Many people come to yoga to relax and/or to reduce stress. The dictionary describes relaxation as “the state of being free from tension and anxiety”. Probably most people who practice yoga can relate to that; even if you started the practice tense and worrying about the next thing, in the final relaxation you feel – at least for a few minutes – like that weight had been lifted off your shoulders.
During yoga practice, we move the whole body through rather large ranges of motion encouraging knots and tightness to subside in order to create ease and freedom in the movements. The poses are either held for a longer time or combined into a flow of movements; either way, people are encouraged to move mindfully to become and stay aware of the internal sensations that arise. These sensations and guidance from the teacher teach us to engage muscles that need to be engaged but equally to release tension in muscles that don’t need to be tense in a particular pose. The intention is to become more aware of our body which teaches us to recognise unintentional tension, identify where in the body the tension lies, and to consciously release it. I believe this is why – sometimes – when we advance in the practice, we might for a while feel more tension in the body than when we started in the first place; we’ve actually become more flexible but also more aware of our body and the tension that lies within.
Another huge factor is the use of breath in yoga practice. With conscious, slow breathing we can access our nervous system targeting the multiple stress responses (physical and mental) that we might not be able to combat otherwise. Breathing practices balance the autonomic nervous system which is responsible for the autonomic functions of the body, such as heart rate, digestion and body temperature. Calm, slow breathing triggers a natural relaxation response in the body, which – via the nervous system – spreads to the whole body and mind. Therefore, we’re not working just with the physical but also the psychological stress encouraging mental relaxation. Through yoga we can learn tools that can be used in any everyday life situation that makes us stressed – just breathe.
Specific to hot yoga practice is also the heat that aids muscle relaxation. That’s why people who feel easily cold or are naturally stiff might find that practicing in the heated room changes their practice completely and it’s easier to relax into the poses. And one doesn’t need to be stiff to benefit from practicing in the heat. It can be also mentally more relaxing if the heat makes you feel more comfortable and you’re not constantly focusing on keeping warm.
If you have any thoughts to share, please comment below. What makes you relax in yoga?
See you on the mat,