When an individual purposefully seeks a state of deep relaxation a number of very important physiological mechanisms are triggered. The relaxed state, which is opposite of what is known as the “fight or flight” state, hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system or the stress response, has been called the “relaxation response” by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University. It has been found that many disease states are aggravated by the over activity of the sympathetic nervous system. It has also been found that inducing the relaxation response can resolve or balance the effects of over activity or stress in the body.
In biofeedback, a highly researched technique for reducing head and neck pain, high blood pressure, syndromes of gastrointestinal discomfort, and anxiety, the primary technique is to initiate and sustain the relaxation response. Research has indicated that the physiological mechanisms that are triggered by inducing the relaxation response are:
- Enhanced productivity of neurotransmitters
- Shift toward a lower frequency of brain wave activity (alpha and theta)
- Reduction of blood pressure
- Warming of the skin surface due to the dilatation of blood capillaries
In mediation practice, in chanting and the use of mantras or in the process of visualization, the induction of the relaxation response precedes and accompanies the successful initiation of each technique. Most of the great spiritual traditions of both the east and west initiate the deeper levels of spiritual practice by eliciting the relaxation response. Dr. Benson himself, when in China to research some of the more fantastic aspects of Qigong, stated that he felt the Qigong effect was triggered by an initial induction of the relaxation response.
At the preliminary level of the self applied health enhancement methods (SAHEM) very simplified but highly effective techniques of progressive relaxation are used. In the more refined practices elaborate systems of visualization may be used, as in the “circulation of the light to refine the body of pure energy”.
Deep states of altered consciousness may also be achieved by merely remaining mindful of the breath alone. In such practices the individual has refined his or the practice to the extent that the busy mind is quiet. Not generally so easy. This is why we start with the preliminary methods because they are easy to learn and apply. Over time they lead to an ability level that supports more advanced practice.
It is a specific goal, in the self-applied health enhancement methods (SAHEM) of the ancient Asian traditions of health care and medicine to generate and circulate Qi, Prana, life force, bio-energy. In the breath practices above, and the following relaxation practices, a confirmation of success is to feel the Qi. It is very common to experience sensations of heat or tingling in the hands. It may also be sensed as a pouring feeling or a puffiness.
The hands are the most sensitive organ or the human body in regards to sensation . It is not unusual that early sensation of the Qi would come in the hands. Once one has begun to have this sensation it should be sought in other parts of the body; the feet, the abdomen around the belly button.
Subsequent columns include three versions of Progressive Relaxation: