Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Conscious Relaxation: Core Qualities of Yoga, Part 11

This post is part of a series that explores a variety of core qualities and suggested practices to consider for inclusion in your classes and private sessions (whether on a mat, in a chair, or a combination of both).

by Beth Gibbs

"Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes...Including you."—Anne Lamott

Conscious relaxation is one way to:

  • Bring about a relaxed state of awareness on all levels of being (physical, energetic, psycho-emotional, intuitive wisdom, and bliss according to the Koshas).
  • Increase the ability to explore both positive and unhelpful thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and behavior.
  • Manage stress.

Let’s look at the meaning of those two words separately and then explore how they work together.

What does it mean to be conscious?

That depends on who you ask and what level of being conscious you want to work on. Consciousness at its simplest is awareness of internal or external existence and experience. It is the most familiar and yet the most mysterious aspect of our lives in Earth school.

To answer this question we have to look at the relationship between brain, mind, and consciousness. Hippocrates was the first person (that we know of) to claim that the brain is the seat of consciousness. The brain is a visible, tangible part of the physical body. It weighs about 3.3 lbs. (1.5 kilograms), makes up about 2 percent of a human's body weight, and contains billions of nerve fibers which are connected by trillions of synapses. During an autopsy, the brain can be seen, touched, and dissected.

The mind is how we think and feel. It influences our view of the world, our actions, how we relate to ourselves, others and life in general. Your conscious mind is what you use when you pay attention to your physical body, its movement through space, your breath, the beating of your heart, awareness of bodily functions such as digestion and elimination, and to notice changing energy levels throughout your day. The mind is not physical. During an autopsy, the mind cannot be seen, touched, or dissected.

The nature of consciousness is one of the great unanswerable questions. We all know that we are conscious beings, but what is the nature of this consciousness? Both the mind and the brain are clearly involved in the question of consciousness. So we might ask: “Is consciousness in the mind or is the mind in consciousness?” Science philosophy and metaphysics have differing theories, concepts, and beliefs about the answers to that question.

Scientific research on the relationship between the brain, mind, and human consciousness has proved difficult because of the vast differences and difficulty in measuring individual subjective experience but has begun researching the question of the relationship between the brain and consciousness.

For millennia, philosophy and metaphysics have worked to show us that the brain is merely the physical component that links the mind to consciousness, but that consciousness itself is the first, foremost, and true reality. The concepts, models, and practices many of them provide are meant to help us realize the ultimate reality of that consciousness, often referred to as enlightenment.

When consciousness is primarily focused in the mind, our awareness is generally on the five-sense material world and WHAT we think, feel, and do. Here’s an example of this:

  • Thinking: Why is traffic so backed up? I’m going to be late for class.
  • Feeling: I am frustrated and irritated. 
  • Behavior: My lips are tight, and my hands are drumming the steering wheel.

When the mind has an expanded awareness, we can uncover material from the deeper layers of our mental iceberg to learn WHY we think, feel, and act as we do and make conscious choices about our behavior. Here’s an example of that:

  • Thinking: Traffic is backed up. I’m going to be late for class. I’ll have to wait. It is what it is.
  • Feeling: I feel frustrated and irritated. I don’t like waiting. It brings up a fear of not being in control.
  • Behavior: I’ll some deep breaths, put on some relaxing music, and wait. If traffic doesn’t clear up in tenminutes, I’ll call and let them know I’ll be late. It is what it is.

The relationship between the brain, mind, and consciousness is a question that may wait a long time for an answer. The key takeaway is to recognize how interrelated and interconnected they are with each other and with all of who we are and hope to become.

What does it mean to relax?

This is easier to define. Relaxation is a state of being free from tension and anxiety. It’s about resting your mind and body, an important aspect of self-care. Relaxation takes place on all levels of being. During the relaxation response, the body and breath move toward a state of physiological relaxation, where blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning, and hormonal levels are balanced. When we relax or meditate, our brain waves typically slow and our energetic state, mind, and intuitive wisdom can experience a blissful state of well-being.

How do consciousness and relaxation work together?

Conscious relaxation allows the practitioner to remain awake and aware while relaxed in order to observe, understand, manage, and integrate their experience. This awareness involves both the everyday mind and the Witness. Sometimes both are tuned in and sometimes the mind drifts, but the Witness remains aware. This often happens during guided practices. How many times have you experienced or had a student say something like, “My mind was floating off somewhere between here and wherever, but I heard every word you said!”

When designing guided conscious relaxation exercises for new students and those dealing with chronic stress, PTSD, or trauma, the recommendation is to keep the practice firmly grounded in body and breath awareness. It is also important to offer ways for them to create enough distance from disturbing material in order to witness it, withdraw from the practice completely, or accept what comes up if they are ready. It is key that students understand that they, not the instructor, are in control of their experience.

Suggested Practice for Conscious Relaxation: Rotation of Consciousness

You can record this practice on your phone or tablet, or self-guide.

Bring awareness to the right side of your body and to the right hand, the fingers, palm of the hand, back of the hand, the wrist, the lower arm, the elbow, the upper arm, the shoulder, the armpit, the right waist, hip, thigh, kneecap, the calf muscle, the ankle, the heel, the sole of the right foot, the top of the foot, and all five toes.

Bring awareness to the left side of your body and to the left hand, the fingers, palm of the hand, back of the hand, the wrist, the lower arm, the elbow, the upper arm, the shoulder, the armpit, the left waist, hip, thigh, kneecap, the calf muscle, ankle, heel, the sole of the left foot, the top of the foot, and all five toes.

Bring awareness to the back of the body. Become aware of the right shoulder blade, the left shoulder blade, the right buttock, the left buttock, the spine, and the whole back together. Pause.

Bring awareness to the top of the head, to the forehead, the right eye, the left eye, the right ear, the left ear, the right cheek, the left cheek, the tip of the nose, the upper lip, the lower lip, the chin, the throat, the right shoulder, the left shoulder, the right hip, the left hip, and the whole front of the torso.

Allow awareness of the whole of the right leg, the whole of the left leg, and both legs together. Bring awareness to the whole of the right arm, the whole of the left arm, and both arms together. Bring awareness to the whole body, the whole body, the whole body together. Allow awareness of the whole body. See the whole body. Pause. Visualize this image in your mind. Allow the whole body to experience a relaxed state of awareness.

Rest for as long as you like before slowly stretching and finishing the practice or drifting off to sleep.

Elizabeth (Beth) Gibbs, MA, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is a guest faculty member of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. Her masters’ degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health is from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi, a therapeutic yoga book for children. For more information please visit her website at:

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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