and pelvis, feel the space around your legs, and allow your awareness to roam through this whole area at its own comfortable pace. Again, enjoy the way this feels, and allow yourself to be intrigued with your actual now-experience. Forget about what your legs look like, and instead experience yourself and body as you actually are. Experience your legs becoming transparent and clear.
- Relax your abdomen and belly, and let your breathing be normal, free, unrestricted. Feel your belly rise and fall with each breath, and experience how this gentle, continuous movement ripples through your whole body and can be felt everywhere. Ride the breath. Stay aware of your breathing. Savour the air on both the inhale and exhale.
- Keep bringing your awareness slowly upward through your torso, and let the movement of your breathing relax your lower back, diaphragm, ribs, chest, heart. let this whole area relax, expand, and become tension-free. Release every hint of holding on. Let go completely.
- Relax your neck, throat, face, and head. Relax your moth, the corners of your moth, the lips, the jaw. Relax your nose, your cheeks, your ears. the back of your head, the scalp, your forehead, your eyebrows, and especially your eyes. Relax the muscles around the eyes, the muscles deep in the eye sockets, the inner corner of each eye, the outer corner, the space between the eyes, the eyelids, eyelashes, the eyeballs themselves, the pupils. Be intimately aware of this whole area. Soften every tension you come upon, even little ones, even just a little. Relax areas that do not feel tense too. Relax everywhere, letting your eyes fall backward away from the eyelids. Let go of all the usual tensions that feel like you. Feel the energy in your face. Glow.
- Feel the space inside your body and the space around your body. Notice that as you relax and expand, every tension evaporates, disappears. It may even begin to feel as though your body isn't there, as though there's just wide open tingling space. Be aware of what's happening. You're releasing tensions, melting, and therefore expanding--everywhere. You're deliberately letting go of all the lumps in your energy field, all the areas of compacted, held, blocked energy. You're clarifying, purifying, washing yourself clean with awareness. Your actual now-experience of yourself is becoming, more and more, that of being less dense, less blocked or held in, less physical, in a sense, and increasingly transparent or luminous, more consciously spirit like. Notice how comfortable you are, how awake and at ease, unusual perhaps at first, but normal, familiar. it feels good to let yourself be this open. Enjoy the way you feel.
- Continue releasing tensions until there are non left, until you feel wide open like the sky. This spacious, conscious comfortableness is known as the "sky of mind", or pure conscious awareness, and relaxing into yourself like this is how you can consciously experience your unity with infinity. Become thoroughly familiar with what it feels like to be this open, relaxed, fearless, and undefended. Feel the peace of stillness.
- As you relax you will expand. You will begin to feel big, huge, spacious. Pretty soon it will feel as though you--as awareness--are infinite; infinite in the sense of not finite, not limited, not what you thought you were, not body, only that you can't actually sent a limit or stopping point to where your consciousness is, to where you are--and that you are therefore not body only, nor body with mind, but the space, mind, or awareness in which everything you are aware of is happening. You real body, therefore, is mental. The sound of that airplane or barking dog for example is happening within your awareness. Even your experience of having a body is happening within awareness. Everything you are aware of is happening within your awareness. And therefore, and this is the point, you are the Awareness in which everything is happening. You are Awareness being specifically aware. You are that big. You are infinite and specific, both at the same time. Relax inside, expand, forget about yourself as body, and stay with your actual now-experience. Experience yourself as huge, spacious, without limit, infinite. Experience the peace of infinite Being.
- Continue to relax, feel, and pay attention to see what happens.
- Stay for five to twenty minutes. When you have had enough you will know. At that point, ready yourself and open your eyes. Just before opening your eyes, be aware of how relaxed you are, how peaceful, how at ease, and then open your eyes without disturbing your peace, without shrinking or tightening up. Stay relaxed, spacious, undefended, and wide open, and be like a child who is seeing the world for the very first time. Look at things without being quite so sure what everything means. Enjoy this awareness. Then roll to your side, linger there a few moments, and come to a seated pose.