July 27, 2021


Why being able to relax is THE most important skill one can learn now

The current era is a strange one, and a huge number of people have reported to us that they have become aware that they are feeling anxious, and more often. One woman wrote in the comment section of our jaw-neck sequence on our YouTube channel that, "I have been having so much jaw pain lately and [this] really helped loosen the tension:)”. If we suggest to someone that they might consider relaxing, we are met with many amusing reactions; my favourites are, “What do you mean?”, and the evergreen “Whadd’ya mean – I am relaxed!”

Most discussions about the desirability of being able to relax turn around discussions of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems – and this is one accurate perspective. Deep relaxation has the following effects on the body: a slowing of one's pulse rate and breathing rate, a lowering of one's blood pressure, a reduction in muscle tonus (one’s resting level of muscle tension, itself a learned habit), a softening of all the lines in one's face, and a tangible lessening of the feelings of anxiety. These are parasympathetic nervous system responses and are the opposite (complementary) reactions to the ones brought about by the sympathetic axis, often collectively labelled the "fight or flight response". In broad terms, the part of the nervous system described as the ’sympathetic’ aspect is responsible for ramping up the system, in preparation for ‘fight or flight’. Adrenaline is the key hormone, but there are others. The parasympathetic systems are responsible for a calming down of the same systems. Our human history has privileged those people who have been able to mobilise the fight or flight systems the most efficiently and aggressively, I believe, and this aspect of being human is one of the reasons we are in such dire straights presently. I will return to this, below.

Until now, the capacity to mobilise the parasympathetic system’s responses has conferred no evolutionary advantage upon individuals, but its time has come, I will argue. Never before have the limits of the planet’s capacity to absorb the impact of population numbers combined with increased patterns of consumption as now, and this, coupled with the rapidly widening gap between the haves and have nots, is driving all environmental systems harder and faster. Climate change is just one result. There is also no doubt that the media plays a significant role in the fanning of these flames, and because we are all connected so much more, and so much more quickly than ever before, many people are both feeling anxious and experiencing what we might label a low level of dread, all the time. The body experiences this as tension. Holding increased tension becomes one’s new habit; one’s new normal. When a new stress is experienced, that tension is ratcheted up a little more, and this creates the experience of more anxiety. An ‘interrupt’ is needed to change this feedback loop.

In relaxation practices, one is directed to pay attention to one or more physical sensations. For example, becoming aware of the sensations of each breath in and out is a standard, and effective, recommendation. However, any physical sensation in the body that is strongly discernible to you will serve the same goal, like the feeling in your right hand. I use the feelings of my lower abdomen and awareness of the movements in the body we label as ‘breathing’. When people think about physical sensations, they tend not to think about them as ephemeral – but they are. And here is one of the beauties of attending to physical sensations: just because they are ephemeral, and exist only in the continually unfolding present, if you attend to sensations in the body then you are present. It’s as simple as that.

But it is common for people who are learning relaxation practices for the first time to suddenly become aware that their capacity to hold their attention on physical sensations is limited—that is, one’s attention is regularly pulled away, and always by a thought. What happens is that you’re aware that you’re feeling your hand (or whatever you are using) and then a thought pops into your mind—and we find our thoughts tremendously interesting, and we forget that we had set our goal to hold our attention on the hand. When we notice that we are distracted by a thought or a thought stream, and we remember that our goal in this practice is to keep our attention on the particular physical sensation we have chosen, the returning of one's attention to the sensation develops our concentration, because our minds are busy places indeed, and we will find that we need to keep bringing the attention back. The repetition of realising that you are distracted, firstly, and choosing to gently disengage from the thought and return your awareness to the sensation really strengthens this capacity. This is one very important aspect of developing a relaxation practice. And when you do bring your awareness back to whatever you chose as its focus, smile internally, and say to yourself, ’there’s that mind again, doing its job!”. Smiling internally defeats the mind’s next move, which usually is some variation on, “I can’t relax well; I’ll never be able to do this", etc., etc. In other words, smiling stops the mind setting up its typical dichotomy of the ‘good’ me (the one who can hold her attention on the choice) and the ‘bad’ me (the one who gets distracted from the practise by thoughts). In fact, recognising that one is being distracted is the practise.

And if, from time to time, you remember to tell yourself, “deeply relaxed, body and mind" as you practise, along with other suggestions like, “let my body relax fully onto the floor” (there are many others), and you ask yourself what all this feels like, then at some point you actually feel what being relaxed feels like. The sensation is somehow like warm water in the body; sounds odd, but in my experience it feels like that. As well, you will notice several things, not in any order, like the body feeling massively heavy; the body feeling more of the floor as it contacts more of it; your breathing will slow; as you breathe in, you will feel your heart beating and you will become aware that it has slowed, too.

But how do we know that we are awake, and not asleep dreaming we are relaxing? One very old technique is counting the breath, and this is how it’s done. Feel all the movements in the body as fully as you can, and run your awareness around the body, part by part, asking yourself, for example, 'is my [foot] as relaxed as it can be?' You might even move the foot, a tiny bit, and really slowly. I used to tell myself to make any movements so slow that were someone watching me, they would not be able to see me move, and moving unnaturally slowly strengthens the sensations coming from that part, too. Then, take in another breath and as you breathe out, count “one’. Breathe in again, noting all sensations you are aware of, then breathe out, and count “two”. The very first time you practise this, as soon as you notice a thought (something that’s not about breathing or counting), go back to “one”. You might be surprised how few numbers you can count!

At a subsequent practise session, set yourself up the same way, but this time as you count, when you become aware of other thoughts, gently let them go and reset your awareness on the sensations of breathing, and the increments of the count. Without forcing anything, try to keep going – 27 breaths is a good number to aim for, and higher numbers as your concentration strengthens. The beauty of this method is that you will know for sure when you’ve been distracted because you will forget where you are in the count. Most likely, when this happens, is that the mind has fallen asleep momentarily, and when you awaken, you have forgotten where you were. What I do if this happens is I go back to the last number I remember clearly, and start again from there. Alternatively, I go back to one. Neither approach is “better”.

And if you do adopt one of the breath-count options, every now and again when you practice, decide to not count the breath; rather, find the sensation you want to hold your attention in, and simply pay attention to what is happening now, and do this for as long as you can and for as long as this is interesting.

Being more relaxed in ordinary daily life will hold you more in the present moment as it unfolds, and this has unexpected benefits. The paradox is that if you are more relaxed, you will also be more aware of the suite of feelings the body has, and always has had. And you will be more aware of how your internal state is changing, all the time. You will become clearly aware of tension coming back into the body. And this awareness of change has some unexpected benefits—for example, if anger has been a problem for you in the past, be aware that, by now, you have a PhD in upset. By the time you are an adult, you will have become angry a great many times, and like all things practiced, you have become better at it! And this observation applies to any emotion that is a sticking place for you. Learning how to really relax and becoming more aware of your internal state, one day you will literally feel yourself organising internally to ‘do anger’: at some point in your practise you will feel this clearly—and by becoming aware of it early enough in this process, you can pivot. By this I mean you can let your tummy and jaw go completely soft, take in a breath and concentrate on letting the tummy stay completely soft and suddenly you will realise that you are not angry in that moment. You then get to choose how you do want to feel.

And this is one of the keys of becoming a better human being: you learn to be nice to yourself. We are all self-critical; learning how to let go of this is the first step of your personal evolution. There’s more, but this is enough to start with.

So, to conclude, I believe there is no more direct path to self knowledge than learning how to relax, really relax, as a deeply lived physical and mental experience, and no practise will have a greater benefit for you, and the people around you, then devoting yourself to this one – daily – for a month, or for three months if you really want to change. Most definitely you'll be a different person if you practice daily for three months.

Start your practice with these audio recordings

1. Setup instructions for beginners to guided relaxation, just over 14 minutes:


2. Two guided relaxations for you to use, recorded live at an Into the Stretch workshop in Greenwell Point in 2019. These were recorded on successive days, and each day's themes are slightly different.

Day 1: https://lying-relaxation-scripts.s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/2019-ITS-day1.mp3, 15 minutes

Day 2: https://lying-relaxation-scripts.s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/2019-ITS-day2.mp3, 19 minutes

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