Many of us walk around with a lifetime’s worth of tension in our bodies. We’ve been tense for so long that tension feels normal. We keep functioning in our daily lives even when our teeth are clenched or our muscles are locked. Although we’ve learned to live with stress, the tightness in our bodies can compromise our long-term health. It blocks the flow of blood and lymph fluids, prevents the free flow of oxygen and nutrients, and makes it hard for our bodies to flush out toxins, wastes, bacteria and viruses. If we live in a constant state of stress, this activates our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system and shuts down the parasympathetic (rest and digest) pathways. So, when we are stressed, our body doesn’t digest or rest. (How’s that for a rhyme?)
When the body is relaxed and at ease, it can naturally maintain a state of health. Our breath comes easier, our sleep is deeper, and our smile comes sooner when the body is free from tension.
My Thai massage teacher, Supron Mukomla, noticed that my muscles were impenetrably tight when she gave me a massage. She knew I practiced meditation, so she suggested: “When you meditate, instead of concentrating on your breathing, concentrate on relaxing your muscles.” She felt this was so important that she had me sit down immediately after the massage, and practice this new meditation. She didn’t give any further instruction. Fortunately I had experienced Chavasana in yoga classes, and a Total Relaxation exercise given by Sister Chan Khong (a nun who belongs to the Order of Interbeing), so I was able to come up with my own version of these wonderfully calming practices. I’ve written my version here with the hope that it might help other people too.
This is a simple meditation technique that invites you to follow your breathing and focus on one area of your body at a time. You can spend 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or more, helping yourself to deeply relax. It feels wonderful.
The basic practice is this:
Breathing in, focus on one area of the body.
Breathing out, relax that area of the body.
It’s especially helpful to practice this exercise just before falling asleep at night, or if you wake up in the middle of the night. Even if you don’t fall asleep, you can still enter a state of deep relaxation that is restful and rejuvenating for the body and mind. You could also practice in a sitting position.
As Sister Chan Khong says when she leads Total Relaxation, “If you find yourself entering gently into a sleep, please don’t try to resist. Just sleep.”
You might like to read this out loud for a friend, partner, or family member, or ask them to read it aloud for you. Please read slowly.
Lie in a comfortable position on your back. Let your neck be supported. If you use a pillow, use one that allows your head, neck and shoulders to be on the same level. Extend your arms beside your body. Let your legs and feet rest in a relaxed position. Let all tension release from your head, release from the shoulders, release from the back. Let the whole body sink down toward the earth.
Bring your full awareness to your breathing. Breathing in, know that you are breathing in. Breathing out, know that you are breathing out. Feel your abdomen gently rising and falling.
Breathing in, bring your attention to your toes.
Breathing out, feel all of your toes relax.
Breathing in, bring the attention to both feet.
Breathing out, release the muscles of the feet.
Breathing in, be aware of your lower legs.
Breathing out, release the muscles of the lower legs.
Breathing in, be aware of your two knees.
Breathing out, feel the knee joints become spacious and open.
Breathing in, be aware of your thighs.
Breathing out, totally relax both of the thighs.
Breathing in, rest attention on your hips.
Breathing out, feel the hips grow heavy, and slowly drop toward the earth.
Notice your abdomen rising, and falling. Let the abdomen soften as it falls.
Breathing in, bring your awareness to the spine.
Breathing out, feel open spaces between the vertebrae.
Breathing in, rest your attention on your shoulders.
Breathing out, release the shoulders toward the floor. All tension melts out of the shoulders. They feel light and relaxed.
Breathing in, become aware of your throat.
Breathing out, feel that your throat is open and soft.
Breathing in, be aware of your jaw.
Breathing out, your jaw is open, teeth resting easily in the gums.
Breathing in, be aware of your whole face.
Breathing out, all the muscles of your face feel soft and light.
Breathing in, be aware of your eyes.
Breathing out, let the eyeballs rest in their sockets.
Breathing in, be aware of your ears.
Breathing out, let the ears relax toward the floor.
Breathing in, be aware of your brain.
Breathing out, let the brain be cradled gently in the skull.
Your in-breath is deep. Your out-breath is slow.
Slowly bring your awareness back to your body. Feel all the cells of your body softly vibrating. Gently wiggle your fingers and toes. Move your hands and feet. Let your eyes move back and forth, then slowly open them. Let your body slowly move however it wants to, as you wake up.