When you think of relaxation, does lying around a beach in the sun, come to mind? Or sitting on the couch, or under a tree, or perhaps listening to music, or watching a good movie? Indeed there are many wonderful ways of relaxing.
How about we call the focus I’m describing here, therapeutic relaxation. Adding the adjective ‘therapeutic’ may change the feeling quite a bit, perhaps now you think of lying on a massage table or on a yoga mat in savasana (corpse pose) or even spending time in a hot tub. Indeed, relaxation is an important aspect of fitness, wellness and healing. Let’s explore more deeply.
Often, when healing becomes our focus, we pay attention to what we can ‘do’ to stimulate healing rather than ‘being’ healing. We take medicaments, eat right, or perhaps do our therapeutic exercises, all actions useful for healing. How about conditions like hypertension, high blood pressure, or anxiety? I could prescribe 10 minutes a day of relaxation, and research would support this as a healing intervention.
What do I mean “relaxation”? Simply put, having your body do nothing, your breath be calm and finding a calm peaceful mind Make no mistake, this is not passive, rather, a conscious choice is made to bring yourself into a state of relaxation. In terms of awareness, relaxation is a way of attending to yourself.
My Tai Chi teacher Lenzie Williams, at Tai Chi Berkeley, helps people develop this type of attention. He says, where the mind goes so does the Chi (internal energy). So in a simple standing posture, legs parallel, feet width of the shoulders, knees unlocked, spine erect, head up, eyes gazing out in front relaxed, Lenzie talks relaxing awareness. “Relax the shoulders….relax the arms….the elbows, the hands…Feel the breath relaxing the chest, the belly, etc.” He talks us through the entire body, with images like “feel the feet, connected and adhering to the earth….Lifted extended head…spine lengthening and open…waist buoyant and suspended.” As he guides us, students, myself included, bring our attention to that part of our body, consciously attending to the open and relaxed aspect of our bodies. Eventually, he brings us back to “Feel the breath….relax the entire body.” Week after week, we stand, listen and attend to our internal training. I have developed this skill to do on my own. I can consciously bring my attention to relaxing my body, my breath and my mind.
What does this have to do with healing? Certainly from a preventive perspective, these skills will greatly benefit ones overall health. However, when we are suffering from pain, acute illness, or even chronic conditions, or we are anxious, angry or fearful, then using our minds to bring relaxation into our bodies and hearts can significantly impact our healing response. Dr. Herbert Benson, MD, coined the term ‘relaxation response” in the 1975. Numerous studies show how relaxation can lower blood pressure, reduce sympathetic nervous activation (fight or flight response), alleviate premenstrual symptoms, improved surgical outcomes, or improved irritable bowel, just to name a few. For most of us, while this might seem like a stretch, that something so simple can have such a big impact. Yet it also seems logical considering that stress causes pain and illness, indeed, relaxation stimulates healing.
For our purposes, the lesson is to optimize healing, learning to effectively relax the body-mind-spirit is essential. Using simple relaxation practices common to many somatic therapies, martial arts and manual therapies whenever you need healing is powerful. Sure, when you have a headache or are writhing in bed with a stomach flu, it’s not that easy to quiet your mind and relax your body. However, just as a musician knows his tunes, or a dancer knows her moves, having a regular relaxation practice, such as those found in qigong, yoga, movement therapies or even meditation, provide the regular support and training that enables successful self-soothing as a means of supporting healing.
Qigong master Teja Bell offers a wonderful relaxation practice in which he calls upon you to imagine the transition of “ice melting into water”, throughout your body, then “water turning to steam” throughout the body. If done daily, this practice provides the mind and body with a felt sense of that loosening transition. With so many wonderful tapes available on the web as well as local teachers, I encourage you to take up a relaxation practice today, and learn the strengths and value of gently becoming your own healer.