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.]

Jill Miller

Jill Miller, C-IAYT, ERYT is the co-founder of Tune Up Fitness Worldwide and creator of the self-care fitness formats Yoga Tune Up® and The Roll Model® Method. With more than 30 years of study in anatomy and movement, she is a pioneer in forging relevant links between the worlds of fitness, yoga, massage, athletics and pain management. She is known as the Teacher’s Teacher and has trained thousands of movement educators, clinicians, and manual therapists to incorporate her paradigm shifting self-care fitness programming into athletic and medical facility programs internationally. She has crafted original programs for 24 Hour Fitness, Equinox, YogaWorks, and numerous professional sports teams. She and her team of 500+ trainers help you to live better in your body with an emphasis on proprioception, mobility, breath mechanics and recovery. She has presented case studies at the Fascia Research Congress and International Association of Yoga Therapy conferences. She has the rare ability to translate complex physiological and biomechanical information into accessible, relevant moves that help her students transform pain, dysfunction and injury into robust fitness. Jill is the anatomy columnist for Yoga Journal Magazine and has been featured in Shape, Men’s Journal, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Health, Yoga Journal, Self, and on the Today Show and Good Morning America. Jill is regularly featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network. She is the creator of dozens of DVD’s including Treat While You Train with Kelly Starrett DPT and is the author of the internationally bestselling book The Roll Model: A Step by Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility and Live Better in your Body. Based in Los Angeles, CA, she is a wife and mother of two small children and is currently writing her second book.

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Sara Wang

I’ve always thought “alignment” is the most important part of a yoga pose. This gives me another valuable perspective about yoga practice.

Cynthia

I love the idea of “space between thoughts” – it’s difficult to hard to find in yoga and really challenging to practice it in daily life. thanks for the reminder!!

Dawn Williams

Thank you for this article. I always like to begin my classes, or my own personal practice, with a quiet time, focusing on breath. This is especially important when it’s a large class with lots of high energy in the room as people arrive and set up their space to practice. An opening prayer, a pranayama practice, closed eyes, all bring us “into” ourselves so we may receive the class from the no-thought mind.

Milidi

I once read in yoga book “what makes these poses sacred is how we inhabit them” that really spoke to me. I do yoga to be closer to me, the me beneath the thinking mind and I can not do this with tension. “Relaxation is the doorway” is so true when I drop into gravity and the breath, I am able to find lightness in my body and find meditation in movement and a still mind and receptive body.

Jeanne

I like the idea of slowing down the mind and finding the space between thoughts as part of an active practice, but I especially like the focus on the what’s going on with our nervous system. Taking time to sit and quiet the mind before class helps to train our nervous system. I look forward to trying this in my classes. Good blog post!

Maryday

Such a great article! Thank your for this great perspective. I never thought of focusing on our nervous system and relaxing to be able to find the “space between thoughts”. I loved when you made the connection, Where the mind becomes quiet enough that it can listen to sensation, position and motion. Thanks for sharing your immense knowledge Jill! I am learning so much.

Jessica Haims

Thank you for the reminder of needing to tap into the breath to connect and calm the central nervous system. It is amazing with in just seconds who taping into he parasympathetic nervous system sends signals to the brain for the body to relax. When we are in that state of relaxation we can enter and end a pose withe ease and avoid injury.

Eileen Riordan O'Sullivan

This is a very interesting perspective to use regarding Yoga asana practice. All too often we use the asana to get into our body. Changing our emphasis to consciously relax the body, allow the parasympathetic nervous system to become more sensitive & tune in to the nuances of each & every detail of movement & really make a mind body connection.

Elaine Cheong

Sometimes the obvious and most simple thing is also the hardest thing to do. I remember attending my first yoga class and listening to the teacher talk about turning my attention inward and slowing my breath down when all I wanted to do was get on my mat and do the physical part of the asana. It is only in recent years that I have understood the idea of my mind and body being on the same team and learning to relax in a pose. There is still a lot of learning to be done though. Thank you, Jill for… Read more »

Aubrey Heinemann

Less is more. Less thought, less trying, and more being. I love that your answer to this question is relaxation. So many students want to do it right and they get all caught up in what they should be feeling and what they should look like in a certain position. Being in the YTU Level I training currently I find myself getting caught up in technique and then we are cued back into our breath and I can find myself back into my body with more ease. Thank you for your teachings and making breath just as important as the… Read more »

Garrett Plumley

Jill, I’m so curious how you came to make proprioception one of the main focuses of your practice? I absolutely love how explicit you are in training people to tune into this sense!

Liz Lor

I have found that walking my mind through my body is an easy way to flip the “off” switch. Taking my thoughts to all of my body parts and not trying to manipulate them in any way just making myself aware of my body lulls me in to a meditative state. When I’m in a yoga post, it’s a little more difficult but I try to start from the bottom up and organize my body into the pose.

Jessica Greenfield

This post was a great reminder about the importance of relaxation and meditation during the asana practice. When I first started practicing yoga my mind was filled with so much chatter and self-criticism, and it took me a while (and a conscious effort) to learn to focus on my breathing and quiet the intrusive thoughts that were constantly running through my head. Now that I am participating in teacher training, I find myself faced with this challenge again–there’s so much new information that I’m trying to incorporate in my practice, and I’m also dealing with a resurgence of feeling not… Read more »

Gina Decker

This is so true and a very hard concept to teach. It took me many years to turn the chatter off in the mind . I understand the mind/body connection now and it is wonderful to be in a class as a student and be relaxed in the asanas. Yoga is so much about listening to the body and not allowing the mind to take over. The mind and the body need to work in unison to avoid injury and to not cause more stress to the body. When I see students, pushing, pulling and straining, I have everyone come… Read more »

rie katagiri

I would be sooooo over yoga by now if I never learned that pleasure is the path of least resistance to being embodied. I remember years ago, i actually became allergic to the word vinyasa. If I even thought of doing another one, i just felt my throat to womb contract. Yes, ‘listening’ to this reaction was how I found my truth around where my yoga practice was going next.

Caitlin Vestal

I really appreciate this post for putting the emphasis on the part of practice that so often gets left til the fast few minutes in savasana. Thinking about turning on the OFF switch of the mind (without just checking out) in order to experience the poses more fully is a wonderful way to approach asana. I have found personally that when I’m regularly practicing restorative yoga and using the YTU balls, it’s so much easier to flip the OFF switch and stay in that place no matter what kind of asana practice I’m in. Taking the time to chill out… Read more »

Michele Klink

It seems more important now than ever to learn and practice relaxation. Whether I am doing or trying not to do, I enjoy watching the breath and taking an extended gentle pause in between the breath ex-change. I find hovering my awareness in the space in between the breath is so rich with insight and allows the realization of the Unmani Mudra, the no thought mind.

Linh Taylor

As a yoga teacher, I often find myself encourage students to engage, to strengthen, to flex and sometimes play with their edge, so your idea of “relaxation as a doorway” really made me think hard. Is Gentle the new Power? Is Relaxation the new Engagement? This new idea is so refreshing. The body and mind are so connected in a sub level and we don’t even conscious of how exactly they communicate. Like if someone asked us to kick, we don’t even need to decide which muscles to contract to make the action happen, it just happens. With times, we’re… Read more »

Julie Brown

As a teacher I find that taking sufficiant time to center the class has an effect on the students practice. Downregulating and bringing the breath into equanimity at the onset of class complety enhances the practice. It sets the tone as group and individually, balancing the nervous system and receptivity of my students. The mind, and body both are more open to observing and learning about themselves.

Gary Carlisle

I like to use the example of the switch being turned of and on as a comparison of concealing and revealing.

When the switch is turned off the revelation of the true nature of our Self is revealed.

Sunina Young

Hi Jill, we are now halfway through YTT at Pure and I’ve been contemplating this – specifically for Downward Facing Dog. Your answer of Unmani Mudra brings a lot of light. Through “no thought mind” I believe as long as you know the physiology of the poses in which our teachers have equipped us with our breath and mind will lead us into our pose.

Dana

Love this. I think this is something we develop as we mature in our practice.
If students didn’t have to wait 5, 10, 15 years to discover it, how much more effective would their practice be? Or their lives in general?
Such a hard concept to grasp in a society where achieving, driving, pushing, striving are the model and relaxation is not practiced or often unconscious and sloppy if it is.

Nicolette David

I remember my first year of teaching saying “relax your face” many times to students but I never had any idea that relaxing your face had any other effect than that. I said it because my teacher said it and though generally I got the concept that those constipated//lifting heavy weight/pursed lip-gritted teeth-wrinkly forehead faces were not helping their practice, I knew nothing beyond that–I.e. hello nervous system! YTU training(all of it) has taught me egads of information about the nervous system and how it operates; it’s effects on the body AND our ability to effect it–powerful stuff! I have… Read more »

Holli Rabishaw

I have come to know this in my classes and in my own practice. I find that when I do a series of poses and then just sit seza before beginning again, I notice that each seza sitting session becomes more down regulating and I am more refreshed and available to experience the poses that follow. I feel less tense and more aware after each seating. Instead of refilling, I use that time to empty and extend that emptiness further into the practice. I still struggle with the first minutes of savasana. It seems that moment the teacher is bringing… Read more »

Sujun

As a studio owner faced with the day to day operations and the constant interaction with students it is sometimes difficult to still the mind. But I have learned that when I enter the studio room to teach I can instantly ‘turn the switch’ and teach the class without thinking of what is happening on the other side of the door. Also when I take a class I can ‘still’ myself and using the breath I can totally enjoy and relax my way through the class. “Relaxation is the doorway”! Great article!