A characteristic of yoga exercises is relaxation. During the performance of an asana, muscles not utilized remain relaxed. After each asana, complete relaxation (shavasana) is practiced, and thorough relaxation in the form of yoga nidra concludes the series of asanas. During the practice of pranayama and meditation, again muscular relaxation occurs. If carried out a sufficient number of times, a practice becomes one's second nature. In the same way students of yoga find relaxation becoming part of daily life.
Medical science also has its relaxation techniques. Psychiatrists utilize methods of treatment which, one way or another, lead to some form of relaxation, whether mental or physical. One example is Luthe's autogenic neutralization in which the relaxed patient gradually becomes able to passively accept and express his thoughts. Another is Wolpe's systematic desensitization method which includes relaxation combined with visualization of the subject or situation which produces fear within the patient. This thought or picture develops and becomes more exact and vivid as treatment progresses, eventually leading the patient to an understanding of the fear itself. For example, a boy afraid of schooling might visualize his school building to begin with. Then mentally he might stand in front of the school. After which he could imagine himself walking into the classroom and so forth. Once relaxation is achieved, the mind becomes free to express itself.
Physical disease is also alleviated through relaxation. Doctors have successfully used yogic relaxation techniques to treat high blood pressure. Relaxation decreases tension in the hypothalamus, from which autonomic functions such as blood pressure are controlled. Schultz's autogenic training, utilized for the rehabilitation of myocardial infarction (heart attack) patients, is an adaptation of yogic techniques. Stress causes heart attack, and relaxation is the absence of stress. If the patient leaves the hospital and goes back to previous stressful ways, heart attack might recur. Therefore, relaxation is given to him as the basis of his rehabilitation program. The healing potential of relaxation is limitless.
Physically, relaxation is measured by the degree of muscular tension. When muscle tension decreases, the nerve inputs into the nervous system become less. Information regarding muscle tone reaches the brain in two ways. The first way is a direct relay of data concerning muscle tension. This relay is necessary for the regulation of muscle tone and goes on unconsciously. In the same way, this information regarding muscle tone is integrated into conscious awareness via the reticular activating system in the brainstem at the top of the spinal cord, the system responsible for awareness. It influences alertness, vigilance and conscious perception through stimulating various parts of the brain. Input related to muscular tension is brought into the field of perception and one becomes aware of the degree of tension in the muscles. The first process is going on day and night. If a person sleeps, muscle tone is still being adjusted by the brain, but awareness of muscle tension, as in the second process, is absent because the reticular activating system blocks conscious perception during sleep.
The effect of yogic relaxation in the treatment of high blood pressure was interpreted as decreasing excessive stimulation of the hypothalamus from which autonomous functions of the autonomic nervous system and endocrine system are controlled. Yogis have long declared that the practice of relaxation conserves pranic energy. Biochemically, the invigorating effects of relaxation result from a lowered muscle consumption of adenosine-triphosphate (ATP). The ATP molecule provides energy for biochemical reactions throughout the body. ATP is connected to the pranic energy which permeates and activates all life processes.
The organism reacts uniformly to stress. A mouse, upon seeing a cat, will increase its muscle tension. Its heart activity and respiration will become faster and forceful. Energy resources are activated, various hormones are released into the bloodstream, so that within a short time, the mouse is prepared for intensive body activity. (This complex is called 'fright-fight-flight' reaction.) The body of a man under stress in a social environment reacts in a similar fashion. For example, if one becomes angry in the company of someone worthy of respect, the body will go through all the biochemical functions to prepare itself for fighting, if need be. However, in this particular situation, fighting is out of the question. That reaction for which the body is prepared never takes place due to social restraint. These biochemical and nervous stress reactions are frequently activated in unresolved emotional situations during daily life. Even though all the physiological mechanisms associated with, these emotions are primed for activity, bodily activity does not occur because of social conditioning. If this sort of unresolved emotional situation was a rare event no damage, mental or physical, would accrue. However, such situations characterize the daily life of modern man. With each of these unfulfilled encounters, the body's physiological mechanisms are activated, pumping hormones and nervous energy into tissues and organs, over stressing the body systems. It is not surprising that disease usually eventuates.
Some form of anti-stress is urgently needed for modern man. Chemical tension suppressors are not the answer. Drugs, if relied upon regularly, can create a dependence within the user; also, some chemical relaxants have harmful side effects. Relaxation appears more and more to be the answer to this problem. The physiological changes during relaxation are just the opposite to stress reactions. A comparison between stress and relaxation measured by EEG shows that muscle tone, blood pressure, cardiac rate, sweating, and hormonal secretion increased during stress, recording beta (fast) rhythm and decreased during relaxation, recording alpha (slower) rhythm.
Every man has the innate ability to relax himself; he only has to be shown how to utilize it. Relaxation is both muscular and mental. Due to the link between body and mind, muscular physical relaxation implies that mental relaxation also occurs. Mental relaxation involves liberating the mind to express itself with a more controlled freedom. Whatever aspect of yoga one practices, relaxation is the charging force behind it.
Relaxation is such a simple common sense way to joyful, healthy living. The general public should become aware of it. Yogic relaxation is a concentrated form of rest. It has immediate effects upon one's vitality and production during the working day. Some people I have met have the ability to stay relaxed throughout the day. For example, one of my university teachers appeared to be carefree and loose to the point of laziness. It surprised me to learn from a doctor collaborating closely with him, that he was actually a highly productive, active man. Today I realize that this man was unconsciously relaxed.
Relaxation is not only for the chosen few. Any person can re-learn it. During the course of education man learns many things which he never uses. Why then should he not learn relaxation; something useful for living?