There are different ways to practice the relaxation technique. One of them is the Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), whereby we contract and relax the muscles in a specific body part, holding our attention on the feeling this produces. Another one is to practice the body scan, we move our attention systematically through the various parts of our body, with the intention to feel each part from the inside out, rather than think about the body.
Different ways to practice the relaxation technique
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) (Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson, Meditation an in-depth guide)
The idea is to think of the muscles in a specific body part, contract them and relax them, all the time holding our attention on the feeling this produces. We can practice sitting on a chair or lying down. Traditionally we start with the feet, and slowly move up along the body, to finish with the forehead.
For example, concentrate on your feet, focus on feeling your feet from the inside. Now contract the muscles of the feet, you seeking to tense up all the muscles, making them tight and rigid. Now let the muscles relax, completely letting them go. You might like to imagine them completely soft and loose like a rag doll. Then you move on to the calves and repeat the exercise, then the thighs, the buttocks, the tummy, the chest, the arms, the hands, the fingers, the shoulders, the neck, the jaw and mouth, the eyes, and finally the forehead.
Attitude – no precise expectation are necessary, doing this exercise in a relaxed, easy manner, without trying too hard, will lead you through physical relaxation into stillness of mind. We are not trying to make anything happen, just doing the exercise or contracting and relaxing muscle groups in a systematic manner and trusting the process.
If at any stage you find yourself thinking about something else and getting distracted, just come back to the exercise and the words, without judging yourself. With patience and kindness, like training a puppy or spoon feeding an infant.
The aim is really to just do it. Contract the muscles, relax them and allow a feeling of ease and calm to flow through you.
Body scan with mindfulness of sensations
When we practice the body scan, we move our attention systematically through the various parts of our body, with the intention to feel each part from the inside out, rather than think about the body. that’s the difference.
Let’s take the hand as an example of how to do this. You are welcome to do this exercise at the same time as you are reading it. We might start with bringing our attention to the right hand, noticing its position, noticing the sensations at the point of contact between the hand and the surface it’s resting on, we might mentally whisper the word “hand”. And then gently bringing our attention to the inside of the hand, and becoming familiar with feeling the hand from the inside. Noticing what’s there, maybe some tingling, vibration or warmth, or numbness… feeling the energy, the aliveness inside the hand. Sensing the difference between any idea of hand and this direct sensation right here.
So we can bring the same quality of attention to other parts of the body. We might start at the top of the head and move towards the feet, or start at the feet and move up towards the head.
You might like to use some soft mental noting as you notice the sensations within each body part. For example “itching”, “tension”, “numbness , “warmth”, “coolness”…
The core attitude is to remain friendly and kind as you notice the sensations, and to avoid any judgment such as “why is my shoulder numb?”, “why is my foot sore?”, “my back should not feel tense”, “I hate feeling like that”, “why can’t I feel my arm?” etc…
Initially it is quite common to find it hard to feel certain body parts. If that’s the case, we simply notice the absence of sensation, without judging ourselves for it. It helps to start with the parts of the body that are most easy to feel. For many people it’s the hands and feet. And then let feeling extend to other areas.
The key is to be patient, to know that it is a relaxing back into feeling the body, and that it takes its own time, so to remain curious and friendly about it.
It is helpful to keep asking the question “what does it feel like from the inside out?”. Mindfulness of the body is not observing from a distance, it is fully engaging with our experience and allowing life to play itself just as it is.
So bringing the two wings of awareness to this practice:
- Awareness, recognising what’s here “what’s happening inside me right now?”
- Allowing, loving presence “can I be with this?”, connecting with the sensations in a loving way, instead of pushing away and disconnecting.
I invite you to try and practice the progressive muscle relaxation and body scan meditations that you can find in the podcast section of this website.