Words: Jill Miller
As I’ve talked about the relaxation response and the downregulated state, you may have been thinking something like “Sounds like vegging out on the couch while binge-watching The Great British Baking Show.” I’m sorry to say it, but that is not the kind of relaxation I’m talking about.
I know that many people like to unwind and “escape” by drinking, taking medications, scrolling through Instagram, watching television, or reading a book, but these activities do not provide true relaxation. Alcohol and drugs are chemicals that interact with your biochemistry to rapidly produce an unnatural effect. Similarly, books and TV seem to quiet the mind and minimize extraneous thoughts, but in reality the mind has entered a state of concentration on this particular visual stream. Your brain is still working hard to process the input.2 It’s not relaxing.
Meditation and healing movement arts have been with humans for millennia. Many tried-and-true practices exist that require no tech support or ingestion of substances to produce profound relaxation. It is possible to induce tranquil states that don’t require a prescription pad or alcohol. Training yourself to consciously relax is the key.
Conscious relaxation coaxes you into calm with deep focus yet minimal effort. Normally, efforting involves giving it your best and pushing through to the end. With conscious relaxation, the strain of effort is unnecessary. In any of the book’s exercises, focus into what you’re doing but attempt to use less muscular energy. Keep reducing your efforts by half and allow this new pace to sustain you in each moment. This can be liberating if you’re used to pushing yourself to do all the things in your life. Try softer, not harder.
The relaxation response comprises many diverse physiological factors. That seems rather heady, but they are all within your body’s reach. You have the power to arouse your parasympathetic nervous system to quiet your sympathetic responses and help yourself properly recover. You can help yourself plummet into tranquility and deliberately turn ON your OFF switch.
You can trigger this relaxation response with the breath, of course, but there are additional conditions that will compound it and make it transformational and long-lasting. I call these The 5 Ps for parasympathetic dominance. They are a short list of five essential elements that will hasten relaxation in your body. I give a full explanation in Chapter 9, but in the meantime, here’s a brief description:
- PLACE: Immerse yourself in quiet and dim light. You don’t have to build a special sanctuary, but maybe put on an eye mask and earplugs.
- PERSPECTIVE: Tend to your mindset and self- suggest a phrase that will allow you to relax—for example, “I allow myself to relax completely.”
- POSITION: Recline on the ground or accelerate your relaxation by partially inverting. Once you recline, place an object or block under your pelvis. Your pelvis should be higher than your heart and brain. This turns on your parasympathetic system and dampens the sympathetic outflow.
- PACE OF BREATH: Exhale longer than you inhale.
- PALPATION: Self-massage initiates a whole-body relaxation response when applied with tender intention.
When I say turn ON your OFF switch, I’m implying that you have the volitional ability to manipulate your physiology. When you notice that stress is running rampant in your body, you can do something about it immediately to serve your longevity. To flip your stress switch, dial down a hyperaroused sympathetic stress state by deploying tactics to stimulate your parasympathetics and the vagus nerve, which turns OFF your ON switch. When you turn ON your OFF switch, you ignite your relaxation response.
Don’t push any of this; rather, it’s time to allow. You are following the impulse to heal. When you untangle the connections between stress and your breath, you can expect relief in a range of areas, including acid reflux, anxiety, back pain, constipation, hip pain, impaired sexual pleasure, menstrual cramps, migraines, neck pain, reliance on alcohol to take the edge off, and sacral pain.
Incorporating these exercises into your daily routine—even as little as three minutes—has long-lasting and wide-ranging effects. Think of it as a complement to or an alternative to a meditation practice.
When you have pushed yourself past the breaking point and cannot find the fuel to keep going, the sustainable answer isn’t to crash and burn because your body can’t keep running on empty without consequences. Instead, you need to compassionately add to your tank by stimulating your relaxation response.
Excerpted from ‘Body by Breath: The Science and Practice of Physical and Emotional Resilience’ by Jill Miller. Published by Victory Belt Publishing
- Mackenzie, B., A. Galpin, and P. White, Unplugged: Evolve from Technology to Upgrade Your Fitness, Performance & Consciousness (Las Vegas, NV: Victory Belt Publishing, 2017), 98.
- See note 1 above