So this is the first of a series of guides on relaxation. It’s a big subect – one that in reality few people really think about, but it’s so important. It’s fundamental – without proper relaxation we cannot be successful in any area of our lives. So I’m breaking it down into three manageable chunks:
Today I will tell you WHAT relaxation is (it’s not so obvious!).
In the 2nd article I will tell you WHY it’s so important.
And finally I’ll give you practical advice on HOW to incorporate relaxation into every day life.
WHAT is relaxation?
Relaxing means “going back”.
Going back where?
Inside, where we BELONG!
Ok, but what does that mean?
Almost all our waking lives our attention (and energy) is directed outwards. It goes out through our eyes, our mouths, our bodies (our senses) into the world around us. It is attracted to other people, sounds, advertising, media… all of which are competing for our attention, 24 hours a day…
So to relax means to break this cycle – literally, to regain control of our own attention, our own energy.
Take a deep breath into the abdomen, and as you exhale, let go of any physical tension. Taking another deep breath, simply acknowledge what is happening with you right at this moment – physically, emotionally, and mentally… breathing deeply, letting go of tension, and observing how you feel. It’s best to do this with the eyes closed.
Doesn’t that feel great?!
That is a 10 second relaxation. Now, imagine if you were doing that all the time, 24 hours a day – breathing deeply, letting go, observing. Imagine how good you’d feel, how much energy you’d have!
It’s very simple isn’t it? So why don’t we actually do it?!
The reason why we don’t stay relaxed is because:
a) we were never told the importance of it
b) we were taught that other things are important
c) the combination of a + b causes STRESS
I want to tell you something different: relaxation is the most important thing in the world. It is the foundation of all health, happiness and succes.
Stress is the opposite of relaxation. Quite literally, in biological terms, stress is the absence of relaxation, and relaxation is the absence of stress!
Our nervous system has two possibilities – either the sympathetic nervous system is dominant (stress), or the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant (relaxation).
The sympathetic nervous system reacts to perceived threat in the environment.
Let’s say that a dog behaves aggressively towards you: your body will automatically react in several ways – your eyes dilate to enable faster reactions; your chin drops to protect your throat; adrenalin is released to enable more strength or speed, depending on whether you choose fight or flight; the heart rate goes up to bring more oxygen to the muscles; blood and energy flow is redirected from the organs to the muscles (center to periphery); and so on. All of this is very good – it helps us in difficult sitations, and without it, we would never have survived as a species!
The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand UNDOES all that the sympathetic nervous system does – when the stress is over (the dog stops barking and goes home) your body needs to calm down. So the parasympathetic nervous system releases hormones to relax the body – releasing the adrenalin, calming the eyes, the heart, and so on.
So, the sympathetic nervous system is all about stress response, while the parasympathetic nervous system is all about normal, regular function.
So far, so good. But what happens when you live in a society where your body is always under stress? For example, what if you live in a city with lots of traffic; lots of people in a hurry; noise, air, food and water pollution creating toxins (stress) in the body; constant bombardment of the senses by media, advertising, etc?
I’ll tell you what happens: the body is permanently in a state of stress. In other words, the sympathetic nervous system is always being stimulated.
This is the primary reason why so many people are so ill, depressed, and unhappy.
I’m not kidding! I lived in London for 14 years and I know from experience!
But let’s be honest: it’s not only city life that is to blame. It’s really the speed of 21st century living – and that can affect anyone, even in the country.
What’s the solution?
The solution is that we have to consciously relax. We have to take time to really come back to ourselves, allowing our body to slow down, and giving time to the systems in our body to balance each other.
This does NOT mean watching a movie; reading a book; listening to music; having a beer / glass of wine; going out with friends. All of these things, which we have been taught to associate with relaxation, are stimulating! They stimulate our senses. They don’t really help us to relax in a deep, meaningful way.
For real relaxation, silence is needed. So that our hearing is allowed to relax, and the muscles of our throat, vocal chords, tongue, and mouth can relax.
Closing the eyes is needed, so that our mind can stop processing visual information (did you know that literally millions of bits of information are absorbed through the eyes every second? And that our brains have to process that information?!).
Lying on the back is the best position to relax in – and the best posture is the ‘corpse pose‘, a yoga pose known to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Breathing should be deep and slow.
And our mind should be directed inwards.
There is a practice called Yoga Nidra, many thousands of years old. Yoga Nidra means yogic sleep, or ‘sleep of the yogis’ – it is a state of awareness in which the body is so relaxed that it sleeps, but the mind is awake, fully conscious.
20 minutes in this state of being is equivalent to two hours of sleep. It’s very simple to do. I’m going to tell you how…
- Lie on the back, with the arms and legs slightly apart, and the head in the middle (corpse pose).
First, tense all the muscles in the body, tensing them, and releasing them.
Then get comfortable.
- Close the eyes, and take a few deep, full breaths.
- Then focus the attention inwards… focusing your full attention into the toes. Mentally (silently) repeat: “I am relaxing my toes, my toes are relaxing, the toes are relaxed“
Repeat this phrase until you really feel the toes softening, and relaxing.
- Then shift your attention to your feet, repeating: “I am relaxing the feet, the feet are relaxing, the feet are relaxed…“
Continue this process, going through every part of the body in turn, until you get to the top of your head.
- Then do the same for all the internal organs: brain, heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, and so on. The whole body can be done in 5 minutes. If you are a beginner, it will take longer.
- When you are finished, lie still for at least 3 minutes. Allow your body to be completely still, and simply observe your mind. As time passes, the mind sinks into a deeper and deeper state of relaxation. There comes a point when, with the body and mind deeply relaxed, we touch something inside ourselves very deeply. That is true relaxation.
With practice, we are able to be deeply relaxed all the time. When you can do that, you don’t age so fast. You stay healthy. And perhaps most importantly, when you are in a stressful situation, you have more reserves of energy to call upon should you need them.
This is the secret of the ancient yogis, and why they are known for long life and miraculous acts.
In the next article on relaxation, I’m going to tell you just WHY relaxation is so important for us – I believe that it’s the foundation upon which any success (whether in work, relationship, personal development, or spiritual evolution) must be built.
And I’m going to keep on giving you as much information as I can about these things, because I want you to be successful!
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your comment re the 20 min of meditation being equivalent to 2 hours of sleep, is very apealing, as this is, I guess what we do when we eventually drift off into a restful sleep, we are allowing our body to be relaxed and switched off from everyday tasks of: correct posture, standing – balancing on our feet, walking, even when we are having fun, drinks with our friends, our muscles are mostly at work, so therefore the process of Yoga Nidra, which you have so kindly explained to us, is so wonderful and so effective to give our body, muscles etc the "permission" to relax and yet our mind is aware, or, as the one issue I have myself, when I guide myself through this type of relaxation is that I drift into such a state of relaxation and bliss that I forget where I am up to. haha, suppose I am still getting the result though, or, am I???
I've read a few of your articles and enjoy them. Thanks, now how do I get to the next article and why I should relax.
Ben Ralston says
If you look at the right hand side, under Blog Archive, you will see the article 'Relaxation 2: the importance of relaxation'
And thanks for reminding me that I have to do the 3rd one!
This is very relaxing indeed, I tried it last night and today. It felt really good and noticed my body feeling warm and relaxed. How long do you suggest doing this exercise for, about 30 minutes daily? And I was looking for part 3, but haven't found it yet. I assume that the more you practice this, the more it becomes a "habit".
Thank you very much!!