Relaxation and the breath of life
The Breath of Life
Our breathing is controlled by our autonomic nervous system - we don't have to think about each breath, our mind and body does this for us. As a result we tend to take for granted the air that gives us life and the response that allows us to breathe.
We need to go back to our first few days, months and years of life in order to learn again how to breathe in a way that is easy for our bodies and which is relaxing.
If you watch a baby sleeping, you can learn again the best way of breathing, which is the natural, unforced method of breathing using the abdominal area. When we breathe in, the abdomen expands and when we breathe out, the abdomen contracts. This allows the diaphragm to move downwards giving a greater area into which the lungs can expand, and thus a larger amount of air is sucked into the body.
Many of us find it difficult to achieve this because we have spent so much of our time breathing through the upper chest. This method means we have to expand the rib cage which is much more labour intensive because of the cumbersome nature of the skeleton.
The reasons for our change in breathing to using the chest area are interesting. Life has become so fast-paced now that we don't take time to slow ourselves down properly at any point.
Whether we are aware of it or not, many of us live in a state of stress, at one level or another, for most of our lives so we breathe in the same way as cavemen would have done when they were hunting - 'fight-or-flight' mode. In other words, we are consciously or unconsciously deciding all the time whether to stand our ground and deal with the many and varied situations that arise in our lives or whether to back off and deal with the frustration that it causes.
Whilst this kind of stress is harmless for very short periods of time, lengthy periods keep adrenaline pumping around our system for too long which can do a great deal of harm. Breathing through the upper chest is a symptom of this situation and also a primer for further stress - it's a vicious cycle.
So, how often do we need to relax? At least once, and preferably twice, a day; it's helpful if we can arrange one of these sessions for the period just before we go to bed so that we're in the right frame of mind to sleep soundly and effectively.
Trying to get a good night's sleep after working or studying during the evening is very difficult for a lot of people. It doesn't allow time for the brain to go into a state of lower activity so that it can wind down ready for sleep. Equally, many people find that doing strenuous physical exercise not long before bed without effective 'cool down' and relaxation periods prevents them from settling down easily and/or sleeping through the night. Although some people find that exercise before bed actually helps them to sleep!
Preparation for relaxation
It is important to make sure that you won't be disturbed during your relaxation session because it can be quite a shock to the system if the telephone rings or someone rushes into the room. So, if you live with other people, you need to negotiate with them for some privacy and quiet as far as possible, or perhaps arrange your sessions for when no one else is around. They will soon get used to the idea that this is 'your time' if you show that you are committed to it.
It's best to be in an enclosed space of some kind - a room with a door that you can shut or a garden that is secluded and as quiet as possible. To shut out surrounding noise, you might consider playing quiet, relaxing music and perhaps using headphones. An oil burner containing aromatherapy oil contributes to a relaxed atmosphere if you're in an enclosed room - lavender or rose are good for relaxation.
A comfortable chair that supports your body all the way down your spine is essential; otherwise, you'll tense up in those areas where you're not supported. Take some time to get yourself comfortable before you start so that you don't have to make any radical movements during the session.
The relaxation session
Before being able to genuinely relax, it's helpful to learn how to breathe in a relaxed way to help the process along.
So start by closing your eyes (or looking downwards to a point a few inches in front of your knees) and focusing on your breathing and take slightly deeper breaths - taking very deep breaths tends to lead to over-breathing which can induce as much tension as breathing through the upper chest. Notice what happens to your body as you breathe - is it just your chest that is moving in and out? Is it a little difficult to breathe?
Shift your focus to your abdomen and place your hands over this area. Allow your abdomen to expand as you breathe in. Feel your hands lifting and then softly falling as you breathe in and out. Your chest should only expand at the end of an in-breath and even then it probably won't be a significant expansion.
Once you've mastered this mode of breathing, you'll begin to feel calmer and you can then let your breath become more shallow and light so that you are breathing gently, and you can allow your hands to relax in your lap.
Now imagine there is a ball of warmth under your feet - feel it warming your feet and feel them start to relax into the warmth of the ball. Allow this ball of warmth to travel up your body - to your ankles, calves, knees, through your thighs and hips. Let the ball work its way up your spine, across your shoulders and send warmth down through your arms into your hands so that they feel heavy in your lap.
Now feel the ball moving up to your neck, radiating warmth into the back of your head and allow it to stay there on the back of your neck so that the warmth and relaxation you feel throughout your body lets you relax the muscles in your face and your throat.
Visualize all the tension from your body flowing down through your feet and into the Earth with each out-breath.
Feel your whole body relaxed and heavy on the chair and, in this relaxed state, focus again on your breathing without trying to change it in any way - simply observe your breath. As you breathe in, think about calmness and serenity; as you breathe out, think about letting any tensions go from your body down through your feet into the ground.
Sit like this for as long as you're able or, preferably, for as long as seems right to you and, when you're ready, with your eyes still closed or your gaze downwards, become aware of your feet on the floor, your body on the chair and picture in your mind the room or garden around you.
Wiggle your toes and fingers gently and then gradually open your eyes and return to the scene around you.
These suggestions may seem complicated and rather long initially but once you get into the routine, you will find that you can relax within a few minutes at each session and then use the majority of the suggestion just maintaining this state. You will relax into the session more quickly and more deeply the more often you do it.
After the relaxation session
Clearly, when you've been in a state of deep relaxation, it's not a good idea to leap out of the chair and do anything strenuous. You need to gradually ease yourself back into normal life and, if you've been relaxing before sleep, the next thing to do is to just get into bed and allow yourself to drift off to sleep. But if you're relaxing at some time during the day, it is a good idea to view the easing back into normality as a part of the relaxation process so that you gain the most benefit from the session.
Relaxation is a valid part of taking good care of ourselves - it has nothing to do with being lazy (unless, of course, you're doing it for most of the day!).
When we get used to making these sessions a routine part of our day, we will start to experience the real benefits:
- a more relaxed way of living, so that we actually achieve more in our days than we did before;
- a better relationship with ourselves and those around us - fewer situations irritate us and we learn to go with the flow of life more easily;
- our minds are clearer and sharper;
- we appreciate life more - the fun, the laughter, the beauty, the serenity.
Relaxation is not just an option ... it's an essential part of a balanced life. Try it and see for yourself!