I’m often asked by people in my classes what is the difference between relaxation and meditation. They both have some similar effects on the mind and body and I believe they are both important in modern life but they are two different techniques.
Let’s start with relaxation.
There are two aspects to our nervous system – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is where our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response comes from if we are confronted by danger or some form of stress trigger. The body releases adrenalin and cortisol to get the heart pumping faster and the breathing rate increases to get more oxygen around the body, particularly to the large muscle groups so that we can get out of danger quickly. The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand is our ‘rest, relax and restore’ response. The heart rate slows down, the breathing rate slows down and blood is transported all around the body to all the organs allowing them to function properly.
These days our lives are very much centred in the sympathetic nervous system. We are so busy with so many competing demands for our time and energy the majority of us feel some form of stress on a daily basis. And a small amount of stress isn’t a bad thing, the stress triggers us to take some form of action. But if we are constantly in the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ mode then we are putting a lot of pressure onto our bodies and minds. If the body is focussed on getting out of danger the mind is making very short term decisions, the blood circulation is diverted away from our digestive system, our blood pressure is increased for prolonged periods of time.
We therefore need to take time out and relax. But this is easier said than done. The common way to relax – a glass of wine in front of the TV. We may think we are relaxing but we are still being bombarded with information which can create stress triggers. The easiest way to relax is to find a few minutes of quiet time each day, lie down, focus on the breath and allowing all the muscles in the body to relax. This allows the heart rate to slow down and the body to restore itself.
So what about meditation?
Meditation is a technique that allows us to become aware of the body and mind a to bring more awareness and compassion into our daily life. Meditation works to quiet the internal chatter so that when we act we are acting out of choice rather than making habitual reactions to a situation. It helps us to respond rather than react. It also allows us to live in the present moment, not clinging to the past or pining all our hopes onto some future time or event.
Similar to relaxation techniques meditation also has the effect of switching on the parasympathetic nervous system but by tuning into the body and mind and choosing how we respond to situations it can reduce the effect of the stress triggers. That’s not to say that if you’ll be more prone to danger because you can’t react fast enough rather it gives you the space to decide whether you need to react or not.
There are lots and lots of different meditation techniques but the general theme is a single point of concentration which then allows the mind to quieten. It could be focussing on the breath – the sensation of the air flowing in through the nostrils, filling the lungs and the sensation as it leaves the body or one of the myriad other techniques. Some days the focus may come easy other days it may be hard to quieten that internal chatter, the key is not to judge – it is what it is. As with anything, regular and consistent practice is the key.
Over the next few months I’ll be exploring relaxation and meditation techniques in more depth and compiling some guided meditation and relaxation downloads.
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