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What Stops You From Relaxing Properly

What stops you from relaxing properly
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What stops you from relaxing properly? Many people don’t relax properly because they feel boxed in (consciously or subconsciously). Boxed in between the ‘because ofs‘ (past) and the ‘what ifs‘ (future). A little trapped in between everything that caused you to be where you are right now, and your future ahead with its challenges, demands, risks and uncertainties. Any resulting stress affects your mental-emotional/social behaviour as much as your performance at work or at play. The good news is that you can affect this greatly, it is not difficult to do.

Savouring the pleasures in life as they occur, helps you become fully engaged in activities, and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events. By focusing on the here and now, you are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, you are less preoccupied with concerns about success and self-respect (self-esteem is unhelpful terminology), and are better able to form deep connections with others. Fashionably called mindfulness with courses to teach you aplenty, it simply means that you are aware. From self-preservation (oh bummer, I didn’t see that lion hiding and that is now eating me) to appreciation of (perhaps even gratitude for) any glorious thing in Nature… live with Perception switched on.

What stops you from relaxing properly

Relaxing vs. Relaxation

Before you start, there’s relaxing and there’s relaxation… Riding a horse may be relaxing, so may be singing in a choir, fishing or reading a book [2]. For your body, relaxation happens ONLY when a switch is moved: when your sympathetic tone is high then your body is in fight/flight mode and…    SWITCH… now your parasympathetic tone is high, your body is in proper relaxation and healing mode. It is like a dimmer switch that may switch on a little when you read a lovely book, or sit and watch the sunset. It goes full blast relaxation when you meditate properly and when you sleep well. Parasympathetic dominance does not switch on when you ride a horse, when you sing or fish. Oh and, just so you know, the benzodiazepine receptor agonists (BzRAs) type of drugs given for insomnia reduce stage 3–4 sleep (NREM-REM cycles) from 4% to 1%… So you would be out for the count but you’re not repairing as much as sleep is meant to repair you. [Chronic hypnotic efficacy of estazolam, Lamphere J, Roehrs T, Zorick F, Koshorek G, Roth T, Drugs Exp Clin Res. 1986; 12(8):687-91]. On a similar note, alcohol allows you to fall asleep quicker but it causes warring Alpha and Delta brain waves which leads to disrupted sleep. By ‘sleeping well’ I mean natural sleep, not sleep induced by drugs or alcohol.

What Stops You From Relaxing Properly, Heart Rate Variability

Just like weightlifting changes the size of your biceps, meditation shapes a new brain for you and it changes your blood markers. After eight weeks of meditation, functional MRI (fMRI) scans show the fight/flight centre to shrink . This brain area called the amygdala is involved in the initiation of your body’s response to stress. At the same time, your pre-frontal cortex (associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making) becomes thicker. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of your brain gets weaker, whilst connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger. Your blood changes with a reduction in biomarkers of stress and inflammation (C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol) all of which are associated with disease.

The long term effect of meditation is, that, on fMRI, a resting brain of people who have done some 40,000 hours of meditation, looks similar to a brain of a normal person doing meditation. Their baseline has changed and relaxation is their default state. Interestingly, in expert meditators the pre-frontal cortex is no longer bigger than expected… suggesting that this way of thinking doesn’t require any concentration. Stop weightlifting (effort) and your biceps returns back to ‘normal’ size…

A good teacher is priceless

The easiest and single most do-able meditation is Transcendental Meditation (TM). The crux of this is, that you will be given a ‘meaningless’ individual (and to remain completely private) Sanskrit word to repeat in your head over and over again. The training you’d do with a TM teacher and within a group (collective meditation somehow enhances it) is, to get your Sanskrit word linked (conditioned) to your brain going into a meditative state. It’s as simple as Pavlov ringing a bell triggering hydrochloric acid production in his dog (bell was rung prior to feeding, dog produces stomach acid and eats… eventually just ringing the bell without food would also produce stomach acid). So the Sanskrit word is a simple conditioning reflex, you train your brain to raise parasympathetic tone on hearing ‘your’ word. Repeating your Sanskrit word over and over again also deflects other thoughts coming into your brain.

The easiest and single most do-able mindfulness is you focusing on the air flowing through your nasal passages as you breathe-in through your nose, and breathe-out through your nose (in your mind say “I am breathing in… I am breathing out”, and feel the air go in and out). You could sit on an upright chair, ideally with your back not resting against it but self-supporting. You feel your feet on the ground, you feel your thighs on the chair… good teachers can help you be aware of the here and right now. Lying on your back with an eye pillow on your eyes/forehead is great but I easily fall asleep in that position. The pace of breathing becomes slower if you do the following. After you breathe out, count to 4 before you breathe in again. It slows you down and before long, you can wait for the count of 5 before you want to breathe in again. As smooth, rhythmic breathing slows down and down, you stop thinking about counting. Simply be quiet and experience what’s around you, here and now, the comfy seat, the raindrop on a leaf, the fragrant flower, colours, birdsong, the Boeing 747 overhead tempting to disturb the peace (whose life’s perfect). In old money I call this count your blessings.

Whichever breathing pattern you follow, always keep it smooth with a steady rhythm, this relaxes irrespective of how many counts in, hold or out. With 4-7-8 yoga breathing – with the tip of your tongue lightly touching the ridge of tissue at the back of your upper front teeth- you breathe in through your nose quietly for count of 4, you hold your breath for the count of 7, you forcefully breathe out through your pursed lips for the count of 8. Useful as this is for insomniacs and patients with COPD, it is NOT the most useful breathing technique for mindfulness. Instead I suggest that you, after smoothly breathing out through your nose, take a 4 or more counts respiratory rest (i.e. a relaxed hold) which delivers the medical benefits from Buteyko breathing and then you smoothly breathe in through your nose again. Slowly slowing down a rhythmic breathing rate. (Han van de Braak BSc LicAc MCSP MBAcC (Retd)

Astute as you are, you might say, why not do the three simultaneously? The binaural frequencies encourage your brain to develop theta and delta waves (what all meditation aspires to achieve), doing your TM reinforces the Pavlovian conditioning, the mindful breathing puts the cherry on the cake. Fair to say that the mp3 requires gadgetry and many prefer to meditate for relaxation the old fashioned way which you can do anytime, any place, anywhere… All these techniques work MUCH better if you can infuse love (compassion) into it. There is nothing to lose, there is everything to gain from the above suggestions. Notably so when you translate ‘increased inner peace’ into action, love first and foremost is a verb.

Yoga baggage

By placing a small yoga eye pillow on your face (when lying on your back or sitting reclined), you don’t just shut the light out, you help your autonomic nervous system shift into the direction of parasympathetic tone. Research using an ophthalmologic ocular pressure device (Okulopressor®) shows that in healthy subjects, with only mild eyeball pressure stimulation, the sympathetic-parasympathetic balance shifts towards parasympathetic predominance. For effective meditation/relaxation this is precisely where that balance needs to be, hence my thumbs up for the eye pillow. The image below is Han van de Braak BSc LicAc MCSP MBAcC (Retd) blindly taking a selfie…

What Stops You From Relaxing Properly Yoga Eye Pillow

[1] The differences in brain volume after eight weeks showed thickening in four regions: a) the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance; b) the left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation; c) the temporo-parietal junction which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion; d) the pons (area of the brain stem) where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced. The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general got smaller in the group that went through meditation (mindfulness-based stress reduction program). The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.

[2] According to The Rest Test 68.4% of people surveyed would like more rest. The top three restful activities were: reading (approx. 60%), being in the natural environment (approx. 53%), spending time alone (approx. 52%). This test is about relaxing activities (should bring down the sympathetic tone) but not about relaxation in the sense of raising the parasympathethic tone. Riding a horse, singing in a choir and fishing fell outside the scope of this survey).

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A Mala Helps Your Brain Build Neuronal Pathways

A Mala Helps Your Brain Build Neuronal Pathways
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Not many people appreciate that it is the repetition of words, of movements, of thoughts (in fact any new experience) that creates and strengthens neuronal pathways in the brain. It is how we learn and how we re-learn (overwrite garbage)… Mala prayer beeds encourage repetition for Buddhists whilst, at our end of the pond, Roman Catholicism prescribes the use of the Rosary. Stepping over this cultural divide, both bead strings simply encourage repetition. Practice makes perfect but oh my, be mindful of what the input is… the computing term GIGA (garbage in, garbage out) springs to mind because this is so very apt! The header picture is my own 108-bead Mala that ‘does the counting for me’ whilst I mantra, visualise and build new neuronal pathways. I’m neither a Buddhist nor a Roman Catholic, I am simply a pragmatists. A mala helps your brain build neuronal pathways, it’s a tool.

In music you start playing a piece extremely slowly (creating a default neuronal pathway), and only once you can play it faultlessly at that speed, you gradually speed up to the composer’s tempo. You correctly build the desired neural pathways first, repetition embeds them deeper and deeper, and only then speed can be added. In gymnastics you cannot vault slowly first and then at the required speed, so in physical movement you break it down into components of movements (e.g. balance or strength or coordination). In meditation or in mantras all that matters is the repetition of words, the feeling these engender and the vision that accompanies them. Top sport uses this, top musicians do too and I want to talk here about how repetition will help your brain. It is called neuroplasticity, the ability of the neurons in your brain to compensate for injury and disease (e.g. stroke) and to adjust their activities in response to new situations (learning anything mental or physical) or to changes in their environment. Your brain is either your biggest supporter or your biggest adversary, and the liberating or depressing thing about this is, that ultimately it is your freedom of choice. I mean choice in the sense of Eleanor Roosevelt saying “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.

mala pathways mapping


Other perhaps than for solely meditation, before you use a mala or utter a mantra, it’s useful to know what you ‘consent to’ and what you do not ‘consent to’. This is where a little homework like ‘mapping‘ clarifies what you want to reinforce with your brain. Map what you like, what you dislike; what you are good at, what you are not so good at. Map your dreams, hopes and aspirations instead of chasing fantasies. Many aspects of the brain remain changeable even into adulthood, you’re never too old for change. Such neuroplasticity occurs as physaical changes to individual neurons, to how neurons link with one another (which is what is referred to in this Post) or to the brain as a whole (cortical remapping). Of course the longer (thus likely more as default) a GIGA pathway is embedded, the more challenging it may prove to overwrite it. Where there’s a will…

The difference between dreams and fantasies is that fantasies, if they’d come true, do not truly make you happy. A dream come true does. Mapping can help you know the difference.

If you find exploring yourself in such an analytical way difficult, then imagine that you’re looking at a friend, nine out of ten you’d mellow your criticisms, or deliver any that should be mentioned more gently, or praise when praise is due. Get the bearings for your journey (building new neurons) as sorted as you can, only then use repetitions. Make sure that your actions are congruent with your desired goals. Fingering the mala/rosary, reciting a mantra and visualising running a marathon without ever leaving the settee is called delusion. The faith I mention in my diagram is ‘I can’ and, for those who find that choice hard, or who let fear of failure dictate life, be inspired by the Rio Paralympics 2016 trailer.

Does It Work

Yes it does. In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the Russian team won a total of 98 medals, 24 more Olympic medals than their closest rival (USA). They used hypnosis and visualisation… nowadays pretty much all top teams do. Soviet research was motivated by the observation of how Holocaust survivors were able to continually renew their strength in the harshest of times and the worst of treatment. In one of the most solid Russian trials on how the use of visualisation could lead to peak performance in sports, the Soviet researchers divided a group of top athletes into four groups that corresponded with the following training regimes:

Group 1 – 100% physical training
Group 2 – 75% physical training – 25% mental training
Group 3 – 50% physical training – 50% mental training
Group 4 – 25% physical training – 75% mental training

Group 4 had shown significantly greater improvement than Group 3. Group 3 showed even greater improvement than Group 2, with Group 1 giving the lowest performance. This is a straight forward example that using mental training i.e. using repetition of mantras and visualisation helps build neuronal pathways that physical training alone cannot generate. At the 2012 National Dressage Convention at Hartpury, the Dutch dressage superstar Adelinde Cornelissen talked about her using such techniques even during her riding (normally referred to as moving meditation , in this case meditation on the hoof might be the better phrase). It is total immersion into what you are doing and is extrasensory communication with your horse. I know that our own Leah Beckett uses meditation/visualisation also. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy… Fueling nutrition for your journey are steps I described in Our Approach. No army can fight on an empty stomach and no soldier can fight unless he is fit [Winston Churchill].

Too much of a good thing

Pacing the training your brain to make new neuronal pathways is no different from the pacing physical training needs. After my 108 bead(n) meditation in the morning, I have done my quota of mental training and I’ll get on with my day. Limit how much you do in any one session because too much of the same input results in what is known as repetition suppression. Your brain switches off, so take a break, get the dosage right for you. All neurons that initially are responsive to a stimulus show a proportionally equivalent reduction in their response to repeated presentations of the same stimulus. We know that from functional MRI and EEG/MEG and neuron firing rates declining in one mechanism of ‘switching off’. If you do mental training for longer sessions, make sure you vary the input!