Last week one of my students told me that by the end of each class she feels like she's been given a drug, and she marveled over how she can relax so much more deeply than she can at home. She said she thought of Michael Jackson, and that maybe if he had practiced yoga he wouldn't need drugs to help him sleep.
I know what she means about that drug-like effect -- nothing can relax me like a good yoga practice, and by the end I'm practically in an altered state and the relaxation is profound. What causes this effect, and why does it only happen in some types of yoga classes and not others?
I believe this profound relaxation is a direct result of deep, inward focus. I start each class by helping students to shed layers of tension and stress -- physical as well as mental/emotional -- and then I guide them inside, focusing on breath and sensation, and try to keep them there. I lead the postures in a deliberate progression: stress relief, intense focus, and deep relaxation -- all the while maintaining a deep, inner focus -- until they're ready to slip right into savasana.
The mind is a like a drunken monkey -- always jumping about here and there -- but as we progress through the class, the mind becomes increasingly still. The point of putting our bodies in awkward positions is not for the body (although we get a secondary health benefit); the purpose is actually to quiet the mind. If you're standing on one leg with your body leaning forward and the other leg out behind you, the mind has to stop and put all of it's attention on keeping you upright. You can't multi-task in this position. All you can do is breathe and focus and try to stay steady, inside and out. And you learn that how you use your breath affects your strength, balance, emotional state, and ability to relax yourself. After a full hour or so of the mind being in a state of one-pointed focus, relaxation comes easily.
Personally, I find it difficult to achieve this same result in practices that focus only on the body. Whether it's an intense physical practice or a class where there are loads of adjustments or frequent stopping to talk about alignment, I find that I'm being pulled out of my center -- away from my inner focus -- and I don't get the cumulative effect of continued, deep inner focus. Focusing intently on something outside doesn't have the same effect as focusing deeply on the inside. It may leave me exhausted, but not relaxed. And if savasana is too short, then I don't even get the chance to enjoy the most important part of yoga. It can take 5 minutes to settle into savasana, so if it's only 5 minutes or less, it doesn't happen. I find that my 15-minute savasana/meditation time usually becomes everyone's favorite part of the class. It gives them the time to go deep and have a truly integrating experience.
Of course, focusing the mind is a practice. New students may not be able to relax right away, or if you have an intense situation in your life, relaxing may be more difficult. But these classes are designed to make it possible for anyone who wants to try, and with practice comes results!