Meditation 101: Part 1 of a 3-Part Series – RELAXATION

One of the hardest parts of meditation is actually doing it...the showing up part. And the number one reason people stop showing up for meditation is because-just like anything else-they don't enjoy it. If your practice doesn't give you a sense of joy, goes against your natural intuitive flow, or lacks meaning, it won't work, it won't last. On the other hand, a meditation practice that brings you a sense of joy is the one you'll keep coming back to and even look forward to! In this article (part 1 of 3) I will share some practical and easy-to-use tools to help keep your meditation fresh, unique, meaningful-joyful!

There are three stages of meditation:

1) relaxation;
2) concentration;
3) expansion-which, when brought together, offer a complete set of tools to help build one's personal practice or enhance an existing one.

An added bonus to having three distinct steps, is that they provide easy "grab-and go" tools to help reduce stress...on the spot! throughout all areas of your life. Bottom line is that having a meditation practice that suits your individual needs helps you to cultivate, to instill, a deep sense of peace that you'll carry with you throughout all your daily activities: at work, at home, at school, in the community.

Relaxation. What does it mean? Well, in meditation, relaxation does not mean to check out, take a nap, or sit in a daze as you drift off into la-la land. Believe it or not, relaxation requires a bit of action, a little work, on your part. Have you ever gone for a run after a long day to release some tension? To relax? In meditation, specific (relaxation) techniques help release tension in the body & mind just like going for that run helps you shake off negativity or heaviness from a hard day's work. During your run, moving the body and using the breath somehow magically clears away the bad stuff-tension, stress, negative thoughts-making room for a more enjoyable evening at home. In the case of meditation, moving the body and using the breath makes for a more meaningful experience because, just as in that run, tension, worry, and churning thoughts get out of the way, they begin to evaporate...and you begin to you can sit a while.

So, let's get started with the Relaxation part by doing three things: 1) breathe; 2) tense & release muscle groups; 3) integrate steps 1 and 2.

1. Using the breath

Take a deep cleansing inhalation. On the next breath, imagine your lungs inside your rib cage running along each side of your body. As you take a breath in, feel your lungs expanding out to the sides. Your arms may even lift as the rib cage and lungs expand out. As you exhale, feel your lungs contract, getting smaller, like a balloon deflating. When you think you've expelled all the air in your lungs, very gently, squeeze your ribs in to give your lungs a little hug, ensuring all air has been release. Do three rounds. Feel your ribs moving out with the inhale, and in with each exhale.

2. Tensing & Releasing

Stand with feet about hip width apart and arms hanging at either side. Using the inhalation you just learned, tense your whole body as you breathe in. Now, one muscle group at a time, starting with the feet, move up to calves, thighs, butt, torso, chest, neck, throat, entire head. Now, retain your breath for a few moments as you vibrate and tense all these muscle groups---your whole body! Squeeze and vibrate each muscle group you just tensed. Do this gently so as not to get a muscle spasm, but not so soft that you can't feel the muscle in action. Now, in reverse, starting with your head, exhale and relax each muscle group. Like a wave moving tension down and away, feel the tension melting off your body. Repeat three times. And don't rush through it.

3. Integrating

Now that you have proper breathing down along with tensing and releasing muscle groups, let's bring it all together with a little practice.

Sit comfortably in a chair, on a cushion, or meditation bench. Sit with your back straight (preferably not resting on the back of a chair unless it is uncomfortable to do so), feet flat on the floor, palms facing upwards resting on your thighs, chin parallel to the floor, behind closed eyes keep your gaze up as if looking at a sunrise over a distant mountain top, and then settle into a natural state of breathing. Use the technique you learned in Step 1, feeling your lungs expanding and contracting. Practice ten rounds, but don't force it, let it be natural and comfortable. Just feel the breath moving in, then out...and relax into each breath cycle. Now, while maintaining good posture and behind closed eyes, tense and release your muscle groups as learned in Step 2. Do this three times, remembering to tense on your inhalation and release on your exhalation. Gently, tense and release. Feel a wave of relaxation move through your body as the tension melts away.

Settle into your own natural breathing rhythm again for about a minute, recalling how the lungs move if you want to use that practice as a guide. Now, we'll do a few minutes of what's called even-count breathing to help further relax. Do several rounds (at least three, up to ten) to a count of eight. The count can be as fast or slow as you like; whatever is comfortable. On your inhalation, count, 1, 2, 3, 4... up to 8. Hold for a count of eight. Exhale for a count of eight. It helps if you focus at the front of the forehead, the pre-frontal lobe of the brain, while retaining the breath. (Note: focusing here brings further relaxation while increasing your mental clarity, concentration, and creativity once your practice is over). After completing your rounds, settle back into your natural breathing cycle for one minute.

Now, to help get into a deeper state of relaxation let's begin "watching the breath". On your next inhalation, feel how the breath comes into your nostrils. Feel the breath moving up your nose, deep into your nasal cavity. Feel each breath entering and leaving your nose, left nostril, right nostril, at the same time. Feel the sensation of air touching the outer tips of each nostril. Do this for a few breaths. Now pulling your focus up to the middle of each nostril, feel the sensation of the air coming up higher. As the breath moves past the midpoint of your nose, feel the muscles inside your nose relax. The inside of your nose giving way to the breath, expanding, opening, as you exhale. Sit with this practice, watching the breath, for several minutes.

When you're ready, let go of watching the breath, returning to natural rhythmic breathing for one minute. In this last part, we'll introduce a few words to go along with your breath. Using a manta calls in even deeper relaxation to your body and mind and depending on the words you use, brings the energy of those words deep into your cells. Ready? On your next inhalation, mentally say, "I am". See the "I am" coming in to your nose, feel it, in each nostril, rising up to the top of the inner part of your nose, to the inner parts of your forehead. Feel the "I am" breath penetrating, settling in at the middle of your forehead. Retain the breath and the "I am" thought for just a moment while focusing at the middle of the forehead (also called the third eye, will center, point between the eyebrows). On your exhalation, mentally say, "Peace". Do this-watch the breath while saying the words "I am Peace"-for five minutes...or as long as you like. Feel the essence of the words as your relax into stillness.

When you're ready, open your eyes, come back into your physical space. With determination, set an intention of carrying the "I am" mantra with the essence of "Peace" into your inhalation, one exhalation, one breath, at a time. Remember each breath holds the essence of peace. Feel the essence of peace in everything you do. See that you are the essence of peace. Radiate Peace.

You may end your practice by chanting "om" three times or simply give thanks and send blessings to all those you love or who may be in need of special healing.

Next article will be on Stage 2, Concentration. I will provide tools on how to get into a deep state of relaxation through concentration along with more breathing techniques. At the end of the three-part series, you will have tools to customize your practice, in a structured, yet flexible format. For example, there are many word formulas (mantras) to choose from to support whatever you happen to need at any given time as well as numerous energization exercise to help relax the body. And there are endless visualizations to aid in achieving a deep state of expansion where find complete stillness of heart, mind, and body. The point is, your practice doesn't have to be the same thing, different day (i.e. boring), sort of experience. You can mix it up a bit to suit your ever-changing needs and moods. Using the three-phased approach-relaxation, concentration, expansion-gives you a starting point, something to work with, yet allows you the freedom to create a practice that resonates with "you"...the one doing it!

Certified Meditation Teacher, Ruth Stender, helps people create peace and wellness through easy-to-use meditation techniques. Integrating her various roles--entrepreneur, mother, wife, writer, volunteer, teacher, yogini--Ruth's ability to connect with others reaches far and wide. Drawing on twenty-three years in the business world--and understanding that a company's success is achieved through happy and healthy employees--Ruth also offers meditation classes for the workplace; helping to reduce stress and improve morale, concentration, creativity, teamwork, and ultimately, the bottom line!

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