For most people there is really no question in their mind that it is important to relax. We know that after the day follows the night and that we also have to be in balance between being in an active state and being in a restful state. In theory we know that relaxation is important, but practically most of us don’t know how and actually also don’t know what relaxation or the lack of relaxation does to us. Let’s say that relaxation means tension free.
So where is the tension apart from the neck and shoulders and the lower back that most of us working in front of the computer know happens from our prolonged sitting? There are three types of tension which are responsible for the agonies of human life. Our tension is on a nervous, emotional and muscular level as well as on a cerebral level. These kind of tension we experience as stress. It can be experienced as feeling tensed, tight or overloaded. Our mind runs wild and we are unable to stop it or calm it down because there is so much to do and to think about or not to forget about. Then at some stage we start to feel tension or pains in the body – often we try to ignore it as long as possible or quickly take some pain killers, so we don’t have to look closer and we think we can just go on as usual.
When studying pharmacy I learnt about the phenomenon of stress on a personal and professional level. The study was pretty intense with numerous subjects, theory and hours in the lab, so that my mind ran wild and my body was tired. I had to learn a technique to relax and re-energise myself. The body goes into the fight/flight mode when under stress. Usually there is a good reason to do so, but then there is the need to get out of it again and not permanently stay in it. The neuro-anatomist Jeremy Schmahmann has proven that if we are in our natural physiological state – the relaxed state – it is possible to be busy and calm at the same time. He calls the relaxed state our natural one. Stress on the other hand changes our physiology so that it is impossible for us to be busy (not scattered) and calm at the same time.
How is that? Stress affects our “fight/flight” response which can be measured in increased heart rate, blood pressure and blood clotting factor as well as increased cholesterol level and blood sugar level, while it decreases our immunity, memory and concentration and our serotonin levels (results are anxiety, depression, irritability and fatigue). If we can’t get back to “neutral”, the just relaxed state it makes us really sick over time. So these are obviously some hard facts on why it is important to relax. The how is more complex as we saw that the tension is on three different levels and maybe not that easy to tackle. But there is one observation that might be the first step for us to introduce moments of relaxation into our life.
We know that when we are relaxed we breathe more deeply and that is an indication that something is regarded as safe. And when we feel safe we are in a more open state of mind. If eliminating physical tension and mental stress and increasing vitality and inner calm is what you want to achieve through relaxation but you think you can’t make time to lie down for a moment during the day and practice relaxation, then sit somewhere undisturbed and connect with your breath. Concentrating on your breath is one of the most powerful methods of introverting the restless mind. Just by becoming aware of your natural breath for some time at any given moment, you will feel how your breath naturally calms down, relaxing the mind.
It is advisable to make a specific time during your work day and also when you come home from work and you are about to switch over to your private life, where you sit quietly for a moment becoming aware of your breath, counting your breaths from 27 down towards 1. If you lose count or realize you count automatically while your mind is busy with the next thing, start counting from 27 again. When you finished the breath awareness and the counting down to 1, go back to your activities. When I heard that Schmahmann found out that the cerebellum in the brain returns the body to its normal relaxed open state after detecting movement in the joints (especially the spine) – that’s when Yoga came in for me and I found my yoga teacher who lived and breathed yoga.
That’s where Yoga comes in: Asanas (movements/postures done with awareness), Pranayama (regulated breathing), and Yoga Nidra (relaxation) work on the whole person thus bringing us back to our natural state where we can be busy and calm, in inner balance.