The Art of Relaxation

For many of us living in a culture of rapid change and modernization, relaxation is not in our vocabulary. In our daily lives, we are so pre-occupied with the need to achieve that we forget to relax.

We often feel guilty or uncomfortable if we are not involved in some productive activity or accomplishing our goals. If we do take a break from the rat race and have a vacation, we would most probably still have an urgent need to rush with time.

True relaxation provides an escape valve from our daily pressures and responsibilities. It is something positive and satisfying. It is a means to ‘forget our worries’ or to ‘relax our mind’ by directing our excess energy and tensions to some pleasurable pastime.

Most of us know activities that give us pleasure and help us to unwind. It may be simply relaxing by spending an evening in front of the television set, reading a book, or having an afternoon nap.

Often it can be something more. Here are a few approaches to the art of relaxation that you can try.

After a hard day, most people find it a relief to unwind through some form of physical activity.

Low intensity exercise, such as yoga or tai chi, helps to increase muscle strength, flexibility and joint mobility.

Aerobic exercises, such as running, swimming, cycling and dancing, will gradually strengthen the cardiovascular system and increase stamina.

A game of tennis, squash or golf can leave you feeling revitalised.

All forms of exercise are effective in countering fatigue, insomnia and depression.

Creative activities, besides reducing stress and producing relaxation, can be fun and give you a sense of accomplishment.

Painting, pottery, carpentry, knitting or photography, can all provide peaceful distractions or deep satisfaction. Even listening to music can allow you to ‘just be’ instead of always striving.

Many people, however, find that simple relaxation through physical activity may be inadequate to reduce the effects of daily tension. What is needed are ways to counteract the biological responses to stress, such as a racing pulse, clenched teeth, or a tight neck and shoulders. They experience high levels of tension and will require more complete relaxation.

Complete relaxation involves switching off the stimuli from the environment as much as possible so that both mind and body are at rest. Progressive relaxation, autogenic training and meditation are recognised techniques of this form of relaxation. Of these, the technique of progressive relaxation may be easily learned and applied daily to reduce tension.

Developed in 1929 by Chicago physician, Edmund Jacobson, Progressive Relaxation is a deep muscle relaxation technique to relieve physical tension. In the course of a day, we are constantly facing many problems at work, at home and in our environment. We react to this stress with tension, both mental and muscular.

This technique, therefore, calls for tensing and relaxing of different muscles in the body, to help us learn to contrast the sensations of tension with that of relaxation. Eventually we learn to tense and relax muscles from head to toe, thereby relaxing the entire body.

The following is a procedure for achieving deep muscle relaxation quickly. Repeat each step at least once, tensing each muscle group from five to seven seconds, and then relaxing from twenty to thirty seconds. Remember to notice the contrast between the sensations of tension and relaxation.

  1. Get into a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. Take a deep breath and let it out. Gently close your eyes and begin to relax.
  2. Turn your attention to your feet and tighten your muscles there. Curl your toes and arch your feet. Be aware of the tension, and then relax. Let yourself feel the difference when you relax.
  3. Tighten all your muscles in your legs, shins, calves, knees, thighs and hips. Hold the tension for a few moments, and then relax completely. Feel yourself slipping deeper into relaxation as you take a slow, deep breath.
  4. Tighten your abdomen. Pull in your stomach and chest, as if they reach through to your back. Hold and then relax.
  5. Clench both fists, tensing the biceps and forearms. Tighten as your arms lift slightly from the surface on which you are sitting or lying. Hold and relax.
  6. Wrinkle your forehead, purse your lips, clench your jaw and tighten your entire face. Shrug your shoulders and tighten the muscles of your neck. Hold the tension, feel it and then relax.
  7. Now tighten all the muscles in your body simultaneously. Tighten, hold the tension and then let it all go. Relax completely, breathe and rest for a minute or two.

Another method known as Autogenic Training has been used by doctors throughout Europe since about 1910. This procedure, developed by the physician Dr Johannes Schulz, is based on auto-hypnotic methods which induce certain types of body changes that occur when we get quiet – a heavy feeling, warmth, regular heartbeat, and regular breathing.

A quiet environment, a passive attitude and silent repetition of a verbal formula are all that are necessary in this short exercise.

(Professional guidance recommended)

  1. Assume a comfortable position and close your eyes. Breathe naturally and slowly. Try feeling the heaviness in your arms, as you say to yourself, “My arms are heavy”. Repeat this phrase slowly for thirty seconds, letting go of the muscular tension in your arm. Repeat this process with your legs, neck and shoulders.
  2. As you continue to breath, slowly say to yourself, “my arms are warm”. Feel the blood flow through your arms as you repeat the phrase. Repeat this process with your legs, neck and shoulders.
  3. Breathe naturally, while saying to yourself, “my heartbeat is calm and regular”. Next say, “my breathing is calm and regular”. Repeat several times.
  4. To complete this exercise, say to yourself, “I am refreshed and alert”. Take a deep breath, stretch and open your eyes.

Meditation is effective in creating a deep state of relaxation in a relatively short time. It teaches you to focus uncritically on one thing at a time. This skill of passive concentration can be generalised to other areas of your life, increasing your effectiveness in whatever you do.

There are many ways to meditate. All that is required is a quiet place, a comfortable position, a passive attitude, and an object to dwell upon. It can be a word or sound, an object or symbol, even a specific thought.

(Professional guidance recommended)

One method of meditation is the Relaxation Response developed by Dr Herbert Benson

Sit quietly in a comfortable position.

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Do this by focusing your awareness on your feet, visualizing them and silently saying “Feet, relax”. Repeat this process with each main muscle group.
  3. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. Each time you breathe out, say the word “one” silently to yourself (You may use any word you want in place of “one”, such as “relax”, etc).
  4. Continue for twenty minutes. Occasionally you may open your eyes to check the time. When you finish, sit quietly for a minute with your eyes closed. Take your time as you open your eyes.
  5. Do not worry about whether you are successfully achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distacting thoughts occur, do not force them away. Rather, allow them to pass in and out of your mind like clouds passing overhead; keeping in mind the word you used in step 4. With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practise the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal.

Making daily relaxation a part of your lifestyle can give you extra energy for your other responsibilities. What is required is a little time and commitment.

Select a method that suits you best and practise it regularly. The more often you practise, the more adept you will be at relaxing. Thirty minutes a day is not a lot to give yourself in exchange for what you will receive.

Remember, relaxation can relieve your daily tension. So let yourself RELAX.