Week 4 Teacher Notes: The Physiology of Relaxation

7:00pm — Mid-Course Review

Remind students that this is the half way point in the course: three weeks complete, three weeks to go (this session included). Then give students the opportunity to share:

a) what has worked for them, and
b) any challenges they might be having, or areas in which they would like to focus during the remainder of the course.

Summarise the course so far:

  1. We’ve learnt that meditation is relaxing the mind and calming the body,
  2. and that we do this by paying close attention to our senses.
  3. We’ve also learnt that in meditation  is a simple 3 step process: focus, lose focus, re-focus.
  4. This week we’ll explore what happens when you meditate.

7:10pm — Purple Round M

During the mid-course feedback it’s likely that a few of the students will comment on how difficult they find it to remember to meditate or how to integrate meditation into their day. Having identified this issue, now is a good time to address it, by talking about triggers and habit formation; suggesting that with a surprisingly minimal initial effort you can develop powerful habits that will serve you well over time. If this is the case, you may like to proceed with a discussion of Maya Talisman Frost’s Purple Round M.
Frost’s Purple Round M.

  1. Pick something purple and notice it.
  2. Pick something round to touch — cup, steering wheel, door handle
  3. Notice the BIG M — the golden arches — and use that as a reminder to be Mindful.
  4. Really notice the taste of chocolate.

Experiment with other senses.

Resources for this discussion. I suggest you read, familiarize yourself with, and try out Maya Frost’s suggested strategies for integrating mindfulness into your day in the following PDF’s.

You may also like to share with students strategies that have worked for you, or invite students to share their own ideas on how to integrate meditation into their lives. People have found apps, such as Insight Timer and websites such as stickk to be useful

7:20pm — Bodyscan Meditation

This week provides an opportunity to guide students through a longer (up to 30 minutes) meditation.

Choose, or make up some variation of a basic bodyscan. I often do a Yoga Nidra practice, starting at the fingers on the right side on the right hand and working systematically through the entire right side of the body, followed by the left, stopping half way to ask people to notice any difference in the two halves.

There’s a standard bodycan on Eric Harrison’s How To Meditate, CD 2 Track 2, (roughly 23 minutes) but I like to come up with new and creative ways to explore the body each time I lead this class.

Give students the opportunity to lie down on the floor for this meditation. This is a chance for them to compare it with the usual sitting position.

It would be useful to offer guidance that explicitly encourages them to pay attention to the variety of sensations that arise during the bodyscan; both mundane and unusual, pleasant and unpleasant — and to do their best to explore the helpful attitudes introduced last week: permission, curiosity and kindness.

7:50pm — What Happens When You Meditate

The debrief following the bodyscan provides an opportunity for students to report in greater depth, and for you to begin asking for more detailed post-meditation responses. See if you can encourage students to reflect more deeply on what they recall of their experiences.

Background Information to “Relaxation and the body

The following is provided as background information. None of it needs to be explicitly covered in class. However, it may provide useful when responding to students questions and comments following the bodyscan.

Our aim this week is to delve deeper into what happens during meditation, focusing on both the physical and mental signs of relaxation.

Strangely, relaxation can be both unfamiliar and counter-intuitive. Some students may actually feel apprehensive or fearful as they relax. They may even think that they are going mad! Sensations of heaviness, or weightlessness, of falling or sinking, of losing touch with body (or of going numb) can all trigger some degree of fright. Similarly, when thoughts become very fragmented, random and dreamlike, students sometimes conclude that they are losing touch with reality. Many of these common meditative experiences indicate a loss (or relinquishing) of control, and this loss can also trigger some degree of apprehension.

Of course, few of us have ever been taught — and therefore don’t really know what it feels like — to relax. Thankfully the signs are easy to recognise once you know what they are, and focusing on these little signs — as strange, surprising and  unfamiliar as some of them may seem — helps you to relax further. Tuning into these details is much more useful than trying to space out in order to feel good.

It’s useful to remember that mental and emotional calm are usually dependent, to some degree, on relaxation of the body. Paradoxically, the fastest way to relax is to notice how tense you are. In this way awareness acts as a biofeedback mechanism — it tells you where you’re tense and what to do about it. Conversely, if you are not conscious of tension it may manifest as agitation, irritability, boredom or restlessness.

During the debrief students will likely mention some, if not all of the following.

All we need to do is to reframe / normalise these experiences and to confirm that they are all clear indicators that the relaxation process is underway.

And remember, focusing on anything sensory will relax you, but it’s feedback from the body that lets you know where you are.

1. Heaviness

  • “body felt like lead”
  • “hands feel numb”
  • “couldn’t feel my body”
  • heavy-numb-light-disconnected

Comments: Muscles soften and drop — the brain may interpret this as heaviness. Proprioception (our ability to sense where we are in space) only works when we move. Sitting still, our brain may interpret a lack of signals from the proprioceptors as nausea, vertigo, feelings that you are floating or numb, leaning to one side, moving, falling etc.

3. Aches and Pains surfacing

  • “I didn’t realise how tense I was”
  • “I thought I was fine..then I noticed this awful headache”

Comments: Stress the importance of welcoming the aches and pains and reassure students that with acceptance the pain generally dissolves, whereas resistance keeps it stuck. Use the analogy of a splinter (hurts when it goes in, hurts when it comes out – but much better to dig it out than to let it fester. This is a great analogy for meditation in general). A meditation can feel like a good massage. The loosening process continues even after you stop meditating.

2. Tingling or warmth on the skin

  • “I felt warm when meditation”
  • “hands feet became hot”
  • Fingers may feel puffy

Comments: Improved circulation loosens muscles which become soft and pliable.

4. Changes in the breathing

  • “My breathing became quite light and occasionally stopped”
  • “My breathing was erratic. I had to sigh or take a deep breath”
  • “I felt like I wasn’t breathing enough”
  • “My breath felt deep and lovely’
  • It eventually becomes light and delicate.  It feels soft and spacious.
  • There can be long pauses between breaths.

Comments: Breath drops by 12 to 15% during the first few minutes of meditation. It takes about 5 hours to drop 8% as you enter deep sleep.

In this sense, meditation is deeply relaxing. A state as close to hibernation as humans can get.

In summary a relaxed body tends to feel heavy, still, soft and warm,  While these adjectives may seem vague they refer to  precise sensations in the body. Muscles literally loosen.

Other signs of relaxation:

  • Stomach gurgling / Increased salivation (signs of digestive system working – it doesn’t under stressful situations)
  • Mild nausea, irritability, discomfort
  • Fatigue, twitching
  • An avalanche of thought
  • Smooth flowing movement
  • Other individual signs

Relaxation is a process – you gradually slip into it.

Physical Indicators

  • Muscle tension releases
  • Respiration softens
  • Blood pressure drops
  • Circulation improves
  • Digestive function improves
  • Aches and pains become more obvious then fade away

If you are alert you can notice all this happening. Also:

  • Changing hormone levels
  • Improved immune system function
  • Altered metabolic activity etc.

Mental Indicators

  • Sense of peace/stillness
  • Emotional release or flow
  • Colours, dream images
  • Old/random memories
  • Mind seems empty, blank or dark
  • Feeling hyper-alert, very present
  • Time distorts, collapses
  • Serene detachment
  • Heightened awareness
  • Spectator rather than participant

How to evaluate your meditation.

Ask “Am I relaxing?” Then look for signs:

  • Heavy body
  • Warm skin
  • Being in touch with the body including its aches and pains
  • Changes in the breath

Then ask “Could I relax more?”
At the end ask “Am I more relaxed? Does my mind feel calmer?”

Don’t hanker after perfection.  A relaxed body ins not automatically pain free or filled with bliss – it’s just relaxed. Nor is a clear mind automatically happy – it’s just clear. Let got of expectation and comparison.


8:00pm — Impromptu Yawning & Stretching Session

Yawning and stretching are effective ways to free up the body, loosening the muscles involved in breathing and feeling.

Encourage students to indulge their natural impulses to stretch and yawn, noticing what movements and breaths their bodies invent. Perhaps start with ‘Shake the Silly’s Out’ then invite participants to continue for a few minutes with their own movements; a spontaneous yoga, so to speak. Consider: People will attend a yoga class that costs $20 an hour and do a range of standardized movements, but might be neglecting their own deepest impulses to move freely.

8:05pm — Mantra & Affirmations

Explain that in the previous weeks we have introduced the fundamental or foundational meditations — largely revolving around sounds, body and breath — which are essential and somewhat inevitable components in every meditation and lead to very good results for most people. However, there are a range of other ‘secondary’ practices, which can be equally useful or even better suited to certain people, and these can also be used in conjunction with the ‘primary’ techniques to lend color or interest to a meditation.

Tonight then, we’ll introduce you to the idea of a mantra or affirmation. If you’ve ever heard of TM, as popularised by the Beatles, David Lynch and a host of other celebrities from Clint Eastwood and Hugh Jackman through to Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Seinfeld — and wondered what the hell they were all doing — now you know. They simply sit for twenty minutes, twice a day, and repeat a mantra. If you practice TM you’re given (after you pay a couple of grand) your own mantra (from a list of sanskrit terms based on your gender and year of birth).

However, any word of phrase will do. A mantra doesn’t have to be in any special language. In fact, many people find that the words they choose themselves work best. Herbert Benson, who coined the term ‘the relaxation response’ recommended that you just repeat the word ‘one’.

Repeating a word or phrase works on the same principle as any other meditation technique; it directs your attention into the sensory world (the internal sound, vibration or feeling of the word you are repeating). However, it has the added effect of holding, or drawing your attention to a simple repeated task; the repetition of the word — and this can help to keep the mind focused.

All the practices we’ve covered so far on course are simple, practical and down-to-earth. They’re easy to understand, based on good science and psychology and free of religious and superstitious overtones. In contrast, the idea of a mantra might sound a little kooky. The technique itself however, is worth exploring. In fact, some people (often those with very busy minds), find mantras most effective.

A mantra is simply a word or phrase that you repeat over and over, often in time with the breath or heartbeat. Mantra itself is a Sanskrit term meaning mental tool, and well known mantras, such as Aum (Om), are also from this language.

Mantras often have meanings, or even multiple meanings, but can also be considered as sequences of sound whose effects lie beyond  meaning. In other words, they work like music, and may generate some  kind of feeling or emotional response.

Mantras are often chanted aloud, though this may not be a useful way to relax whilst you’re on the train to work or in the midst of a business meeting! It’s quite sufficient to say them silently to yourself.

Some people regard mantras as magical or spiritual incantations but essentially, they’re just another thing to hold on to, like the breath.

Typical Buddhist and Hindu examples include Aum, Om mani padme hum, Om Namah Shivaya and Hamsa/Soham. A mantra need not be a Sanskrit, nor even an Eastern term. You could just as easily use a Christian phrase, such as Halleluljah or Amen, or any word in the language of your choice. You may like to try some simple words or phrases such as ‘let go’, ‘slow down’, ‘focus’, or ‘peace of mind’.

You can also use mantras  in conjunction with other techniques. For example, while scanning the body, you may like to repeat the word soften, encouraging each part of the body to relax and let go. Or, you could simply say in, and out, as you breathe, as a way of staying focused.

Guide the class through two or three different ways of using this principle. Start with a simple affirmation (like ‘let go’, or ‘slow down’, or ‘soften’), then try out a more traditional mantra (such as ‘ham sa’, or ‘om mani padme hung’). Thirdly, invite students to pick their own word or phrase (e.g. peace of mind, calm, quiet, stillness, focus, chill), and to explore some of the following ways of using mantras:

  • Repeat the mantra in time with the breath
  • Try it with different tempos or rhythms
  • Allow the body to rock, sway or move in time with the mantra
  • Repeat a mantra of affirmation as a reminder to soften the body, or let go of tension
  • Allow the mantra to come and go
  • Visualise the mantra
  • Feel the mantra as an internal vibration or sound
  • Adjust the volume of the mantra
Given that we’re over half way though the course, you can begin to give students more freedom to experiment. Allow plenty of time between one instruction and the next. Begin to give students more freedom to sink deeper into quiet space and to become more self-sufficient.

Week 4 Homework

Invite students to see if they can make it home without seeing something purple or driving past a McDonalds. Encourage them to experiment with Maya Frost’s Mindfulness Exercises, perhaps finding one new place / space to colonise as a period for rest and rejuvenation. Provide examples of how and where you integrate meditation into your life.

On to Week 5.