Have you ever wondered what to prioritize when you are doing a yoga pose? What is the most important thing to focus on when doing Triangle? Or Downward Dog? Or Savasana? Ask 15 different yoga teachers from different yoga lineages and you will likely get 15 different answers. Is alignment the most important? Is it the breath? Awareness? Eye gaze? What is it?
I have wrestled with this question myself and have attempted to deconstruct hundreds of poses to figure out what is most important … but after 29 years of practice (yep, I’ve been practicing since I was a kid!) there is one element that I come back to again and again — and it might surprise you!
Relaxation is the doorway
The backbone of every pose is not your vertebrae, but rather what lies inside of them: your nervous system. Your brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves are gateways of input and output for our bodies. Their ability to relay messages to and from our tissues is critical for being able to perform a pose (or any movement whatsoever). But if your mind is caught up in a bind, stressing out about how to do a pose or “getting it right,” you add tension to your whole system.
What I am suggesting here is that we need to consciously dampen our stress response in order to create a better environment for the full spectrum of sensing into our tissues and our movements. In other words, we must imbue our mind with relaxation as a prelude to posing. The yogis call this Unmani Mudra, or “no-thought mind.”
Line the mind with meditation
It is fairly easy to flip the ON switch in the body, as most of our brain is actually dedicated to helping the body be aroused and alert. But how do you flip your OFF switch? Much less of our brain-space is dedicated to chilling out and it becomes even more challenging when we ask ourselves to let go but are unsure whether or not we’re still holding on.
When a body deeply relaxes, it temporarily loses muscle tone (as soon as you start using your body again, the muscles spring back into action), breathing slows down, heart rate slows, body temperature drops and the mind begins to experience space between thoughts. This “space between thoughts” is exactly the entry point the yogis were seeking in coining the term Unmani Mudra.
The challenge when doing poses is to rid yourself of both physical and mental tensions so that you can enter and exit poses with such deep relaxation and concentration that the body and mind experience each pose in its totality. In other words, the mind becomes quiet enough that it can “listen” to all of the nuances of motion, position and sensation that the pose exposes to the nervous system.
How to relax before your yoga practice
There are a few quick ways that you can target the relaxation response in your body so that your poses emerge from a place of deep calm rather than a frenzied effort. Choose one or several of the un-actvities listed below, then proceed into the rest of your yoga practice sedated, yet alert.
1. Extend your exhales. A breathing technique or Pranayama that focuses on lengthening the duration of the exhale so that it is longer than the inhale is a way to sedate and soothe the whole nervous system. This can be done either in a reclined position or as a seated meditation.
a) Place gentle pressure on a pulse point anywhere on your body. This can be as simple as pressing the index finger and thumb together, touching the inside of one wrist, or placing a finger alongside the neck.
b) Observe the throb of the heart at this pulse point.
c) Using your heartbeat as a metronome, inhale for four heartbeats and then exhale for eight.
d) Remain for 3-5 minutes.
2. Veeparita Korani Mudra. Place your heart above your head — a gentle inversion like Veeparita will provide just enough of an inverted slope to alter the brain’s signals from arousal to “drousal.” If this is too much for your legs or back, try the simpler Legs Up the Wall Pose.
a) Lay on your back and place a yoga block at any height that feels stable and comfortable underneath your pelvis.
b) Raise your knees towards the sky, keeping them bent. If this feels like too much effort, keep the feet rooted on the floor.
c) Slowly inhale to swell the belly, then allow it to passively deflate. When your body feels ready for the next inhale, slowly inhale, then passively allow the exhale to exit.
d) Remain for 3-5 minutes.
3) Roll out the restrictions. Self-massage before activity will help to eradicate the tension in hypertonic muscles that are unconsciously contracting and potentially creating pain. Using a self-massage implement like Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls or Gaiam’s Massage balls or a foam roller can help to turn OFF muscles that think they need to be ON. This ushers in global relaxation for the whole body, and it also helps all the layers of your tissues to warm-up and be more efficient for practicing poses.
a) Choose a tight area of your body, such as the upper back, low back or buttocks, and place the balls or roller into positions where you can tolerate the pressure and still breathe deeply. Create small slow gentle movements that help the massage tool roll into, along and around the area of tension. If you cannot breathe, or if you experience deep discomfort, move the tool slightly higher, lower or to the right or left so that you can return to tolerance and relaxation.
These un-activities are effective in as little as three minutes, or can be implemented for up to 10 minutes prior to your yoga practice. If you do them longer, you may become too relaxed, and have a hard time during your more active practice. Any of these sedating techniques can tune down your stress and will deeply enrich your presence during your practice.
Let me know how the rest of your practice goes. And remember to always make relaxation the most important part of your practice. Namaste!
Practice yoga with Jill Miller on GaiamTV.com.