I was gonna call this “Relax,” but then I thought, Wait, that’s in the imperative voice Meaning it might sound like a command. Not too friendly a way to start; and it’s hard to imagine commanding people to relax, isn’t it?
At least with any possibility of success.
Then I thought “Relaxation,” but on second thought found the word too trochaic, Latinate. Stilted, you might say. (Why don’t you sit in this horrible ugly antiquated torture-rack the Victorians called a chair, and just try to relax.
Then it hit me. The gerund/present participle. Relaxing. A friendly word. I like gerunds, I really do. I don’t hate gerunds the way people say I do. I just take against them in titles. Poetry titles mainly.
Watering the Wine. Parsing the Wind. Like that.
“Relaxing.” A nice name, since the root-meaning of yoga is to yoke, or to join. With “relaxing,” you have both meanings in one word. Taking verbality for energy and nounnity for particle, the word is sorta quantum, huh?
It’s a fact that relaxation is just as important as effort. That without relaxation, whatever living thing it is will eventually break down. Exhaustion to failure, but not in a good way. I’m not trying to promote a cliché, but hurry-up-please-it’s-time is the kind of time most of us think of as time. We talk a good game of relaxing but we seem to specialize in lives that preferentially reward the continually-wired. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, that kind of pseudo-bravado. Yeah, and with that approach you’re gonna be dead a lot sooner.
I think of Neko, our two-year-old Belgian Malanois. Lean and alert and possessed of boundless energy. When it’s time to play You-throw-the-ball-and-I charge-away-to-catch it, an elegance of absolute ferocity.
Speed to burn, and she burns it.
Over and over, till her dripping tongue hangs low. Then she collapses into perfect stillness. She can be asleep in five minutes.
It’s a fact that in order to get greatest power from a given muscle, it is necessary to relax the muscle completely. The same principle applies to brainpower, desire, cleanliness, even love. Why wouldn’t it?
Well, maybe certain special forces types can. But I’m inclined to think that sort of thing more nearly a matter of severe compartmentalization.
Relaxing takes concentration. It isn’t the same thing as just not making an effort any more. That may seem paradoxical, but if you do enough yoga, you’ll realize how much sense the principal makes.
There’s something called “the red light” reflex that nearly everyone in this country suffers from. It’s an unwitting muscular tension, the tension of somebody under threat. Some people see threats everywhere, and so they stay tense all the time. No wonder it wears them out and keeps them angry and confused.
“The red light reflex” is that sort of hunched-forward, cramped, ready-to-run posture most of us spend most of our time in. The fight-or-flight syndrome, except we stay hunched in the pose all of the time. Maybe you do it and don’t even recognize it as tension, because it’s always there.
Here’s what happens in “the red light reflex.” All the musculature across the front of your body is tense. As a result, you hunch forward, and your breathing is cramped. The last thing you need is restricted breathing, especially if you’re in a situation that requires drastic action. We celebrate the cult of “the warrior” nowadays without having any damned idea what it’s about. A true warrior has learned to relax even in the face of death. He or she will not be flinching, cramping his or her breathing, panting with fear.
A great many asanas have to do with relaxing “the red light reflex.” Chest-openers, for example. The Bow. The Grasshopper. Any number of others. What they all have in common is that they work the opposite way from the way we crouch and cramp our breathing still. Think of it as curving the spine under tension (this is good tension) in a concave way backward (or convex way forward). You assume the position and hold it for a while.
For a lot of people this is a powerful strain. But actually the point is to relax the forward muscles—belly, chest, and quads. You tense the back muscles in order to relax the front ones. If you aren’t exploring how to relax your forward muscles, you aren’t doing half of the pose. It isn’t all strain. It’s ought to be about release. In yoga, every tension ought to have a balancing relaxation. That’s where the paradoxical statement above comes from.
Yoga is about gaining mental control of bodily systems, not being driven by the situation or the stress into postures that seem necessary at the time but really do not help. In other words, you can learn to recognize, consciously, the way individual relaxed muscles and ligaments feel. When you learn to recognize how they feel, you’re on the way to deliberately and consciously relaxing.
It isn’t. We stay tight and cramped, hardly able to take a deep breath, all the time nowadays. The problem is not that we should never tense a muscle. The problem is that we usually keep the wrong ones tensed all the time, and so they lose flexibility and power.
Look at the people around you. How many do you see with shoulders hunched to the point of causing an actual hump where the head and neck join the shoulders, the head thrust forward on the hump, what I have come to think of as “the old man’s posture.” But not even old men have to be that way. Of course the human spine naturally assumes an S-shape, but not that much of one.
We’re watching “True Detective,” HBO’s new series, on video. (Not much action, lots of Serious Philosophical Dialogue. Good dialogue, though. ) The Matthew McConaughey character has exactly that slumped posture, the exaggerated forward thrust of the head, the slumped shoulders and caved-in chest. I don’t know whether he’s doing it for the character or is naturally that way, but I can tell you this. He’s healthy and well-built, but if the actor himself stays that way all the time, he will become a warped and misshapen old man.
Actually, much yoga asanas pit one set of muscles against another set, with the intention of relaxing the muscles we do not need to tense. Even Virabudra I and II depend, not merely on gravity, but on that tension and relaxation. In deep Virabudra (either one), one think you are doing is making the hip and core muscles assume their part of the burden.
There are two ways that yoga can further relaxation. 1) It pits opposing muscles against each other, and as you’re learning to tense the one set, you should be more easily able to relax the opposing set. 2) Sometimes yoga relaxes muscles by working them to exhaustion (the good kind), so that they can’t help relaxing. Both sorts of relaxing occur in the Virabudra poses.
Short version of this column: We go around tensing the wrong muscles all the time, and keeping them tense. Yoga is a way to learn to relax.
Among other things.