When you settle down to meditate, does your mind settle down with you? If the answer is a resounding “No,” the culprit is probably tension. As long as your nervous system is revved up and your body charged with tension, your mind will bounce from one thought to another. But when you calm your body, the mind follows suit, becoming relaxed and inward. Then you are ready to meditate. This is why experienced teachers advise their students to preface meditation with a systematic relaxation practice.
When you settle down to meditate, does your mind settle down with you? If the answer is a resounding “No,” the culprit is probably tension.
The yoga texts contain a number of such techniques, some dating back to the Vedic period—2000 B.C.E. or earlier. The oldest and most subtle of these practices are from the school of jñana yoga and involve calming the nervous system by practicing non-attachment. Just as imagining yourself running the 100-yard dash creates tension in your body, releasing your attachments, desires, and concerns induces relaxation. However, most of us do not have good enough control of our mind to relax our body simply by letting go of our thoughts, and that must have been a problem for would-be meditators as early as 600 B.C.E., for that is when systematic relaxation techniques aimed at the muscles and nervous system made their first appearance. One of the simplest relaxes the skeletal muscles, calms the nervous system, and gently energizes both body and mind.
If you try it, take care not to let your mind wander as you travel through the body, progressively relaxing your muscles and quieting your nervous system. We recommend that you practice this technique no more than ten minutes until you have trained your mind to stay alert and concentrated on your breath from beginning to end.
Lie in the corpse pose and close your eyes. Let the breath flow through the nostrils slowly, deeply, and smoothly.
Mentally relax the top of the head, forehead, eyebrows, space between the eyebrows, eyes, eyelids, cheeks, and nose. Then exhale and inhale completely four times.
Relax the mouth, jaw, chin, neck, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, wrists, hands, fingers, and fingertips. Feel as if you are exhaling from the fingertips, up the arms, shoulders, and out the nostrils, and inhaling to the fingertips. Breathe completely four times.
Relax the fingertips, fingers, hands, wrists, lower arms, upper arms, shoulders, upper back, and chest. Concentrate at the center of the chest, and exhale and inhale completely four times.
Relax the stomach, abdomen, lower back, hips, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, and toes.
Then exhale as though your whole body is exhaling, and inhale as though your whole body is inhaling. Exhale tension, worries, and anxieties; inhale vital energy, tranquility, and relaxation. Exhale and inhale completely four times.
Exhale tension, worries, and anxieties.
Now relax from the toes back to the crown of the head. Relax the toes, feet, ankles, calves, thighs, hips, knees, lower back, abdomen, stomach, and chest.
Relax the upper back, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, wrists, hands, fingers, and fingertips. Then exhale and inhale completely four times.
Relax the fingertips, fingers, hands, wrists, lower arms, upper arms, shoulders, neck, chin, jaw, mouth, and nostrils. Then exhale and inhale completely four times.
Relax the cheeks, eyelids, eyes, eyebrows, space between the eyebrows, forehead, and top of the head.
Now let your mind rest in the calm and serene flow of the breath. After a minute or two, slowly and gently open your eyes. Disturbing yourself as little as possible, sit up and begin your meditation practice.