Cultivating peace in daily life.

Relaxation for Healthy Living

Renew Your Health, Renew Your Life

Developing skills in relaxation and renewal
to support health, productivity, and quality of life
in today’s fast-changing world.

Deborah L. Aikens, Ph.D.

The need for renewal is basic to all of life.  As the pace of life continues to accelerate, it’s easy to lose touch with both the need for and the benefits of daily renewal.  Renewal provides us with the energy we need to meet our challenges successfully while supporting our health, well-being, productivity, and quality of life. 

Few people get enough genuine renewal these days.  It’s more common to be over-extended, over-worked, and feeling the pressure of too much to do with too little time to do it.  This creates the condition of chronic stress where we need to draw on the emergency reserves of the body just to meet the demands of daily life.  In this condition, we’re all susceptible to the whole range of common stress symptoms.

Every aspect of us—body, mind, heart, and spirit—benefits from the warmth and vitality that renewal provides.  With the following guidelines, you’ll be supported in a daily practice of relaxation—a high quality, effective, and enjoyable way to renew and replenish your resources.

We must always change, renew,
rejuvenate ourselves;
otherwise we harden.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The challenge of modern lifestyles. . .

Human beings have access to many states of awareness.  This is part of our human potential.  We’re most familiar with three of these states––the awake state, the sleep state, and the dream state.  We can also easily identify a hyper-awake state that is initiated automatically by our bodies when we perceive a threat or a demand.  A cascade of sophisticated biological processes, called the “fight-flight response,” increases alertness and mobilizes energy so we can effectively meet the challenges we face.  We’re all familiar with the “adrenaline rush” that occurs when the fight-flight response is activated.

The fight-flight response is an extremely effective way to meet challenges that demand energy and alertness.  Without sufficient renewal, however, the chronic use of the fight-flight response is an expensive way to live.  This built-in response to stress is essentially an emergency reaction, and emergencies demand a heavy use of our resources and reserves. 

If we lead reasonably balanced lives, our stress response serves us well.  But due to the many daily pressures and common stresses that most of us have, we often don’t live balanced lives.  For many of us, the cumulative pressures of daily life can easily be perceived as “emergencies,” leading to a chronic over-use of our fight-flight response on a daily basis. The demand this places on us can lead to a slow accumulation of wear and tear in the mind-body system that can result in a wide range of stress symptoms and eventually in illness.
The frequent and unrelenting triggering of the stress response
without sufficient recovery can contribute to a number of symptoms and illnesses.

Herbert Benson, M.D.

Nature’s answer to too much stress. . .

Another very important state of awareness for all of us is the state of relaxation.  Like sleep, relaxation is well suited for regeneration and healing.  In this state of awareness, our bodies repair and rebuild themselves from the wear and tear of busy lives.

Relaxation offers us the deep rest of sleep combined with the clarity and alertness of being awake.  We draw on our physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual resources every day.  When we relax, we rebuild and renew those resources.  Throughout a typical day, we naturally cycle between periods of high energy and concentration, and periods of lower energy and productivity.  This is built into our biology.  These periods of lower energy (often around 10:30 in the morning and 3:30 in the afternoon for many of us) are good times for a few minutes of relaxation and renewal.

Our Western world is still somewhat biased against the state of relaxation.  Taking time to relax is often associated with being unproductive or lazy.  This is a misunderstanding that comes from the “more is better, faster is better” mind-set, so common in our culture.  The distinct physiological and psychological characteristics of relaxation make it an important foundation for health, productivity, and creativity.  It’s through relaxation that we can experience and utilize the healing potential of the human body and the creative potential of the heart and mind.

Taking out the garbage. . .

The mind and the body accumulate stress and tension from daily activities.  This creates congestion and fatigue in body processes and can lead to stress symptoms.  One or two daily periods of relaxation can help to clear our mind-body system of the excess tension it accumulates, leaving us with a feeling of being cleansed and revitalized, and improving the overall functioning of the healing system within us.

Picture this: 

The garbage can in your kitchen is overflowing.  It’s been that way for days and you just haven’t had the time to get to it.  There are tell-tale signs of last week’s meals mixed with who knows what else of your personal leftovers.  Even if it’s tucked away so you can’t see it, you’ll surely smell it, and that’s not very enjoyable!

The accumulated tension in your mind and body may seem a little more subtle than accumulated garbage in your kitchen, but it’s no more appealing.  Just like your actual garbage, it needs to be tossed out or recycled on a regular basis or it gets very intrusive.  It’s not much fun to sit down to enjoy a family meal in the midst of several days of overflowing garbage.  In the same way, health, well-being, and productivity are diminished by the build-up of tensions in your mind-body system and the chronic, uncomfortable symptoms they can cause.

The art of relaxation. . .

An effective method of relaxation teaches you to shift your awareness from the waking state to the relaxed state, and then back again to the awake state, so you can resume your normal activities.  During this time, tension, anxiety and fatigue are released from your body and your mind.  This can happen easily in 10 to 20 minutes, which is a natural time for the body to unwind a little, renew itself, and then be ready again for concentration and activity.

We spend most of our time and energy
in a kind of horizontal thinking.
We move along the surface of things…
[but] there are times when we stop.
We sit still.
We lose ourselves in a pile of leaves or its memory.
We listen, and breezes from a whole other world begin to whisper.

James Carroll

Relaxation experienced once or twice a day builds a foundation for good health and resilience to daily stresses.  It provides some necessary recovery from the over-use of the fight-flight response.


There are many effective ways to make the shift from the awake state to the relaxed state.  The following instructions offer a simple and direct approach to entering into the state of relaxation and receiving the health benefits. 

It’s recommended that you include relaxation in your daily schedule once in the morning and once in the mid-afternoon or early evening.  It’s one of the most compassionate things you can do for yourself and your body to recover from the wear and tear of stressful living, and to access deep reserves of energy and well-being.

Step 1.  Prepare to relax

The first step is to find a comfortable place to sit for 10-20 minutes where you won’t be distracted.  Choose a place you enjoy—one you associate with relaxation and well-being.  Using the same place as often as you can helps establish a rhythm for your body.  Some people use the same chair or the same blanket every time they practice the skill of deep relaxation.  After a while your body starts to relax by just sitting down in this familiar place.  When you get used to moving in and out of the state of relaxation, you’ll be able to do it anywhere. 

The natural posture for relaxation is to sit upright, arms and legs uncrossed, with your feet flat on the floor.  Adjust your neck and shoulders to their most comfortable position.  Relax your jaws so they’re not clenched or tight.  Open a window for fresh air, dim the lights . . . do whatever you enjoy so that your environment supports relaxation and healing.

Generally, it’s beneficial to practice the art of relaxation sitting up as opposed to lying down.  Lying down tends to communicate to your body that it’s time to sleep.  It’s helpful to cultivate the abilities to (1) sleep when you choose to, and (2) relax when you choose to, and know the difference.  Sometimes, however, even while sitting up, you may fall asleep.  If you do, it’s probably because you need the rest and your mind and body simply do not have the energy to maintain awareness, even relaxed awareness.  If this happens repeatedly, your body may be telling you that you need more sleep.

Step 2.  Relax your body

This is the time when you begin to shift your awareness from the waking state to the relaxed state.  You can easily do this by giving a few simple suggestions to your body.  As your body responds to the suggestions, you’ll begin to repair the negative effects of the over-use of the fight-flight response.  This is a safe and effective method of self-regulating your nervous system to reduce tension.  It’s a natural healing mechanism that everyone can activate.

With these suggestions, you’ll become aware of what it feels like to shift from the awake state to the relaxed state.  Most people find this shift to be very enjoyable.  This will give you firsthand experience of a key principle of mind-body healing.  It’s very easy and natural to experience how the mind can influence the body in a positive way with a few simple suggestions.  The signals you’ll give your body include:

“My hands are heavy.”
“My hands are warm.”
“My breathing is calm and regular.”
“My heartbeat is calm and regular.”
“I am at peace.”

Let’s review them one at a time.

“My hands are heavy.”

The first suggestion you give your body is, “My hands are heavy.”  Just repeat it to yourself a couple of times.  Your body recognizes this as a signal to relax your muscles.  If you rest your hands on your thighs, you can easily feel their weight.  Just let go to gravity and let your body begin to relax.

“My hands are warm.”

The next suggestion you give to your body is, “My hands are warm.”  This signals your body to increase circulation to your hands and arms.  One common effect of the stress response is to cause the hands to feel cold.  This instruction simply reverses that message.  Warm hands are associated with the state of relaxation.

“My breathing is calm and regular.”

The third suggestion is, “My breathing is calm and regular.”  The body easily recognizes this instruction as a signal to become more relaxed.  You’ll notice how the rhythm of your breathing changes as your body relaxes.  You can think of releasing tension and fatigue with each exhale.  Notice how your breathing will establish it’s own rhythm without you having to do anything to change it.

“My heartbeat is calm and regular.”

Many people who have a lot of emotional tension particularly like the suggestion, “My heartbeat is calm and regular.”  This signals your body to adjust your heart rhythm to a relaxed state, and supports feelings of warmth and well-being in the heart.  Stress constricts the heart and may contribute to feeling anxious, emotionally cut off or numb.  These are common symptoms of our chronically stressed culture.

“I am relaxed.” or “I am at peace.”

The last suggestion that you slowly repeat to yourself is, “I am relaxed” or “I am at peace.”  With the in-breath, repeat to yourself, “I am…” and with the out-breath, “relaxed…”  Continue for a few breaths.  This integrates each of the other signals and is associated with a deep feeling of well-being.

Step 3.  Relax your mind

During waking awareness the mind tends to chatter endlessly as we can easily observe by tuning into our inner dialog.  It wanders and gets distracted, bored, tired, and confused.  Our thoughts can shift and change from one topic to another with no apparent logic whatsoever.  Just like the body, the mind benefits from periods of relaxation where it can discharge some of the tension it accumulates from periods of activity and concentration and from the anxiety and worry that our challenges bring.  When stress builds up, we experience fatigue, mental strain, and find it difficult to maintain concentration.

When the mind starts to relax, it’s common to experience sensations of drifting, settling down, or letting go.  The images of a feather drifting to the ground and leaves falling from the trees in the autumn have similar feelings associated with them.

You can easily imagine a drifting feather being blown one way and then another by a gust of wind.  This is similar to the way the mind wanders, first in one direction and then another.  Once the wind passes, the feather resumes its peaceful drifting.  Again, the mind is similar.  As we gently bring our mind back from its restless wandering, it becomes more calm and peaceful.

Step 4.  Approach silence

It’s during a period of silence that we can experience deep healing and restoration taking place within our minds and bodies.  A period of silence is the optimal condition for the body to naturally heal and replenish itself from the wear and tear of daily activities.  During this period, tension, anxiety and fatigue are discharged.  We rebuild our energy reserves.

You already have
the precious
mixture that will
make you well.
Use it.


We facilitate this process by choosing an anchor that helps us focus our attention and maintain that focus with a relaxed, easy-going concentration.  Here are some examples of anchors you might use during a period of silence to gently return your mind from its wandering nature.

During the silence, gently focus on one of the following:

**    Any of the signals to relax your body discussed above.

Each of the body signals discussed above can serve as an effective anchor when your mind starts to wander, and each one will deepen your relaxation.  Many people find it very soothing to simply focus on the rhythm of their breathing throughout the entire relaxation.  The period of silence can be extended to 20-30 minutes for a deeper relaxation.

**    An inner oasis of peace and well-being.

Imagine or visualize a favorite place in nature that you associate with renewal, and return to this image each time you become aware of your mind wandering.

**    A spiritual image, prayer, or symbol that you enjoy and find nourishing.

An image, prayer or line from a poem that has personal meaning to you can serve well as an anchor during relaxation.

**    A specific part of your body that needs energy or healing.

In the state of relaxation many people can feel healing energy and warmth flowing to an area of the body that is used as a point of focus.

Remember, the human mind is often a wandering mind.  Most likely you will find your mind wandering away from the anchor you choose.  It can wander into today’s or yesterday’s activities; it can wander far into the future and back into the distant past.  It’s important not to pursue it or reject it.  It’s just doing what it does naturally. 

When you notice it wandering, just gently bring it back to your anchor.  In doing this, you’re exercising an important inner muscle that is key to stress reduction and healthy living.  You’re learning how to participate in the events and circumstances of your life in a relaxed way, without getting overly identified or entangled with them.  This is a gentle, easy-going process, which also teaches self-compassion, a quality that is so needed in most of our lives.  You’ll also find that mental strain and agitation are reduced.  You gain benefits each time you engage with yourself in this relaxed, compassionate way. 

Beware of the urge to “perform” well or “achieve” this ability.  Rather than the doing and producing that are so characteristic of our waking awareness, relaxation is more associated with allowing and letting go.  As we maintain a relaxed concentration, the healing resources in our mind-body system are activated naturally.

Step 5.  Return to your waking awareness

The last step is to return to your waking awareness so you can resume your regular activities.  Give yourself a little time to make the shift so you are fully alert and awake. Your skill in the art of relaxation will grow naturally as you make it part of your daily rhythms.  As tension releases, you’ll begin to experience how the time you dedicate to renewal re-sets your inner compass and supports clear thinking, balanced feeling, and clear, effective actions.

Relaxation and mind-body medicine. . .

The relaxation method described here is based on the principles of mind-body medicine.  The most effective treatments currently available for chronic stress are in this field.  Mind-body medicine addresses the intimate connection between the health of the body, the mind, the emotions, the spirit, and the social environments in which we live and work. 

As science continues to unravel the mystery of the mind-body connection, evidence is growing that we can influence our health by how we think and feel; by our values, attitudes and deeply held beliefs; and by the tools we use to take care of ourselves on a daily basis.  This approach to health is continuing to gain increasing momentum in the American culture as individuals seek more effective, less invasive, and less costly solutions to their health needs.

The mind-body approach emphasizes compassionate self-care practices that activate the healing intelligence of the human body.  It promotes respect for the physical body and a scientific understanding of what the body needs to renew and regenerate itself in the context of our stressful modern lifestyles.  Including a wide range of both traditional and contemporary health practices, the mind-body approach seeks to reduce pain and distress at all levels—physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.

The relaxation method introduced here can be used to:

•    reduce and eliminate the symptoms of chronic daily stress
•    support recovery from illness
•    manage pain and increase the quality of life for those with chronic illness
•    replenish the body’s reserves during periods of extreme stress
•    enrich general health, productivity and creativity.

It has no side effects and can be safely used in the home or work environment.  In addition, it can be used in conjunction with conventional medical treatments to support and restore health.

What to remember. . .

Renewal is one of life’s primary urges.  Practicing the art of relaxation will reduce the wear and tear of daily stresses and revitalize your reserves––physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual.  If your resources are strong and vital, you’ll see a positive reflection in your health, your energy, your moods, your productivity, and the quality of your life.  Your resources are your true wealth.  They’re worth caring for and renewing every day!

There is a life pouring into this world,
and it pours from an inexhaustible source.

Joseph Campbell



Benson, Herbert.  Timeless Healing
Childre, Doc and Martin, Howard.  The Heartmath Solution
Childre, Doc and Rozman, Deborah.  Transforming Stress
Luthe, W. and Schultz, J.H.  Autogenic Therapy and Training
Luskin, Fred and Pelletier, Kenneth.  Stress Free for Good
Muller, Wayne.  Sabbath, Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin. ~Mother Teresa