The word ‘relaxation’ can be problematic. Have you ever had the experience of someone else telling you to ‘just relax’? If only it were that simple.
It’s true that practising mindful body awareness can lead (eventually) to a greater sense of relaxation. But it’s also true that a stressed nervous system needs to go gradually, and it might not let go of tension straight away. In fact, rushing things can have the opposite effect: trying to force ourselves to relax can put our complex body-mind system into a defensive state, rather than a calm one.
Meditation teacher Reggie Ray reminds us that the first step towards relaxing is to actually become more aware of tension. I believe that learning to do this with self-kindness, not judgement, is a crucial step towards freedom from stress. I love how Gregory Kramer explains that ‘relax becomes accept’. From this place of accepting ourselves just as we are right now, we can begin to let go of some of the things that prevent us from experiencing true relaxation.
With mindfulness, we learn to notice the additional layer of stress that we might be adding to our experience – this extra layer of tension is what we begin to relax first.
For example, we might let go of a role we feel driven to play, or an idea of who we need to be. We might let go of telling ourselves a story about how we should be, or about how life is. We might let go of being so hard on ourselves, or of the relentless rush and the unconquerable To-Do list. We might let go of some physical bracing against a body sensation or emotion that we don’t like.
We might begin, very gradually, to let go of habitual strategies that once protected us, but which now limit us; these habits might be mental, emotional, physical or behavioural, and they are personal to each of us. It takes huge courage to truly relax if we’ve spent decades practising vigilance against what might threaten us in some way.
So how do we actually go about moving in this direction?
Bringing awareness into the body (also known as somatic mindfulness), and lying down can both have a profound effect on nervous system regulation. When in bodily contact with the ground, we can connect with a sense of stability that a stressed nervous system really appreciates (you’ll have heard the term ‘grounding yourself’).
Lying down to meditate can also help with letting go of physical ‘holding on’, and in a wider sense it supports the practice of slow living: we weren’t meant to rush around non-stop, and our bodies know this.
As we build body awareness, we also begin to allow the activation cycle of stress to complete, leaving us feeling more peaceful – but this is a process that we need to give time to, even if what we’re aware of for quite a while includes tension or unwanted body sensations.
Paying attention to bodily experience is very effective for reversing chronic stress, but also can be challenging at first for those of us who’ve experienced chronic stress – hence the need to go slowly and not try to force anything. Forcing things can lead to feelings of frustration and failure.
Instead of pushing for a ‘result’ from meditation, we can give ourselves permission to be just how we are in this moment (even if it’s anxious, sad or angry). This is actually key part of being able to relax in the fullest sense: suppressing our emotions creates resistance which works against our capacity to experience peace. As Arnie Kozak wisely points out, ‘Relaxation is a reliable by-product of mindful attention. If you aim directly for relaxation, however, that effort can actually get in the way’.
Given that it can feel challenging when we first begin to re-inhabit the body, I think it’s important to adopt a two-pronged approach that includes not just body awareness, but also compassion – I think of it as ’embodied self-kindness’. Whatever our preferred way to practice self-kindness, it’s a powerful resource that we can lean into when we don’t feel able to put our attention in the body. (You can find plenty of meditations and blogs about self-kindness on this site).
As I reach the end of this post, I’m reminded of the brilliant words of Danna Faulds in her poem Self-Observation Without Judgement, which I’ve shared below.
Sheila runs classes and workshops in Heaton Moor, South Manchester sharing mindfulness, self-kindness and body awareness.