Phew, I love, love this time of year but it’s pretty crazy in the build-up to Christmas! It seems counter-intuitive to slow down, just when there’s so much to do. But research has shown that taking a relaxation break helps us be far more effective.
So how do you relax? I was surprised to learn that watching TV is actually stimulating rather than relaxing. However, reading, taking an exercise class or going for a walk are all relaxing for your body – and your mind.
But some days it feels like our brains won’t switch off. We can’t stop the ‘chatter’, ruminating over all our worries or our ‘to do’ lists. If you can relate, then please read on!
I’m going to talk about four simple exercises that all have something in common – allowing our minds to let go of the day to day. Just doing them once will help calm your body and mind. But with regular practice, they also:
- Improve your concentration skills, helping you stay more focussed day to day
- Reduce anxiety through less worrying and rumination
- Improve memory
- Reduce feelings of stress in your daily life
- Help you drift off to peaceful sleep
You may find one type more helpful or easier to get the hang of than others. However, like any kind of exercise, relaxation can be a skill that takes time – so be encouraged by all progress, confident that you will improve with practice.
If you find your mind wandering, however frequently it happens, gently bring your attention back without judgment, and try again. Aim for 10 minutes, building up to 15 as your confidence grows. But even 5 minutes is a great start.
The fourth exercise is a supported one – brilliant if you are tired or otherwise struggling with concentration, or just not sure how to get started – there really is something for everyone and with the right exercise, the calm mind is a skill everyone can develop.
1. The Breathing Exercise
This exercise doesn’t require any equipment and can be done sitting in a chair, or lying in bed if you would like to use it to help you sleep.
Close your eyes. Breathe naturally, allowing your abdomen to expand with each in-breath. Breathe through the nostrils, and become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. If you have a blocked nose, breathe through your mouth and become aware of the sensation of your breath on your lips.
Once you have the sensation, count each in-breath, up to 10. You can repeat this step as many times as you like, if it helps you focus on the breath. If you lose count, just start again. You can continue for as long as you can maintain your concentration – or stay awake!
Alternatively, try counting to 4 as you breathe in, then 6 as you breathe out. Then, when this is comfortable try extending it to 6 in and 8 out. Some people find it easier to stay in the exercise, with this pattern.
2. The Mantra Exercise
You may find the mantra exercise easier. It all depends how your brain is wired! In this one, you choose an empowering phrase or affirmation that means something to you, and repeat it slowly and rhythmically, silently to yourself. Sit in a chair or lie down, and close your eyes.
This has the added benefit of planting a positive idea in your mind while you practice. Just make sure it’s all positives! No don’t or can’t, just can and do ☺
While you think up your own, you might like to start with “I am well and happy” or “I breathe in peace and breathe out love”.
One way to help you stay focussed during this practice is to take a string of beads, such as a necklace, and hold it loosely in your hands. As you say your phrase, move your fingers along one bead. Keep going until you are back to the beginning.
3. The Candle Exercise
Some people find it easier to let go of thoughts when they are concentrating on a physical “thing”.
Make sure the room you are in is dimly lit. Sit comfortably upright. Light a candle and position it at eye level, or slightly below. It’s OK to look down at the candle slightly, but make sure that tilting your head doesn’t cause your body to slump. Make sure that your candle is at least 50cm away from you, otherwise it may appear too bright.
Now simply stare at the candle and allow the image of the flame to occupy your mind. At first, your mind will probably wander about and your eyes will resist your efforts to keep them still. This is normal and it will gradually ease as the exercise progresses, so don’t be too concerned if this happens to you.
You may also find that your eyes water a little. Again, this is normal and it usually dissipates quite quickly. Simply return your attention to the candle flame and let the distraction go.
As you progress, you will find that mental stillness and the physical stillness of your eyes blur everything around the candle until that is all you can see.
An alternative practice is to look at the candle flame for a few minutes and then close your eyes. Try to hold the image of the candle in your mind’s eye until your mind wanders. Then, either recall the image of the flame in your mind’s eye, or open your eyes and start again.
4. The Guided Exercise
If you’re tired, or you have a lot on your mind, the other exercises might be a mite too much like hard work. That’s when you might find a guided exercise a good option – you listen to a recording of someone talking, who will describe the exercise to you over the course of 10-15 minutes or longer, allowing you to practice in a supported way. They might describe a beautiful, relaxing scene for you to imagine, or talk you through relaxing different parts of your body in turn until you are truly relaxed.
There are loads of options on YouTube, CD or elsewhere on the internet, and you may have to try a few – the voice and delivery one person finds relaxing can be total marmite to another! But I’ve found a few I’ve enjoyed here:
And this is a personal favourite for getting to sleep when my mind is ticking over too fast!
Wishing you a calm, happy and relaxed December – and beyond xx
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