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Relaxing Into Awareness
Submitted by Meg Agnew on June 4, 2012 - 6:12pm
Relaxing into Awareness
One of the great benefits of a good yoga practice is the release of physical tension we experience. In class, our teacher may remind us to relax any muscles we’re gripping and to effort with ease. Ideally, in every pose, we use only the muscles that need to work while softening the other parts of our self. To be able to fully accomplish this, even in the most fundamental postures, requires advanced skill since there may be layer upon layer of held tension in our body. But we do what we can and enjoy whatever release we are able to access in the moment. In my early years of practicing yoga, an expert teacher told me there was gripping in my deltoid muscles. Even though I knew where those muscles were, I had no idea what he was talking about! Months later, in the middle of a practice, I finally sensed the gripping and experienced a belated but joyful aha moment. There was newly found freedom in the clear-seeing and in my upper arms.
Since physical relaxation can heighten our perception of what’s true in the moment, it is a frequently offered instruction for meditation, too. In his guided meditations, Phillip usually encourages us to invite ease into the body and to cultivate a kind of relaxed attention, as well.
Lately, I’ve been playing with relaxing attention both on my meditation cushion and my yoga mat. I’m finding it to be more of an exploration than I initially thought. It’s feeling like a big question---like one of those questions you live with instead of one that has a ready answer. What is relaxed attention? I’m approaching the question like a yogini would---seeing what’s true from my own experience of it. At the start of a sit, I’ll focus on becoming physically relaxed--- dropping down into my foundation and letting go of tension in the usual suspect places. I may already feel quite physically relaxed, but when I focus on relaxing attention, the physical release deepens, only with a subtle difference. When I relax attention, the physical softening feels like it’s happening from the inside out, especially around my face. There’s an expansion that feels like a broadening underneath the planes of my face, the bridge of my nose and behind the backs of my eyes. My head feels lighter and less solid as attention relaxes out. I imagine if I could see my face, it might look like a reflection in the still forest pool of Ajahn Chah’s teaching. I know he was encouraging us to be like a still forest pool and this feels like a move towards that serene place.
During an active yoga practice, it’s necessary to cultivate relaxed attention
with open eyes. Playing with this, I still feel some of that same sense of inside-out release around my face but now my eyes soften their focus and peripheral vision widens. I’ve notice how my attitude softens, too. There’s a subtle shift away from needing to achieve or accomplish anything on my mat. It’s all about just being present with this relaxed awareness of whatever is happening. It’s challenging to maintain this with consistency. It’s more a process of reconnecting over and over, just as we return to the breath or whatever our object of attention is when we’re meditating.
It’s interesting to experiment with relaxing awareness when you’re actively contracting some major muscle groups. Try cultivating relaxed awareness the next time you’re working your abdominals in boat pose or pressing up into wheel pose. For me, this feels like deepening into the union of opposites at the essence of yoga,---creating a spacious, calm container of awareness in which to hold the ever-shifting flow of breath and sensation.
Have you been exploring relaxed attention? What has your experience been? I would love to expand this investigation through your thoughts and insights.