The Importance of Resting and Breathing
Fitness buffs and everyday gym-goers often work out with the mindset of “more is more.” Many Type-A people who attend yoga classes are often seen leaving before final relaxation (savasana), stripping themselves of the most important part of the overall experience. Savasana is the gold nugget, the eye in the storm, the calm, the unification, the “it” pose. It’s even a natural progression: At the end of practice you have completed your work out and prepared your mind and body for your work in.
I frequently recommend relaxing in savasana after a workout. Even better: first practice a brief yoga routine after time on the court, in the gym, on the trail or any intense activity.
Some poses to use in a sequence include a few hamstring stretches and hip openers, a lower spinal twist and perhaps a shoulderstand. At the end, take a savasana and incorporate meditation and visualization to facilitate faster recovery since our bodies gain strength during periods of rest.
We should never confuse activity with productivity, and this is particularly true in final relaxation. This is the one pose in which you are instructed to do nothing, and yet you receive a lot.
Final relaxation allows an opportunity for you to again become aware of your body and mind, mentally and physically integrating the benefits of your practice. Relaxation brings peace, calm and a sense of space to your busy life and often crowded mind. It also provides an important transition back into your daily routine. Finally, this pose helps release muscular tension and stress for improved health and well-being.
Lie on your back, or in any position that allows you total comfort and relaxation. Turn your palms toward the sky and allow your feet to roll open. Let your breath return to its natural, rhythmical cycle. Continue to release stress and tension, finding peace and calm.
For lower back discomfort, place your feet flat on the floor and bend your knees allowing them to lean against one another. For added comfort, place a pillow, towel or blanket behind your knees or your head.
Breath is Life
Breath is life, prana, the universal life force energy within all of us. Your pranic body is your vital body, your energy body. Pranayama are practices for controlling the breath and harnessing the prana within and surrounding your body to create a state of inner peace. Your pranic energy corresponds to the right and left sides of your body. Your right side is associated with increased energy, heat and alertness. Your left side is associated with internal awareness, cooling and calm.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing energetically balances prana, body and mind, through regulation of your breath through each nostril. Whether you are anxious and distracted or lethargic and fatigued (or anywhere in between), this technique helps you feel balanced. It can be valuable for centering yourself at the beginning of a work out or work in, transitioning into final relaxation or preparing for meditation.
Practice the Breath
Find a comfortable standing or seated position. Notice the current flow of your breath and keep your breathing soft and easy throughout your practice. When comfortable, curl your right hand into your palm, keeping your thumb, ring finger and pinkie extended. Move your right thumb to the bridge of your right nostril. Inhale through your left nostril. At the top of your inhalation, close your left nostril with your right ring finger (while releasing your thumb) and exhale through your right nostril. Now inhale through your right nostril. At the top of your inhalation, close your right nostril and exhale through your left nostril. Continue alternating at the top of each inhale. Repeat for five to ten rounds. After your last exhale, unblock your nostrils and take three deep, even breaths through your nose.
Stress and Relaxation
Studies show that chronic stress increases your risk of obesity, depression, heart disease and much more. Many of these conditions are caused by elevated levels of a hormone called cortisol. Though cortisol is useful in circumstances that require immediate energy and action, too much does you more harm than good. Yoga can lower your cortisol levels. Deep breathing, deep relaxing stretches and a focused mind all help to calm the flight or flight response and induce a healing state of relaxation.
Scientific research shows that deep breathing and final relaxation have benefits for stress reduction. Because stress and stress-related conditions and illnesses are so prevalent, and because people often don’t take enough time to rest, this part of your session is critical for restoration and healing. Some people actually find spending time quietly in relaxation more challenging than the poses themselves. If this is true for you, you might benefit more from this phase of the session than any other.
Yoga For Hikers: Stretch To Relax
Hiking, walking and running are great forms of cardiovascular conditioning, yet their repetitive linear movements and long periods of forward flexion can mean that the hamstrings, quadriceps, low back or shoulders can become tight (especially when hiking with a backpack on). While on a long hike or even a backpacking trip, try to keep your shoulders away from your ears and maintain a sense of ease, relaxation and fluidity. Take breaks for yoga and try out a couple of these stretches. Breathe and relax.
Upper Body Stretches:
- Chest Expansion One: Stretch the muscles around the front of the shoulders and chest by drawing both shoulder heads back and down. While exhaling, squeeze the shoulder blades together and contract the back muscles. Inhale and release the movement to feel a sense of expansion in your upper back. Repeat ten times.
- Chest Expansion Two: Slide both hands behind your back and interlace your fingers. Draw your shoulders away from your ears and try reaching and extending your arms as far away from your body as possible. If you’re at a normal resting heart rate, you can combine this with a forward fold by hinging forward at the hips and extending the upper body over the lower. Take ten deep breaths.
- Cobra: This pose featuring spinal flexion counteracts the rolling forward movement we may do while hiking or in other repetitive activities. Lie face down with the hands palms down beneath the shoulders, elbows bent and drawn in toward the body. Gently lengthen the front of the body and lift the shoulders and chest. Keep a slight bend in the elbows while moving toward straightening the arms. Support the low back by maintaining tone in the abdominals. Keep your hips on the earth and engage your legs.
- Lateral Flexion: If carrying a backpack or leaning over (say over bicycle handlebars), the broad wing-like muscles of the back, the lastissimus dorsi (“lats”) can get tight. Lateral flexions release tension.
Stand with the knees slightly bent and core engaged. Extend both arms overhead. Bring the right arm down the side of the body, rest your hand on your hip. Inhale and extend and lift the side of your body out of your low back. Exhale and reach the left arm overhead and to the right to create a side stretch along. Take five deep breaths then switch sides.
- Simple Quadriceps Stretch: Begin lying facedown, maintain tone in the core and slowly bend your knee, reaching for the ankle. Gently draw your foot in the direction of your glutes to stretch the front of your thigh. Breathe. Switch sides. Be aware of sensation in the knee and cautious if you have knee problems. Another variation of this pose can be practiced while standing.
- Standing Forward Fold/Hamstring Stretch: Stand comfortably, with both feet facing forward and together, or slightly apart if the hamstrings or low back tend to be tight. While at a resting heart rate, hinge at your hips to fold forward. Clasp your hands to your elbows or bring your hands to your legs or your ankles based on your flexibility and bend your knees if needed. Relax your head and neck as much as possible. Take ten deep relaxing breaths. Come back to standing slowly by bending the knees, engaging the thighs and the inner core and rolling back up to standing. This pose is not recommended for anyone with a heart condition or if the heart rate is higher than at a resting pace.
Practice these poses at the end of your hike to feel rejuvenated, relaxed and refreshed and to notice immediate differences in your flexibility.
For Suggested Sequences for Sports, visit the LA YOGA website: layogamagazine.com. While online register for the chance to win a free copy of YOGAFIT. Beth Shaw’s YOGAFIT features sport-specific sequences to use after athletic activities such as running, hiking, weightlifting, boxing, golfing, skiing and other sports. It includes more than 70 asana organized into routines for daily use and information on yogic nutrition, philosophy and meditation. (Human Kinetics, 2009). Find it at: yogafit.com
International presenter Beth Shaw is the founder and creator of YOGAFIT Training Systems Inc, the author of bestselling YOGAFIT. She is an animal rights advocate on National Council for the Humane Society of the US (HSUS), Karma Rescue Advisory Board Chairperson and serves on the Board of Directors for the ACLU. Yogafit.com
By Beth Shaw
Beth Shaw C-IAYT is the founder of YogaFit and the author of Healing Trauma with Yoga. Healing Trauma with Yoga combines a discussion of trauma from the perspective of modern neuroscience with empowering teachings from yoga philosophy and yoga practice. In the book,13 people share their inspiring stories of how yoga is an essential component of their own path of learning to heal and thrive. Order the book and learn more at: bethshaw.com.