The profound mental stillness that follows physical relaxation is the essence of meditation.
Meditation was traditionally used as a means to reach a state of higher consciousness with good health just being a side effect. Now with our understanding of stress and the benefits of relaxation, meditation has become an effective technique in treating a wide range of physical, mental and emotional stressors.
We have over 600 muscles in our body which are made up of fibres that are long and flat when relaxed and bunched up and tight when tensed (e.g. your biceps when your flex them). If we stay tense too long our muscles stay tight and can send pain messages to our brain. Unresolved trauma, worries, fears, anger and tension that are not resolved or released, can keep our bodies and minds in a state of stress – the fight or flight mode. This can make it difficult to respond to challenging situations in a calm and non-reactive manner, therefore, creating more intensity, without a chance to release tension or relax in between events.
To be relaxed is to be healthy and meditation invokes the relaxation response – a deeply relaxed body and still mind, creating the optimal conditions in which the body’s natural healing ability can operate and develop. Focusing on body parts or muscle groups gets us out of the thoughts in our head and into the present moment.
Relaxation meditation (also called health meditation) can be a simple as spending 5 minutes focusing on your breath or as detailed as a 40 minute full body scan. A body scan can be done in several ways depending on how much time you have, how stressed your body is and how experienced you are at meditating.
PMR (Progressive Muscle Relaxation)
- This is a quick, easy and very effective form of body relaxation as you are physically and mentally instructing your body to clench a muscle and then release it, reminding it how your muscles feel when they are relaxed.
- Clench and release each muscle group one by one starting with your hands, biceps, shoulders, jaw, stomach, glutes, legs then feet/toes.
- Don’t forget to breath as you do, e.g. breathe in and clench, breathe out and release.
Short Mental Body Scan
- Scan your body from head to toe, focusing on one muscle group at a time.
- Mentally release any tension you find along the way – breathing in as you focus then breathing out as you let go.
Full Body Scan
- Listening to a full 30-40 minute body scan (e.g. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s) is great for beginners and for deep relaxation, muscle by muscle and limb by limb starting with just your left big toe.
- Once you become practiced at relaxing your body this way, you may be able to just bring your awareness briefly to each body party and consciously relax from head to toe or toe to head without doing a full body scan.
Directed Body Scan
- If you are feeling pain or any kind of strong or uncomfortable sensation in one particular area of the body, focusing the breath on this area is an effective, simple and quick way to lessen the sensation.
- Focus on breathing in warmth or coolness or soothing and healing with each inhale directing it to the area of discomfort.
- Then on the out breath picture the pain or sensation being drawn away and keep repeating until it’s gone or at a more comfortable level.
- Ian Gawler’s Pain Meditation is a great tool for this
It’s ideal to practice mindful breathing prior to doing a body relaxation technique to ground and prepare you for optimal relaxation. When people feel stressed, worried or fearful, their breathing tends to be shallow and quick. Breathing slowly, deeply and fully brings us back to the present moment, grounding and anchoring us which can then lead the body into a state of relaxation and re-energising. Following the rhythm of your breath and noticing it’s movement in your body (e.g. flow of air in and out of the nostrils, rise and fall of the chest, inflation and deflation of the tummy) is one of the simplest and most effective meditation techniques to learn. Giving the mind something to focus on, e.g. the breath, helps still the thought stream. N.B. Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth releases tension and stress initially but then it is advisable to breath in and out through the nose as this lowers the heart rate. Read our blog post on Diaphragmatic Breathing for more tips on nasal/belly breathing.
The 7 Qualities of Mindfulness Trained in the Body Scan
“Enjoy your body, use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it, or what other people think of it, it’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.”
(Kurt Vonnegut Jr)