A tense body means a tense mind. Equally, if you are physically relaxed, it is impossible to be anything other than mentally relaxed. Relaxing our muscles calms the central nervous system, reduces the production of adrenaline and directs oxygen away from an overly active brain.
On those days when I can’t control my racing thoughts and struggle to calm my mind, it is a relief to approach the problem a different way, by relaxing my body instead. It’s less a case of mind over body, and more body over mind.
Yet much of our lives alienates us from our physical selves – we live in our heads and store tension and fear in our muscles. We can see this in the way mammals shake themselves all over to rid themselves of tension and stress after they escape from a predator.
Luckily, we can become reconnected with our bodies, and more appreciative of all they do for us. You might like to imagine that your body has emotions and needs to be cared for, almost as if it were a separate entity. A good way to do this is to embrace your physicality with specific poses for relaxation.
One good exercise for relaxation is to deliberately become rigid and stiff, with tense shoulders and clenched fists for a few seconds, and then relax. To take this further, try the yoga wind-down positions, Child’s Pose and Rock n’ Roll (details of how to do these are below).
One study found that people who practised yoga for an hour experienced an increase in levels of GABA, a brain chemical linked to feelings of calmness, compared with a zero increase within a control group, who read for an hour instead.
Another relaxing exercise is to slacken all of the body’s muscle groups, one by one. I like to get comfortable somewhere and then mentally run through each muscle group in turn. By telling myself the muscle is relaxed, it then softens.
Thinking about my body and movement in this way has been a departure for me. Until recently, whenever I thought about physical activity, I imagined the cardiovascular, heart-pumping, sweat-dripping kind – although this type of activity is important for our moods, too.
My new enthusiasm is for physical activity more closely linked to my emotional self. The focus required for my relaxation exercises means I can’t worry about anything else whilst I am doing them. I have included some of my favourite poses below.
Three poses to instantly relax your body
Before you begin…
Tense your shoulders, scrunch up your face and make your hands into fists for 10 seconds. Notice how stressed this pose makes you feel. Now release, and try these poses for contrast…
Kneel on a mat or rug.
Bring your knees together, lower your buttocks onto your feet and lean forward to rest your torso on your knees, so your forehead touches the mat. A variation of this, which many prefer, is to open out your knees which means your chest is lowered in the space between them.
Place your arms alongside and behind you or outstretched in front of you for an extra back stretch.
Be aware of your breathing.
Rock n’ roll
Lie down with your back straight and your arms resting slightly away from your body. Support your back with a small cushion or rolled up towel if necessary.
Bring your knees to your chest and put your arms around your shins, or thighs if easier.
Keeping your spine in contact with the floor, roll your knees over to the right and then to the left, and then move your knees around in a gentle circular movement.
Be aware of your breathing throughout.
Relax your body into the floor as you rock and roll. Be aware of yourself alone, in this moment.
Stay aware of your breathing. Release your legs and gently lower one and then the other to the ground.
The body scan
Visualise the image of a body in your mind’s eye.
Keeping this image in your head, focus on the feet, and notice how your own feet are feeling.
Repeat to yourself silently inside, ‘my toes are relaxing, my toes are now relaxed’ – this is a method called ‘auto-suggestion’ that was developed by the psychologist Émile Coué.
Begin moving your mind’s eye up through your heels, ankles, and calves towards your knees. Again, notice each of your muscle groups in turn, and tell yourself each time that the particular muscle group is relaxing, and that the muscles are now relaxed.
Now move up both thighs to the pelvic area and then slowly up to the waist. Keep releasing each muscle group, and keep silently telling yourself that you are relaxing, the muscles are now relaxed.
Then slowly shift your focus to your hands and arms, up to your elbows, armpits and shoulders. Keep silently talking to yourself, telling yourself that you are relaxing, the muscles are now relaxed.
After your shoulders, focus on your torso, travelling upwards from the waist, to the rib cage, chest and back. Keep talking quietly about how you are feeling relaxed, the muscles are now relaxed.
Now move up to your neck, then face, through to the top of your head. Keep talking quietly about how these muscles are relaxing, they are now relaxed.
Then reverse the flow of attention and go all the way back through the muscle groups from your head to your toes. Enjoy the feeling of your body sitting comfortably and the warm relaxation as you release all your muscle groups in turn and talk to yourself as you do so.
Notice how focusing on your body also relaxes your mind. Use this relaxation whilst lying in bed to get to sleep, or any other time you would like to relax.
Rachel Kelly is a writer and mental health campaigner. Her latest book Singing in the Rain: 52 Practical Steps to Happiness is published by Short Books, £12.99 and is available in Waterstones and on Amazon. You can visit her website at rachel-kelly.net and follow her on Twitter here.
Images: Getty, Unsplash