How to relax before your yoga practice
There are a few quick ways that you can target the relaxation response in your body so that your poses emerge from a place of deep calm rather than a frenzied effort. Choose one or several of the un-actvities listed below, then proceed into the rest of your yoga practice sedated, yet alert.
1. Extend your exhales. A breathing technique or Pranayama that focuses on lengthening the duration of the exhale so that it is longer than the inhale is a way to sedate and soothe the whole nervous system. This can be done either in a reclined position or as a seated meditation.
a) Place gentle pressure on a pulse point anywhere on your body. This can be as simple as pressing the index finger and thumb together, touching the inside of one wrist, or placing a finger alongside the neck.
b) Observe the throb of the heart at this pulse point.
c) Using your heartbeat as a metronome, inhale for four heartbeats and then exhale for eight.
d) Remain for 3-5 minutes.
2. Veeparita Korani Mudra. Place your heart above your head — a gentle inversion like Veeparita will provide just enough of an inverted slope to alter the brain’s signals from arousal to “drousal.” If this is too much for your legs or back, try the simpler Legs Up the Wall Pose.
a) Lay on your back and place a yoga block at any height that feels stable and comfortable underneath your pelvis.
b) Raise your knees towards the sky, keeping them bent. If this feels like too much effort, keep the feet rooted on the floor.
c) Slowly inhale to swell the belly, then allow it to passively deflate. When your body feels ready for the next inhale, slowly inhale, then passively allow the exhale to exit.
d) Remain for 3-5 minutes.
3) Roll out the restrictions. Self-massage before activity will help to eradicate the tension in hypertonic muscles that are unconsciously contracting and potentially creating pain. Using a self-massage implement like Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls or Gaiam’s Massage balls or a foam roller can help to turn OFF muscles that think they need to be ON. This ushers in global relaxation for the whole body, and it also helps all the layers of your tissues to warm-up and be more efficient for practicing poses.
a) Choose a tight area of your body, such as the upper back, low back or buttocks, and place the balls or roller into positions where you can tolerate the pressure and still breathe deeply. Create small slow gentle movements that help the massage tool roll into, along and around the area of tension. If you cannot breathe, or if you experience deep discomfort, move the tool slightly higher, lower or to the right or left so that you can return to tolerance and relaxation.
These un-activities are effective in as little as three minutes, or can be implemented for up to 10 minutes prior to your yoga practice. If you do them longer, you may become too relaxed, and have a hard time during your more active practice. Any of these sedating techniques can tune down your stress and will deeply enrich your presence during your practice.
Let me know how the rest of your practice goes. And remember to always make relaxation the most important part of your practice. Namaste!
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[Reprinted with permission from Gaiam Life.]
I love the idea of breathwork before and after a yoga practice.
I’d always meditated & practiced conscious relaxation after practice – I will try this tips to bring a better state of consciousness TO my practice – thank you!
Great reminder that we not only need to start our practice with an “empty”, open mind but also with a deeply relaxed body. I knew that but your explanation of the “why” makes so much sense. If we bring our daily stresses and tensions into our physical practice, we are really limiting ourselves.
Great ideas for relaxing the body and mind at the start of a practice. I realize I do some of this already without realizing the entire benefit of preparing the body this way. Adding some ball therapy with the pranayama and a gentle inversion seems like a great way to help break up some stored tension.
Looking forward to trying these “sedating yet alert” techniques in my classes. So important to know down regulation and knowing just the right amount of time before you get too relaxed before an active practice. Thanks for emphasising how relaxation the most important part of your practice. much gratitude.
Thank you for pointing out the benefits of Veeparita Korani Mudra, half shoulderstand. I was trained/taught that this is all you need in a shoulderstand, not an extreme pose with your neck at a sharp angle and arms strapped. I often wonder with shoulderstands getting such a bad rap these days, if we have forgoten the simple inversion of half shoulderstand, the benefits, lightness and freedom it brings.
I was really interested to read the second half of this blog with a resounding YES to each & every one of these suggestion. Every time we attempt to balance our active sympathetic nervous system with our passive Parasympathetic with do something to readdress the on call flight or fight response that a large population of people in the west are unable to address. Inverting the body & getting “out of our heads” & into our bodies is really beneficial. Using the YTU therapy balls to down regulate & feel into the tension is vital as tool to get into our tissues. Having the ability to draw upon the breath to revitalise the body & release anxiety, has to be one of our most under utilised resources that any body & every body can come back to again & again,
I love watching my students now come in 10mins before class and grab balls and start rolling out before we begin our practice. Ball rolling and lengthening the exhale is such a great combination to turn on that parasympathetic nervous system.
I like the idea of using a pulse point as a metronome. When I ask students to breathe in/out for a certain count, I’m never too sure how to get them to time the count properly, so this is a useful technique. And I agree that relaxation must be an integral part of every yoga session. thanks!
I am glad to hear that the most agreed upon most important part of a yoga practice is to relax and to connect with the breath. Too often I hear of yoga practices turned into predominantly fitness and performance based sessions.
I have more participants come up to me after class that say that they had never experienced such a wonderful class when my focus and tempo of the practice was predominantly on the breath and finding that ultimate state of relaxation. I hoe that more teachers discover the magic in the bliss that they can orchestrate for their participants to experience.
The breath is the perfect pathway to the present moment. It’s so true that we need to calm students first, using their breath to connect with their physical selves and let go of what’s happened during their day. Occasional conscious breath becomes habit for students and moves beyond the yoga space. I believe it is the stillness we offer that changes people. They see that slowing down is the best way to restore and re-energize rather than just a waste of precious time in their busy schedules.
Thank you Jill for the additional techniques!
As I read your articles, I reflected on moments I feel most tense. I’m a singer and performer, and no matter how seasoned, I still get the “butterflies” before going on stage or recording. Knowledge of Pranayama methods have proved helpful, but I must try rolling for relaxation beforehand as well.
This is great idea. I’ve never thought of using our heartbeat as a metronome. Wow, I just tried it out in a seated posture with my index finger touch the opposite wrist and found it to be so meditating. I think this may help some people to get to sleep; so instead of counting sheep, they can count pulses.
I find as I teach that people really resist the relaxation part of yoga even though they claim they want it. Thanks for some more tips on getting to that relaxation response.
Relaxation is often the most challenging part of a practice. I will often incorporate restorative postures in my classes, and see the students who struggle with letting go or those who get dull immediately. I like the idea of keeping it under ten minutes to allow for down regulation but not enough time to get lethargic and disconnected.
THANK YOU. THIS IS SO BEAUTIFUL. I WILL CERTAINLY USE THESE INSTRUCTION FOR MYSELF AND ADVISE MY FELLOW CLASSMATES IN MY YOGA CLASS, FAMILY AND FRIENDS,TO DO THE SAME!!!
I think it is great to feel my wrist to count my breaths. It helps me to relax and slow my breath more. At the same time I feel my pulse rate is also less. I find my stress levels go down and I can start my practice easier when I do this. I am already asking my students to slow themselves down the same way when starting my class.
Genius! Using your pulse point as a metronome for the breath. I love this so much. Even as I sit and write this I notice that I have hypertonic muscles that are unconsciously contracting – probably all of the time – but definitely when I read about yoga, study anatomy, or plan my yoga sequences – which is a lot of the time! It has become such a habit that I find myself tensing and contracting muscles even while relaxing on the couch watching TV. I catch myself in contraction and have to will myself to soften and relax. I will now just reach for my wrist and begin to count the breaths, lengthening the exhalation!
Since I heard and bought a yoga tune ball, I’m always on it to take care my body. I thought I’m pretty aware of my tensions in me.
During the YTU Level 1 course, I found my blind spot. It was my feet!!! I started to wonder…..”WHY??” I’m recovering my right lower back and hip injury, it’s getting better but still get sore sensation, so when I realized my right foot is much sore than left foot!! It was a surprise!! but good to learn how I’m putting my weight on my both feet when I’m standing. Since then, I added feet massage in my regular routine 🙂
Thank you. Yes, I agree that these are great suggestions. I hadn’t made the link that softening the tissues with balls also softens the ON signal, helping the muscles to come into a more receptive mode. I also value the suggestion of tuning into the beat of the heart, palpating the pulse. And also, the gentle inversion, which helps the mind “bow” to the heart; a good reminder for a quick remedy if mid-class, the sympathetic nervous system is beginning to over-act. Thank you Jill.
Thank you again for inspiring the yoga community and the general public to ‘down-regulate” and turn down the speed controls of modern day life. Sometimes it really is as simple as taking time to lay with your feet against the wall, or extend your exhales…even taking time to breath deeply. It’s all so important in this day and age.
I have recently had more than one student tell me that they have trouble consciously following their breath and that it becomes anxiety provoking for them (the antithesis of what we are trying to do with the breath). Your suggestion of using the pulse points as a metronome is brilliant and I plan on introducing this technique to those students who have trouble finding calmness while breathing.
Thank you for providing three different ways to relax. This is so important to understand that each person is an individual and that initially for some people to relax they may have to try various techniques. Many of my students who struggle to relax find that the therapy balls are the easiest way to accomplish this. I believe this is because they don’t have to settle their mind in stillness right away. The YTU therapy balls directly relax the musculature leading the students into relaxation and the mind settles as a result of the activation of the parasympathetic system.
thank you Jill. this is very helpful. I will invite students to begin their relaxation or down winding for practice when they arrive to class. I an surprised this morning that even with a low back in spasm I was able to practice Veeparita Korani Mudra for 5 minutes.
Thank you for sharing 3 specific ways to down-regulate – and also the value of starting a practice this way. Also the awareness that more than 10 minutes may make it hard to get the motor going for a more active practice.
Awesome suggestions! I have only had three practices with the amazing and wonderful YTU balls and I agree 0. Spending a few minutes before practice massaging and releasing tension allowed me to maintain integrity throughout my practice balancing Stirha and Sukha – steadiness and ease. I started my practice with such ease in my body and mind, then I consciously implemented activities that challenged this, playing my edge and building strength and flexibility with equanimity. Thanks for the awareness Jill!
As a student of breath I am always looking for new ways to keep myself connected to my breath and then teach my students. I like your step by step approach which is easy to follow. Teaching breathe work is for me can at times pull me to my edge because of the resistance that some students have to fully breathing, ,which of course is my opportunitty not theirs. In those moments i need to rememberr to say my sankulpa and breath so I can win those that are resistant .
I’m a new Yogi and I really appreciate these reminders. Index finger to thumb and concentrate on the pulse, that is brilliant, I spend an enormous time trying to quiet my mind by speaking to myself, I will definitely try using the pulse as a focal point.
I’m excited to try all of these methods – but have never noticed Veeparita on a list like this before. I never knew this inversion would alter brain signals to ‘drousal’. Great article!
I also find my heart to be the best metronome! The best part about it is that as you really start to relax and your heart beat slows it forces you to slow your breathing even more.
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I felt my eyelids drooping just reading this! I can’t wait to teach these Pranayamas to my classes this evening. I notice every time I teach restorative or a yin class and I don’t do Pranayama before, the class is still buzzing from their day. Looks like I may start sneaking in ball work too 🙂
Now that we have been relaxing the hypertronic muscles before practicing our YTU sequences, I totally notice a difference in approaching the poses that I do on a regular basis. The shoulder girdle in particular is an area where I feel I’m healthier than in other areas of the body but when we used the therapy balls and relased the tissues in that area and the pecs, and then did the YTU class, No. 3, I could not believe the difference. My downdog felt FREE and STRONG!
Nice follow up to Part 1. Thank you for some actual practices to put in place prior to even starting poses. I especially like the YTU therapy balls. I have generally used them at the end of an exercise/activity/set of poses but beginning with ball rolling makes sense to decrease tension prior to asking a muscle to work.