Here’s our introductory podcast on the Life’s Breath self-relaxation practice.
Self-relaxation is quite simple. All we do is get as comfortable as possible, breathe with awareness, and relax our bodies as best we can. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. No matter how many words we use to describe it, there is never anything more to it.
Having accomplished that, all you really need to do is keep doing that periodically throughout your day, and you will get better at it. There’s really no need to read this any more. Just get comfortable, breathe, and relax. Experiencing it is 100% better than reading about it.
Everything that follows in this article is just thoughts and suggestions based on my own personal experience and my experience working with students and clients. I’m sharing my thoughts and experiences because perhaps they will inspire you, or shine a light somewhere you weren’t looking on your own. But remember: It isn’t complicated. It’s just basic relaxation.
Despite its simplicity, many of us avoid relaxation for one reason or another, and sometimes it is helpful when a person who is good at something shares how they do it. In my case, I practice relaxation many times a day, and I have done so for many years. Not only do I relax myself, but as a Middleway Method Mentor, I spend most of my day giving relaxation lessons, and so I am immersed in the process for most of my working hours each day. Then, after work, I like to relax. So, I’m an expert in this simple subject. It’s not much of an accomplishment when you think about it, but still, I find it quite helpful, so I’m inspired to share it.
Self-relaxation is the foundation of all Middleway Method. Whether we are working with ourselves or with others, the basis of the process is self-relaxation. It never ceases to amaze me how such a simple thing can have so many practical applications and provide so much depth of insight when we explore it. From the bottom of my heart, I can say that relaxing is one of the simplest, most profound things we can do. That seems like a funny sentence to write, because it is odd to make such a big deal about something so obvious. But it turns out that we avoid relaxation to the extent that presenting it as a practice and making a big deal about it is sometimes what it takes to inspire us to do it. The next time you find yourself thinking, “I’ll relax later, after I finish this,” stop. Get comfortable. Breathe. Relax. Breathe again. Ahh…
It turns out that getting comfortable can become something like an art – subtle, sophisticated, creative, and personal. How each of us finds physical comfort varies widely from person to person, and so there is no technique other than this: pay attention to the sensations of your body. If you pay attention to the sensations of your body, then you can figure out how to get comfortable. To practice getting comfortable, pay attention to the sensations of your body, and then you ask yourself: “Am I as comfortable as I can be?” The answer is there. Not only can we naturally answer that question for ourselves simply by paying attention and asking it, but we can also spontaneously come up with modifications to our position that will instantly make us more comfortable. These spontaneous modifications don’t rely upon having some kind of intellectual understanding of the mechanics of comfort – we just naturally know what to do.
Choose a position. It can be any position. Perhaps choose one that you think will be comfortable. Then, pay attention to your body and ask yourself, “Am I as comfortable as I can be?” You may discover that you’d be more comfortable if you were warmer, or if you had a pillow, or if you lay on your side instead of your back. Following your natural impulses, you may end up with a blanket, and a pillow, laying in some silly twisted position, splayed out on the floor like you just fell from a building. Or, you may find yourself in your bathtub, sloshing in warm water, with a candle lit. I like to recline on my couch with my cat on my chest. Are you getting the idea?
Getting comfortable is not something we do just once and then sit perfectly still. We get comfortable over and over again, in a continuum of progressive relaxation. Positions of comfort don’t last forever. Sometimes they only last a few breaths. Other times they last a few minutes. If we are asking ourselves, “Am I as comfortable as I can be?” again and again, then the answer will come again and again, and we will move, adjust, create our comfort in a dynamic, responsive way. This becomes important as we begin to relax, because as we relax, what makes us comfortable will change.
The practice of getting comfortable is to pay attention to the sensations of your body, ask yourself, “Am I as comfortable as I can be?” Feel the answer, and respond to it. Breathe and relax. Then again, ask yourself again, “Am I as comfortable as I can be?” Feel the answer, and respond to it. Allow yourself to be completely free in your choices, willing to do what it takes to be comfortable and relax. Five to ten minutes of this practice with one pointed attention is perfect training for yourself to become progressively better at relaxing, and perfect training to become better at offering relaxation lessons for others.
We breathe all of the time, so this isn’t very profound. But there is a difference between breathing with awareness and breathing automatically. Specifically, after we get comfortable, if we breathe with awareness, then relaxation happens more easily. Relaxation is connected with the breath. When we begin to relax, there are usually three stages of breathing that support the process: the preparatory inhale, the relaxing exhale, and the easy stillness. Identifying these three stages of the breath helps us to appreciate them, but really they are completely ordinary things that all of us do on a regular basis.
The first stage is the preparatory inhale. It’s such a nice feeling, that sweet inhale that comes just before we relax. It is the inhale that comes just before a sigh of relief. It has a special quality to it. It is a little bit deeper, but not forced. It is rich, easy, spontaneous, and fulfilling.
The second stage of the relaxing breath is the exhale. Like the preparatory inhale is different from an ordinary inhale, the relaxing exhale is different than an ordinary exhale in that it is longer, and it usually kind of rushes out on its own. It is a relief, a letting go. Physical relaxation and the easing of mental/emotional stress usually accompany this relaxing exhale.
The third stage is the easy stillness that happens briefly at the end of the relaxing exhale. It isn’t a long moment at all, just a second or two, but it is good to pay attention to it because often the mind is at its quietest in that moment. Reveling in that quiet is peaceful and relaxing.
Having made ourselves comfortable, breathing with awareness, we begin to relax. Relaxing isn’t something that happens all at once, and then is over. It is a progressive release that deepens with time. With each relaxing exhale, we soften a little bit. Then, we relax again, and soften a little bit more.
Some relaxing exhales accompany releases are very relieving, like a heavy burden has been lifted. Other exhales, we encounter some resistance. We may want to get up, and end our relaxing meditation practice because an inner voice begins to convince us that we would be more satisfied if we were to get up and do something else. We feel the pull of activity, of responsibility, of distraction into a screen. But having committed to doing a relaxing meditation practice for five to ten minutes (or more), we stick with it. We get comfortable, we breathe, we relax.
When we let go of that impulse to get up and get something done, our practice deepens dramatically. That gentle exertion of will is a huge step in the direction of developing personal wellness attitudes that progressively lead toward greater and deeper wellbeing, while simultaneously increasing our capacity to be of service to others. Facing our own compulsive drives and finding the will force to gently let them go, we come to understand the unconscious compulsions that are at work in creating the anxiety-driven, stress-amplifying, vital-force-depleting social condition we see so prevalent the world over. Knowing that the dissolution of those compulsions is so simple, so accessible, and so natural is surprisingly inspiring. We just get comfortable, breathe, and relax, and suddenly the world is a very different place.
This is part of the Middleway Preliminary Practices free online wellness program. Learn more here.