Relaxation: The Key to a Healthy Mind and Body

Photo by paida70 via Flickr

 – by Helen Laird

My grandmother would often whisper “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, as she encouraged us to put fruit in our bellies rather than chips, cookies and chocolate. Whilst a good diet goes a long way to maintaining a healthy body, scientific research suggests that my Gran should have put just as much of her effort into encouraging us to relax. 

Yoga and other eastern philosophies have long espoused relaxation as the key to a healthy mind and body, and western science is providing more and more proof every year. Medical researchers at Harvard discovered that long-term practitioners of yoga and meditation have more “disease-fighting genes” –  helping the body battle maladies including high blood pressure, infertility and rheumatoid arthritis – than people who don’t practice any form of relaxation. 

Furthermore, thanks to researchers at the University of New York and Emory University, we also know that relaxing improves conditions such as asthma, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome and heart disease. 

In both cases, the benefits only increase the more you practice. 

So what kind of relaxation are we talking about? It’s not chilling out in front of the TV, or hanging out with friends over a cup of herbal tea. Learning to relax your physical body is only half the secret. 

To reap the full benefits of relaxation your mind needs to shift into neutral. Have you ever given yourself some down time only to find your brain still gnawing on your to-do list?   Relaxing the mind means letting go of all those “must do’s”, “have to’s” and “should have’s”. When we do this our brain function changes, and that is when our minds finally slow down, take some time off, exhale and relax.

Here’s a simple yoga relaxation practice that gets the mind well on its way towards taking that well-deserved – and much needed – day off. Yoga teachers often refer to it as Shavasana or Yoga Nidra. 

Lie down on the floor with your legs a comfortable distance apart and your toes flopping over towards the ground. Place your arms a comfortable distance from your body and turn the palms face up. (If you have lower back problems place a pillow under your knees to help support the back). Exhale and watch the body soften and sink into the ground.

As you lie there, begin to scan through the body with your mind. Start with the head: observe how it feels, and as you become aware of the sensations, make any adjustments necessary to make it as comfortable as possible. When you exhale, allow it to relax even more. 

Now move down through the body, repeating this exercise on each set of muscles. First the neck, shoulders, arms, hands and fingers. Then the upper back, middle back, and all the way down your legs to the toes. Once the body is fully relaxed, turn your attention inward and begin to observe the air as it flows in and out of the body. Try to keep your attention on this simple, natural process for ten minutes or so.  When your mind wanders (which minds will do), simply return your awareness to the breath, and that amazing and instinctive cycle that keeps us alive. At the end of ten minutes take your time and slowly sit up. 

This practice can leave you deeply relaxed yet miraculously energised, and may even help you reap some of those crucial health benefits discovered by science. Try it and see for yourself.

Author Bio: This post continues our yoga series by guest blogger Helen Laird of Yoga in One Syllable. Helen is passionate about helping people see where yoga already exists in their lives and inspiring them to bring more yoga into it.

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