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LEARNING TO RELAX

You Need Deep Relaxation to Meditation

A visual image may help you understand the process of deep relaxation. Imagine that you can see the energy patterns of the body. Muscles are luminescent, brightening when they contract and dimming as they relax. Every cell glows as it carries on its tasks. The heart flashes each time it beats, and organs shine brightly as they perform their various functions. You can see which muscles are tense by looking for hot spots.

The brain and nervous system are especially brights, and you can see constantly shifting waves of energy. A channel of light leads to the brain from each of the sense organs, especially the eyes and ears. Small flashes appear in the brain as information is received and processed, as decisions are made, and signals sent to various parts of the body. The spinal cord is nearly as bright as the brain, glowing as signals go back and forth to every area of the body. You can see circuits in the brain flashing over and over again as the brain thinks, as it remembers, and as it makes decisions.

Look at someone who is asleep. His body is relaxed and appears dim. The heart and respiratory system have slowed down but still flash as they feed the slumbering body. The senses have largely shut down, and their connection with the brain is only a dull glow. The brain itself is surprisingly active, but the patterns are different from those during the waking hours. Most of the sleeping person energy is centered in the spine and brain.

Now observe someone in the deep meditation. In many ways he seems similar to a person who is asleep. The yogi body is completely relaxed, perhaps even more so than that of a person sleeping. His senses, too, are shut down, but other parts are aglow. Energy has been completely withdrawn into the spine and forepart of the brain. A great master of yoga can withdraw his energy so completely that even the heart and autonomic nervous system are shut down. He has the ability to consciously bring all his energy into a laser-like focus which energizes the spiritual eye, uplifts his consciousness, and eventually raises him to the state of Self-realization.

The first step toward this profound state is relaxation. Relaxation is a result of withdrawing tension and energy from any area, a process normally only partly under our command. But for deep meditation we must learn deep relaxation, which requires conscious control of life-force. Later in this lesson we will learn a technique to completely relax the body, which gets us over the first big hurdle in meditation : physical tension. Keeping your body relaxed and motionless while you are meditating is the first step toward more profound states of consciousness.

Next we must relax the mind, because the biggest challenge is overcoming mental restlessness. When you try to meditate, you will find that your mind wanders, not because you are meditating, but simply because you are now quiet enough to finally see how the mind constantly skips from thought to thought in a free-association wonderland. The way to overcome mental restlessness is through concentration. There are a number of extremely effective yogic techniques to improve concentration. Among the most effective are techniques which work with the breath.

One of yoga great gifts to mankind is the discovery of the link that exists between energy, breath, and mind. As you change one, you also change the other two. If you excite one, the other two become excited and, conversely, if you calm one, the other two respond by becoming calm also. You will notice that if your mind becomes excited, from a sudden fright perhaps, your breath will also speed up. You might also notice that your muscles fill with energy in preparation for action. Observe yourself going through changes in this mind/breath/energy cycle the next time you see a film which plays on your emotions.

The breath is the most outward and, therefore, the easiest of these three linked elements to control. Control your breath and see how quickly it influences your thoughts. This is true in any situation, not just in meditation. A student of these teachings who was in charge of training for the San Francisco Police Department told his rookies that if they wanted to take control of a potentially dangerous confrontation, they had to learn to control themselves first. In order to help them achieve self-control, he taught them to monitor their breathing, to take slow deep breaths. They found it amazingly effective. Try it yourself the next time you are in a tense situation.

Control of the breath and breathing is central to yoga practice. During this course we will learn a number of techniques of breath-control, or pranayama as it is called in Sanskrit. Here are several simple but very effective techniques to help you become relaxed and calm for meditation.

Techniques for Relaxing the Body 

These techniques will help you relax the body. We teach them here as a preparation for meditation, but they can be used any time. They take only a few minutes.

Full Yogic Breath 

This techniques relaxes the spine and helps to increase and harmonize the energy in the body. It also oxygenates the brain.

Stand erect with feet slightly apart and hands at your sides. Concentrate first on standing with proper posture spine straight, chest up, and chin level with the floor the same posture you learned for meditation in the last lesson. Close your eyes and feel that you are centered in your spine. Now, without any strain, bend over as far as is comfortable, exhaling slowly as you do so. By the time the hands have reached the floor you should have exhaled all the air in the lungs. Let the hands rest on your ankles or, if you are flexible enough, touch the floor. Rest in this position for a few moments.

Now begin to inhale and come up gradually until you are fully erect. Bring your hands up slowly as you rise and extend them up over your head. Rise up on your toes as you complete this upward movements. You should inhale slowly during the whole rising motion, filling your lungs completely by the time your arms are above your head. Now, finish the movement by exhaling slowing and once again bringing the hands to the sides. Repeat this movement three to five times, trying to breathe more and more deeply each time. When you finish stand erect for a minute or two with your eyes closed. Feel that your body is completely relaxed and filled with energy.

In order to do the full yogic breath correctly you need to breathe very deeply. Begin the inhalation, as you rise, by breathing with your diaphragm. Then, as you rise farther, inhale more deeply, feeling the sides of your chest and rib cage expanding and filling the middle part of your lungs with air. Finally, as you stretch up, fill the upper part of the lungs. Feed that you are filling not only your lungs, but your whole body with air and vitality.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

It is important to learn how to breathe correctly, and this means diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle between the lungs and the abdominal cavity. As we inhale, it contracts and flattens its curve, creating a vacuum into which the lungs can expand. As this happens the diaphragm pushes the abdominal muscles outward. Watch the stomach of a baby rise and fall as it breathes and you will see this natural process in action. Many adults, however, because of tension, illness, or the desire to have a thin waist, resist this natural movements and have to re-learn it.

Diaphragmatic breathing can, and should, be done in any position, but it is easiest to re-learn when you are most relaxed, lying on the floor. Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, palms upward. Many people find it easier to relax the diaphragm if they bend their knees, placing their feet flat on the floor. Relax completely, especially the stomach and abdomen. Now, breath deeply and slowly, concentrating on the diaphragm, and feeling your stomach rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Relax the abdominal muscles more and more completely, using the diaphragm, and not the stomach muscles, to create the rise and fall of the abdomen.

After several minutes of practice on the floor you can sit in a cross-legged position and continue diaphragmatic breathing. You may find this a little harder at first but you will soon catch on. It helps to close your eyes and concentrate on relaxing the stomach, allowing it to swell outward and relax back inward. Once you know how to breathe correctly you can practice diaphragmatic breathing wherever you are. It may take a couple of weeks to re-train yourself but you will find the results well worth the effort. Be sure to check to see that you are breathing diaphragmatically as you begin your meditations.

Poses to Stretch and Relax the Spine

It is very helpful for both meditation and overall health to increase flexibility in the spine. Here are two simple stretches to accomplish that goal. But first, a couple of cautions: 1) Never push past your comfort level when doing any stretch. Always relax into a pose, never force yourself. 2) Never hold a posture longer than is comfortable. A few seconds to a minute is sufficient to start with.

A wide variety of yoga postures are taught in detail in the next section of this course, The Art and Science of Yoga : 14 step to Higher Awareness, which goes much more deeply into the study of hatha yoga. But for now, here are some very simple stretches to help relax you in preparation for meditation. They will stretch the spine, helping to relax and energize you for meditation.

The Child Pose

It is always good to balance a stretch of the spine in one direction with another stretch in the opposite direction. Here is a very gentle forward stretch Sit on your calves with your legs underneath you. Your right big toe should be over your left big toe. If you feel a strain on your legs you can use a small cushion on top of or under your ankles to relieve the pressure. Now bend forward, exhaling as you do so,until your head touches the floor a few inches in front of your knees. Let your arms rest beside your legs. Hold this position for a few seconds, relaxing completely and breathing normally. Return slowly to an upright position and relax for a minute or so.

Tensing and Relaxing 

This technique was recommended by Paramhansa Yogananda and will help release subconscious tensions. It is especially valuable for meditation and should be used at the beginning of each session. But you can also use it at the beginning of deep relaxation or any time you feel tense. To begin, inhale fully through the nose with a double breath A double breath is a short inhalation followed immediately by a long inhalation huh, hhuuuuhh. When you have inhaled tense the whole body until it vibrates, holding the breath as you do so. Then throw the breath out and relax completely. This exhalation should be with a double breath through both the mouth and the nose. Do this three to six times after you sit to meditate.

Regular Breathing 

This technique will regularize and harmonize the breath, which, in turn, will produce the same result for your mind. Inhale slowly, counting to eight. Hold the breath for the same eight count while concentrating your attention at the point between the eyebrows. Now exhale slowly to the same count of eight. This is one round of regular breathing. Depending upon your capacity, you can go more slowly, counting mentally to 12 or use 16 count. It is essential, however, that the inhalation, holding, and exhalation be of equal length. Generally speaking, slower is better, but do not go so slowly that you get out of breath. That would be counterproductive. As you do this technique feel that you are becoming increasingly relaxed and focused.

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