RELAXATION & YOGA NIDRA
`Yoga is great for relaxation`, - one of the often quoted justifications for `doing` yoga. How we love to simplify some things, when at times a little more explanation might be useful. Yes it is true that yoga can be relaxing but we should remember that the purpose for achieving that state
of relaxation is not just for its own sake, but for the further benefits it brings.
First we should differentiate between `relaxation` techniques and `Yoga nidra`.
Relaxation is a movement or technique to bring about being relaxed, that is with normal levels of muscular tension
and absence of high levels of mental stress: as such it is one aspect of a normal
healthy lifestyle. Being relaxed allows the body to correct imbalances, heal
and regenerate physically and mentally. Yoga nidra, often known as `yoga sleep`,
is a positive practice to take the mind into a state of deep awareness, a condition where sleep is replaced by intense relaxation,
and to open the mind to a condition where mental control and meditation can be more effective.
Modern psychotherapeutic techniques owe much to the ancient teachings of yoga.
Two modern techniques commonly used in developing the ability to realise the state of relaxation are: Autogenic and Progressive Relaxation.
Progressive Relaxation is achieved by alternately tensing and then releasing the tension in the muscles. The effect is for the mind to become conscious of what it feels like to be tense, and vice versa to know
what it feels like to be relaxed. In this method the practitioner may be sitting with the back supported, or lying. Working
with each part of the body in turn the muscles may be tensed and then relaxed with awareness.
In this way it becomes easy to recognise tension in the body as it develops, and to consciously relax the affected
parts at will. As a general rule muscles can contract but cannot stretch themselves
out. This job has to be done by the opposing muscles. Thus the biceps muscle may contract to bend the elbow, but the triceps are required to straighten the arm
again. This is vital to remember in certain parts of the body that are tension
The hand holds tension by clenching the hand. Simply clenching the fist
more tightly and then trying to release it will not work without conscious action. To
release hand tension the hand must be flexed in the opposite way, that is by stretching the hand wide open (and perhaps visualising
the tensions rolling away from the palm of the hand), and then relaxing the hand so that the fingers remain only lightly curled.
In a similar way the face holding tension in the form of a furrowed brow, tight down turned mouth and straining eyes
is best relaxed not by scowling even more dramatically, but by opening the face in a broad smile, or by taking a deep breath
and then silently shouting `YES`. The stretched muscles remain less tensed, and
the face will feel more open.
Autogenic Relaxation was first used as a modern relaxation technique in the 1920s by Dr Schultz who used it as a form of hypnosis
for healing. In the 1970s Autogenic Relaxation was taken up as an alternative
therapy along with encounter therapy, and the ideas of Reich and Rolf. Autogenic
relaxation relies on the concept of the link between body and mind. Unlike progressive
relaxation, autogenic relaxation uses the power of the mind to induce deep relaxation.
The benefits of this technique are said to be help in the control of some of the unconscious functions of the sympathetic
nervous system, improved oxygen uptake in athletes, and release of repressed emotions such as fear, anger and grief. These can result in relieving symptoms of excessive stress such as depression, migraines,
slow recovery from injury, cramps, backaches and other seemingly simple physical ailments.
Autogenic relaxation is brought about by focusing mentally on opposing sensations in the body. Sitting or lying flat the practitioner thinks of parts of the body feeling heavy and then light and weightless,
or cool and then warm. The stomach may be concentrated on as feeling warm and
at the same time the forehead feeling cool. Positive affirmations such as `I
feel heavy`, followed by `I feel light`, help the mind to focus and to concentrate
on the effects of the technique
Yoga Nidra may be seen both as the forerunner, and an extension of the previous methods. In yoga nidra it is usual to begin the practice with a positive affirmation, or sankalpa, relevant to one`s
life. A sankalpa is a resolution of a spiritual nature and perhaps gives a goal
to aim for in life - realisation of God or the Self, is perhaps the ultimate sankalpa.
There then follows a period of induced relaxation physically, followed by mental concentration and focusing to clear
the mind of day to day matters. Eventually just as the body enters a state of
apparently being `asleep` or `not there`, the mind also steps back from uncontrolled thoughts to find a state of inner awareness
when inner silence, or the nada (inner sound) are all that the Self is aware of. We
are told that even a short period of yoga nidra is as beneficial to the body as a good night`s sleep. On returning to normal consciousness, before moving, it is usual to repeat the sankalpa. The sankalpa should always be visualised and thought on positively and with the firm intention to work
towards its achievement .
Whether these forms of relaxation are practised as a part of a longer and complete session of yoga practice, or in
short breaks from the stresses of the day they can help in the transformation of the person which yoga can bring out.
Visualisation for Relaxation
I first used the following technique to
bring about relaxation and refreshment way back in the early 1960s for my own benefit.
It is a technique which can be used anywhere even with only a minute or two at your disposal. I used it regularly when I was standing travelling on smoky, packed, rush-hour trains in south east London.
To prepare, just make yourself comfortable,
sitting or lying is immaterial. In your mind you are about to create your `Secret
Garden`. This garden may be based
on a place you know, but it is better not to use a garden with which you have emotional connections. In any case you will find that the garden will be changed a little each time you visit – just as
a real garden will. Your garden will reflect your mood, ideas and needs.
It is important to remember that this really
is YOUR secret garden, and should never be described in detail to anyone. You are wasting your time anyway if you do, because
the other person will envisage it in the way they interpret your words, and this garden is beyond accurate description
It may be useful to consider incorporating
the following aspects.
You may approach your garden by imagining
you are in a room with a locked door, which leads out into the garden, or it may be approached after walking along a path
through shady woodland etc.
Let the entrance to your garden be
secure. You might choose to enter it through a doorway of which only you have
the key, or through a solid garden
Inside, let the garden be surrounded by
high hedges or trees that shelter and ensure complete privacy in the garden. The
garden will be open to the sky however and at intervals around the garden paths will lead off to other secret destinations
which you can explore later. Perhaps at one point the trees will separate to
expose a view over rolling countryside to distant high mountains and a long golden beach with a blue sea stretching to the
The garden can contain every flower,
bush and plant you wish to have. All flowering at the same time if you prefer
– remember this is both a secret and a magic garden. Your garden might have water; both sparkling and warm in the sun,
and cool and deep and dark like a reflective mirror in a shady corner. There
will be places to linger and sit, areas of formality and informality maybe, smooth paths, grass and rough areas of rock or
vegetation. But overall there is a wonderful sense of peace and tranquillity. Part
of the garden may be in sun and part in shade.
As you explore be aware of all your senses
and the differing sensations which you pick up. See the colours, patterns and
vistas of the garden. Feel the sun, rain or whatever weather you want. Walking
in bare, feet feel the contrast between hard and soft surfaces, heat and cold (even frost or snow). Feel the soil, grass, stones and pebbles under your feet. Feel
the textures of flowers, bark, moss, and stone.
Smell the air, the perfume of flowers,
the cool dankness of the shady parts, and the heat of the sun in others.
Hear the sounds of the garden; birds, insects,
the breeze in the trees, even the sound of rain soaking into the ground, or the distant sound of the sea.
Take time just to linger, to sit and be
still. Enjoy being alone but not lonely.
For a little while feel that you can leave all your concerns outside the garden, knowing that you will be better placed
to deal with them when you return after this little break. And before you do
leave take one last look around you, remembering the feeling of peace which you have found.
Return to the door, or gate, step through closing it behind you and return to your normal life with a feeling of well
being and of having had your batteries recharged.
Another useful daily practise is to take
a circular walk around a real garden, your own if possible – even if it is only tiny.
This is often best done at the end of the day – just before dark, or when you get home from work. Take just a few minutes to walk around your garden and LOOK at it.
Do not look at the jobs to be done, the dying flowers or the weeds; they can be addressed in due course. Simply enjoy your garden and look at what is beautiful and nurturing to your soul. Follow the same route and learn to concentrate just on looking and experiencing what you are looking at.
Both of these methods engage the
mind in its creative aspect. They allow the cold, critical, analytical left side
of the brain to be rested and to come into better balance with the intuitive and creative right side of the mind.
They allow you to become more in touch
with you inner soul.
Enjoy your gardens.