In September 2016 I was fortunate enough to have the holiday and experience of a lifetime, 10 days on safari in Tanzania and 5 days on the exotic spice island of Zanzibar. It is true to say that this holiday and experience is something that I dreamed of for a long time and I fully appreciate how fortunate I am to have been able to experience this.
The wonder of seeing majestic African animals in their natural habitat, the beautiful jewel coloured sea and the wonderful people who had nothing and would give you everything and whose mantra was Hakuna Matata, a message and way of living that many in the ‘civilised’ western world could take note from.
What also made this holiday so very special was that whilst the safari consisted of early mornings, long days and moving from camp to camp this holiday was one of the only holidays I have had where I truly switched off. I did not think about work, or home, I didn’t have that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when thinking about coming back home and going back to work, because I didn’t think about work. Our two-week holiday felt like we were away for two months. The only explanation I can give for this feeling is that we had no distractions to pull us away from our African odyssey and back to the UK. I truly switched off. I made the conscious effort before we flew out to Africa to ensure that the only electrical equipment we would take with us would be our camera. I didn’t actually realise what a profound effect a 2 week sabbatical from electronic equipment would have on my health and well-being.
The Oxford English dictionary definition of relaxation
Noun: The state of being free from tension and anxiety, Recreation or rest, especially after a period of work. The loss of tension in a part of the body, especially in a muscle when it ceases to contract. The restoration of equilibrium following disturbance
When you ask most people what they do to relax you may find that you get the following answers:
- Have a glass of wine or beer
- Watch a film
- Go for a run / do some form of vigorous exercise
- Read a book
- Cook or bake
- Check in to a Spa for massage and treatments
Whilst all of these things may help the person escape from what was causing them to feel stressed and may help them feel better and remove them from ‘doing’ or ‘being’ it is not true relaxation. To truly relax one has to have no distractions. In this day and age we have so many distractions which we become used to as the norm.
Have you lost your connection to yourself?
The reason I so wonderfully relaxed on safari was because there were no electronics, no iPhone, tv, radio, emails & Facebook. It was just me, David our guide and the environment, the sights, sounds and smells around us. Indeed when I came back from my holiday I was exhausted and overwhelmed. Coming back home and having constant sounds and distractions, the TV, computers, phones and the demands we have in modern living I found to be draining and stressful.
We have come to accept all of these technological distractions as the norm, whilst they have their uses and can benefit our everyday life in enabling us to connect easier with our friends and family, they also are shown to have adverse effects on our physical and mental wellbeing. You see families out at a restaurant not connecting with each other, looking down at a device in the palm of their hand. Everything is becoming external, comparison, consuming and competition.
Relax, allow yourself to focus on one thing, withdraw, go inside, remove all distractions and work to release the ego.
Pratyahara; the art of withdrawing
In Patanjali’s yoga sutra we are introduced to the 8 limbs of yoga – Ashtanga (ashta = eight anga = limbs). These eight steps or limbs are basically guidelines to help you live a meaningful and purposeful life. Focusing on your health and enabling us all to acknowledge our spiritual nature:
- Yama – ethical standards and integrity – Do unto others and you would have done to yourself. There are 5 Yamas:
- Ahimsa – non-violence
- Satya – truthfulness
- Asteya – non-stealing
- Brahmacharya – Continence
- Aparigraha – non-covetousness
- Niyama – self discipline and spiritual observance. Developing your own personal meditation practice. There are 5 Niyamas:
- Saucha – cleanliness
- Samtosa – contentment
- Tapas: heat – spiritual austerities
- Svadhyaya – study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self
- Isvara pranidhana – surrender to God
- Asana – BKS Iyengar famously said “My Body Is My Temple And Asanas Are My Prayers” Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.
- Pranayama – Breath control, recognizing the connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions. As implied by the literal translation of pranayama, “life force extension,” yogis believe that it not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself.
- Pratyahara – means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. Cultivating a detachment from, our senses, we direct our attention internally. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe ourselves and habits that are perhaps detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth. Allowing and enabling yourself to sink into Pratyahara unlocks the door to true relaxation.
- Dharana – The practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana, or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. In pratyahara we become self-observant; now, in dharana, we focus our attention on a single point. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation.
- Dyhana – The seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness, it produces few or no thoughts at all.
- Samadhi – Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga, samadhi, as a state of ecstasy. At this stage, the meditator emerges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether. The meditator comes to realise a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things.
Now we have explored the 8 limbs of yoga and how they all work together to bring us to the final eighth limb, to unlock relaxation through Yoga and in life is to tap into Pratyahara. Pratyahara practices lead to a profound state of relaxation, expanded self-awareness, and inner stability. They help us master both the body and the mind.
Now I fully recognise that I was very lucky to be able to remove myself from distractions whilst on holiday, in our modern everyday world we may find it harder to step back and disengage. It takes skill, practice and discipline and is necessary to flourish in life.
The Big 5
The five cognitive senses bring information to us through our sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin); the five corresponding active senses allow us to act upon that information through speech, movement, manipulation, procreation, and elimination. From a spiritual perspective, our actions and what we experience through the senses are of utmost importance—they are the vehicle for achieving our purpose in life and giving us what we need for self-knowledge and wisdom.The problem arises when we can’t let sensations go, and we get swept away by the sensory world, only to wash up on its shores exhausted and confused. Little wonder that in this day and age so many of us feel washed up and burnt out.
Sensory overload is thought to be a modern day challenge, due to technology, however, ever since we progressed to walking upright and out of the caves humans have been pushing ourselves and our senses. Without a disciplined mind, we can suffer from distractions to our sense be they technical or emotional. A disciplined mind is one that acknowledges what to focus on and when and to not become de-railed. The Bhagavad Gita warns:
“When the mind is guided by the wandering senses, then it carries away one’s understanding, as does the wind a ship on the water,”
To bring yourself back to you and to enable yourself to relax without necessarily taking up a yoga practice, there are simple things you can do to nourish yourself both physically and mentally.
- Skip a meal once a week or give up a favourite food. – This helps aid relaxation to your digestive organs.
- Observe silence. Sign up for a silence retreat, stay quiet for a day or two on a regular basis, or observe silence for a set period of time every day, say from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. Observing silence means being silent and sitting in silence.
- Avoid gossip and negative remarks.
- Observe compassion in your thoughts, speech, and actions.
Relaxation is necessary to health
The human body is a wonderful magical thing, that many of us take for granted. Working all hours of the day, pushing ourselves at the gym comparing and competing and not switching off our monkey minds.
It is only when our mind and body breaks that we start to value that which is most precious to us and stop taking it for granted. Our bodies are a universe within the universe, we are connected to prana and are prana in ourselves, that being life force.
Too many of us take for granted our central nervous system and the value that holds in keeping us happy and healthy.
The nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord, and a complex network of neurons. This system is responsible for sending, receiving, and interpreting information from all parts of the body. The nervous system monitors and coordinates internal organ function and responds to changes in the external environment. This system can be divided into two parts: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.
Within the central nervous system is a system of hollow cavities called ventricles. The network of linked cavities in the brain (cerebral ventricles) is continuous with the central canal of the spinal cord. The ventricles are filled with cerebrospinal fluid which is produced by specialised epithelium located within the ventricles called the choroid plexus. Cerebrospinal fluid surrounds, cushions, and protects the brain and spinal cord from trauma. It also assists in the circulation of nutrients to the brain.
The brain, the control centre of the body.
There are three main brain divisions: the forebrain, the brainstem, and the hindbrain. The forebrain is responsible for a variety of functions including receiving and processing sensory information, thinking, perceiving, producing and understanding language, and controlling motor function. The forebrain contains structures such as the thalamus and hypothalamus which are responsible for such functions as motor control, relaying sensory information, and controlling autonomic functions. It also contains the largest part of the brain, the cerebrum. Most of the actual information processing in the brain takes place in the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is the thin layer of grey matter that covers the brain. It lies just beneath the meninges. Below the cortex is the brain’s white matter, which is composed of nerve cell axons that extend from the neuron cell bodies of grey matter. White matter fibre tracts connect the cerebrum with different areas of the brain and spinal cord.
The midbrain and the hindbrain together make up the brainstem. The midbrain is the portion of the brainstem that connects the hindbrain and the forebrain. This region of the brain is involved in auditory and visual responses as well as motor function.
The hindbrain extends from the spinal cord and contains structures such as the pons and cerebellum. These regions assist in maintaining balance and equilibrium, movement coordination, and the conduction of sensory information. The hindbrain also contains the medulla oblongata which is responsible for controlling such autonomic functions as breathing, heart rate, and digestion.
Central Nervous System and the Spinal Cord
The spinal cord is a cylindrical shaped bundle of nerve fibres that is connected to the brain. The spinal cord runs down the centre of the protective spinal column extending from the neck to the lower back. Spinal cord nerves transmit information from body organs and external stimuli to the brain and send information from the brain to other areas of the body. The nerves of the spinal cord are grouped into bundles of nerve fibres that travel in two pathways. Ascending nerve tracts carry sensory information from the body to the brain. Descending nerve tracts send information pertaining to motor function from the brain to the rest of the body.
The Gut, the second brain.
People often talk about listening to the gut or going with gut feelings. When we feel unsure or sad we can often have sinking feelings in our stomach or can feel knots in our stomach and constant butterflies. When we get these feelings, we are likely to be getting signals from an unexpected source: your second brain. Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this “brain in your gut” is revolutionising medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think.
Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS). And it’s not so little. The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from oesophagus to rectum. Its main role is controlling digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient absorption to elimination.
Researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes. This new understanding of the ENS-CNS connection helps explain the effectiveness of IBS and bowel-disorder treatments such as antidepressants and mind-body therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medical hypnotherapy and yoga. Our two brains ‘talk’ to each other, so therapies that are designed to help one may help the other.
The autonomic nervous system
The sympathetic nervous system is one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system, the other being the parasympathetic nervous system The autonomic nervous system functions to regulate the body’s unconscious actions. The sympathetic nervous system’s primary process is to stimulate the body’s fight-or-flight response. It is, however, constantly active at a basic level to maintain homoeostasis. The sympathetic nervous system is described as being complementary to the parasympathetic nervous system which stimulates the body to “rest-and-digest” or “Feed and breed”.
When we are in fight-or-flight mode, the sympathetic branch activates the glands and organs that defend the body against attack. Its nerves direct more blood to the muscles and the brain. The heart rate and blood pressure increase, while it decreases the blood flow to the digestive and eliminative organs. It also activates the thyroid and adrenal glands to provide extra energy for fighting or running away. Nervousness, stress or feelings of panic are what we feel when in a sympathetic state of readiness.
A constantly active sympathetic nervous system results in sympathetic dominance and puts the individual at risk for increased disease and illness. What drives a person into sympathetic dominance? Chronic stress and overwork and overwhelmed senses are the most common culprits. The symptoms and illnesses associated with sympathetic nervous system dominance are those of fight-or-flight, and include: excessive worry, the inability to relax, nervous energy, and a strong self-will to “keep going.” Often those suffering from system dominance experience a dry mouth and sensitivity to bright lights and find loud music extremely irritating. Possible illnesses include: hypertension, heart disease, high cholesterol, type 1 diabetes, anxiety, panic attacks and poor sleep.
Allowing ourselves to relax enables the sympathetic dominance pattern to be broken, and for balance to be restored between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, the body’s innate knowing rushes in to restore the individual to an improved level of health and wellness!
Turn on, Tune in and drop out
So you see, it is of value to stop, smell the roses, look up at the clouds take a step back, pause, reflect and go inside. In doing this we aid our bodies to health, mentally, physically and spiritually. It enables us to function clearly and move with positive steps through our life. Turning off our “monkey mind” and enabling the quiet to show the way.
Through our yoga practice, we can learn how to quieten our mind, relax and switch off and go inside, even in the middle of the busiest of places. Yoga is a process. Even though we may not attain the “picture perfect” pose or the ideal state of consciousness, we benefit at every stage of our progress. We also might give some thought to the fact that this ultimate stage of yoga—enlightenment—can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, so the practice and the progress is always worthwhile. It’s the journey and one we can all enjoy if we open ourselves to it.
- Reference and thanks to:
Light on Life – B.K.S. Iyengar
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – Edwin F Bryant
Bhagavad Gita – Eknath Easwaran
Anantomy and Physiology 4th Edition – Louise Tucker