Have you ever wondered what to prioritize when you are doing a yoga pose? What is the most important thing to focus on when doing Triangle? Or Downward Dog? Or Savasana? Ask 15 different yoga teachers from different yoga lineages and you will likely get 15 different answers. Is alignment the most important? Is it the breath? Awareness? Eye gaze? What is it?

I have wrestled with this question myself and have attempted to deconstruct hundreds of poses to figure out what is most important … but after 29 years of practice (yep, I’ve been practicing since I was a kid!) there is one element that I come back to again and again — and it might surprise you!

Index fingers and thumbs touch in Jnana Mudra. Feel your pulse in the fingertips.

Relaxation is the doorway

The backbone of every pose is not your vertebrae, but rather what lies inside of them: your nervous system. Your brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves are gateways of input and output for our bodies. Their ability to relay messages to and from our tissues is critical for being able to perform a pose (or any movement whatsoever). But if your mind is caught up in a bind, stressing out about how to do a pose or “getting it right,” you add tension to your whole system.

What I am suggesting here is that we need to consciously dampen our stress response in order to create a better environment for the full spectrum of sensing into our tissues and our movements. In other words, we must imbue our mind with relaxation as a prelude to posing. The yogis call this Unmani Mudra, or “no-thought mind.”

Line the mind with meditation

It is fairly easy to flip the ON switch in the body, as most of our brain is actually dedicated to helping the body be aroused and alert. But how do you flip  your OFF switch? Much less of our brain-space is dedicated to chilling out and it becomes even more challenging when we ask ourselves to let go but are unsure whether or not we’re still holding on.

When a body deeply relaxes, it temporarily loses muscle tone (as soon as you start using your body again, the muscles spring back into action), breathing slows down, heart rate slows, body temperature drops and the mind begins to experience space between thoughts. This “space between thoughts” is exactly the entry point the yogis were seeking in coining the term Unmani Mudra.

The challenge when doing poses is to rid yourself of both physical and mental tensions so that you can enter and exit poses with such deep relaxation and concentration that the body and mind experience each pose in its totality. In other words, the mind becomes quiet enough that it can “listen” to all of the nuances of motion, position and sensation that the pose exposes to the nervous system.

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[Reprinted with permission from Gaiam Life.]

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