Stretches and Relaxation

We are nearing an initial first draft of the book, so we’ve got a lot of material to catch up adding to this site. Here are some portions of the the third chapter. As always, comments and suggested additions are highly appreciated

Physical Practices
The importance of having a set of physical exercises and stretches can’t be emphasized enough. Just as it is important to exercise the mind, it is also important to exercise the body. In fact, by exercising the body, you do exercise the mind, and also neural patterns of the brain. Physical activities not only keep us grounded, but can also refresh us, keep us limber, and otherwise feeling great. A good physical routine will include stretches and some form of exercise which will help you feel physically fit and sharpen the awareness of your mind. Below, we present some easy stretches and exercises you can do to enliven your day.

(The actual book chapter contains a description and picture of the yogic warm-up, the Surya Namaskara (literally “Sun, I greet you.”) here. It doesn’t fit in this post very well, though we might add it as its own post later. Do a search and take a look around the web, though. The Surya Namaskara is one of the best single stretch routines around.)

Relaxation Exercises

Body Awareness
One of the goals of nearly all systems of self-development or spiritual growth is to increase sensitivity or self-awareness. The following exercise will help you to practice being still, silence internal dialogue, and pay more attention to your body.

Sit comfortably in a straight-backed chair, or lay flat on your back in bed. To begin with, merely observe what your body is doing and how you feel. Watch your body, and try to pay more attention to its sensations and feelings here and now.

For the time being, do not consciously try to relax, to breathe in any special way, or try to control your thoughts. Just try to become conscious of any sensation that arises anywhere in the body.

Move and stretch for a few moments until you find the position that seems most comfortable. Once you’ve found your position, try not to make any voluntary movement for the remainder of your practice session. You should try to comfortably remain as still as possible, down to the smallest movements of your fingers or toes. Initially, practice for around ten minutes, but over a period of around a month, extend your practice to about half an hour.

Some people may find a strong urge to wiggle, but try to resist. Pay particular attention to the areas of your body that seem to exhibit the most need to move or that seem to hold tension.

As you learn to stay still for longer periods, practice maintaining your awareness. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back.

As you sit or lie quietly, you may start to feel an itching of the scalp. Leave it alone. Relax and do not scratch. Just watch. After a few moments, the itching may die down and disappear, or else your attention may be distracted by a sensation somewhere else. You may become conscious of your back settling down into the bed or chair. Just observe this process, trying only to become more aware of the sensations in your body without trying to block any out or change them.

Don’t think about it or make any judgments about your observations, just notice. Try not to think whether any of these sensations are comfortable or uncomfortable, pleasurable or painful.

Just watch as sensations in different parts of your body come and go.

Some people may find it useful to verbalize audibly what they feel. The act of describing what and where one feels occupies the critical faculties and allows the people to more deeply relax.

A profound relaxation can develop just by watching. Do nothing but observe the rise and fall of sensations without trying to modify them. Over time, regular practice of this exercise will substantially increase mindfulness and self-awareness. The ability to maintain a calm self-observation is critical to learning the practices described in the remainder of this book.

Start practicing now. You can practice it wherever you happen to be, at any time, and in any place. No special time need set for this exercise, but retiring at night or waking in the morning are both good times to practice self-awareness.

You can extend this practice to anything you do during the day, particularly actions that you normally perform unconsciously. While performing one’s daily bathing, washing, shaving, applying makeup, dressing, or whatever, one can use the opportunity to sharpen one’s perception of what one is doing to become more conscious of the smallest and previously insignificant sensations.

Practice this exercise at least twice a day for at least a month.

Relaxation
For this next exercise, use whatever position you’ve used for the previous exercises – you can lay flat or sit upright. If you use a sitting position, be sure to use a stiff-backed chair that maintains an erect spine.

If you will be lying down on a couch or bed, the mattress should be moderately firm. If your mattress is too soft, you may prefer a well-carpeted floor.

Before lying or sitting down, try a couple of short exercises to prepare yourself. First, spend a couple of minutes skipping with an invisible rope in a stationary position. This exercise enhances the blood circulation and stimulates deeper breathing, but because of the alternate contraction and relaxation of muscles, it also helps you prepare for practicing relaxation techniques.

Next, stand upright with your legs about a foot apart. Inhale, and then expel all the air as you let yourself bend forward from the waist without bending your knees. This exercise is similar to the calisthenic toe-touch exercise you’ve probably done in the past, but remember that your goal is to relax. Let your body above the waist fall bend with your exhalation. Allow your fingers and hands to dangle near your feet for a second or two; then, as you inhale, slowly rise up to your standing position. You should also relax your head and neck as you exhale, while letting the upper body bend from the waist. This will help stretch and relax the neck musculature. Repeat this exercise at least a dozen times.

As you warm up, keep your mind focused on your body sensations. Observe how you feel without getting distracted by other thoughts.

Now, to begin the relaxation exercise proper, take several few very deep breaths and, as you exhale, sigh heavily. If you relax your diaphragm and abdominal muscles, most of the musculature and other tissues supplied by the involuntary nervous system will relax as well.

Stay quietly in your current position for a few seconds. Observe yourself, noticing how your body feels.
During the next part of the exercise, you will use your imagination to extend the boundaries of your awareness.
Concentrating on any part of the body will increase the blood flow to that part of the body. By using your imagination, you can stimulate vasodilator fibers that relax blood-vessels enabling greater circulation. The increased blood-flow raises the temperature of the area, which in turn will induce more muscular relaxation. In general, this type of practice is referred to as autogenic training.
Now, visualize your brain. You don’t have to visualize it in great detail, but you’ve probably seen enough pictures to know roughly what your brain looks like – it’s a mass of convoluted white and gray matter, divided into two lateral hemispheres, with back-brain, mid-brain, and fore-brain regions. If you can’t imagine this, spend a few minutes looking at a picture online or in a reference book.

Picture your brain as you’ve seen it in pictures or illustrations. Concentrate on this image until you begin to sense a warm feeling spreading out from the center of your skull. Perhaps, you will also feel a gentle tingling or a pins-and-needles sensation.

Imagine that the blood-vessels within your brain have dilated enough to hold larger amounts of blood, thus turning your brain pink, and that as this happens, you feel an increased sensation of warmth.

Next, focus your attention on your eyes, imagining that these are like two balls, each hanging from four tiny muscular chains.

Just as you did before, assemble a picture in your imagination showing the blood vessels in the muscles becoming enlarged and holding more blood. Feel the increased circulation warming the surrounding muscles. As your muscles relax, you should have the sensation of your eyeballs sinking back into their sockets.

It is important to maintain your attention while practicing these relaxation exercises. Don’t let your mind wander from what you are doing and the area you are relaxing. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back.

Repeat the previous procedure with the rest of your head. Visualize the warm blood moving to your temples, ears, cheekbones, and then to the nose, mouth, lips, tongue, jaws, and chin. As before, you will feel increased warmth and tingling that spreads into profound relaxation.

At this point, you should have spent at least ten minutes on this exercise and much of your body should be considerably more relaxed.

Take your time and continue the process with your neck, shoulders, and arms. When you reach your abdomen, slow down and take extra care. The more you relax your abdomen, the more tension will be released throughout your body.

Finally, imagine your blood flow from your aorta separating into two powerful arterial streams descending from the pelvis into the thighs, legs, and feet. Take time to visualize your thigh and leg muscles in as much detail as possible. You may want to find a used copy of Grey’s Anatomy to help build your images. Continue moving your attention downward until you reach your toes, then pause.

Note how you feel now. Working with the previous body awareness exercise should have increased your ability to sense your body. Take a few moments and try to consciously enjoy a sense of pleasure and freedom and, while you do this, think of the word “relax”. If you pay enough attention to this state of relaxation, you will be much more able to retrieve the feeling later on just by thinking of this experience.

Later on, when you next want to relax, take a deep breath, exhale, and think of the word “relax” and try to remember your feeling of complete relaxation. Inhale again, and as you breathe out, mentally command yourself to relax. With continued practice, you can train this conditioned reflex to be immediate and complete. Practice this exercise for at least a half-hour at a time, preferably twice a day.

Sitting Still
Learning to sit quietly is an important skill required for many more advanced mental exercises. Learning to become physically still will be of great help if you want to become more aware of what your mind is doing.

Sit somewhere comfortable, with your spine straight, at a level so that your knees form a right angle, and rest both hands lightly on your thighs. When you first begin practicing this exercise, you can rest your back against the back of your chair. However, as you become more comfortable with the exercise, try to sit relaxed without support.

Set a timer or an alarm clock to sound in about five minutes. Close your eyes and try to become aware of your whole body. You may notice some tension nervous energy, but try to stay evenly focused on your entire body while keeping your breathing slow and relaxed. When you can sit for five minutes without noticeable tension or effort, add a minute to your practice. Practice this exercise daily until you can sit quietly and comfortably for at least thirty minutes.

When you practice this exercise, be sure to always sit in the same position. In the long run, it is important to adopt a regular posture that your body will associate with relaxation and stillness.

Open Awareness Exercise
The following exercise is very simple, but has profound effects if practiced regularly. Essentially, it involves trying to perceive and imagine the space between different parts of your body and to become aware of any tension or feelings in those spaces. For this exercise to be the most effective, you should spend at least 15 seconds in each area. For example, try to feel the space between your temples for 15 seconds, and then try to feel the space between the tip of your nose and the back of your head, next try to feel the space between your ears, and so on. It is most important to take your time.

You can use the following list, pausing between reading to feel each location. If this seems too distracting, you might try recording yourself reading the list aloud very slowly, giving yourself at least fifteen seconds at each spot. Now, can you imagine the space…

Between your eyes
Between your ears
Inside your throat
Between your shoulders
Between your hips
Between your thumb and the and first finger on each hand
Between your first and middle finger on each hand
Between the middle and fourth finger on each hand
The space between all your fingers
The spaces inside all your fingers
In the region between the tips of your fingers and your wrists
Between your wrists and your elbows
Between your elbows and shoulders
Between your shoulders and the space inside your throat
Between your shoulders and your ribs
Inside your shoulders, arms, and hands
Between your toes
Between your arches and your ankles
Between your ankles and your knees
Between your knees and your hips
Between your hips and your buttocks
Inside your hips, legs, feet, and toes
Between your genitals and the base of your spine
Between your genitals and your anus
Inside your lower abdomen
Inside your lower back
Inside your body from the diaphragm down
Inside your diaphragm
Inside your bladder
Between your kidneys
Inside your kidneys
Between your navel and your backbone
Inside your stomach
Inside your rib cage
Between your ribs
Between your shoulder blades
Inside your breasts
Between your breast bone and your backbone
Between your shoulders and your ribs
Inside your neck
Between your shoulder blades and your chin
Inside your lungs
Inside your bronchial tubes
Inside your throat
Inside your nose
Between the tip of your chin and the inside of your throat
Between the space inside your throat and the space inside your ears
Between the space inside your throat and the top of your head
Between the space inside your throat and the space behind your eyes
The space inside your jaw
The space below your cheeks
The space below your ears
The inside of your mouth
The inside of your tongue
The inside of your teeth, gums, and lips
Between your upper lip and the base of your nose
The space around your eyes and behind your eyes
The space in your nose and sinuses
Between your eyes and the back of your neck
Between the bridge of your nose and back of your head
Between your temples
Between your forehead and your brain
The space inside your brain
Between your brain and your spine
The space inside your whole face and head
The space inside your whole head, chest, arms, hands, abdomen, genitals, legs, and feet
Around your body
Between your fingers and toes
Behind your neck and back
Above your head
Beneath your chair
In front of you
To each side of you
Between the space inside and the space outside
All around you and inside of you

While remaining aware of the space inside and around you, let yourself be aware of any sounds, tastes, smells, sensations, or images that you may have been excluding.
Try to spend at least several minutes in this state of open awareness.

Energized Meditation
The following techniques are powerful methods for becoming aware of and releasing latent tensions that block and drain energy. They are based on the practices of Christopher Hyatt (born Alan Miller), psychotherapist, occultist, and founder of the Extreme Individual Institute. His practices are highly influenced by the physiotherapy techniques of Wilhelm Reich. These exercises will help you become more aware of your internal dialogue and its relation to tension, and will also help release bound up emotional tension.

Before starting, here are some general principles:

Unless the instructions say otherwise, keep your eyes open. This helps you stay in the moment and maintain awareness of your body.
Don’t strain. It is better to do too little, than to overtax yourself. Do only as much as seems appropriate for your body. If you take up these procedures as a regular practice, you can work up to longer periods. Always move slower than you might expect you should.
Allow at least 48 hours between practice. That is, if you work out one day, do not practice again until the third day thereafter. Twice a week is optimum.
In various of the steps, we have suggested one to two dozen repetitions, but you should essentially continue the physically exhausting steps until your performance drops off (and you become physically tired) or until you get an overwhelmingly strong reaction.

To prepare, lie flat on the floor and spend a little time paying attention to your neck and jaw. If you are like most of us, you maintain a continual internal dialogue. Don’t try to stop it, but just relax and try to become aware of it. Just breathe loosely, without trying to influence your breathing pattern, and follow your thoughts. Again, don’t try to influence your dialogue and don’t pay attention to what you are thinking about, just let your thoughts flow however they will. Regardless of the content of your thoughts, this internal dialogue produces tensions due to the slight motion of your jaw and voice box as these thought flow through your mind. Ignore your dialogue itself, but try to notice the micro-movements. Don’t try to control them, but become more and more aware of any tension and movements you can discern in your face, throat, and neck.

After you’ve spent some time just paying attention to the movements in your face, jaw, and throat, turn your attention back to your thoughts. Think about something unpleasant and notice how this effects the tension and motions you’ve been observing. As with many of the practices in this book, you may want to take some notes about the exact spots where you notice movement and what feelings you experience. Pause for a minute and think about something else completely until you are in a different state. Try to imagine how coffee smells or see if you can remember your last three phone numbers – just do something that changes your state. Now think about something pleasant and make the same observations. Do you notice anything different about the motions in your neck and face? Are the feelings different? Do they occur in different places? Repeat this process a couple times over the next few weeks to try to become more aware of your internal dialogue and its connection to tension. When you think you’ve become more sensitive to the relationship between your thoughts and internal tension and movements, move on to the following steps. The following techniques should be practiced on an empty stomach, waiting least two or three hours if you have eaten a heavy meal.

1. Sit or lie down somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed and can make strange noises without anyone wondering what’s going on. Spend a few minutes making various faces. Try to see how many different expressions you can make. Open your mouth as wide as possible. Move you jaw from side to side. Open your eyes as wide as you can and move your eyes back and forth and up and down. Roll your eyes around clockwise and counter-clockwise and then move them back and forth diagonally. Raise your eyebrows and work them back and forth. Keep trying to make different expressions, stretching all the muscles in your face as much as possible. Do this for at least three minutes or so. You may notice an increase in thought or release of emotions. If so, don’t worry about it – just keep moving your face around.

2. Now, start to hum and make noises. Hum loudly for a minute. Hum deep and low. After a little bit, see how wide a range or humming noises you can make for another minute or two. After that, stick your tongue out and just start to say simple phonemes like “TA”, “DA” and “BA.” Stick out your jaw and move your tongue around every way you can think of while making different sounds. Make any sound that feels right. You can hum, sigh, sob, moan, howl, or just sing strings of strings of vowels. Let the sound change in any way that feels right, but continue to breathe with a regular relaxed rhythm. Continue making noises for another couple of minutes.

The next time you practice this step, experiment with other types of sounds. See how wide a range of sounds you can make. Pay attention to how these sounds feel and notice that sounds with a faster rhythm or sounds that require you to tighten your abdomen raise your energy level, while slower sounds and sounds you make with a very relaxed abdomen will tend to make you more relaxed.

3. Bring your shoulders up towards your ears as far as you can. Keep them up until your shoulders begin to feel tired, and then drop them down as far as you can. Relax for a minute and then repeat the whole process two or three times.

4. Now, take a really deep breath through your nose, so that you pull your abdomen in and inflate the upper part of your chest as much as you can. Hold this for six or seven seconds (count “1001”, “1002”, and so on), and then let your chest deflate and your abdomen relax – not by pushing out the air, but as if you were allowing a balloon to deflate. Wait another count of six or so, and then repeat. Do this between one and two dozen times.

5. Move your attention to your neck. Don’t strain, but turn your head from left to right, and then nod back and forth. Move your head up and down and from side to side as far as you can for two or three minutes.

6. Lie down flat (if you haven’t already) and stretch out your legs, keeping them straight, while holding your heels about four inches above the floor or ground. Hold your legs up as long as you can, then let them drop. Shakes your legs out and relax for a moment. Repeat this three times or so.

7. Open your mouth and breathe in quickly, inflating your lungs as fully as can with a quick breath, and then relax as they deflate, sighing as you exhale. Repeat this for about three minutes. When you are done, continue lying flat. Don’t do anything in particular – just relax – but be as aware as you can or every part of your body. Notice if you are experiencing any unusual sensations or feeling any specific areas of tension.

After a minute or so, move on to practicing a mantram. In this case, we are not talking about a phrase with particular spiritual significance (though you can certainly use one if you have a mantra or phrase that is significant to you), but a resonant phoneme. While continuing to inhale fully, exhale while vibrating or resonating “HUM” drawing it out as long as the exhale. Alternatively, you can make the sound “OHHH-OOOOOMMM”

After about 10 or 15 minutes, continue with the next steps.

8. Your entire face should now be relaxed. Make sure that your eyes are closed, but not tightly closed, just relaxed. You jaw should also be relaxed, so that you could stick out your tongue without lowering your jaw (your tongue, however, should be lightly touching the roof of your mouth). Your forehead and the areas around your ears should also be relaxed. Your neck should be straight, so that your throat is unconstricted. Spend at least 10 minutes simply following your breath and feeling your body. Try to keep your attention in real time time, focus on your breath and sensations. Don’t try to forcibly silence your inner dialogue, but do try to stay focus on your breath and body instead of thinking about anything else. Practice this and the previous steps by themselves for at least a few days before moving on to the next steps.

9. Still laying on your back and very relaxed, breathe deeply, filling the bottom of your abdomen first and then inflating the middle and the top of your chest. As you do this, try to pay as much attention as possible to each muscle you use to inhale. Relax and exhale in the opposite order, again paying attention to all the muscles you are using in your chest and abdomen. Repeat this for at least a dozen breaths.

10. Now, stand up slowly. After standing, count to three and then let your body just sort of flop over at the waist. Don’t bend over or move quickly, just let the top have of your body collapse using gravity. Slowly straighten up. Repeat this a dozen to two dozen times. Relax and take a couple of deep breaths, then repeat the process a dozen to two dozen times, but this time, exhale rapidly as you collapse the top half of your body and breathe in slowly as you rise up. Relax and spend a minute exploring how you feel.

11. Lie down again. Use a large, soft bed if you have one. Regardless, you may want to place some pillows under your legs. Relax for a moment, then inhale slowly while bending your knees and bringing your legs up to your chest. When your knees are up to your chest (or as far as you can bring them), exhale forcefully and straighten your legs quickly, kicking out as far as you can. (BE careful not to injure your knees as you do this.) Repeat this until you begin to feel tired, then relax and allow your breathing to return to normal. After your breathing has slowed down, repeat the process, but this time, when you straighten your legs, try to keep your legs extended and hold them straight with your heels a couple of inches above the bed (or floor, or whatever surface you are using) for a couple of seconds. Continue this for a couple of minutes and then relax.

12. Once your breathing slows down and you are relaxed again, inhale deeply, and then on the exhale scream as loud as you can (remember that we mentioned you should practice somewhere secluded). Do this at least half a dozen times. If you have neighbors near by, you might try screaming into a pillow.

13. Still laying down, relax and spend a few minutes just feeling your body. Pay attention to your circulation and your breath. Feel energy circulate through your body.

After a minute or so, begin practicing the resonant phrase (or mantram). While continuing to inhale fully, exhale while vibrating or resonating “HUM” drawing it out as long as the exhale. Alternatively, you can make the sound “OHHH-OOOOOMMM.” Continue this for about 15 minutes. Before moving, spend a couple of minutes just observing your breathing again and paying attention to energy moving through your body. When you have finished that, just sit quietly for another 15 minutes without eating or drinking anything. Note anything you find significant in your working journal. Practice the previous steps for a couple of weeks before moving on.

14. Stand up, bending you knees very slightly, and then let the top part of your body collapse forward as you did in Step 10. While flopped over, breathe in for a count of five, hold the breath for a count of five, exhale for a count of five, and hold with your breath out for a count of five. Do this a couple more times, and then slowly straighten up. Repeat the whole process a half dozen times or so. When you are done, stand straight with your eyes shut and let your feel, searching for any tension that may still be present in your shoulders, neck, or face. Open your mouth as wide as you can and move you jaw around, much as you did in Step 1. Now, close your mouth, but continue changing expressions and working the muscles in your face. Do this for about five minutes, then bend your head back as far as you are able. Now, with your head back, begin turning your head from side to side. Keep going for a couple more minutes. Now, sit down and relax.

15. Somewhat as you did at the very beginning of these exercises, think about something unpleasant, something that worries you. Get up and pace around. Think of a phrase your say to yourself when you are worried, something that expresses your worry and repeat it over and over while you pace. After at least three or four minutes, sit down again and think about something that makes you very happy. When you have your attention focused on something joyful, get up and start pacing around again, only this time, repeat some phrase that expresses your happiness or enthusiasm, like “this is great!” or “I’m really enjoying this!” After a couple minutes, laugh (or at least imitate laughing) for a minute, and then attempt to cry (or at least imitate crying) for a minute. Alternate between the emotions for about ten minutes.

16. Lie down again. Pull your legs up to your chest and wrap your arms around them, rolling yourself up into a ball (or at least as tight as you can). Tense all your muscles and maintain this position for two or three minutes. Finally, let go and release all your tensions and shout “AH!” Feel everything just release and let go. Repeat this whole step two or three more times.

17. Now, breathe fully and deeply, inflating you abdomen and chest fully, and then exhale, letting go, and vibrating your resonant phrase (or mantram). Do this for about five or ten minutes, and then just relax and observe your breathing for a few more minutes.

Some References

— Undoing Yourself With Energized Meditation & Other Devices, Christopher S Hyatt, Israel Regardie, and Robert Anton Wilson, Original Falcon Press, 2011
— The One Year Manual, Israel Regardie, Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1990
— Richard Hittleman’s Introduction to Yoga, Richard Hittleman, Bantam, 1997
— Yoga: The 8 Steps to Health and Peace, Richard Hittleman, Bantam, 1980
— Yoga, Tantra and Meditation in Daily Life, Swami Janakananda Saraswati, Weiser Books, 1992
— Yoga for Health, Richard Hittleman, Ballantine Books, 1985
— Remember, Be Here Now, Ram Dass, Lama Foundation, 1971
— Reichian Therapy: The Technique, for Home Use, Jack Willis, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010
— OPEN FOCUS: The Attentional Foundation of Health and Well-Being, Lester G. Fehmi, Ph.D. and George Fritz, Ed.D, Somatics, Spring 1980

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Copyright

All Content Copyright 2012 Bill Whitcomb and Taylor Ellwood