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Relaxation Exercises
for Greater Balance and Well-Being

What Are Relaxation Exercises?

          When we talk about relaxation exercises on this site, we mean something quite specific – namely, exercises that help you to release tension from your muscles.  However, when people refer to someone as being a “relaxed person,” they’re usually referring to that person’s state of mind.  They probably mean someone who tends to be more on the calm and contented end of the spectrum, not easily upset, not inclined to worry, someone who manages to stay balanced in challenging circumstances.

Relaxed Muscles, Relaxed Mind

          Would it surprise you to hear that simply by learning to relax your muscles, you can become more like the relaxed person we just described? Well, it's true. Since the mind and body are so closely connected, when you start to release tension from your body, your mind begins to relax as well.

          Dr. Edmund Jacobsen was one of the early pioneers in the field of mind-body medicine (then known as psychosomatic medicine). Using one of the first machines ever available for measuring electrical activity in the muscles and nervous system, he demonstrated that there is a connection between tension in the body and tension in the mind.  He showed that when muscular activity decreases, activity in the brain and spinal cord decreases as well.  

          So calmer muscles make for a calmer mind.

          Jacobson went on to demonstrate that excessive tension in the muscles can be associated with a variety of disorders of both mind and body – and that by simply learning to relax our muscles, we can not only help to prevent those disorders, we can help to heal them as well.

Relaxed Mind, Relaxed Muscles

          Releasing tension works in both directions.  When you start to relax your mind, your muscles get the message and they, too, naturally begin to let go of tension.  

          But is there one thing that can relax mind and body at the same time?  

          You can probably guess the answer:  remembering to breathe. That is, remembering to activate your mid-prefrontal cortex (the MPFC), to shift your attention to the “hub” of your “wheel of awareness.”  You might just take a few slow, conscious breaths – or use some other technique to help you focus your attention and get in touch with the core of calm, ease, and contentment that becomes available when you activate your MPFC.

Remember to Breathe

          If that sounds appealing, why not take a brief moment to remember to breathe right now.  Here are some simple instructions to help you do that: 

Sit quietly for a moment.      

Now take a slow, deep breath in, and as you slowly exhale fully,
bring your attention to the feeling of the air in your nostrils as you breathe out.

Take another slow, deep breath in, noticing the cool air as it enters your nostrils.
And as you slowly exhale fully, notice that the air feels a little warmer as it leaves your nostrils.

Take another slow, deep breath in, noticing the cool air as it enters your nostrils and as you slowly exhale fully think of relaxing your body.

Take another slow, deep breath in, noticing the cool air as it enters your nostrils and as you slowly exhale fully think of relaxing your mind.

Gently take one more slow deep breath in and out, allowing a feeling of calm and relaxation spread throughout your mind, your heart, and your body.

          Spending just a moment or two to contact your core sends ripples of relaxation throughout your mind and body, and can change how you feel about and respond to whatever may be happening on the rim of your wheel of awareness.

          Remember the story of the officer standing in line at the grocery store who was becoming increasingly irritable because the cashier was taking so long with another customer?   As soon as he shifted his attention away from his anger to notice the tension in his body - even before he made a conscious effort to breathe and relax - his mind and muscles were probably already starting to relax.

          Just a brief moment of self-awareness can focus your attention sufficiently to awaken some sense of your core.  And even a little taste of your core can allow tension, irritation, and worry to begin to melt away.

          But it’s not always easy to make that shift inward to your core.  When you find it difficult, relaxation exercises can be a very helpful aid.

Relaxation and the Brain

          As we said above, the relaxation exercises we teach on this site work directly to release muscle tension. When your muscles relax, it sends a message to your brain that you’re not in danger. That message then reverberates throughout your brain and nervous system with many beneficial effects, which include:

  • rebalancing your autonomic nervous system (ANS), allowing you to feel both relaxed and energized at the same time
  • calming your instinctive brain, making you better able to deal with stress
  • removing obstacles to the optimal functioning of your mid-prefrontal cortex (MPFC) so that it can better accomplish its work of:
  • increasing your self-awareness
  • improving your concentration
  • making it easier for you to shift from a negative to more positive mood
  • helping you respond to situations in new ways
  • making you feel more connected to other people

Unlearning the Habit of Tension

          As you learn various relaxation exercises, it can be helpful to keep in mind that relaxation is our natural state.  What you’re really learning is how to release the habit of creating tension, making it possible to enjoy your natural state of alert relaxation.

          If you’re like most people, much of the time you’re walking around with tense muscles that you’re not even aware are tense.  You may not become aware of them until they start to ache or cause problems.  So the first step in unlearning the habit of tension is to become skillful at noticing when your muscles are tense.  Once you’re good at identifying tense muscles, then you can learn to help them relax.  

          Eventually, with lots of practice, in order to release unnecessary tension, all you’ll need to do is bring your attention to the tense area, holding a gentle intention for it to relax.

          Because relaxation is our natural state, sometimes, even without practice, just taking a moment to scan through your body looking for tense muscles can remind the body to relax and restore its natural state.  

          Take a moment to try a quick relaxation exercise now:

Without making any effort to “try” to relax, just begin to notice the sensations of your breathing.

Notice how the breath feels as it moves through your body as you breathe in and breathe out.

In the back of your awareness, continue to be aware of your breath as we guide you to slowly scan through your body noticing areas of tension.  As you’re scanning, hold a gentle intention for any tension to be released.

Bring your attention to your face and jaw, noticing any areas of tension, and being willing for the tension to be released.

Continue to be aware of your breathing as you check your neck and shoulders, then your chest and belly. 

Scan your arms and hands, your legs, and your feet.

Now go back to your face and see if you notice even a very slight difference in how it feels, and how you feel overall.

If you don’t notice a difference, don’t worry – with sufficient practice you will.

Some Benefits of Relaxation

          Research has shown that regular practice of relaxation exercises strengthens your immune system, improves the health of your heart, and, if you’re diabetic, can even lessen the amount of insulin you require.

          But try it and see for yourself.   We predict that with regular practice of relaxation exercises, you’ll find it easier to get relief from pain, anxiety, and emotional reactivity.  Because you won’t be as tired or stressed out, it will be easier for you to maintain a positive, constructive attitude when the going gets rough.  And it will be easier for you to maintain other healthy habits with regard to things like eating, exercise, sleep, and even how you use your time and spend your money.

         We invite you now to experiment with some of the relaxation exercises on the site so that down the road you can begin to harvest their many benefits for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.