A few years ago I was sitting at my desk at the Live Nation headquarters in Beverly Hills, working really hard on something I can’t remember today. A friend and co-worker walked by and peeked in my door. He looked at me, shook his head and started laughing. I looked up, both curious and annoyed at the interruption. “What are you laughing at?” I asked.
“You’re so intense. You’re shoulders are squeezing so tightly on your neck … I’m pretty sure one day I’m going to walk by and see your head blow right off. You really need to relax.” He said this with a wink and walked away.
He was right. I was stressed out and the stress was reflected throughout my entire body. While my head would (probably) never have exploded, it sure felt like it might.
This sensation isn’t unique to me. Most of us feel this way — stressed out. In fact, many of us are probably experiencing stress of some kind right now. As parents, spouses, hard workers, friends, leaders, children, and global citizens, we so desperately want to be good. We try our best, and when society (and the little voice inside) tells us that isn’t good enough, we try some more. We push and prod ourselves along life’s path until most of us look like that image of me bent over my desk, brain whirling a million miles an hour, pounding away at the computer with a body crippled by the stress of life and the fear of failure.
I was recently at a retreat with one of my teachers, sitting with him as he explained a particular teaching. He repeated the meaning of the teaching for what seemed like the hundredth time. With a hint of exasperation I told him, “I get it.” He smiled as wise men do at the petulance of their students. “I know your mind gets it,” he said. “The question is, does your little toe understand? It’s when the teachings reach your little toe that you truly get it … and then, Jason, you are free.”
Many spiritual teachings focus on the concept that we are not our bodies, that we are more than the hormones, chemical reactions, and sensations we experience in our physical form; that we’re part of something greater — a cosmic system that transcends the limitations of the body. I believe this is true. I also believe that, in a very tangible way, we are our bodies, and that the freedom, healing, and peace we so often seek comes from this realization and the forming of a deep and intimate connection with our bodies.
When my son was younger he played little league baseball. Like so many fathers I went to all of my son’s games to support him. Because the games often conflicted with my work schedule I would sit in the stands, typing away on my BlackBerry (pre-iPhone days) and, when my boy would step up to bat, I’d shout words of advice and encouragement. It’s funny now looking back on it because I really know very little about baseball. But I felt guilty because I was working and not totally present. I wanted him to know that I cared so I’d holler out things like, “Keep your eye on the ball,” “Swing through the ball,” and “Just like your coach taught you.” One day after the game my son gave me a hug and said, “Dad, when I’m at bat please don’t yell instructions to me. I already have so much going on in my head and adding more thoughts just makes me nervous. I appreciate knowing that you’re there, you don’t have to say anything.”
Approaching relaxation through mental instruction is not unlike my son and the baseball game. A well-meaning friend or colleague tells us to relax. We know we should so we add that thought — relax — to the whirlwind of thoughts already swirling around in our minds, which results in more stress. We feel stressed, yet we know we need to relax and so we feel stressed about feeling stressed. To paraphrase my teacher, “When you experience relaxation in your little toe, then you are free.”
This week I invite you to join me in a relaxation exercise I practice often. It takes a few minutes at first and, over time, it can be done in a few seconds as a powerful tool to identify stress and introduce relaxation to your entire being. Start by sitting in a comfortable position. You can also lie down, though I’ve found sitting to be a little more real as it mimics our daily lives. We often make relaxation a place we go outside our normal lives: a park, a spa, or our beds at night. Of course it’s great to have places to go to get away, but this tool is designed to find the relaxation inside ourselves, so practicing in a position that’s similar to how you sit in your normal day is helpful.
Take a deep breath and become aware of the top of your head. Just breathe and be aware of any tightness you feel in your head and then invite it to relax. I find an invitation, not a command, to be important. I like to use thoughts like: “I invite you to relax.” “It’s safe to let go.” “Now you can relax.” Our bodies do so much for us. Honoring them is a sign of gratitude and support that can, in itself, allow relaxation to seep through the stress. Now move on to the spot between your eyes. Be aware of how you furrow your brow (like Oscar the Grouch). Breathe and allow the area around your eyes to relax. Move your awareness to your jaw. Notice the way in which you clench your teeth. Feel the tension in the muscles and tendons of the jaw. Sometimes it’s as if we’re holding on for dear life with these muscles. Let your jaw fall open a bit, breathe and let go with the message, “You are safe, now you can relax.” Gently allow you attention to drift into your neck and shoulders. If you’re like me, this is an area where you store a lot of stress. It might feel like you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, and in many ways you do. Breathe deeply, invite your shoulders to relax. Thank them for carrying such a heavy load and give them permission to sink down your back, to release the tension and to rest. Breathe again with the message, “It’s safe to relax, I appreciate you.” Move your awareness into your back. This is another area that carries a tremendous load in our lives. Breathe and, as you do, really expand your back, feeling breath in every inch. Now exhale and allow the tension to go with it. Become aware of your lower stomach. Many of us hold this area in, restricting our breathing for fear of appearing overweight. Tell yourself it’s safe now to let go. Breathe and allow your belly to fully expand and then breathe out and let it relax. The pelvic region is an area we often don’t think of in terms of stress, but many of us carry a lifetime of tension around sex and sexuality in our pelvic bowl. Rotate your pelvis gently and breathe deeply with the message, “It’s safe to let go.” Continue down into your legs. Thank them for holding you up. Breathe and allow your legs to relax. Finally become aware of your fingers and toes. You might be clenching them as you try to do this “right.” I know that feeling well. Relax your hands and feet and breathe.
Now just sit with yourself. Experience what it’s like to be aware of your body… and to be aware of yourself. Take a few moments to breathe in and out. Allow your breath to orbit your body. Maybe I missed an area of tension for you or perhaps you notice stress has returned to a certain area. Just breathe and invite your entire being to be at peace. Breathe. All is well. Breathe. You are safe. Breathe. You can let go now.
As you get to know your body, you’ll find there are a handful of areas that continually experience stress. I find it helpful to go straight to these areas when I feel stressed. Like key metrics in business, these areas are an indicator of my overall well-being. The moment I’m aware of a stressful thought or situation in my life I move my awareness to these areas in my body, breathe, and invite them to let go. By releasing the tension in the body, the mind often lets go of whatever stressful thought it was clinging to. With practice this can take place over just a few seconds of awareness, breathing, and letting go.
Freedom is the experience of peace in the body — from your head to your little toe. Breathe now and give yourself that gift.
Big hugs of relaxing love,