“Isn’t yoga supposed to be relaxing?” . . . “Isn’t it true that deep abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing nurtures a state of relaxation? Should we relax the belly and let it all hang out or are we supposed to activate our core muscles?
I recommend that you relax and activate at the same time! To explain further, for that to be possible, it’s first necessary to train, or re-train our body for healthy movement through consistent and conscious effort in practice, usually over quite some period of time (as mentioned by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras - abhyasa & dirghakala).
For many of us, prolonged years spending several hours a day sitting in chairs with back support and even arm support has left our bodies weak in posture. The same could come about if you’ve been through a pregnancy or even more so, consecutive pregnancies / births in relatively short succession.
In the beginning of our yoga practice (and this can mean several years) there’s a definite need to consistently pay attention to consciously activate the lower abs, and thus awaken and strengthen the deep core muscle transversus-abdominus.
In Yoga we call this uddiyana bandha, or uddiyana for short. From there, we need to take this activation and awareness off the mat and integrate the same into our regular daily movement. Then over time it becomes our default way of moving and becomes etched into our nervous system as muscle and movement memory. For example, when you bend over to put on your shoes or socks, uddiyana. When ever you bend over to pick something up or do something strenuous, uddiyana. Automatically your body will start to know what to do. But due to our often ‘artificial’ occupational environments it takes some effort and re-training, again, over time. A regular yoga practice will help this develop. That’s when the relaxation kicks in big time.
So when I get asked about activation versus relaxation, this is my answer:
Be like the horse or the birds! Activation and relaxation side by side. Horses sleep standing up! Birds roost and sleep in the branches of trees whilst holding on tight through functional strength. Activation and relaxation side by side – ease and effortlessness. The time and effort spent in practising yoga is well worth the effort, as we get older, especially if you want to be pain and injury free with a healthy state of energy and vitality.