Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What it Means to Relax Part 2

Yesterday, we discussed why to relax and the healing power that comes with relaxation, but sometimes I think few of us know how to actually relax, so this post is dedicated to that specifically.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of techniques for relaxation. There are even apps for it. Some of the most popular are: meditation, walking in nature, restorative yoga, yoga nidra, yin yoga, somatic awareness, knitting, exercising, cooking, and vacations. There are even programs designed to change our brain waves to help us relax, including Holothink and Holosync. I could probably go on, but you get the idea. There are ways we have come up with to help us relax.

But how many of us are actually able to relax in these settings? How do you know if you have fully relaxed? Is that even possible in this modern world?

First, there are several reasons it is so incredibly difficult to actually relax. One of the main reasons is the one we all know – the world is moving incredibly fast, and we are inundated with information. We are expected to keep up with everyone all the time. That is a huge problem, but it is only a piece of the problem. The other might be genetic. I’m no scientist, and definitely no geneticist, but there is some new information coming out about epigenetics that helps explain our inability to calm.

Yogis and other mystics (and yes, the New Age folks) have always known that our ancestral lines play a huge part in our lives today. Shamanism has ways to clear and work with our ancestral lineage. Science is finally catching up and explaining how this happens through epigenetics. If you are really interested, here is a link to the Wikipedia article about epigenetics.  Basically, the idea is that our genes activate in different ways based upon what worked for our ancestors. It makes sense. If your ancestors lived in a place where there were lions everywhere, we had to become acutely aware of threats early in life, or we would die. Of course, what this means today is that we have generations upon generations of suffering, depression, fear, anxiety, etc. expressing itself in our genes, and on top of everything else we live in the most overwhelming cultural environment I can imagine.

Are you relaxed yet?

So, in some ways our bodies have become hard wired to not relaxing. This is a perfect week to point this out with Passover and Easter. Passover is about celebrating overcoming hardship . . . but the hardship came first. Easter is about rebirth . . . but the horrific death came first.  And that death and hardship live on in our cells and our gene expression. So, while yoga nidra is lovely, and yes it’s one of my favorite relaxation techniques, it has to overcome a lot of conditioning.

 As I mentioned before, I have been working a lot on somatic awareness. The goal is to begin to pay attention to the signals our bodies send to us. I have been doing this on some level for over a decade. It really has been my entire time practicing yoga. But these days, I am looking at it differently and really trying to understand it differently. I am also finally starting to notice where I hold tension. Everywhere would be an understatement, but it is useful to know.

What I have found over the past few months is just how intensely difficult it is to really, truly, let go and relax. I may be able to relax one part of my body, but then the rest of it tenses up. I have begun to notice what parts of my body tense when I go to move, and they are not the parts of my body needed to move in that moment. One of the relaxation techniques I left off above is biofeedback. The entire goal is to notice where you are tense, so you know to relax there.

Noticing is the first step. We simply cannot relax until we know where we are tense. Meditation helps us do the exact same thing with the mind. It helps us notice where our mind is tense or racing or confused or whatever, and then just let it go. While the body and mind are simply one entity, for some people it is easier to learn to relax the mind first, and for others it is easier to learn to relax the body.

But at the end of the day, relaxation is more difficult for us than it was 1,000 years ago. The techniques have not changed, but we have to learn to use them more effectively.

True relaxation begins with noticing where our tension patterns lie. As you read this, take a moment and stop. Scan your body. Where is there tension? Where is there no tension? For some of us, the only place without tension is the ear lobe. That is okay. I am starting to believe that is more normal than we would like to admit. Then begin to tell the body it is safe to let go. It is safe to relax the shoulders. It is safe to relax the thigh muscles when you are sitting and lying down. It is safe to relax the core muscles. We have ways to hold ourselves up without tension.

As we begin to allow ourselves to relax, relaxation can come. It may not come immediately, but it can begin to sneak in. It can begin to enter our being and our cells. Relaxation can happen when we notice what is stopping it and consciously let that go. But for that we have to stop. We have to notice. We have to take the time and turn inward. It is, at times, very difficult, but the rewards are endless. Eventually, we will begin to notice the tension and let it go even when we are stressed out at the grocery store or in traffic. When we learn to relax, we can live in this world with more ease and comfort. We can begin to heal, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Relaxation is key to everything. It is so, so simple and yet incredibly difficult.

How do you notice if relaxation is working? What techniques work better for you? Do you notice places you find it impossible to relax? What could you do to relax in those spots?


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.
The post, What it Means to Relax Part 2, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.


  1. I do not speak from much experience (sadly), but doesn't exercise - especially all-out run, skip, jump, have fun, move your body, get that heart rate up, sweat!! exercise calm our systems down afterwards, without us having to think much about it? I guess another way of looking at it is, well, we may not have lions chasing us, but people who exercise as though they do seem to get a pass on both physical and mental tension to some degree. Is that right, or only wishful thinking (for when I DO start running, skipping and jumping!)?

    1. Yes, absolutely. Exercise can be a wonderful way to relax . . . if it is done with that sort of intention. It can also cause stress and anxiety, but so can yoga and meditation if done with that intention.

  2. I am a Yoga instructor and not only teach others but also love to do Yoga personally. There i no doubt that regular practice of Yoga can help us to maintain mind body alignment and also to be relaxed and refreshed.