Busy lifestyles, never-ending 'to do' lists and pre-occupations have lead to an increase in cases of chronic fatigue, burn-out and many other stress-related illnesses. In our modern society, most people go to bed looking at their phones, this keeps their mind active and does not allow for rest and rejuvenation, which is the purpose of sleep. Pratyahara was once known as a technique to still the senses as it enabled people to turn within, focus and connect deeply with their true nature. Nowadays, it has become an essential daily technique amongst successful, happy and balanced individuals.
Successful, happy and healthy people, as well as advanced yogis, all have one thing in common – no matter what they do, they seem to be relaxed, fully absorbed and present in what they are doing, get more done with less effort, enjoy their lives more, have more positive social relationships and at the end of the day need less sleep!
Some yogis are even able to abandon sleep completely because their mind is so calm and relaxed, all they need each day is a couple of hours of deep relaxation. Even though we sometimes think these people are super-human, the same potential lies in all of us. All we have to do is learn a relaxation technique to make us aware and absorbed in our true-selves so we can use our potential to our best advantage.
The root cause of tension
There is a deep connection between each of our thoughts and our muscles. A constant flow of nerve impulses are sent from our brain to our muscles to help maintain their tone and keep our body functional. Therefore, negative or destructive emotions can interfere with our normal muscle tone and increase tension in the muscles. This is because holding on to inner conflicts and intense negative emotions, such as anger and fear makes our brain think that our body is constantly in danger, tensing our muscles ready for action, no matter whether we express the emotions or not. This can build up to chronic fatigue and exhaustion (increased tension uses more energy), diseases, and even partial failure of our inner organs because muscles control the functioning of our organs.
When we are exposed to stressful situations, our 'Fight or Flight' system activates, which is there to save us in dangerous situation, such as a wild animal attack. It produces adrenaline so our body can flee from the danger as quickly as possible. However, if this system is activated for long periods of time, our body becomes out of sync and diseases appear (digestive, ulcers, stroke, diabetes), our immune system drops and we are no longer able to fight bacterial infections.
The science of relaxation
The most effective practice for balance these days is deep relaxation, which helps us to withdraw from external sensory overload and get in touch with the silence within, enabling our organs to rest and rejuvenate. Learning and mastering the technique of deep relaxation enables us to direct our whole being towards the achievement of our goals and results in strong willpower, whereas tension only dissipates the energy and our focus.
Although it might sound easy, it actually takes time and patience to be able to completely relax and release all tension from our body and mind. Normally, when we rest our body, our mind gets activated, jumping all over the place like a monkey, tensing our muscles and resulting in everything but deep relaxation. On the other hand, feeling lazy or falling asleep whilst relaxing reflects too much mental disturbance or tension, which dissipates our willpower to focus on the task of relaxing.
Simple steps to relaxation
Please use the recommendations below only as guidelines and contact an experienced practitioner to introduce you to the technique of relaxation if you have never done it before.
- Make sure your relaxation area feels safe, quiet and warm. Make sure you use blankets, as during the phase of deep relaxation the body temperature tends to drop, also use cushions under your knees and a thin support under your neck. Do not practice on a soft bed as this will stop you from distinguishing whether your muscles are relaxed or not.
- The ability to relax increases after the intense tension of all bodily muscles, therefore begin by doing some short exercises, lift your legs and arms, whilst tensing your entire body, or simply make fists with your hands whilst tensing your entire body and count up to 10.
- Release and relax your hands and legs into Shavasana (corpse pose) and allow yourself to start sinking into the floor.
- Immobilise your body and move as little as possible throughout the entire time of relaxation. Keeping your muscles still enables your motor neurons to stop functioning for a while as no signals are being sent to the brain. Therefore, it is completely natural, if your body feels numb and you feel as if your mind is completely detached from your body. This means that your entire body (muscles, cells, organs, blood vessels) is relaxed and rejuvenating. Also, as your body is functioning on a lower level, your adrenal glands stop injecting adrenaline into the bloodstream, returning it to its natural equilibrium.
- Feel the contact between your body and the floor. Feel the heaviness and then the lightness of your body.
- Slowly travel up through your body, feeling each part of your body touching the ground and then relaxing that part. Go from your right big toe to the top of your head and then back down. Often we might feel that we are relaxed, whilst actually, our muscles remain stiff, therefore, keep repeating and reminding your whole body to relax. Repeat the process 3 times, or until you are relaxed.
- Focus on the flow of your breath and maintain awareness throughout the practice. If any stress or thoughts arise, redirect your attention back to observing the flow of your breath and stay present. Stay here for five minutes.
- Then slowly connect back to your senses, roll onto your left side and stay here for a few minutes before sitting up and observing how you feel.
Training awareness and reprogramming the mindset
As we learn and deepen our relaxation practice, we not only strengthen our focus and awareness, enabling us to increase our mental capacity, we also begin to understand our own mind better. With time and practice, we will also start to notice, face and change our subconscious thought patterns, that have been programmed into our mind by our teachers, parents and society. You will realize that you can only make small changes to your external environment but great changes within.
It is, therefore, your choice, to whether you stay narrow-minded, unrealistic, incompatible and constantly conflicting with your surroundings, resulting in stress and disease or whether you train your mind to be expansive, realistic and neutral, resulting in harmonious and good relationships as well as joy and well-being.
The first step to increasing your focus is by focusing your mind either on your breath, a certain fixed point or your chakras. An attentive and focused mind is not only important for better achievements in life but also a prerequisite for effortless flow into meditation. Although it often happens, that after a soothing relaxation, you might be exposed to a conflicting situation, reflecting your old programmed behaviours, making you react in your old conflicting way; due to your training you will be able to reflect upon such behaviours better and consequently, with patience and compassion you will be able to reprogramme your behaviours for the better. If you are doubtful or feeling stuck then please contact an experienced practitioner.
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR RELAXATION
- Take the time to observe children for a day or two. Try to learn and copy their way of being completely present and absorbed in what they are doing: when they play they only play, when they eat their focus is entirely on their food, when they sleep, their thoughts are completely switched off. Make your first step by taking your consciousness away from your emotionally charged mind. Bring your awareness back to your breath and get absorbed in the moment of now.
- Observe what makes you tense? Is it your mental programming that has been indoctrinated by your teachers and parents (i.e. telling you that the only people who are worthwhile are those that 'make it in life'). Any of these types of projections cause continuous worry or tension in everything we do as we have a fear of failure and not being good enough. This continuous tension then results in chronic fatigue. It is your choice to change your existing patterns. Make a choice and follow the steps to change from within.
Let me conclude that when we learn to relax, we are able to see the same situation in a completely different light and even laugh at our anger after an outburst. This gradually brings positive changes to our lives and behaviours, as well as helping us focus on the positive rather than being stuck in our old mindset. Therefore, take time to turn within, where the real truth lies.
Inspired by: Saraswati, Swami Satyananda (1981) A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya. Thomson Press: New Delhi.