When I was younger, but old enough that my brothers were able to take care of themselves, I used to love going to lunch with my parents. I think that on some primal level it reminded me of a time when it was just the three of us. Of course, a similar variation would unfold over the course of my youth where I would attend lunch with either my mother or father alone. On sunny days, my mother and I would sit on the patio of T.G.I. Friday's and I would think I had literally died and gone to heaven. The variation with my father however, was a bit more pressed for conversation. Having found interest in Eastern Religion, I really couldn't keep up with the conversation and the few times I did try move the dialogue along, asking my father how long he and his fellow Buddhists "sat around" for during their retreats, I was promptly rebuked with the response, "we're not just sitting around, Elissa." Henceforth, I more or less shut down, refusing to ask my father questions about his practice until around high school.
In high school, I often saw my father go into the guestroom for an hour to meditate, at which point we had to tone down the volume of our own activities within the house. After an hour or so had passed and my father emerged, I was always happy to see he had completed what seemed to me as a thoroughly boring endeavor but was also left curious as to how something that still seemed like "sitting around" would change the world as my father claimed meditation could. When I worked up the courage to inquire on behalf of my curiosity, my father claimed that, "the goal of meditation is to bring your experiences beyond the room." While I still haven't fallen for Easter Religion, I've found myself becoming more and more involved in Eastern ideas through yoga. And as I've advanced in my practice, I too have come to see that the goal of the movements done in class is to carry their benefits into one's daily life and routine.
As I've developed in my yoga practice, I've found that most issues with tension can stem from certain "hubs" in our bodies or places where many muscle fibers connect (mainly the hips, shoulders and jaw). And once these areas are loosened, our bodies feel exponentially better both in and outside of the studio. It's as if stretching these regions can lead to a sum greater than our individual, bodily parts. Below, I've included a few stretches or ideas which can loosen such areas as well as ways to "check in" with them in the real world. Enjoy!
Hips (and shoulders): In general, our bodies are as unique as our personal experiences. But, despite this fact, most of us suffer time to time with tenseness in our hips... particularly if you are of the female variety. In my case, a pair of flat feet often lead me to consistently turn out my hips, perhaps so that not all my body weight falls inward like a house imploding (see Life as a House). But for other women (and men), hips are where one stores a lot of tension, particularly if there are memories which have been repressed. And while our emotional states may take more than yoga to heal (although it's a somewhat effective remedy) we can begin to loosen our hips with a few postures from the Bikram series. Below (and above) is one I find relatively effective... if not painful. Enjoy!
Jaw: In general, the jaw and hips (or at least the tensions that reside in both) are related. As they tell us in yoga, tension in the hips generally equates to tension in the jaw. What they also say is that, "the difference between an advanced yogi and a beginner, lies in the face." This is to say that while an advanced yogi may give no clues as to their internal struggles on the mat, I'm constantly being told to relax my face in class. When we have tension, it can manifest in the hips as well as the jaw and while there's no specific posture in yoga which alleviates jaw pain or tension, there are several exercises (featured in Shape Magazine) that can help in this predicament.
Open Wide: According to Shape, several exercises exist which can relax the muscles surrounding the jaw (if not the jaw itself). The first begins with opening one's jaw as wide as possible and then allowing it to relax. Like the isometric stretches done in yoga (which requires one to utilize muscle tension as opposed to motion) stretching the muscles and then allowing for a release eventually leads to relaxation. Try doing a wall squat and you'll get the general idea.
-Your hips have no choice but to relax: In Letting Go, I spoke about how relaxation can often be a challenging process both mentally and physically. However, when laying against the floor for fifteen minutes, you have the force of gravity on your (back) side which really gives us no choice in the matter. As with many things relaxation, I've found, is a decision, but sometimes, it's nice to let something "greater" take the wheel and do it for us. This doesn't mean it's not painful (your hips will hurt) it just means it's easier.
-Your sinus might clear: Laying on your back against a hard surface for fifteen minutes, I realized, can do great things for the sinuses. Since I've been having a bout of stuffiness due to consistent food allergies, laying back and motionless helped drain anything from my sinus region into my throat in a process that was not elegant but which allowed for expulsion.
Shoulders: I'm sure many of us have tension in our hips. I'm sure many of us have tension in our jaws. But I'm willing to bet almost all of us have tension in our shoulders. As I joked to my fiancee the other day, I read in a meme that tension in the upper back means one feels unloved. It may be true but, in general, our daily activities... typing, driving, etc. can create tension in our back and if a prolonged savasana provides a way to effortlessly release tension in our hips, a massage can provide both an effortless and painless way to release tension in the shoulders.
In Health Before Beauty, I spoke about the high price of spa treatments. But while you might not find a house-maid with a gluten intolerance as the saying goes, you'll almost always find one who needs a massage... which means it's something that can benefit all of us. So, luckily, a massage is something we can give ourselves, give our loved one or get for around $15 at the mall kiosk. But if you're really content on loosening your shoulders through stretching eagle pose is often an effective remedy as well as "checking in" with your shoulders at a few points throughout the day.
-driving: Just as there are certain points of out body which hold tension, there are certain points in our day which serve as beneficial times to "check in" with our bad selves. One point for me is when I'm driving. I'm unsure whether it's the position of the steering wheel or the subconscious awareness that I'm operating a two-ton vehicle but the process of driving, I've noticed, puts my shoulders on edge. As I'm driving, obviously, I'm not engaging in stretching exercises however, I've found that bringing a simple awareness to the fact my shoulders are tense, ironically, begins to loosen them. It also helps me keep an eye out for any tenseness the next time I drive.
-sitting: It's ironic that sitting qualifies as a relaxing activity. It's inverse: "standing on one's feet all day" seems to be the pinnacle of discomfort in our culture. But sitting can perhaps make us lazy because, when I sit, I slouch. Again, it's not about judgement, simply bringing an awareness to our posture helps us correct it if needed... an activity I seem to spend most of my time doing.
So where does this leave us? As I've found, checking in with our bodies throughout the day and making an attempt to relax them makes yoga a bit easier. And while this experience may be personal, it can be beneficial whether you're a yoga practitioner, runner or binge-watcher. As science shows, increased relaxation carries the benefits of protecting one's heart, boosting immunity and/or lowering the chance of stroke (according to The Huffington Post). But beyond that, I think, it helps us work towards something greater. And as Fredrich Nietzsche once claimed, "he who has a why... can bear almost any how." Which is to say, checking in with our bodies gives us a sort of purpose... to make yoga easier. ;)