When was the last time you took a few minutes to sit in stillness and simply focus on relaxing your body and mind? And I’m not talking about collapsing onto the couch to watch a TV show, or falling into bed at the end of the day. I’m talking about allowing our bodies to come into a state of quiet, of calm, where we are able to physically and mentally relax.
I’m convinced that it is harder than ever to relax in our daily life. We are constantly bombarded by information, pressured by the immediacy of our communication channels, and are so connected to gadgets and gizmos and smartphones and tablets that our ability to just be, to relax, to rejuvenate is getting lost.
I see it often in lunch-time yoga classes. Participants will roll up their mat after the physical postures (asanas) and leave before final relaxation (savasana), which is arguably the most important part of a yoga class.
And on transit—whether it’s the train, bus, subway—instead of sitting and savouring some quiet time, people turn immediately to their smartphones or tablets to busy their mind.
If we choose information, background noise and distraction over our own uninterrupted stream of thoughts, the next question we may want to consider is this: What are we avoiding? Do we fear silence, and if so why? Has quiet and relaxation become so foreign to us that we don’t know how to unwind? Some may say that relaxation equals laziness. I would say that learning how to relax is crucial to a healthy life.
When we do not take time to slow down, our bodies react as though they are under prolonged periods of stress. This triggers the stress response (also known as "fight or flight"), which in turn takes up more energy from the body and mind. If we are in a prolonged state of stress (whether low-grade or more severe) this can manifest in any number of physical ailments. If we make a concerted effort to unwind – whether it be through relaxation exercises or breathing exercises—the natural consequence is the triggering of the relaxation response. The relaxation response calms and restores the body and the mind. And relaxation begets relaxation.
I was recently teaching a retreat in St. Lucia and made an interesting observation. In a relaxed environment, my clients were able to go even deeper into final relaxation at the end of each class (twice a day) than in their everyday life. The students—who regularly fall asleep during the final relaxation portion of class when we are practicing in Toronto—didn’t fall asleep once during any of the 14 classes that week.
Of course, we can’t live in a constant state of relaxation. Life is not a yoga retreat (ho hum). But perhaps we can make a concerted effort to inject a little relaxation into our everyday. If relaxation begets relaxation, imagine how much calmer our days would be if we put a little time aside to “just be.”
Meditation is always a fantastic technique to get relaxed and quiet the mind, but here are two other simple ways you can put a little relaxation into your day:
Deep Belly Breathing
Start by lying on your back or sitting upright in a chair. Bring your attention to your breathing. Take deep diaphragmatic breaths and focus simply on your breath as it comes in and out of the body. Inhale for half the length of your exhalation (i.e., inhale to the count of four, exhale to the count of eight). Do this for 5-10 minutes.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Start by either lying on your back or sitting upright in a chair. Become aware of your breathing. Once you are taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths, scan the body from head to toe and actively contract and release each major muscle group.
If you're really pressed for time and need a little relaxation guidance, grab your headphones and click through to this two minute podcast: Just Breathe.