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Tension can be a pain in the neck. Master these gentle moves to create lasting ease.

Learn to Let Go
Passive relaxation exercises are the core of my program. Just about anyone can benefit from them, even those who've never done a single asana. These poses give you a taste of ease and comfort, a touchstone experience you can refer to again and again as you progress into more active exercises and challenging yoga poses.

Relaxing deeply is a sanctuary, yet few of us allow ourselves to enter it. It feels so good that you'd think it would come easily, but many of us are so accustomed to tension that we have to relearn the natural process of letting go.

The first step is simply lying down on your back on a firm, comfortable surface and letting yourself rest. Almost certainly, you'll feel your muscles naturally releasing tension because they no longer have to work to hold you upright. You may notice you spontaneously let out a sigh of relief.

To relax more deeply, though, you have to consciously build on these natural responses. The secret to doing this is to focus on the movement of the breath in your body, using it to uncover and melt away tension.

Begin by tuning in to your breath. Pick up its rhythm, letting your muscles relax into and move with its gentle rise and fall. Throughout your practice, let this rhythm hold your attention. Feel how your breath creates an effortless expansion and contraction. Also notice any places in your body that seem tense or immobile or unresponsive to the ebb and flow of your breathing. To help them release, imagine saturating these tight, dull areas with the easy rhythm of your breath; if that doesn't work, imagine your breath originating deep within your tense places.

Bringing your attention to your contracted spots will probably help them release. But if you're like most people, you'll also discover tension that's stubbornly resistant to letting go. When that happens, remember to be patient and curious.

Chronically clenched muscles can feel tender, sore, rock hard, numb—or some combination of these sensations. Let your awareness drop deeper and deeper into each tight area, getting to know its specific character. With your breath, ask your muscles to slowly shift from tension to release, from density to expansion, from hard to soft.

Once you've experimented with this undoing process, apply it in some simple reclining positions like the Neck Blanket Stretch and the Arm-under-Back Stretch. These positions use body weight, position, and basic props to create gentle traction on classic neck and shoulder hot spots.

As you explore these passive exercises, don't expect your tensions to melt away instantly. To undo your chronic patterns of holding, you have to learn to focus completely on letting go, and that takes time. Your undoing skills will mature with practice. The more often and more deeply you relax, the deeper your breath will penetrate, and the more subtle your awareness will become.

By starting the undoing process, you've begun a conversation with the residue your past has left behind in your body. Not only can the process lead you to much greater comfort, but it can also be profoundly contemplative and rich with insight. As you relax, you may discover emotions and memories that seem to have been locked within your tension. Years after my accident, I uncovered a surprising amount of anger at my sister for pushing me to go on that fateful date. The undoing process has led me to unexpected stores of positive feelings, too; when I began to practice again after a nearly fatal asthma attack, I found myself flooded with joy and gratitude.

As you continue to release chronic muscular holding, you'll sense that contraction creates subtle vibrations of mental unease, and as these dissipate, you'll discover that easing tension from your neck and shoulders calms your mind, too.

• Increase spine and shoulder flexibility
• Strengthens and invigorates the whole body
• Improves respiration
• Builds confidence
• Develops humility

• Spinal nerve damage and disc problems
• Chronic shoulder dislocations
• Pregnancy
• Unmanaged high blood pressure
• Retina problems


© 2005 Barbara Benagh
Reprinted from Yoga Journal