Keep Relaxing

keep relaxing standingTension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” ~ Chinese Proverb

We’re moving house. Every day, we pack more things into boxes. Little by little, Frank trucks our belongings into storage. Every day, as I thread my way through echo-y rooms full of boxes and packing paper, I say to myself, “Keep relaxing.” Sometimes, when I feel really stirred up, I imagine myself leaning back into a soft bed or dissolving into the earth. “Keep relaxing. Keep relaxing.”

So far, it seems to be working. I haven’t yelled or growled at anybody yet. I’ve hardly even snapped at a hard-working, well-meaning husband.


Stress is everywhere. No news flash there. We all know all about it.

Even if you aren’t in the middle of a stressy mess, we all have ongoing situations that get us twisted up. For you it might be raising children or caring for an aging parent or managing a team of co-workers (and/or a difficult boss). On top of those daily things, we’re also confronted with immediate, short-term anxieties like being stuck in traffic or waiting for the doctor to call back or languishing on hold listening to loud static-y Musak.

We all know the situations and we all know the sensations, too.

When I’m stressed, I get a familiar tightening in my eyes and jaw, my heart throbs and either I breathe faster or I hold it. {CURLY BRACKET NOTE: We have the breath-holding reaction so our lungs can pull as much oxygen as possible to the muscles so they can leap into action.} When I’m under pressure, I feel a tightening, a narrowing of my perspective and a laser focus on whatever I think will make the stress go away.

Stress puts the lizard brain in action: flight, fight or freeze. Neurologically speaking, these sensations are my Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) turning on in the presence of a threat. Neuroscientist and Buddhist teacher, Rick Hanson, explains

Danger, pain, upsetting feelings, low blood sugar, excitement – and stress in general – all activate the sympathetic nervous system. And so does the anticipation of something bad (or really wonderful) . . . even if that anticipation is exaggerated or flat wrong. (from Wise Brain Bulletin, Vol 1, #5)

Fascinating, right? It doesn’t matter to the brain if the danger is a real or perceived. Either way, for the SNS, it’s game on.

[RESOURCE NOTE: Dr. Hanson’s prolific work is a brilliant resource for understanding neurological biology of the brain and body and for practical approaches for developing inner skills that promote balance and well-being. In particular, I highly recommend his book Just One Thing and in particular from that, I recommend the section called Relax on pp. 26-28.]

The good news is that I have a choice. We all do. We have the ability to consciously unhook the grip of the SNS when it isn’t helping us.

“You cannot relax too often.” ~ Tara Brach

The SNS helps me kick into high gear when I need to but often (and habitually) I spend entirely too much time there: over-scheduling, focusing on what isn’t working, rushing from one (apparently) urgent thing to another. If I let it, my modern life feeds on the edgy rush of stress. The problem is, I tend to be a big cranky pants when my SNS is over-active. Just ask the people who helped me move 5 years ago. It’s a wonder I have a single friend (or family member) left.

{CURLY BRACKET NOTE: An over-achieving SNS isn’t just bad for relationships, it’s bad for your body. Rick Hanson explains that,

Bottom-line, lighting up your SNS is not just a fleeting experience, but something that has a real stickiness to it, a lasting impact. For example, chronic activation of the SNS burdens five major systems of your body: gastrointestinal, immune, cardiovascular, endocrine, and nervous. (from Wise Brain Bulletin Vol 1, #6)}

My unskillful behavior and general tendency toward irritability are main reasons I dance, do yoga, meditate and write. Mindfulness, it turns out, is one of the activities that turns on the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): the part that is calming and relaxing and that which allows us to digest (both food and experiences), reason, and recover.

In a recent guided meditation, Tara Brach offers the instruction, “You cannot relax often enough.” More and more, if I don’t know what to do, I do something to help myself relax. Especially these days, when I’m routinely looking for something that is snugly packed away in storage, I keep saying it to myself over and over. You cannot relax often enough.

[RESOURCE NOTE: Tara Brach is also an incredible source of great writing — her book, Radical Acceptance, was a breakthrough for me – and Tara Brach meditation teaching]

“The more relaxed you are, the better you are at everything.” ~ Bill Murray

New Nia teachers sometimes ask me what I recommend they do to get ready for teaching. The first thing, I always say it that their relaxation is the greatest gift they can give their students. No matter what I’m doing, the more I can relax, the more skillful I will be. That’s because relaxation, the PNS, is who we are. Amazingly, if you were to disconnect your SNS, you would live just fine (although a bit lethargically) but if you disconnected the PNS, you would die almost immediately.

The key is knowing that you have the ability to turn on your PNS and then practicing doing it. Simple things like deep breathing (particularly emphasizing the exhalation), mindfulness on the body, meditation and even yawning will slow your heart rate and get your PNS on line.

It’s not difficult to trigger relaxation, we only have to remember to do it (especially when we’re caught up in the swirl of SNS). So while it’s a brilliant move to relax when something tense is happening, it’s also a great idea to practice when things are chill and the stakes aren’t so high.

Practicing relaxation is essential for our health and well-being — and it helps us do everything better. Turning on the PNS is actually bringing us into our true nature. Again, Rick Hanson explains that

The PNS is wallpaper, sky, taken for granted, undramatic, in the background. Human culture, and definitely the modern media of television and movies, are largely about the SNS. Action, conflict, sex, million dollar moments, death, crisis, fairy-tale endings, etc. are different and dramatic. It’s therefore easy to start thinking that chronic stress and living awash in the SNS are what’s really natural, the bedrock of existence. But in reality, cooperation, relaxation, and equilibrium are the hub of the great wheel of life.

So keep relaxing. As the Chinese proverb says, “relaxation is who you are.”

    • Me too, Madeline. It’s a great reminder, no matter what I’m doing. ❤

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