Within the last century or two, diseases have sprung up with new dimensions, expressions and manifestations.
Medical science has managed to find cures for the great plagues of the past, but the world is now faced with a new epidemic of stress-related disorders caused by our inability to adapt to the highly competitive pace of modern life.
We don’t know how to relax, and that’s a fact. People think that closing their eyes and slumping back on a sofa, watching a movie or taking a coffee break equals to relaxation. If you ask a tired person how he will relax on his day off, the probable answer is: sleep.
But sleep is not the same as relaxation, although people often confuse the two. Sleep offers your body rest, but that doesn’t mean you will wake up with a relaxed state of mind. Instead, a tensed person will usually wake up feeling exhausted.
As a noun, relaxation means the state of being free from tension and anxiety. Our bodies accumulate tension whether we work or don’t work, think or don’t think, eat or don’t eat, etc.
These tensions amass according to the different types of human personality and accumulate in the muscular, emotional and mental systems. It’s normal to hold onto some of these tensions, but many urbanites are full of tension all the time!
You might have observed a few of these tension-related traits: these people habitually bite their nails, scratch their heads, stroke their chins, smoke a cigarette, tap their feet, over-exercise, clench their toes, pace about restlessly, talk non-stop or stay silent, etc.
A dear friend of mine once shared that her husband’s tension manifested itself in nightly teeth grinding, resulting in her having lower back spasms. She couldn’t figure out why, but once his teeth-grinding problem was corrected via wearing a mouthguard, her spasms disappeared.
His tension remained though. People do these actions unconsciously because they are unaware of their inner tensions, which can affect those around them.
How then can we release some of these tensions and relax?
Physical activity is a great way to reduce stress and tension, even if it’s only for 15 minutes a day. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins, which interact with receptors in your brain and trigger a positive feeling in your body.
Out of the three areas of tension, muscular tension, which is present in both exercisers and non-exercisers, is probably the easiest to work on – stretch the muscle yourself or head to the masseur to undo those knots.
Stretching helps to keep muscles flexible and prevents them from tightening up and becoming tense. Therefore, stretching helps to alleviate muscular tension, in addition to calming the mind.
But then again, when the mind is tensed, it affects the body and muscular tension will return promptly, despite the stretching. Releasing muscular tension takes time and is not something you can do overnight.
As a dancer, I’ve been trained from young to engage my stomach muscles whenever I’m upright. The muscles only go into relaxed mode when I’m eating or in a reclining position.
One personal trainer was trying to teach me to relax these muscles, but after 30-odd years of doing what feels natural, I still cannot let my stomach muscles relax. That means my stomach muscles are in a tensed state for most of my waking hours.
My trainer thinks this tension could be partly the reason for the frequent malfunctioning of my digestive system. Unfortunately, it’s something I have to work on myself as these muscles cannot be unknotted by anyone other than their owner.
Like me, some of you may be holding on to a tensed body part for decades, likely without even realising it.
Simple relaxation tools
Yoga practitioners know of the savasana or corpse pose (lying completely still on the back with eyes closed), which they do at the end of every yoga class. In fact, this pose is one my students gleefully look forward to.
It may seem like a simple pose, but it still requires skill to be motionless. The fidgety ones struggle with this and there are certain techniques yoga gurus use to guide them. What makes all the difference to the experience is your level of focus.
Initially, your thoughts are prone to wander, daydream and perhaps plan what you’ll be doing next. Or you may replay the scenes that took place earlier in the day. When you realise your thoughts are wandering, bring them back to focus. Many students fall asleep in the process and that’s fine.
As you learn to keep your attention on the body that is laying still, the tensions drain away and you won’t be dozing off. The irony is that you are actually in a fully conscious pose aimed at being awake, yet you are completely relaxed.
Savasana can help with stress, insomnia, nervousness and many other tension-related ailments, but you don’t have to suffer from any of these to reap the benefits. In the evenings, after a long day, savasana can be a good way of giving the body and nervous system a much-needed break.
Instead of refuelling “artificially” with snacks and drinks, give yourself a conscious break – and watch the energy and inspiration reappear later. Savasana should not be confused with yoga nidra, which is a meditative deep relaxation technique.
By listening to the instructions from the teacher or the CD, your awareness is guided throughout the body, to the breath and to various pictures and symbols, at a somewhat brisk, but calm pace. This triggers a deep relaxation.
Every time you get lost in a thought and forget what you are actually doing, the instructions pick you up again and lead you back. Hence, yoga nidra is easy, even for beginners, to enter a very deep relaxation state that is difficult to express in words.
Be a 'corpse'
Here’s how you get into savasana:
● Lie on a flat surface – no need for head pillows and luxury mattresses. If you have back issues, elevate the legs a little using a folded blanket or pillow.
● Your legs should be separated and spread shoulder-width apart.
● Keep your palms turned up and hands about six inches away from the body.
● Hands should be below the heart level.
● Close your eyes and breathe deeply and slowly through the nostrils.
● Start concentrating on tensions from each body part, beginning with the head to your feet. Don’t move ahead without relaxing each particular part of the body.
● On each inhalation and exhalation, let your tension, stress, depression and worry run away.
● To still the mind, keep your focus on your belly and watch how it falls and rises.
You can stay in this pose from three to 10 minutes. A longer duration will increase the chances of you falling asleep. To come out of savasana, slowly bring your awareness back to the room.
Wriggle your fingers and toes. Reach your arms over your head and take a nice long stretch, from your toes to your fingertips. Then roll onto your right side in foetal position, resting your head in the crook of your right arm.
Use your left palm, and with the aid of your right shoulder, push yourself up into a seated position. Savasana helps us learn how to completely surrender, stop fighting the clock, and make space for peace and harmony to fill the soul. It relaxes you.