Relaxation exercises can do a remarkable job of soothing the body and mind. These techniques are simple to practice alone, and help reduce tension and stress. Research has documented the beneficial effects of regularly practicing meditation and relaxation, which include lowering blood pressure, increasing concentration and energy, and creating a general feeling of wellbeing. Though these techniques can help, there is no one “correct” way to relax. Try a few of these relaxation and visualization exercises before deciding which ones you prefer. We recommend that you try no more than one or two different exercises per day.
How to Begin
For most of the exercises, begin by sitting on a chair, upright, yet relaxed. Place your feet on the floor and let your hands rest on your thighs. This position allows the entire body to relax in a more efficient manner. However, if you find that this position is uncomfortable for you, then sit or lie down in any way that feels best. You may continue any of the exercises for as long as you want, or set an alarm for a predetermined amount of time of your choosing. Try to spend at least five minutes on any one exercise. You may of course build up to thirty minutes or more, if you so desire. In order to end each exercise, begin to slowly and gently move your hands and feet. Take five deep breaths and open your eyes. End each exercise gently and calmly, so that you can carry with you the effect of the relaxation for the rest of the day.
Take a deep breath. Inhale through your nose, and exhale through your mouth. While you are slowly exhaling, close your eyes and feel how you are beginning to relax. Take a short break between breaths, and continue to breathe this way. Pay attention to your breaths. You can try to gently imagine the word “quiet” each time you exhale. Keep your eyes closed and continue the exercise for a few minutes.
2. Tension vs. Relaxation
In this exercise you can experience the physical difference between tension and relaxation. Close your eyes. Focus your attention on your hands. Make a fist of your left hand, and bend your elbow inwards as far as you can, so that your fist touches your left shoulder. Feel the tension in your arm and hold this position for a few seconds. Relax, and let your hand return to its position on your thigh. Pay attention to the difference between tension and relaxation. Repeat the exercise of tension and relaxation with your legs, thighs, and stomach. Now focus your attention on your head. Scrunch up your eyes and forehead, your nose and your mouth and hold this position for a few seconds. Relax. Repeat this action again, except this time relax only half your face. Hold this position for a few seconds and then relax completely. Now clench all the muscles in your body: begin with your feet, leave them clenched and clench your shins, your thighs, your hips, your stomach, your shoulders, your hands and finally your head until all the muscles in your body are completely clenched. Breathe deeply and hold this position. Relax all the tension at once, and notice how all the tension leaves your body.
3. Heavy, Warm, and Relaxed
Lie on a couch or bed. Close your eyes and concentrate slowly on each part of your body in turn, beginning with your feet and working your way slowly up to your head. Imagine how each part becomes heavy, warm and relaxed. When you have finished, try to clear your mind of all thoughts. If an unwelcome thought appears, notice it and let it go. Feel your body, warm and heavy. Focus on your breathing, feel every breath come in and out of your body.
4. Your Most Beloved Place
Close your eyes and imagine the place you love most, or the most beautiful and relaxing place that you can imagine. This can be some place outside, such as a beach, the woods, or a sunset, or it can be a special place in your home. It can be a place that you’ve been to or simply imagined, or a place that you’ve seen in a picture. Look around you. What do you see? What do you hear? What scents can you smell? Study the place, take a moment to look at the sky and see the clouds move, feel the pleasant breeze caress your face. Stay in this place for a while. Breathe deeply. Enjoy the sensations. Slowly, open your eyes and stay in the calm feeling you’re experiencing. Follow your thoughts, and allow yourselves to enjoy the peace and quiet.
5. Exhale the Tension
In this exercise you will learn how to exhale the tension from your body. Focus on your feet and on all the sensations that you feel from them: the elastic from your socks, the feel of your shoes, the pressure of the floor on certain parts of your sole and any other sensations that you notice. Now – take a deep breath, inhale all these sensations into your lungs and then exhale them. Repeat this process for your shins, your thighs, your hips, your stomach, your chest, your hands, your neck, your eyes, your mouth and your forehead. For each limb focus on the sensations: inhale them into your lungs and then exhale them. When you are finished, try to see if there are any traces of tension anywhere in your body. Inhale these as well and then exhale them out of your body.
6. Inhale, Exhale
You can reach a state of deep relaxation through equal breathing, where each inhalation and exhalation is long and of equal length. Close your eyes, and inhale while counting to 4, and then exhale while counting to 4 again. Repeat this process for a few minutes. With time you will notice that the length of exhaling becomes twice as long as inhaling: this is wonderful as it shows that your body has entered an even deeper state of relaxation. Notice that the air you inhale is cooler then the air you exhale, which is warm. Concentrate on these feelings and continue.
7. Imagine a Blanket
Warmth and relaxation go hand in hand. Another way to feel relaxed is to feel warmer. Lie on a couch or bed, and imagine that you are lying on a soft, comfortable down cover. Imagine a warm, heavy blanket covering your feet. Feel the warmth it provides. Imagine that the blanket is slowly unrolling upwards and now covers your legs, then your stomach, then your chest. Feel how the warmth climbs up and spreads through your limbs, helping you feel more and more relaxed.
8. Quiet is a Liquid
Imagine that quiet is a thick, clear liquid. Feel it spill over and fill your head with peace and calm. Imagine it pouring slowly down your neck, your back and your hands, filling you with a sparkling, clear liquid, until you feel like a flexible, liquid ball. Stay in this position for a few minutes.
Choose the technique or techniques that you feel most comfortable with, and try to practice them once or even twice a day, for several minutes at a time. It might help to record the instructions so that you can listen to them while doing the exercises.
These exercises have been adapted from material from the Biofeedback Training Center at Kansas State University.