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Yoga Relaxation Techniques: They're Not Interchangeable

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

Yoga Relaxation Techniques: They're Not Interchangeable

Patterns in the Sand 2, by Brad Gibson

Okay, I admit it. It’s probably my fault. I’ve been going around saying that you can trigger the Relaxation Response (see The Relaxation Response and Yoga) using any of the following: restorative yoga, inverted poses, Savasana, pranayama, meditation, and yoga nidra, etc. as if all those practices were somehow interchangeable. This has led to questions like the following comment left on a Friday Q&A: Yoga Nidra, Restorative Yoga, Meditation and Savasana:
It is very helpful to read the distinctions between these four practices as I try to practice all of them, but it's hard to find the time. I'd be really interested to get your thoughts on whether it's important to do all four? For example, if you do restorative while listening to a nidra CD, do you also need to meditate? I'm interested to know what the various benefits are of these four practices, or are the benefits all the same?
Let me start by saying that what I said previously—that you can use any of these practices for stress management—still holds true. And it is also true that you can choose whichever techniques you prefer to trigger the Relaxation Response. However, these practices each have different roles to play in a balanced yoga practice.
The role of meditation in a balanced yoga practice is particularly important. That’s why I asked Timothy to write an article on the purpose of meditation (see his absolutely wonderful post Is Meditation an Essential Par of Practicing Yoga?). Basically, although you can use meditation for stress reduction, its role in classical yoga is to quiet the mind to allow union with the divine or “liberation”:
1.2 Yoga is the cessation of movements of consciousness.
1.3 Then the seer dwells in his own true splendor.
— from
Yoga Sutras, trans. B.K.S. Iyengar
Meditation is also, as Timothy mentions, a “fabulous tool to study your mind and slowly gain more control over it.”
Pranayama is also an important component of classical yoga, in which precedes meditation as one of eight steps on the path to samadhi (union with the divine). It is considered an instrument to “steady the mind” and a gateway to dharana (the first phase of meditation).
“Pranayama removes the veil covering the light of knowledge and heralds the dawn of wisdom.
Its practice destroys illusion, consisting of ignorance, desire and delusion which obscure the intelligence; and allows the inner light of wisdom to shine. As the breeze disperses the clouds that cover the sun, pranayama wafts away the clouds that hide the light of intelligence.” — Sutra 2.52 trans. by B.K.S. Iyengar

On the other hand, the two types of asana I recommended for triggering the Relaxation Response, restorative yoga and supported inversions, are brilliant 20th century inventions, mostly developed by B.K.S. Iyengar, which are designed specifically to maximize physical relaxation and reduce stress. Judith Lasater, one of the most renowned teachers of restorative yoga, writes in the introduction to her book Relax and Renew:
“The antidote to stress is relaxation. To relax is to rest deeply. This rest is different from sleep. Deep states of sleep include periods of dreaming which increase muscular tension, as well as other physiological signs of tension. Relaxation is a state in which there is no movement, no effort, and the brain is quiet.
"Common to all stress reduction techniques is putting the body in a comfortable position with gentle attention directed toward the breath.”

Likewise, yoga nidra, is also a 20th century invention (though you may see some claims to the contrary), developed by Swami Satyananda Saraswati. The first sentence of his book Yoga Nidra defines the practice like this:
“Yoga nidra, which is derived from the tantras, is a powerful technique in which you learn to relax consciously.”
In yoga nidra, you lie in Savasana while the voice of a teacher (or a recording) guides you through a physical and mental relaxation process. So, like restorative yoga, yoga nidra is specifically intended as a relaxation technique, and as such does not replace meditation or pranayama in a balanced yoga practice. This would be true of any form of Savasana in which an external voice is providing instructions and/or imagery for you. Unlike other relaxation techniques, yoga nidra includes a sankalpa (an intention) that allows you to influence your subconscious (or so it is claimed), for example, “I will awaken my spiritual potential,” “I will be a positive force for the evolution of others,” or “I will be successful in all that I undertake.” So this may be something you wish to take into consideration when choosing your relaxation practice.
Unlike the modern restorative postures, Savasana is a much older pose. Based on what I’ve read about the original practice, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Savasana is a reclining form of meditation. For some traditional yogis, it was a meditation on death, hence the literal translation of the name Savasana is “Corpse pose,” and it was sometimes even practiced alongside actual corpses. To practice Savasana properly, however, you must actually do the work of meditating while you are in the pose (and make sure you don’t fall asleep). If you don’t actually meditate while in Savasana, then, well, you are simply relaxing. But that's okay, too, if that is what you are after.
So there you have it. Which of these practices you decide to adopt really depends on what your goals are as well as your preferences. If you’re just after stress management and better health, it doesn’t really matter which you chose. However, if your goal is the “liberation” that is yoga’s ultimate aim, both pranayama and meditation are essential steps along the path. Sorry if I caused any confusion!
Ultimate liberation is when the gunas, devoid of any purpose for the purusa, return to their original [latent] state; in other words, when the power of consciousness is situation in its own essential nature. —Yoga Sutra 4.34 trans. Edwin Bryant

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