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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Stephanie F. Osmena

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT MY YOGA INSTRUCTOR IS THAT SHE ALWAYS REMINDES US TO BREATH AND WHEN I BREATH, MY IND QUIETS, WHICH HELS ME EASE INTO MY PRACTICE IN AN EFFORTLESS MANNER. MY TEACHER CALLS THIS PRACTICE OF YOGA: EFFORTLESS EFFORT! THANK YOU FOR SHARING!

Sunina Young

Great point, great article! Actually struggled with this at Vinyasa on Thursday night because I could ‘turn off’ my thoughts, therefore was somewhat struggling in binds. Although something miraculous happened by the end of the class during mediation– I was able to be completely still in mind and easily FLOW into meditation with a tall spine and renewed spirit.

Kevyn McAnlis

OH this is one of my most agonizing concerns with my students. I see so many of them hunched up and straining in a pose to try and get as deep as the yogi next to them. And the I go to try to adjust them and they’re like a rock, stiff as can be from all the stress of trying to ‘get it right’! It’s so hard to convey the approach of relax and let the pose fit into you instead of trying to look like the yogi next to you. Less thinking more relaxing!

Lisa Harris

This is exactly why I ask students to assume the shape of a pose, then pause – breathe and soften before proceeding! Yoga shouldn’t be stressful!

Kristine Tom

Especially in working with my private clients I see this barrier to relaxation quite a bit. Since this demographic either may not be able to clear their schedules sufficiently to get to a studio/class, or they prefer the one on one attention, I often find that the obstacle to getting the most they can from a session depends on how active or overactive their minds are. But really there is no specific text, instruction or methodology for bringing ease to the mind but practice, practice, practice on and off the mat. The mat is often where our awareness of our… Read more »

Kevin Nguyen

I was obsessed with Alignment from studying with many algnment based teachers. However, as my practice grew, the commponet that was missing is the mind body connection for each pose. I used to think that doing 20 handstands will get me stronger and improve my practice. Now, even just one good one and I take my time feeling through the web of my body and noticing the effect of the pose when I come out of it is what I do now. However, I do feel that learning to practice correctly so that you don’t damage your body is the… Read more »

Heather

I really appreciate this idea and think that it is one (of many!) that applies to so much outside of Yoga. I’m wondering if there is a trick to maintain the “no thought mind”, at least in part, after the muscles have bee fired up into a dynamic pose. Sometimes after relaxation I get a student into a pose and they are excited to fully explore it and then they come out of it in a way that seems too quick. Any pointers on how to maintain the calm?

Elissar Hanna

Thanks. I love this: “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.” I love to think of poses as exposing information to the nervous system. You know, when I consider your words about relaxation, I think of being in a “receptive” mental stance in a posture. I think of awakening the senses so that they may experience the teachings of the posture. So, I relax my listening, my seeing, my feeling, my smelling, my tasting….so that internally (and… Read more »

Genevieve

Thank you Jill for this post. I am presently doing my YTU Level 1 with Todd and Amanda, and not coming from a yoga background, I often feel myself “over thinking” the pose or the variation. Today, after learning more about pranayama, I felt more body awareness, and was better able to proprioceive and self-correct rather than panic! It’s not so much that my yogic abilities have suddenly improved, but I am more at ease with where I am in the process.

Celeste L.

As a ‘doer’ a overly-active (by necessity often) being a professional contemporary dancer, supporting this career with teaching all over, I moved to yoga after burning out, in order to rest. Shortly after, I changed the spokes on the wheels altogether by becoming a yoga teacher, which I found, for my personality type was less than chill. After five years of really going for it to try to establish yourself amidst the many yoga teachers, It is only now I am able to settle into a more easeful teaching practice. Only now that I am ready to really offer this… Read more »

Tomoko

I really enjoyed reading this post! very simple yet still difficult to do during practice, especially a challenging poses……suddenly my stitch goes “ON”!
I will keep in mind your messege and try to stay “no- thought mind” stage at the next practice and hopefully find the difference from the usual practice.

Jane

I have struggled with this question a lot too. Interesting to hear your answer. It brings us back to being mindful in all we do, and to maybe stop striving to get somewhere in such a rush. Being in the moment with every pose can prevent many injuries and teach us so much if we could just relax and listen!

Jenna

Love this. So simple and so profound. Definitely been a few times in my practice where I’ve struggled to find what was most important in my asana practice… I love that it’s just to be still in my mind and calm in my body.

Frances Rothenberg

Thank you Jill, for so concisely “cutting to the chase”. You have beautifully described where yoga differs from other forms of exercise: yoga is a “work-in” vs. and “work-out”. I think that when students experience Unmani Mudra in their yoga practice, it is this experience that brings them back to yoga again and again.

Elise Gibney

What a lovely post! I wish that I’d had access to this wisdom years ago. So much strain and striving… leading to so much unnecessary tension over the years! Lately, I’ve been practicing cultivation of relaxation and ease as part of my practice now and it’s made a tremendous difference. It’s a practice and it is ongoing. I’ve been using a sankapla to this end, which has been transformative. Thank you!

Cynthia Bunt-Gardner

So simple and yet so difficult. We all strive to create healthier bodies through our yoga practices and yet without knowing our desire can create more of a block if we are not aware of the need to let the body do what it does naturally. I love that you are able to explain how the firing up of the sympathetic system jams up the bodies ability to relay nervous system messages. I will definitely use this explanation to help my students understand the importance of “relaxation is the doorway” and I will add keep the door open.

Jenny Buchanan

Unmani Mudra, or “space between thoughts,” comes naturally to me only after 27 yearsdedicated to yoga and learning meditation. I say learning meditation because for me, it was the most difficult thing to do. Moving came naturally, but sitting, allowing stillness in the body and mind – ohmygod – I still recall how 5 minutes of stillness was excruciating to me. then 15 years later when I practiced a 10 day silent retreat was more difficult for me than hours of child labor followed by an emergency c section. This is one reason why I was drawn to arduous physical… Read more »

Jenny Buchanan

In reply, my CONUNDRUM as an instructor: how, other than loving kindness, patience, humor, and by example, do we lure those who need it most into this place of Unmani Mudra, or “space between thoughts?” The first time I tried to sit still for a 5 minute meditation I found it excruciating. 15 years later when I sallied forth for a 10 day silent vipassana meditation retreat, not only did it cause an enormous fight with my boyfriend who told me in no uncertain terms that a meditation retreat was the last thing he would ever want to do; my… Read more »

Stephanie Fish

Day 2 of Level 1 training and I imagine this attitude of relaxation and listening is also important in teaching YTU. I wonder what would be your “most important part of teaching YTU.”

Frances Rothenberg

Thanks Jill for reminding us to place importance on receptivity and softness throughout our asana practice. I think that cultivating the breath (and reminding our students to so) activates the parasympathetic nervous system and we are more likely to melt more deeply into our poses both on and off the mat.

Aida

I notice that just the mention of certain poses can make a student tense and worried about their “performance”. And isn’t that the way most of us live our lives – worrying about how well we are going to do at that client meeting or other function – bodies tense, breath shallow, etc. I love how you say “the backbone of each pose is not the vertebrae but what lies inside them, the nervous system”. I also love that along with relaxation comes a greater ability for profound concentration! Teaching these concepts on the mat increases the likelihood of practicing… Read more »

Lisa S

Oh to teach this approach in the western world – what a challenge! But the benefits would be so great! This approach is the difference between a standard exercise regime and a yoga practice. However many, many students here in the western part of the world come to yoga for the “exercise”. That’s okay, of course, that’s why I started doing yoga, but if we can emphasis Unmani Mudra in our teachings I think students will ultimately be happier and healthier, less injuries more self-awareness – all shorts of good stuff. Thank-you Jill, this did surprise me at first, but… Read more »

Oksana

Unmani Mudra is the most important aspect to teach to the students before the strain of the physical practice begins. I teach evening classes full of students that were in a tense positions all day, sitting in cars or at their desks. Before we start moving I always offer a relaxation technique to help them to arrive at the place of being able to let go of tension. Make the space in the mind and the body will follow 😉

Lori Wieder

I really like this, reminds me of the importance of stirah – sukka, banacing ease within effort. As you explained, it needs to happen mentally as well as physically!

Jonee Austin

I love this post! I find in yoga poses sometimes my mind is focused on the mechanics of the pose and sometimes I can enter the ‘zone’ of the pose – that mental space where I can achieve a deep state of relaxation along with physical alertness. I find that there are some teachers whose teaching brings me into that perfect space of mental and physical alignment and this post describes that concept perfectly.

Morenike Allen-Romain

In my practice I am learning the importance of mental stillness, yet it seems to be the most challenging of all. With every breath I manage to find stillness however within each moment of stillness I find even more mind distraction. Yoga, the endless journey.

Laura

Love this post!! I think the biggest struggle I have during yoga is learning how to let go of the day I’ve experienced. Typically if I can focus on my breath, I slowly feel the stress fade from my body.

Danielle

Excellent point and so true. I am always amazed that if I become aware of my decision to ‘stop breathing” or my mind wandering how simple it is to start breathing or clear my mind and then safely and more comfortably move deeper into my pose. Now only if I could start there….Cant wait to read part 2!

Chloe

Absolutely! I often forget this and get caught up in monkey mind in my practice. I always know when this has happened because when I’m done with my practice I don’t feel nearly as fulfilled. Finding the place of rest in any pose is where the benefits are truly realized. I find that the more I can relax the more I can relax, the more I’m distracted and tense, the more I’m distracted and tense.

Amy

I thouroughly enjoyed reading “why” relaxation is the means to improving your practice – I have heard the statement from teachers before but without the “why” it can bypass most students..Also, what a great attribute to have as a teacher – to be able to “create an envirnoment where adapation can occur” – one that facilitates enough relaxation to allow the individual’s practice to evolve without additional restriction! Thanks Jill!

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Keith K

I agree and see relaxation as being the ‘doorway’ to awareness. We can slowly bring more of our proprioception into consciousness and this opens another doorway into sensing how our body is involved in our emotions, thinking and even beliefs.

I really appreciate your way of presenting yoga.

silvia marisol

Yeah, thanks Jill for this blog! This is what YOGA has been for me since I began to practice 15 years ago! I’ve always practiced SLOWLY. Even though I completed Transcendental Meditation training; Yoga remains my main form of meditation. I quickly dive into unmani mudra when alone, with my own personal practice and can go as S…L…O…W as I want! There is a lot to be said for moving SLOWLY and MINDFULLY in this fast-paced world.

Helen McAvoy

Thank you Jill! I am new somewhat to yoga and to Yoga Tuneup..

I have taken yoga classes intermittently over the years and always was nervous as to making sure I could do the pose and breath and focus…etc. My approach was more physical than mental. Voila! You have given me a great article to let go of the all of that and be in the moment, and relax and enjoy the journey. Thank you!!

Murray Arnott

Thanks Jill. It is not hard to recognize the propensity for students to want to ‘jump into the pose’. Mention ‘warrior’ or ‘triangle’ and before you know it everyone is already in the pose. Right at the outset of the class, I try to remind students to take at least two or three breaths to move into the pose, or simply to move from lying to sitting or to standing. Repeating their sankalpa, also seems to help students relax and focus before moving into a pose. A specific example might be warrior, where I find hip flexion is often severely… Read more »

Linda Abt

Relaxation is the doorway – such a simple yet powerful statement. I totally agree that moving the mind to a more meditative state while on the mat allows the yogi to stay in the moment and in the body to fully experience the practice. For me, a practice filled with pranayama, longer holds and fluid flows allows me to fully feel and experience each posture and transition. It also assists me in letting go of my ego and suspending the constant self-critical chatter. As a teacher, creating an environment and practice that facilitates relaxation for my students is a priority.

Noreen Bluemling

Thank you Jill for confirming the path I have been on. I have been lucky to study with teachers where both pranayama and cultivating a Witness mind are essential to the practice. As a new teacher I have opted for now to stick to teaching Beginner and Gentle classes as I continue to learn safe and effective practices. I often begin class with a body scan, breath meditation and or breathing practice to help quiet the mind. Throughout the class I remind students to return to the breath , to experience the sensations in their body, and to breathe into… Read more »

I Ju

I started doing yoga in 2009. I went to my yoga studio everyday during the first three months. I felt I was improving fast, my body was healthier and my mind was clearer. I felt that yoga is not that difficult as I thought as long as I put work into it. 3 months past, I faced an important decision that I have to made for my life at that time, I no longer had the serenity and peace of mind. I was “thinking” a lot during my yoga practice. Everyday after the class my body was tired and mind… Read more »

Emily Sonnenberg

Beautifully put! I don’t doubt for a second that 99.9% of yoga injuries occur because of people having super turned-on minds and no longer connect to what they are experiencing in the pose. The whole time I read this blog I was thinking “oh this is Sattva” If we all just found Sattva during our practice we would reap even more benefits from it.

Claire Miller Murphy

Agreed, and after over 30 years of various and extensive movement training, I have learned that the harder I “tried”, the more I “judged”- the less effective I was. The giving in, letting go of ego and finding the ease of movement is the key. Allowing the movement, no matter how small or big, without judgement- is of utmost importance. I am reminded of one of my biggest lessons, which perhaps should be a frequent meditation – “Get out of your own way”.

vivian nguyen

The yoga sutras state that while doing an Asana one must come to a place where there is total ease and firmness. I try to remind my students that you can’t “muscle” your way through a pose, (well you can but it may not be the safest way, and it will most likely cause injury), there needs to be a balance of strength, flexibility and breath. I’ve experienced this in my own practice, I’ve had most of my breakthroughs when i stopped caring, or just got out of my head. It helps to set the tone with a mini meditation… Read more »

Fariba

As a hypnotherapist and yoga teacher, I learned that relaxing the body and quietting the mind helps us to access our subconscious mind. In other words, relaxation is the key to unlock the inner power. As you said, ” relaxation is the doorway” . Thanks for confirmation!

Terry Littlefield

So true. 15 teachers. 15 different answers. I really enjoyed this blog. It made so much sense. The spine talks to the brain the brain talks to the arm, the arm goes into felxion and extension and so on and so on and so on. No wonder it’s a stressed out world. If we quiet the mind chatter or connect with this unmani mudra, we will start to de stress the mind to make space for these other physical motions to begin. We can always count on action in our mental and physical self. It’s almost an epidemic. The more… Read more »

Priscilla Ch.

Thanks Jill, this is something we can not forgive, we have to keep it in our mind all the time before and after our yoga practices. It’s very important to know the importance of our relaxations, in other to follow our asanas in a better way with a better breathing and posture. I think it’s really important to be focus on our breathing so will give as a good balance as well in every posture we make. Yoga means union; it’s connected to everything in us, breath, balance, mind and body, s in order to follow all this in the… Read more »

Kate Hall

Thank you for this post. This will sound very simplistic to many I am sure, but I find that if I enjoy the poses, and I mean truly embrace and experience the full joy of being in a pose that it triggers a relaxation and ease within the pose. I stop struggling and enjoy. Perhaps this is a form of “no-thought mind’?

Lindsey Valdez

Thank you, this is a great reminder and lesson in the importance of relaxation of the nervous system when practicing the asanas. I can 100% relate to the students you all are describing who seem to rush and struggle through the poses because I used to be that student, and sometimes still am! Often times my athletic and competitive nature switches “on” to push through the poses which causes me to loose my focus on the meditation, the Unmani Mudra as you named it, and therefore I miss out on the most important part- the beautiful, beneficial, nuturing and calming… Read more »

Tamara

Thanks Jill for a great explanation oh the physical benefits of relaxation on the body. Yoga is so special and unique in its ability to effect and regulate the central nervous system unlike any other form of exercise can.

Alexa

Jill, thanks so much! For too many years I was apt to rush through the more meditative parts of my yoga practice (or tap a mental foot while waiting for tadasana or savasana to end), because making my muscles work seemed to be the “purpose” of practice. Your classes and YTU teachings highlight how trying to practice yoga without relaxation is like clapping with one hand.

Nitika

Jill this is great! I knew relaxation was important, but the reasons you give below make so much sense. I think it is great to explain how the nervous system can really help with mental/physical tension that may be caused while doing yoga asana practice or even day-to-day tasks. Even just bringing slight awareness to what might cause tension might help us all start trying to figure out more and more on a subtle level what also brings us tension. Is it jealousy, competition, lack of confidence, etc. Thanks again!

Heather C

Thanks Jill for this post! I couldn’t agree more. Helping students become aware of their nervous system and finding ways to help students find the ease with in the pose is a challenge. I hear myself say let go, find ease, release any struggle in the pose, come back to your breath etc. to help others gain an awareness to the inside, the nervous system. Often times it seems some people are so disconnected they don’t know how to self-regulate. It is interesting to observe with some students the struggle they create and at times a total disconnect to their… Read more »