How Yoga Helps Us Relax (And Why We Need To)
Authored by: Annie Martens, Teacher at RiNo Yoga Social and Owner of Cosmic Kundalini
Whether you’re new to yoga or not, you’re probably familiar with that blissful state of peace after a deep practice. Why is that? And how is it that we often lose that relaxed feeling within hours, or for some, even minutes? Read on to discover what it is about yoga that actually makes us so relaxed, and why it is terribly important to be relaxed.
Part of the basic truth of why we feel so darned relaxed after yoga practice is that the space and time it sets up for us allows us the freedom to rest. In a society heavily dominated by the need to “get more done,” work harder, make more money, get more followers, subscribers, clients, whatever — there is rarely a moment to rest just for the sake of relaxation. Rather, we reward ourselves with time to rest only after we accomplish said tasks. Haven’t you ever said something like, “if I can just get the last two things on my to-do-list done, then I can relax!” Oddly, in the name of relaxation, our life becomes about doing more. (1) In a yoga or meditation practice, the mind is stimulated in a way where it is allowed and advised to focus on only one thing — the breath or bodily sensations — and suddenly all of that other mind-stuff gets to sit on the back burner.
When that happens, the brain changes. We can look at sleep as an example, because sleep is perhaps the most relaxed state you ever enter on a regular basis. During the deeper states of sleep, the brain enters what is called the Theta (deep) or Delta (deepest) brainwave state. In these states, the brainwaves rest somewhere in between 7 and 0.5 cycles per minute. That is extremely slow compared to the cycles in normal waking life, the state you are likely in right now, where Beta brainwaves can reach 100 cycles per minute. Unlike Beta, the slower states allow the body a chance to restore. It releases human growth hormones that maintain healthy metabolism and reduces cortisol levels, a stress-inducing chemical that accelerates the aging process. (Stay away!)
Can you imagine what it would be like if we didn’t enter these slow, deep brainwaves states that occur during sleep?! Life would be so stressful, we’d be tired all the time, and don’t even get me started on insomnia. We absolutely need to enter these slower brainwave states that are vital to our ability to relax, heal, rejuvenate, and some even say to experience empathy and compassion. (1)
But what about when we are not asleep? In a meditative yoga practice like yoga nidra, seated meditation, or a very mindful asana sequence, the brainwaves can slow down enough to reach Alpha, (8-12 cycles), or perhaps even Theta (4-7 cycles), allowing the body to restore in similar ways that it does in sleep. And ta-da! You leave feeling AH-MAZING! You just gave your whole body a beautiful gift, the chance to do what it is designed to do — to take care of itself, something it certainly cannot do when it is put under stress or is sleep deprived.
And the scary thing is, the less time we spend in a relaxed state, the harder it is for us to enter it. This relates to what we call in yoga philosophy samskaras — or deeply engrained habit patterns. Unhelpful samskaras (tendencies) are difficult to dissolve, but it can be done. The good news is, helpful samskaras become just as engrained, and once part of your regular lifestyle, they are easy to maintain. For example, the more time you spend meditating, the easier it is to do again. The more time you spend in a relaxed state, the easier it is to maintain even in a stressful situation. It is possible to stay calm and at ease in a high-energy, fast paced world. All it takes is practice and the ability to recognize just how important it is for your health.
Yoga is not just about flexibility or having a fit body, it is about your ability to experience the external world with a calm, relaxed internal state of mind. The more we engage in yoga practices that slow down the brainwaves, the more easily we are able to enter a deeply relaxed state of mind at any time! Not just in a yoga-setting… So, do you want to live a healthy and happy life? Then you better relax, my yogi loves.
1. Desai, Kamini. Yoga Nidra: The Art of Transformational Sleep. Lotus Press, 2017.