What is relaxation? It is a time when we set aside our responsibilities, pressures, and sensory overload. We can be ourselves, pursuing our interests, relaxing our minds and bodies, and living at our own pace. "The world" seems far away as we put our attention on ourselves, our feelings, and our friends.
Relaxation isn't something which we do willfully. It is something that we allow to happen. We become receptive to our natural tendencies, and we allow our thoughts to roam, and we let our bodies indulge in the activities which feel best to it. Our skill lies in sensing that spontaneity and being able to get out of its way.
- We take relaxation on its own terms. We are not truly relaxing if we spend this time merely recharging for work; relaxation must be done for its own sake and on its own terms. To have a goal ("recharging") is to keep us in the brain's production-oriented left hemisphere, but it is the right hemisphere which creates regeneration and pleasure -- and it's those two elements which actually recharge us for our return to work.
- We can use active techniques of relaxation. Relaxation doesn't have to mean total slothfulness, which is stressful for some people. We may select any activity which is enjoyable and captivating to mind and body; these attributes engage the right hemisphere. Relaxation doesn't even have to be "escapist"; some people relax through common tasks such as gardening and chores. Our leisure can be as structured as a bridge game, or as free-form as a romp at the park. It can even be as strenuous as exercise, which burns off tension and pulls us into our bodies and away from the mental chattering (as long as we aren't fretting about scores and victories).
- We can use passive techniques of relaxation. The basic way to relax is through sleep and daytime naps; if we don't get enough sleep, our muscles are tense and our concentration is diminished. In addition to sleeping, other passive techniques include a hot bath or sauna, soothing music, meditation, yoga and other stretching exercises, visualization of calm scenes, deep breathing, a heating pad, a massage (from ourselves or someone else), autogenic training (in which we sequentially imagine each part of the body becoming heavy), natural scenery (in a book, video, or real life), and yawning with the whole face and neck.
- We can try these relaxation methods.
- Feel heaviness in each part of the body. Start at the feet (or the head) and feel it being very heavy; totally surrender to gravity, and release any tension which would prevent that part from succumbing to the natural downward pull. Remain with that part until it is thoroughly relaxed. Then proceed to every other part of the body, one at a time. During this meditation, we might simply feel the actual heaviness of the part, or we might exaggerate that weight by imaging (or visualizing) that it is many tons. Although the part can be allowed to sink naturally under the influence of gravity, we can also test this state of relaxation by pressing that part firmly toward the floor, to see how much farther it might be able to go, and then relaxing the part. A variation of this exercise is to feel "lightness" (rather than heaviness); experience your body becoming so serene and light that it could float into the sky.
- Count from ten to one, very slowly, feeling yourself relax more with each number. Before doing this, tell yourself that each successive number will take you to a deeper state of rest. We can simply "think" these numbers, or we can associate them with a visualization -- for example, a stairway in which each downward step is numbered (10, 9, 8, 7, etc.).
- Feel a warm energy radiating from the heart into every other area of the body. We can simply feel this energy, or we can visualize it, perhaps as a yellow light (or a different color). A variation is to feel the energy emanating from the "hara" (the body's center of energy, about two inches below the navel, in the middle of the body).
- As you focus on each part individually, first tighten the muscles there as much as possible, and hold this contracted position for three seconds; then relax, and notice the contrast between the previous tension and the current state. Do this for every part of the body.
- Breathe deeply but easily, and feel or visualize the stress leaving with each exhalation. In addition to, or instead of, working with the exhalation, we can use our inhalation --to imagine a soothing energy coming into us. Whichever method we use, we can see these activities affecting the entire body simultaneously, or separate parts individually; for example, we'd draw the tension from the right foot, and then breathe it out.
- Notice any tense areas. As our general stress level drops, we will notice particular areas which remain tight. In some types of bodywork, these tensions are considered to be the locations where emotional traumas have been embedded in the body. By contacting these parts of us, and allowing them to tell us their story, we can start to release both the psychological distress and the corresponding physical discomfort. However, when we encounter these "stories," we might re-experience the original emotional anguish, so we must be prepared to meet them with love and an intention to resolve them. Focus your attention on one of these areas, with acceptance and a gentle curiosity. Then allow any information to come to you from this part of your body; the "message" might be in the form of a memory (perhaps of a childhood accident which injured this part), or a visual image (perhaps in dream-like symbolism, or a literal picture of a parent who repeatedly scolded you harshly), or a "still, small voice" (as though that part is speaking to you), or simply an intuitive knowingness. Try to sense the appropriate statement to say in response to each tense area: we might need to say, "That was in the past, and we are all right now" or "I love you and accept you" or a similar comforting phrase. Send a warm, loving energy to that part, and feel the part relaxing in response to your kindness. Then feel the relief and relaxation which occur. (As you go through your day, notice any occasions when you are embedding new tensions in your body; we can use these tensions as feedback on how well we are managing the situations of our life -- both the external challenges and any internal conflicts.) As you say the comforting phrase, notice any feelings or thoughts which would contradict that statement; for example, as you highlight your legs, you might realize that you think that your legs are too fat, or that another part is shameful, disgusting, inadequate, weak, or bothersome; we might have implanted hateful judgments into many parts of our body. Even an evaluation of approval is stifling to the body; for example, if we think that our hair is "beautiful" according to any standard, we are approaching the body through the viewpoint of analysis and judgment, rather than experiencing it in its own right with our nourishing love, affection, and acceptance. The problem is not that judgmentalness is "wrong" but rather that it is a state in which we aren't seeing the part for what it is -- and we are not interacting with it dynamically and permitting our living energy to flow to it.
- Meditate on your body as a process and a flow (rather than as a physical object). Feel the movement of air in the lungs, and the blood in the veins and arteries, and the energy from one point to another. Sense the body as a system in which everything is changing, everything is alive, everything is active within the overall energy dynamics, everything is related to all of the other parts.
- Give gentle instructions to relax. While attending to each part of the body, mentally whisper a word such as "relax" or "soften" or another phrase which is effective for you.
- Imagine the tension melting like ice on a warm day. As this ice melts, it turns into water and then it flows out of our hands or our feet.
- Experience relaxation as a natural state. As you focus on the various parts of the body individually, let each part seek its own ideal state of relaxation. Be attentive to its need to release tension. But then, in the place of the tension, feel that part establishing its muscle tone and effortless alertness; let it guide you into the condition which is most comfortable and efficient for it. Relaxation is not a state of lethargy and inactivity -- as in a corpse -- but rather one in which our living body experiences the proper degree of tonality and a constant, subtle movement.
- Adapt other techniques which are described in this book. Those techniques can be used for relaxation. For example, we might use visualization -- imagining ourselves in a tranquil scene. Or we can use mindfulness -- being attentive to our body, and the tensions, and the pleasure that it finds in relaxation. Or we can make a mandala which incorporates images which calm us. Most breathing exercises can create a state of serenity. We can use mantras such as "peace" or "stillness" or "I am relaxed." Many types of moving meditation -- tai chi, hatha yoga, etc. -- help to soothe the body as well as the mind.