When I ask clients what they do for daily relaxation I usually get responses such as:
"I relax by watching TV every night."
"I have a glass of wine."
"I read a book."
"I go out with friends."
"I go to the gym and work out."
"I find gardening relaxing."
"I like to fish."
Although each of these activities may be perceived as relaxing and may even have an element of mindfulness, they don't provide the brain and body with the deep meditative relaxation we require. In fact, most of these activities are stimulating to the brain or the body.
When I refer to deep meditative relaxation, I mean the type that allows our brain to enter an "alpha" state for a period of time. An "alpha" state refers to our brain waves as measured by an EEG. When (non-invasive) electrodes are attached to our heads to measure our brain waves, we find several different types occur depending upon our degree of wakefulness.
The normal state of wakefulness in which we are fully aware and active is shown as "beta" waves. Beta waves on the EEG are very active, not very uniform, and not deep are slow. This makes sense as it is showing that the brain is active which includes thinking as well as physical activity which the brain must direct. So, most of the statements above can be described by a "beta wave state."
When we fall asleep our brain slows down, and the brain waves become deeper, slower, and more rhythmic as we progress through the deeper stages of sleep including theta and delta brain waves. However, when we cycle back into dream sleep or "REM" sleep then our brain approaches the wakeful state of the beta waves because our brain is active during dream sleep.
For most people who don't practice deep meditative relaxation, these are the primary brain waves that they experience. However, with deep relaxation, meditation, hypnosis, and mindfulness people experience the alpha brain wave state as well as the theta brain wave state (Chiesa, 2009; Lagopoulos et al, 2009) which have been shown to have significant health benefits.
1) Reduction in Stress and Anxiety. Numerous studies have shown that relaxation exercises reduce stress effects and anxiety (Manzoni et al, 2008; Arias, 2006). As a result, individuals can function better in their daily tasks, can be more focused and productive at work, and generally feel more content.
2) Reduces Depression and Substance Abuse. Routine meditation can reduce depressive symptoms (Arias, 2006). In addition, Chiesa and Serretti (2009) conducted a review of studies examining mindfulness meditations and found that such practice reduces relapses in depression as well as substance abuse. Mindfulness may not be the only form of treatment but it can certainly be a useful adjunct to the treatment of these problems.
3) Reduces Symptoms of Various Physical Illnesses. A review of several studies showed that the cognitive impairment related to cancer has been reduced through meditation which also assisted cancer patients with mood, stress, nausea, pain, and sleep disturbance (Biegler, Chaoul & Cohen, 2009). In addition, meditation has been effective with reducing blood pressure (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009) and with epilepsy, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menopausal symptoms, and autoimmune illnesses (Arias et al, 206).
4) Improves Cognitive Performance. The regular practice of meditation has been shown to improve cognitive flexibility and attention which contributes to overall mental balance and well-being (Moore & Malinowski, 2009).
5) Reduces Pain Sensitivity. Regular meditators have been found to be significantly less sensitive to pain (Grant & Rainville, 2009). Hypnosis, another meditative that stimulates the alpha and theta brain waves has long been shown to be effective for pain management (Stoelb et al, 2009).
6) Slows Cellular Aging? A very interesting proposal by Epel et al (2009) links the practice of mindfulness to a slowing of cellular aging due to the reduction in cognitive stress and stress arousal. In particular, they question that the reduction in stress arousal may be associated with telomere length which are the protective caps at the end of chromosomes that tend to deteriorate with age. However, these are studies that are still being conducted and we will need to stay apprised of the future outcomes.
1) Deep Relaxation. The best way learn deep relaxation is to listen to a recorded exercise. You may listen to a variety of free audio exercises from Excel At Life to begin your practice. The exercises are vary in length and all you need to do is find a comfortable place to sit or lie down and follow the instructions. When you are first learning deep relaxation, a common error is to try too hard to relax which leads to increased tension rather than relaxation. So, don't try to relax but just listen to the exercise. Don't worry if your mind wanders—just allow yourself to refocus on the exercise.
Over time, the more you practice the relaxation, the better you will be able to experience the deep relaxation. If you should find yourself becoming bored with the same exercise, you can vary the imagery by just allowing yourself to create your own imagery. For instance, if you listen to the Meadow Relaxation or the Mountain Cabin Relaxation on this site, the imagery describes seeing two doors at the bottom of the staircase and you walk through one door and find yourself in a meadow in one exercise or in a mountain cabin in the other exercise. Many people ask me what's behind the second door. The answer is that I don't know because the second door is there if you want to go through it and create your own pleasant scene.
2) Mindfulness Practice. The best way to describe mindfulness is when the brain is focused on the immediate experience rather than on distracting thoughts that are either irrelevant such as “What am I cooking for dinner tonight?” or may be future-oriented worries such as “What if I blow it in the presentation tomorrow?” or past-oriented critiques such as “That was stupid. Why did I say that?” In fact, mindfulness takes us away from these types of demands or criticisms. The present-oriented focus tends to be more attractive to the brain even if the present moment isn't particularly pleasant. Therefore, as we practice mindfulness the brain will choose to be in the state of mindfulness more frequently.
For example, if I'm running late in the morning I can try to speed up my morning routine and focus on demanding thoughts “I'm late! I've got to hurry!.” However, I've found that this approach not only doesn't seem to make me any faster, but it stresses me and is likely to slow me down because the lack of focus causes me to misplace things or drop things and I end up spinning in circles. However, a mindful approach is to acknowledge the demanding thoughts without getting caught up in them. Instead, I can tell myself “Just focus on what you're doing. Don't worry about the time.” As a result, I'm less stressed and probably got ready as quickly as I was able.
Most of us experience the state of mindfulness naturally at times. For instance, if you've ever watched a beautiful sunset for 10-15 minutes and noticed the changing colors and felt connected to the world around you without distracting thoughts, you were probably in a mindful state. Or, for some people, they may find themselves being very focused or mindful when engaged in certain types of work or activities. In fact, in sports, when they describe being in “the zone” they are referring to a mindful state in which the athlete is focused only on the activity itself and responds automatically.
So if we can experience this state naturally, why is it important to cultivate mindfulness through practice. The first reason is that many people do not experience enough mindfulness in their day to make a difference. The second reason is that for those who do experience plenty of mindfulness, the mindfulness may be contained in such a way that it's not useful to them throughout the day. What I mean is someone who may be mindful while fishing but as soon as they are away from the lake, they become agitated and irritable with others because they don't take the mindfulness state with them.
Therefore, the practice of mindfulness allows us to experience mindfulness throughout our daily routine and can be especially important during tasks that we may dislike. For instance, I've never liked doing dishes and would usually be thinking about how much I hated doing dishes and being rushed so I could get away from them which made the experience more unpleasant. One day I found myself spontaneously in a mindful state while doing dishes. I was focused on the act of wiping the dishes, feeling the water run over my hands, and the movement of my muscles has I lifted each plate. At the end I thought “Wow, that was really pleasant.” This was before I had ever learned about mindfulness as a practice, but I discovered that my mental state had more impact upon my experience than the actual task that I needed to do.
A simple method I like to use to help people get started with mindfulness practice is to tell yourself “For the next couple of minutes I'm going to focus on being mindful.” The nice thing about this exercise is that you can do it anytime, anywhere so the common excuse of “I don't have time to relax” isn't applicable. When you are in a state of mindfulness you are actually more aware and able to engage in tasks so you can do this while driving, while having a conversation, while waiting in line, while working, or anything else you do in the course of your day. All you do is take a couple of minutes and focus completely on your immediate experience, what you see, hear, taste, smell, or feel.
The reason I tell people to start with a couple minutes is because the practice of mindfulness can be quite difficult at first. Within 5-10 seconds of starting the exercise you are likely to be distracted by your usual future-oriented demands/ worries or your past-oriented critiques. That's okay. In fact, that's even desired because it gives you the opportunity to practice the second (and I think, the most important) part of mindfulness which is learning how to acknowledge your thoughts but refocus on your immediate experience. It's sort of saying to yourself although you don't have to actually use words, “That's okay, but right now I'm focusing on this.” Initially, you may have to do that many times during a two minute practice. That's okay and normal. Try not to get frustrated because frustration interferes with mindfulness since you are now thinking of you frustration rather than the object of your focus. Instead, very gently refocus your mind.
Although you only do this for a couple of minutes at a time, I encourage people to practice the technique many times throughout the day. The more you practice, the more your brain will become receptive and accustomed to mindfulness and you will notice your brain returning to a mindful state on its own. Therefore, the idea is not about achieving mindfulness, but just practicing it and then letting your brain do the rest on its own.
Excel At Life provides mindfulness training audios. The audios will help you understand mindfulness and how start your practice.
3) Qi Gong. I have found that many people do well with a more active form of relaxation. The ancient Chinese practice of Tai Chi assists people in achieving a deep state of relaxation through movement combined with breathing and focus. However, it takes many years for people to become sufficiently skilled at Tai Chi to begin to obtain benefits. Therefore, I encourage beginners to practice Qi Gong (many different spellings: Qi Chong, Qigong, Chi Kung) which is using simple Tai Chi movements to enter a state of deep relaxation. You may watch examples of these movements and then practice each day or you may follow along with the instructions for a deep meditative Qi Gong exercise that I present on this site.
To obtain the most benefit from deep meditative relaxation daily practice is ideal. However, any practice that you do will benefit you. I often recommend that people do some of all the different styles of relaxation, especially at first, to find what works best for you and what fits best into your lifestyle. The nice thing about these methods is that you obtain immediate rewards in the form of relaxation, calmness, a sense of well-being. However, the long-term rewards of practice as described above are even more beneficial.
Arias, A.J., Steinberg, K., Banga, A., Trestman, R.L. (2006). Systematic review of the efficacy of meditation techniques as treatments for medical illness. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicince, 12, 817-32.
Biegler, K.A., Chaoul, M.A., Cohen, L. (2009). Cancer, cognitive impairment, and meditation. Acta Oncologica, 48, 18-26.
Chiesa, A. (2009), Zen meditation: an integration of current evidence. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicince, 15, 585-92.
Chiesa, A., Serretti, A. (2009). A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations. Psychological Medicince, 27, 1-14.
Epel, E., Daubenmier, J., Moskowitz, J.T., Folkman, S., Blackburn, E. (2009). Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172, 34-53.
Grant, J.A., Rainville, P. (2009). Pain sensitivity and analgesic effects of mindful states in Zen meditators: a cross-sectional study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71, 106-14.
Lagopoulos, J., Xu, J., Rasmussen, I., Vik, A., Malhi, G.S., Eliassen, C.F., Arntsen, I.E., Saether, J.G., Hollup, S., Holen, A., Davanger, S., Ellingsen, O. (2009). Increased theta and alpha EEG activity during nondirective meditation. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11, 1187-92.
Manzoni, G.M., Pagnini, F., Castelnuovo, G., Molinari, E. (2008). Relaxation training for anxiety: a ten-years systematic review with meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry, 2, 8-41.
Moore, A., Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Conscious Cognition, 18, 176-86.
Stoelb, B.L., Molton, I.R., Jensen, M.P., & Patterson, D.R. (2009). The efficacy of hypnotic analgesia in adults: a review of the literature. Contemporary Hypnosis, 26, 24-39.
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