At the end of a long day, you probably want nothing more than to relax. You’ve spent hours writing emails, attending meetings, and commuting. Now it’s time to unwind and recharge for the next day’s battle.
But here’s the thing. Most of what we call “relaxation” isn’t actually all that relaxing.
Take watching TV. The television gives you an illusion of relaxation. You get to plop down on the couch and lose yourself in other people’s drama. But the relaxation effect is only partial. Your mind still needs to process the rapid-fire images and sounds. Your nervous system still recoils during a tense moment of TV drama.
Surfing the web is the other leisure time trap. The freedom to surf from one site to the next can give you a momentary rush. But the more you get lost in email, Facebook, and Twitter, the more your brain and nervous system must remain “on.”
The big idea here is that it’s not just work that drains us. It’s also the way we “relax.”
What does actual relaxation look like? Consider three key practices of radical relaxation: movement, stillness, and breath.
If you’re like me, you spend 98% of the workday sitting. All of this sitting leaves the body tired and tense. The muscles of the hips lock up, the legs get stiff, and the shoulder and neck muscles strain. If you want to dissolve this tension and relax, sitting is about the last thing you should do. You need to move.
As long as you are moving, it doesn’t matter what you do. You might walk, run, ride your bike, dance, or do yoga. The goal is simply to get a fresh supply of blood and energy to all those areas of the body that tense up during the workday.
Once you move the body, practice experiencing stillness. This isn’t just about finding stillness in the body. It’s the practice of finding stillness in all areas of life. To be still is to experience a pause in the constant stream of thoughts. To be still is to give your nervous system a rare chance to let go.
There’s no single way to experience stillness. You might find it in a 15-minute meditation practice. You might find it while lying on the ground outside, looking up at the stars. You might find it stopping at the half way point of a run or walk to check out the view. Or literally stopping to smell the flowers.
The goal is to give yourself the rare experience of nothingness. No stimulation. No deadlines. No effort. No strain. By coming into stillness, you can begin to experience a truly radical form of relaxation.
Move, get still, then breathe.
Breathing is to relaxation as wind is to the waves on the ocean. The calm breeze creates stillness. Chaotic gusts create storms, swells, and tidal waves. Likewise, calm, deep breaths create relaxation and stillness. Tight, choppy breaths create agitation, anger, and fear.
So the most powerful way to relax is to bring your attention to the breath. Ask yourself throughout the day: what is the quality of my breath right now? Is it short and constricted? Or is it long, deep, and effortless?
If you’re like most people, you will find that your post-work breath matches your inner state. If you feel tired or irritated, your breath will feel anything but deep and effortless.
The good news is that since your breath matches your inner state, all you have to do to relax is change your breath. Simply bring your attention to your breath and consciously shift it. Extend each inhale and exhale, inhale deep into your belly, and allow yourself to relax.
So next time you come home from work and grab for the remote or reach for the laptop, catch yourself. If you really want to watch TV or surf the Internet, then make a conscious choice to do it.
But if you want to relax and recharge, consider shifting from digital distraction to radical relaxation. Instead of TV and the Internet, consider movement, stillness, and breathing.
I’m curious to hear what you think. What does your practice of radical relaxation look like?
|Written on 7/25/2011 by Nate Klemp. Nate earned his PhD at Princeton and is a professor at Pepperdine University. He founded LifeBeyondLogic.com, a website dedicated to exploring philosophy as an art of living. You can follow him on Twitter @LifeBeyondLogic and on Facebook. Download a free copy of his new ebook, Finding Reality: Thoreau’s Lessons for Life in the Digital Age.|