The Relaxation ResponseMichelle Singerman February 1, 2010
Helps You to Heal, Relax and Restore
Most of us don’t realize there is a limit to what our bodies can handle. We are constantly pushing to do more and be more. But this isn’t how things always were. Pre-Industrial Revolution, life’s demands remained almost static for centuries. Then with the invention of the steam engine, day-to-day life increasingly sped up and continues to move faster as we enter the next decade.
We are so accustomed to feeling the need to do more, that we often don’t realize we are preparing our bodies for battle each day. Our fight-or-flight response – the body’s involuntary reaction to fear and stress – is often running overtime. Our body reacts to a situation at hand, telling us either to run from (take flight) or to battle the challenge (to fight). Whichever the response, both reflexes take a toll – and both are what we understand as stress. But, with most of North America’s fast-paced, high-anxiety lifestyle, stress is something we accept as commonplace.
What was first coined as stress by endocrinologist Hans Selye in the 1930s should have been labelled strain, says Eli Bay, founder of the Relaxation Response Institute in Toronto.
Bay argues that while this innate fight-or-flight response was a good survival tactic for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, it can wreak havoc on our modern bodies. Although the world has changed drastically in a short timeframe, our bodies have not evolved with the same speed. As a consequence, we often perceive the ubiquitous stressors encountered daily as a threat. The reaction causes our hypothalamus to spring into action, which gets our heart rate up and adrenal glands pumping. The problem is, most of us don’t know how to turn these responses off. And that is just what the Relaxation Response is for.
As Bay writes in the guide for his newest 10-week program Outer Stress ∙ Inner Calm, “In the fast-paced urban technological world of today, this reaction has become a major killer and crippler…many of the problems faced by those living in contemporary society are ubiquitous and not resolvable in a clear, unambiguous way.” All of these stressors “keep us constantly alert and on-guard.”
Heart attack, stroke and severe anxiety are all recognized as side-effects of stress. Instead of finding acceptance for the list of ailments related to our body’s overworked response mechanism, Bay has found a way to disarm our natural alarm system. “One of the best means to coexist with stress is [to] develop skills that enable you to be able to periodically unwind from it.” For the past three decades, Bay has worked to help guide the over-worked and run-down towards a life of calmness. His unique series of deep breathing exercises is a successful tool to manage the fight-or-flight triggers we are constantly faced with.
“Accessing an unusual but measurable state of deep, healing rest called the ‘relaxation response’ has been proven to counteract most of the negative effects of stress,” he contends. The theme of his exercises, in addition to attaining overall relaxation, is learning to really listen to your body, to become in tune with it. The main principle in all his routines is the importance of breath. Bay poignantly points out how as young children we breathe in the same manner as when we are first born. Our bellies rise and fall casually, filling with as much air as possible and letting it circulate throughout our entire bodies, giving ourselves enough time to let oxygen flow and reenergize each organ, before we peacefully exhale the stale air deep from within our lungs, and slowly start the cycle again.
But somewhere along the way from childhood to adolescence, we lose the connection with our breath and tend to acquire the on-guard breathing routine of shallow, quick breaths. Bay has worked for the past 30 years to make people aware of this loss of natural breath, while teaching a return to a natural state of calm through awareness of breath.
He has recently developed the 10-week program as a way to integrate calmness into your life when convenient for you. Bay’s list of basic breathing exercises is easy to follow and can be viewed as a modern-day survival tool to cope with our adrenaline-pumped culture. For instance, the Dystension Exercise is one of his basics and can be learned and executed by anyone at any age, with effects felt by all.
This integrative breath exercise begins with a comfortable stance, knees slightly bent and hands comfortably clasped together in front of you. To begin, take in a short, quick breath through the mouth, before taking in a long inhale as you lift your clasped-arms slowly up and over your head to touch behind your head. Then, lift your hands back up and over your head as you slowly exhale, and return your arms to the starting position. Do this exercise with eyes closed to allow yourself to pay full attention to your breath.
Bay calls this deep exhale the “scientific sigh.” Our bodies naturally exhale in this manner when we feel overwhelmed. This natural extended exhalation is similar to the breathing in the exercise. Both are used to battle stress and maintain calmness – one is automatic, the other is learned. “Accessing an unusual but measurable state of deep, healing rest,” Bay says, “…four or five times a week for 15 or 20 minutes…it is possible to break out of stress/arousal state for long enough periods to allow every system and organ in the body to heal, balance and restore.”
Outer Stress ∙ Inner Calm is a seven-disc set with three DVDs and four audio CDs to follow on your own time, as well as a 68-page workbook to help you track your development. Each session builds on the last, starting out with the basics, and coaching you through the 10 weeks to a calmer and more relaxed state of being.
Bay hopes that as those who follow his program approach the end of the 10 week curriculum, they feel empowered in knowing that whenever a debilitating stressor occurs, they can “trigger the relaxation.” His goal is for people to become aware of when their mind changes states and then to comfortably return to a more relaxed state.
Think of how nice it would be to wake up to a world free from tension headaches and tight shoulders. Just breathe in the possibility, and relax with a deep, slow exhale. Winter will feel a lot brighter.
Eli Bay’s Relaxation Response Institute is located in Toronto at 1352 Bathurst St., Suite 201. For more information, please call (416) 932-2784 or visit www.elibay.com.