Resting is a precondition for healing. When animals in the forest get wounded, they find a place to lie down, and they rest completely for many days. They don’t think about food or anything else. They just rest and they get the healing they need. When we humans become overcome with stress, we may go to the pharmacy and get drugs, but we don’t stop. We don’t know how to help ourselves.
Stress accumulates in our body. The way we eat, drink, and live takes its toll on our well-being. The practice of deep relaxation (also known as total relaxation) provides an opportunity for our body to rest, to heal, and to be restored. We relax our body, give our attention to each part in turn, and send our love and care to every cell.
It’s so important to relax. But our lives can be so hectic, and our minds so complex. That’s why it’s much easier to start with our bodies. We know that when our body is relaxed, our mind will naturally follow. Just as when our body is tense and agitated, our mind will be as well.
I think that many of us may have a notion that relaxation is something that can only be achieved at a later date, after we have attained [insert life goal here]. Only after we’ve purchased our dream house on the beach will we finally allow ourselves to let go and enjoy. We may feel that we require a day-spa, or a massage, to facilitate our relaxation. We’ve lost confidence in our own body’s ability to heal itself.
But relaxation is something that can occur within the space of a few skillful in-and-out breaths. At first it may actually feel like our bodies are in more pain than before. Without noticing it, our bodies have accumulated a reservoir of tension; the pain has been there all along – we just hadn’t noticed it yet.
Wishing the pain away, wanting to get rid of the discomfort as quickly as possible will not help. The harder we try to force ourselves to relax, the more tense we may become. We have to gently embrace the tension, stress and discomfort with compassion, recognition and acceptance. Allowing our stress to surface so that it can be cared for, this is the key.
After you have located a point of pain, direct the breath towards it. I guarantee that after five minutes of wholehearted practice, the suffering will diminish. Try it – trust your body.
Also, if you have trouble sleeping enough, the deep relaxation practice can compensate. Lying awake on your bred, you may like to practice total relaxation and follow your breathing in and breathing out. Sometimes it can help you to get some sleep. But even if you don’t sleep, the deep relaxation practice can help because it can nourish you and allow you to rest.
Mindful breathing, total relaxation of the body can be done at home at least once a day. It may last twenty minutes or longer. We can practice it either with a group, with our family or alone. When we do deep relaxation in a group, one person can guide the exercise using the guide below or some variation of it. When you do deep relaxation on your own, you may like to record an exercise to follow as you practice. One member of the family can lead the session for the whole family, perhaps in the living room.
Lie down on your back with your arms at your sides (you may also practice in a sitting position). Make yourself comfortable. Allow your body to relax. Be aware of the floor underneath you and of the contact of your body with the floor. (Pause)
Allow your body to sink into the floor. (Pause)
Become aware of your breathing, in and out. Be aware of your abdomen rising and falling as you breathe in and out…rising…falling…rising…falling. (Pause)
Breathing in, bring your awareness to your eyes. Breathing out, allow your eyes to relax. Allow your eyes to sink back into your head…let go of the tension in all the tiny muscles around your eyes…our eyes allow us to see a paradise of form and color…allow your eyes to rest…send love and gratitude to your eyes. (Pause)
Breathing in, bring your awareness to your mouth. Breathing out, allow your mouth to relax. Release the tension around your mouth…your lips are the petals of a flower…let a gentle smile bloom on your lips…smiling releases the tension in the hundreds of muscles in your face…feel the tension release in your cheeks…your jaw…your throat. (Pause)
Breathing in, bring your awareness to your shoulders. Breathing out, allow your shoulders to relax. Let them sink into the floor…let all the accumulated tension flow into the floor… we carry so much with our shoulders…now let them relax as we care for our shoulders. (Pause)
Breathing in, become aware of your arms. Breathing out, relax your arms. Let your arms sink into the floor…your upper arms…your elbows…your lower arms…your wrists…hands…fingers…all the tiny muscles…move your fingers a little if you need to, to help the muscles relax. (Pause)
Breathing in, bring your awareness to your heart. Breathing out, allow your heart to relax. (Pause) Our heart beats for us night and day…embrace your heat with mindfulness and tenderness…reconciling and taking care of your heat. (Pause)
Breathing in, bring your awareness to your legs. Breathing out, allow your legs to relax. Release all the tension in your legs…your thighs…your calves…your ankles…your feet…your toes…all the tiny muscles in your toes…you may want to move your toes a little to help them relax…send your love and care to your toes. (Pause)
Breathing in, breathing out…my whole body feels light…like duck weed floating on the water…I have nowhere to go…nothing to do…I am relaxed…send your love and care to your toes. (Pause)
Breathing in, breathing out…my whole body feels lights…like duck weed floating on the water…I have nowhere to go…nothing to do…I am free as the cloud floating in the sky. (Pause)
(Music or silence for a few minutes)
Bring your awareness back to your breathing…to your abdomen rising and falling. (Pause)
Following your breathing, become aware of your arms and legs…you may want to move them a little and stretch. (Pause)
When you feel ready, slowly sit up. (Pause)
When you are ready, slowly stand up.
In the above exercise, you can guide awareness to any part of the body – the hair, scalp, brain, ears, neck, lungs, each of the internal organs, the digestive system, pelvis, and to any part of the body that needs healing and attention, embracing each part and sending love, gratitude and care as we hold it in our awareness and breathing in and out.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddha Mind, Buddha Body, (Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 2008).
We have recorded a couple of the monastics providing some guided deep relaxations, so we invite you to practice with them: