Just relax…

How to let go when you can’t find the off switch

Relax your body. Bring your attention to your breath. Allow your mind to let go of all other thoughts and distractions, and come to a place of stillness.

If you’ve ever heard phrases like this and felt like tracking down a unicorn would be an easier task, you’re not alone: whether it’s in a mindfulness and meditation session, a yoga class, or an attempt to calm yourself down during a stressful moment, we’ve all been there – running through our to do lists, planning dinner, or analysing that annoying thing someone said to us, when we’re supposed to be letting go and finding stillness.

Being told to relax might even have the opposite effect. I can definitely think of times when I’ve become more tense as I’ve tried, and failed, to relax. And even if you do manage to let go of those distractions for a moment, the chances are your mind wades in and points it out to you – and that precious moment of peace is gone.

The impact of stress on our physical and mental health is well-known: our sympathetic nervous system triggers physical responses like the release of adrenaline, to help us deal with emergencies or dangerous situations. But once the situation has passed, we need our parasympathetic nervous system to take over and give our body and mind chance to rebalance and recover. Without this, the heart rate doesn’t slow down, other much-needed functions like our digestive or immune systems are neglected, and stress becomes a chronic condition rather than a temporary response. So when we practise relaxation we are basically trying to kick start the parasympathetic nervous system.

So how do we get past our barriers to relaxation? How do we work with the body, the breath and the mind to help us maintain a healthy, balanced nervous system? Here are a four tips to help you relax, next time someone suggests you let go and switch off:

Don’t empty the mind – distract it

It’s common to think that relaxation practices are asking us to empty the mind. For me, though, that really does seem like an impossible task. In find it more helpful to think of a concept used in Buddhist and yogic thought called the ‘monkey mind’: think of a monkey, constantly swinging through the trees, reaching this way and that, always looking out for the next branch to grab. Our mind is that monkey, never resting in its search for the next thought to grab on to. Think of yourself as trying to trick your monkey mind by distracting it away from the countless thoughts it is swinging between. You do this during a relaxation practice by putting just one distraction right in front of it. Giving your monkey mind just one thing to focus on – whether this is a candle flame, a sound, your own breath, or something else entirely – encourages it towards stillness.

Be your own best friend

There are times when I manage to focus my mind’s attention on to just one thing – only for it to scatter in all directions, back to its monkey ways, seconds later. If that happens to you, don’t give up, and remember that it’s called a practice for a reason. Your negative voice may pipe up, telling you that you’re doing it wrong, it’s impossible, or you’re just not the kind of person who can relax. Choose to ignore that negative voice just as you would ignore another person if they were saying those things to you. Drown it out by talking to yourself in the same way you would to a close friend who is struggling with something and needs your support and encouragement. Most of all, be patient with yourself. Keep on drawing your mind’s attention back to its focus point, and recognise this as a good practice in itself – spending time on being kind to yourself and bringing your mind into the present.

Be here now

Our culture encourages us to be ambitious, to set our sights on a goal, then strive to get there. This is great for bringing a sense of purpose to your life, and for keeping you motivated. But your body and mind also need regular breaks – a temporary pause of all those messages to the brain to keep working and striving. Relaxation practices like meditation and mindfulness invite you to shift your focus from future goals to the present moment. I’ve experienced beautiful times during relaxation or meditation where I’ve felt like my body, my breath and my mind were fully focussed on existing in that very moment. And when you think about it, the present moment is the only place we can ever truly exist. Eckhart Tolle talks about this in a really helpful and accessible way in his bestselling book The Power of Now. So whilst coming to the present moment may feel like a struggle, it might help to stop treating it as another goal and thinking of it instead as an invitation to let go of effort and just be.

Get help

One of the lovely things about any kind of relaxation practice is that you are equipped with all the tools you need to do it: your mind, your breath and your body. But for most of us, we need help learning how to use those tools, and probably continued support to help us develop our skills further or simply hold a space for us while we practise. My own personal meditation and relaxation practice is very important to me, but so too are the classes and trainings I go to, and the apps I use to support and develop my practice further. There’s all kinds of support out there: from online and in-person classes in yoga, meditation or mindfulness, to apps where you can access a relaxation practice in moments (my personal favourite app is Insight Timer). They all vary in their approaches and techniques, so shop around, and take time to find what feels right for you. What they all have in common is an intention to help you reduce stress and improve your wellbeing by calming the nervous system and stilling that monkey mind.

One popular technique I often use to guide my students through relaxation at the end of my yoga classes is a body scan, where you take time to focus on each part of the body in turn, using the breath to encourage a sense of release each time. You can download a 5-minute recording of a guided body scan here to help you release, let go, and relax.

Free body scan

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Think of it as another tool you can add to your kit to help distract that monkey mind next time someone invites you to “just relax”.

What do you find most difficult about relaxing? What techniques have you tried – and have they worked, or not? I’d love to hear from you…

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