Relaxation Is A Skill
One of the phrases I hear most often from clients is, “I don’t know how to relax,” or “I’m just not good at relaxation.” My response, which usually surprises people is, “Yes, that’s correct.” Newsflash: most of us never learned how to do it. Recognizing that is probably a good place to start.
In our culture, most of us have not actually been taught the skill of relaxation, and it is indeed a skill. Our parents probably weren’t taught either, so we can’t really blame them. Our teachers in school probably weren’t taught, so we can’t really blame them either.
So, how do we learn how to relax? First, we need to identify the obstacles. I have identified four common misperceptions that many people have about finding relaxation.
Relaxation Is A Natural Talent That Other People Have, But I Don’t. It is not. Rather, it is a skill that requires technique, practice and even discipline, just like any other skill.
Relaxation Is The Result Of Having The Ideal External Conditions. While there may be some truth to organizing our lives in a way that is conducive to minimizing stress, there is just no such thing as ideal conditions. Life is difficult sometimes, and we don’t have any control over that truth. Learning to relax is an “inside job,” and not dependent on outside conditions.
If I Let Myself Relax, I Will Lose My Edge. Are you afraid that when you turn off the lights in your kitchen they will never come back on? Ok, then.
“I” Can Or Can’t Relax. It’s not your identity that relaxes. Instead of focusing on who needs to relax, we need to focus on what relaxes.
So, what relaxes? Let’s start physically; it’s your muscles. Humor me for a moment and tighten every single muscle in your body. Tighten your jaw, arms, legs, hands, feet, everything. Now, let that go and just stop tightening your muscles. Congratulations, you just relaxed.
Now that you know how to do it, there is some more nuance to it. If you sit quietly and scan your body with awareness, you might notice there are areas of tension that you haven’t noticed otherwise. When you notice this, see if you can relax that muscle(s). You can do this periodically throughout your day. You could even do it right now.
What else relaxes? The mind can relax. Because we perceive best through contrast, let’s look at what it’s like when the mind is tense. It usually involves worrying about the future or ruminating on the past.
When this is happening, it activates a part of our brain that neuroscientists have dubbed the default mode network. When the DMN is overactive, anxiety and depression increase. In other words, worrying increases anxiety and depression.
So how do we turn off the DMN? We do this through activating what’s called the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex. We do this by bringing our mind to something that isn’t the past or future — yup, you guessed it — the present moment, whatever is happening right now.
That could be your breathing, which is always present, or it could be your body sensations, which are also always present.
It could also be something in the world around you. You could actually stop and smell the roses or look at the sky or notice the room you are in right now.
By paying attention to our present experience our mind begins to relax. As a good friend of mine, Noel Coakley, put it, “When we don’t have an object of attention, our brain scans for threats.” This scanning is a useful mental software that has helped our species evolve and survive, but most of the time it is running without our knowledge. So, we need an object of attention to step out of the unconscious habit of worrying.
Although we have looked at the body and the mind separately, in truth these two things are not so separate. Oftentimes when our mind is in a state of worrying our body begins to tense up. So, by working with our body we are helping the mind, and by working with the mind, we are helping the body. They are really two sides of the same coin.
A most important tip is that each time you relax, notice that you have just done so. In other words, acknowledge your success. A little recognition of your skill helps you to build confidence in your ability and it enhances the clarity of your experience of being at ease.
This creates a positive feedback loop in which the three steps below reinforce and build on each other. You relax, you recognize that you did it, this builds confidence and the confidence supports your ability to engage this skill both in the moment, and again in the future.
By the same token, when you notice that you are tense, recognize it and move on, but try not to dwell on it. This creates a negative feedback loop and is a waste of your time and energy. We have all been unconsciously practicing a negative feedback loop in terms of our worrying due to the outdated mental software which has helped us evolve and survive. However, in this modern era, we need a software upgrade, and active relaxation just might be it.
Active relaxation is not sitting around and spacing out. It is not the same thing as sitting on the couch and watching TV, not that there is anything wrong with that. Rather, active relaxation involves engaging with something. It is about learning the skill of releasing the tension we are unconsciously holding.
So, instead of tuning out, we actually tune in. When we tune into ourselves, we can notice the unconsciously held tension, and in noticing it we have an opportunity to let go.
When you give your body-mind time to relax it rejuvenates you, and you can meet your world and your life from a place of renewal. Practice and you will develop this skill to use whenever you want.
Neil Taylor is a Yoga teacher, massage therapist and meditation teacher. He works 1-1 with clients and also teaches public classes and workshops both online and in-person. www.NeilTaylorYoga.com.