The Science of Relaxation forms a very important part of the Hatha Yoga philosophy and many of the Yogis have devoted much care and study to this branch of the subject. At first glance it may appear to the average reader that the idea of teaching people how to relax-how to rest-is ridiculous, as every one should know how to perform this simple feat. And the average man is rightâ€”in part. Nature teaches us how to relax and rest to perfectionâ€”the infant is a past-master in the science. But as we have grown older we have acquired many artificial habits and have allowed Nature’s original habits to lapse. And so at the present time the people of the Western world may well accept from the Yogis a little teaching along the lines of this subject.
The average physician could give some very interesting testimony on the subject of the failure of the people to understand the first principles of relaxation-he knows that a large percentage of the nervous troubles of the people are due to ignorance of the subject of “rest.”
Rest and relaxation are very different things from “loafing,” “lazziness,” etc. On the contrary, those who have mastered the science of relaxation are usually the most active and energetic kind of people, but they waste no energy; with them every motion counts.
Let us consider the question of relaxation and try to see just what it means. In order to better comprehend it let us first consider its opposite-contraction. When we wish to contract a muscle, in order that we may perform some action, we send an impulse from the brain to the muscle, an extra supply of Prana being conveyed to it, and the muscle contracts. The Prana travels over the motor nerves, reaches the muscle and causes it to draw its ends together and to thus exert a pull upon the limb or part which we wish to move, bringing it into action. If we wish to dip our pen into the inkwell, our desire manifests into action by our brain sending a current of Prana to certain muscleâ€”in our right arm, hand and fingers, and the muscles, contracting in turn, carry our pen to the inkwell, dip it in, and bring it back to our paper. And so with every act of the body, conscious or unconscious. In the conscious act the conscious faculties send a message to the Instinctive Mind, which immediately obeys the order by sending the current of Prana to the desired part. In the unconscious movement the Instinctive Mind does not wait for orders, but attends to the whole work itself, both the ordering and the executing. But every action, conscious or unconscious, uses up a certain amount of Prana, and if the amount so used is in excess of the amount which the system has been in the habit of storing the result is that one becomes weakened and generally “used up.” The fatigue of a particular muscle is somewhat different, and results from the unaccustomed work it has been called upon to perform, because of the unusual amount of Prana which has been directed toward contracting it.
We have spoken so far only of the actual movements of the body, resulting from muscular contraction, proceeding from the current of prana directed to the muscle. There is another form of the using up of prana and the consequent wear and tear upon the muscles, which is not so familiar to the minds of most of us. Those of our students who live in the cities will recognize our meaning when we compare the waste of prana to the waste of water occasioned by the failure to turn off the faucet in the washbowl and the resulting trickling away of the water hour after hour. Well, this is just what many of us are doing all the timeâ€”we are allowing our prana to trickle away in a constant stream, with a consequent wear and tear upon our muscles, and, indeed, upon the whole system, from the brain down.
Our students are doubtless familiar with the axiom of psychology, “Thought takes form in action.” Our first impulse when we wish to do a thing is to make the muscular movement necessary to the accomplishment of the action proceeding from the thought. But we may be restrained from making the movement by another thought, which shows us the desirability of repressing the action. We may be inflamed with anger and may experience a desire to strike the person causing the anger. The thought is scarcely formed in our mind before the first steps toward striking are taken. But before the muscle fairly moves our better judgment causes us to send a repressing impulse (all this in the fraction of a second), and the opposite set of muscles holds back the action of the first set. The double action, ordering and countermanding, is performed so quickly that the mind cannot grasp any sense of motion, but nevertheless the muscle had begun to quiver with the striking impulse by the time the restraining impulse operated the opposing set of muscles and held back the movement.
This same principle, carried to still further refinements, causes a slight current of prana to the muscle, and a consequent slight muscular contraction, to follow many unrestrained thoughts, with a constant waste of prana and a perpetual wear and tear upon the nervous system and muscles. Many people of an excitable; irritable, emotional habit of mind constantly keep their nerves in action and their muscles tense by unrestrained and uncontrolled mental states. Thoughts take form in action, and a person of the temperament and habits just described is constantly allowing his thoughts to manifest in the currents sent to the muscles and the countermanding current immediately following. On the contrary, the person who has naturally, or has cultivated, a calm, controlled mind, will have no such impulses with their accompanying results. He moves along well poised and well in hand, and does not allow his thoughts to run away with him. He is a Master, not a slave.
The custom of this attempt of the excitable thoughts to take form in action, and their repressing, often grows into a regular habit-becomes chronic-and the nerves and muscles of the person so afflicted are constantly under a strain, the result being that there is a constant drain upon the vitality, or prana, of the entire system. Such people usually have a number of their muscles in a tense condition, which means that a constant, though not necessarily strong, current of prana is being poured out to them, and the nerves are constantly in use carrying the prana. We remember hearing the story of the good old woman who was taking a ride on the railroad to a nearby town. So rare was the pleasure to her and so anxious was she to get to her destination that she could not settle herself back into her seat, but, on the contrary, sat on the edge of the seat, with her body well bent forward, during the whole sixteen miles of the journey; she was mentally trying to help the train along by giving it a mental urge in the right direction. This old lady’s thoughts were fixed so firmly upon her journey’s end that the thought took form in action and caused a muscular contraction in place of the relaxation which she should have indulged in during the trip. Many of us are just as bad; we strain forward anxiously, if we happen to be looking at an object, and in one way or another we tense a number of our muscles all the time. We clench our fists, or frown, or close our lips tight, or bite our lips, or set our jaws together, or something else along the same line of expressing our mental states in physical action. All this is waste. And so are the bad habits of beating the “devil’s tattoo” on the table or arms of the chair, twirling the thumbs, wiggling the fingers, tapping on the floor with our toes, chewing gum, whittling sticks, biting lead pencils, and, last but not least, rocking nervously to and fro on a rocking chair. All these things, and many others too numerous to mention, are waste, pure waste.
Now that we understand something about muscular contraction let us again take up the subject of the Science of Relaxation.
In relaxation there is practically no current of prana being poured out. (There is always a small amount sent to the different parts of the body, in health, in order to maintain a normal condition, but this is a very small current compared to that sent out to contract a muscle.) In relaxation the muscles and nerves are at rest, and the prana is being stored up and conserved, instead of being dissipated in reckless expenditures.
Relaxation may be observed in young children, and among the animals. Some adults have it, and, mark you this, such individuals are always noted for their endurance, strength, vigor and vitality. The lazy tramp is not an instance of relaxation; there is a great difference between relaxation and “loaf.” The former is a sensible rest between working efforts, the result being that the work is done better and with less effort-the latter is the result of a mental indisposition to work and the consequent action (or inaction) resulting from such thought taking form.
The person understanding Relaxation and the conserving of energy accomplishes the best work. He uses a pound of effort to do the pound of work, and does not waste, slop over, or allow his strength to trickle away. The average person not understanding the law uses up from three to twenty-five times the energy needed to do his work, be that work mental or physical. If you doubt this statement watch the people with whom you come in contact and see how many waste motions they make and how many exaggerated movements, etc., they manifest. They haven’t themselves well in hand mentally, and the result is physical prodigality.
In the Orient, where the Yogi gurus, or teachers, have classes of chelas, or students, who receive their instruction not from books, but from the words of the teacher many object lessons from nature and illustrations are given in order that the idea may be associated in the mind of the student, with some material object or living thing. The Hatha Yoga gurus, when teaching the lesson of Relaxation, often direct their student’s attention to the cat, or animals of the cat-tribe, the panther or leopard being a favorite illustration in lands where these animals are found.
Did you ever notice a cat in repose, resting? And have you ever watched a cat crouching before a mouse-hole? In the latter case do you recall how the cat crouched in an easy, graceful attitude-no muscular contraction, no tense attitude; a beautiful picture of intense vitality in repose, but ready for instant action. Still and motionless remains the animal; to all appearances it might be asleep or dead. But wait till it moves! Then like a flash of lightning it darts forward. The repose of the waiting cat, although absolutely devoid of movement or tense muscles, is a very live repose-a very different thing from “laziness.” And note the entire absence of quivering muscles; of nerves “on edge”; of beaded perspiration. The machinery of action is not strained with waiting. There is no waste motion or tension; all is in readiness, and when the moment of action comes the prana is hurled into fresh muscles and untired nerves and the action follows the thought like the spark from the electric machine.
The Hatha Yogis do well to use the cat family as an illustration of grace, vitality and repose.
In fact, there can be no great power of quick and effective action unless the ability to relax is also there. People who fidget, fret, and fume, and “stamp” up and down, are not the people who do the best work; they wear themselves out before the hour for action arrives.
The man who may be depended upon is the one who possesses calmness, the ability to relax, repose. But let not the “fidgety” person despair; relaxation and repose may be cultivated and acquired just as may be other desirable “gifts.”
In our next chapter we will give a few simple instructions to those wishing to acquire a working knowledge of the Science of Relaxation.