Deep relaxation is not the same as Meditation in some fundamentally important ways. Yes, in deep relaxation we also practice developing the witness that observes experience. That is, until the point where we might fall asleep or get zoned out. In traditional yoga, classical relaxation is called yoga nidra and “nidra” means sleep. In meditation, sleep is one of the obstacles to awareness. In practicing deep relaxation we are hoping for some kind of calm or even bliss from the start while our body “sleeps”. In mindfulness meditation, we watch all experiences and don’t preference any one over the other. The Buddhist mantra of not getting hooked by constant cravings and/or aversions is what we practice over and over as we sit still, regardless of changing circumstances.
Benefits of Meditation:
In meditation we extend the capacity to sit with discomfort and this translates to our day-to-day lives that are, of course, full of things we can’t control. Jack Kornfield has joked that lying down for meditation can be “poor man’s nirvana”. It doesn’t stop me from doing exactly that on a regular enough basis but it is still worth considering the added benefits that a seated posture can provide.
When we sit in a meditation posture, we can physically and quite actively channel the qualities of balance and equilibrium. As we distribute the weight evenly through the legs and buttocks, as we even the shoulders out and let our head be supported by our trunk and whole body, we might feel a physical balance develop that can and does translate into mental and emotional equilibrium, even if only for a few moments.
In the seated posture, we can explore so many embodied experiences in a very awake state. Consider the practice of being both soft and strong. We can’t really have or know one without the other and we need both a strong back and soft front in life to feel resilient and open at the same time. When meditating, we can observe any areas that feel relaxed and soft and open without craving more. We also observe discomforts and any reactions to these feelings or sensations. We get to watch changing phenomena in a more alert manner and the witnessing capacity grows and becomes our support and guide to kindly letting things be exactly as they are. In meditation, we stay awake and notice when awareness drifts off and this is a really important point as some of the most important moments in mindfulness include starting over again by returning to the practice of awareness. The actual moments of realising when we’ve been lost in a thought bubble or virtual reality are essential parts of meditation. We learn the most from those exact moments when we realise we’ve drifted, ruminated or been hooked into thoughts and then we can choose to willingly return to witnessing and open awareness instead. To be fully present, it helps to be fully awake and notice what our minds and bodies do. In meditation, we can become aware of a lot of constantly changing information.
Don’t get me wrong – I love guided relaxation practices! I did a whole two-year yoga training course because I loved the Satyananda-style yoga nidra practice so much. But the techniques applied are intentionally different in some fundamentally important ways.
Benefits of Guided Relaxation:
When guiding people in yoga nidra, instructions move around the body much faster than in, say, a Vipassana-style meditation body scan. By moving awareness from body part to body part without lingering on any parts deeply or long enough to even know if the mind gets distracted, people move inwards and into relaxation more readily. This can be quite blissful, or at least a relief from having to notice when your mind has gone off thinking about dinner or more worrying concerns. Deep relaxation can aid us in totally zoning out and this can be so helpful. I’ve used deep relaxation for myself and clients in dealing with grief. There are absolutely times when we don’t want to be thinking about any present realities and drifting off into a deeply relaxed state can put the brakes on pains, both physical and emotional.
As happens when meditating, when the body is more relaxed it can support the mind to integrate or hold experiences without the defence mechanisms of fight-flight-freeze taking over. However, when we begin to drop off or drift into non-awareness, less experience is observable and different parts of the brain are switched on or off. One common and enjoyable experience when coming out of the relaxation zone is the releasing feeling that it had only been a few minutes when in fact most relaxations I guide are around 20-30 minutes long. Guided relaxation can be the perfect way to “forget about life for a while” and feel as if you’ve let go.
Both relaxation and meditation practices are great for our nervous systems through providing ways for us to be less reactive and therefore less likely to lurch into reactions and fight or flight modes. The body rests. In yoga nidra the body sleeps and we know that sleep is one of the most essential healing practices we can do. Guided relaxation is deeply nourishing to our nervous systems, as is meditation. In my yoga training it was explained that yoga nidra is like a beginner meditation practice since techniques are used to develop the witnessing capacity.
So, as I always say, do whatever works! If sitting doesn’t work for you, please lie down any time. But while we are doing whatever works, it is most meaningful to explore what we are learning and how we might be getting further hooked or unhooked by our preferences and reactions.
In Zen they say the obstacle is the path. This is just as well because it doesn’t take long in meditation for obstacles to arise, whether it is a sore knee or a lingering thought. How still and how kind can we be with ourselves as we face life’s many obstacles?
Pascal noted, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. These practices allow us to do just that and while there are endless distractions on the path there is nothing sweeter than the feeling of realness and homecoming. Both meditation and guided relaxation provide that.