Relaxation Methods

Attitude toward repetition.

Most relaxation and meditation practices involve doing or thinking something over and over, and often that thing is not exciting. What’s the opposite of excitement: is it boredom (that’s unpleasant) or relaxation (that’s pleasant)? You want to use the power you have over your own mind to help the experience be pleasantly relaxing rather than unpleasantly boring. It is sometimes useful to keep the relaxation practice fairly short, especially at the beginning.

Restlessness and exercise.

If you have had to sit all day long, you may be restless and not welcome relaxation or meditation techniques that involve sitting. In this case I recommend doing some physical exercise before doing the relaxation methods. There are some “moving meditations” that also are good in this case.

Practice the skill of relaxing at times when you don't "need it."

If one tries a relaxation technique only when one is feeling anxious, worried, angry, or otherwise in "need" of relaxing, it is possible that the technique will become associated with those aroused feelings rather than with calm. The moral is, don't use relaxation techniques as one would use a pain pill. Cultivate the skill of relaxing over a long period of time through regular practice.

Any one of the following techniques can bring about a very positive change in life.

1. Breathe and relax the muscles.

Stress and anxiety tend to make us tense our muscles. When we relax our muscles, we send messages to our brains that say something like “It’s all right, don’t worry, at least not now.” Muscle relaxation has been a very important and useful technique since about the 1930s.

Before using this technique, it’s good to practice tensing and relaxing the various muscles of your body, noticing what you do when relaxing them. Pay attention to how you tell the muscles to relax. Pay particular attention to the muscles of your head, face, jaws, neck, and shoulders.

Then when you use this technique, you sit in a comfortable position. You observe the rhythm of your breathing, without needing to change it. Each time you breathe in, you get a set of muscles in mind – for example, the muscles of your face and jaws. When you breathe out, you relax those muscles. If the muscles are already relaxed, that’s OK; you just try to get them even more relaxed. When you breathe in next, you focus your attention on another (or the same) group of muscles, and when you breathe out, you relax them.

As with all meditation or relaxation techniques, if your mind drifts onto thinking about other things, you don’t get down on yourself about that (it’s common) but just “gently return” to practicing the relaxation of the muscles.

2. Meditation with a mantra

This is the technique that has been called “transcendental meditation.” In this method, you just sit in a relaxed position, usually close the eyes, and silently say a word to yourself, over and over, during the time you spend. The word is called a “mantra.” A researcher named Herbert Benson studied this method; the mantra he had people use was the word “one.” A good number of benefits were found for this type of meditation. If the mind drifts onto other things, don’t get down on yourself but gently return to saying the mantra to yourself.

3. The loving-kindness meditation

There is actually some evidence that adults who have used this method show less evidence of aging in their DNA than most other folks do!

You sit and relax and wish for yourself 3 things: “May I become the best I can become. May I give and receive kindness. May I live with compassion and peace.” Then you get someone else in mind, and you wish the same things for them. And then someone else, and perhaps even groups of people.

4. The kindness to self and others meditation

This is very much like the loving-kindness meditation. One of the most anxiety provoking things is for people to be cruel; one of the most relaxing and comforting things is acts of kindness.

You sit, relax, close your eyes, and imagine doing something that is good for yourself, something that improves your own well-being. For example, you imagine yourself doing some work that benefits you, or doing something to take care of your health, or learning something that you can use, or avoiding a temptation that would be harmful, or anything else that is good for you. Then you imagine yourself doing something that is kind to someone else – pleasantly greeting someone, complimenting them, helping them by working, being a good listener to them, helping them solve a problem, doing something fun with them, or many others. You just go back and forth between “kind to self” and “kind to others” images. As a variation, you can imagine someone else, a real person or just someone you imagine, doing things that are good for self and good for others.

5. A moving meditation

This is an example of a method to use when you are already restless from too much sitting. You stand, hold your hands in front of you, and push them against each other. You bend at the knees and lower the clasped hands toward the floor. You then straighten out your legs and move your hands over your head, stretching them out as high as they can go. If your chest muscles and arms get tired from pushing the hands together, you can pull your clasped hands as if trying to get them away from each other rather than pushing them together. You can go fast with this if you really want a workout, and you can go very slowly if you wish also. One variation of this is to think of the idea of kindness to self when you bend your knees and lower your hands, and the idea of kindness to others as you lift your hands over your head.

6. Mind-watching

Many specific techniques have been described as “mindfulness” meditation; this is one of them. In this method, you let your mind drift wherever it “wants” to go. You just save part of your mind to observe, in a noncritical way, what the rest of your mind is doing. You watch the images that come, and you listen to what you say to yourself. You can also be aware of how your body is feeling. You don’t need to memorize everything that you observe; you just let yourself be aware of it as it happens.

7. Relaxing placses

You imagine a setting, or several settings, that bring out peaceful and calm feelings: being at a beach, on a mountain, hearing rain fall on a roof, sitting by a fire while snow falls, outside, being in an urban park with lots of people around, whatever setting is pleasant for you,

8. Biofeedback

You get either a pulse oximeter (that measures your heart rate) or a fingertip temperature monitor, or a device that measures skin conductance. You play around with relaxation methods and just notice what tends to make your heart rate go down, your fingertip temperature go up, or your skin conductance go down. Changes in these directions are associated with relaxation. Remember that you are not taking a test and can't fail.

9. The Pleasant Dreams Exercise

Imagine the scenes and the plot of a very pleasant dream: one with lots of beauty, kindness, calm, security, fun, and wonder. This is useful as a relaxation method; it's also a good way to improve the quality of the dreams we have while sleeping.

10. The Psychological Skills Meditation

If you haven't memorized the 16 psychological skill groups, you can look at a list. For each, you just let an image come to mind of someone doing a positive example of that skill. The skills are 1) productivity, 2) joyousness, 3) kindness, 4) honesty, 5) fortitude, 6a) good individual decisions, 6b) good joint decisions (including conflict-resolution), 7) nonviolence, 8) respectful talk, 9) friendship-building, 10) self-discipline, 11) loyalty, 12) conservation, 13)self-care, 14) compliance, 15) positive fantasy rehearsal, and 16) courage. If you get to the end, you start back at the beginning.