The experience of relaxation is essential to counteract the harmful effects of chronic stress on the body. Through the regular practice of relaxation techniques, one can begin to reverse this cumulative, damaging proceess, and engage the body's incredible potential for self-healing.

Herbert Benson, M.D., Harvard Professor and stress reduction specialist, first coined the phrase "Relaxation Response" in the early 1970s to describe the physiological and mental changes that occur when one consciously relaxes. In The Wellness Book he writes that the relaxation response is "a physiological state characterized by a slower heart rate, metabolism, rate of breathing, lower blood pressure, and slower brain wave patterns."

Here are some of the beneficial changes that occur when your body is in the relaxation response:

1. Heartbeat and respiration are slowed.

2. Oxygen consumption is markedly reduced.

3. The expiration of carbon dioxide drops.

4. Blood pressure becomes stable.

5. Blood lactate levels (which some researchers believe are associated with anxiety attacks) decline steeply.

There are many tested techniques which encourage this state of profound rest and release. In this 3-part series, I will describe the most important of these skills, and give you practical instruction on how to do them.

1. Rhythmic, deep, diaphragmatic breathing

The first and most important stress reduction tool is "right under your nose" and as close as your breath. When you focus on slow, deep breathing, the inhalation fills your lungs and causes your lower belly to expand as the diaphragm drops downward into the softness of your relaxed belly.

Try it right now:

Relax your body and release any signs of tension. Allow your tongue and jaws to relax. Drop your shoulders away from your neck. Notice your breathing just as it is. Then take a deep, full breath, allowing the breath to move all the way down into the lower belly. It is helpful to imagine that there is a small balloon in the belly. As you breathe in, let that balloon gently inflate. As you breathe out, feel how the balloon gently deflates.

Take in several of these slow, gentle, deep breaths. Then begin to notice that there is a slight pause that naturally occurs at the end of each exhalation. Allow yourself to wait here without rushing to take the next in-breath. Let the next inhalation surface when your body is ready to welcome it.

Enjoy the soothing tranquility of the pause. Float peacefully in the silence between outbreath and inbreath, letting the breath happen by itself.

If you are just learning diaphragmatic breathing, it can be helpful to begin by lying on your back with your knees bent. In this position, you can more easily feel how the belly rises with inhalation and falls with exhalation. You can also place your hands on your abdomen and let yourself breathe into their warmth, feeling how the hands rise with in-breath and fall with out- breath.

Another great way to find deep belly breath is to lie on your belly. In this position, the only way you can breathe is diaphragmatically!

Finally, it can sometimes be helpful to let yourself sigh out loud with the exhale. Sounding is a useful way to let go of stress and tension.

Deep diaphragmatic breathing has a profound effect on the body. Just three minutes of soft-belly breathing can shift your body out of stress response mode into the relaxation response!

2. Body scan

A guided body scan - which seeks to find and release muscular tensions - promotes deep relaxation, as most of us carry unnecessary tightness in some of our muscles. The location of chronic muscle tension can vary from person to person.

In a body scan, you move your attention into different parts of your body and release any felt sensations of tension or discomfort. With practice, you can become more aware of your tension and find ways to release it. Letting go of physical tension promotes soothing and a calm, tranquil mind.

Try a "mini-body scan" right now as you are reading.

Start with deep, relaxed breathing. Then when you are ready, move your attention sequentially through your body, starting at your head and slowly moving down to your toes. Within each section of your body, pause a moment and scan for tightness, tension, or chronic pain. Begin to allow yourself to let go of any discomfort or tension that you notice.

You can also visualize sending the warmth of your in-breath into the discomfort, and then, with the out-breath, release and dissolve the tension.

Physical relaxation - the release of muscular tension - in the body promotes the relaxation response. Your heartrate, breathing and metabolism slow and your blood pressure becomes lower. Your mind becomes tranquil and relaxed, free of anxiety - and is no longer sending the signals that release the stress hormones to flood throughout your body.

As you are learning these methods, or if you want a more structured experience it is often helpful to work with a teacher or to use a guided meditation CD. This will help you to stay focused on your breath and to pay attention to parts of your body which might otherwise be overlooked in the body scan.

My new 2-CD set, The Alchemy of Peace and Love, contains a detailed body scan and relaxation meditation, with soothing music to help the relaxation process.

Parts II and III will describe more ways to elicit the relaxation response. Stay tuned!

Author's Bio: 

Sandi Anders, M.Div., R.Y.T. ( has been helping people relax and access their inner creativity for many years. A stress management specialist, yoga and meditation teacher, musician and life coach, she uses her soothing voice to teach audiences how to let go of stress and tension and learn to listen to the wisdom of the body. Sandi blends poetic language with her broad knowledge of meditation traditions to teach relaxation skills anyone can learn.

Sandi is based in Nashville, TN and leads workshops and retreats around the country. Her popular new CD The Alchemy of Peace and Love offers two hours of guided relaxation and meditation, using her unique voice, evocative words and original music to guide the listener into a deeply relaxed state.

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