Monday, December 20, 2010

Relaxation vs. Meditation

I'm often wondering how to describe the difference is between meditation and relaxation. In this short article (below) from Yoga Journal, Frank Jude Boccio gives a few key points in defining what is the same and what is different between relaxation and meditation.

Relaxation vs. Meditation

by  Frank Jude Boccio

We often think of watching TV, sitting down with a cocktail or a good book, or simply vegging out as relaxing. But true relaxation is something that is practiced and cultivated; it is defined by the stimulation of the relaxation response. Some forms of conscious relaxation may become meditation, and many meditators find that their practice benefits from using a relaxation technique to access an inner stillness helpful for meditating. But while relaxation is a secondary effect of some meditation, other forms of meditation are anything but relaxing. Ultimately, it all comes down to the intention and purpose of the technique.

All conscious relaxation techniques offer the practitioner a method for slowly relaxing all the major muscle groups in the body, with the goal being the stimulation of the relaxation response; deeper, slower breathing and other physiological changes help the practitioner to experience the whole body as relaxed. Techniques include autogenic training, the use of words suggesting heaviness and warmth in the limbs; progressive muscle relaxation, systematically bringing attention to various parts of the body to consciously release tension, then noticing the feelings of softness and ease that arise; body scanning, moving attention slowly through the body; and breathing, gradually extending the exhalations.

Meditation—generally presented in the three broad categories of concentration, mindfulness, and contemplation—are forms of mind training, operating on the fundamental premise that the mind determines the quality of your life. Meditation is about making friends with yourself, learning to see what is just as it is, and freeing yourself from reactive conditioning. This liberating aspect of meditation is conceptualized in varied ways, from purely psychological and secular to deeply spiritual and religious. For further information, you might want to check out Meditation and Relaxation in Plain English by Bob Sharples.
Frank Jude Boccio is a yoga teacher, Ayurveda practitioner, hypnotherapist, and the author of Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind.


Kristin said...

Interesting to look at the two concepts side by side - that meditation can lead to relaxation, but that relaxation is not necessarily meditation.

I also found this statement odd: "But while relaxation is a secondary effect of some meditation, other forms of meditation are anything but relaxing."

Which left me wondering, what forms of meditation are NOT relaxing?

Sara said...

Hi Kristin - Yeah that is a puzzling statement. I'm not as knowledgeable as I'd like to be about meditation but what I get out of it is that meditation is not "relaxing" because of all the gunk you might be encountering while getting to know and accept yourself as you are. I think meditation can be pretty hard work. Learning to control the mind is certainly challenging.

The author also seems to be saying that relaxation is more about the physical effects, or the body, and meditation is more about the mental effects, or the mind.

Kristin said...

The more I think about the article, the more I'm finding it a bit too ambigious, because there are multiple ways to meditate. One example, the Ashtanga Primary series is designed to partly induce a meditative state. A moving meditation linking breath and asana.

From the Buddhist tradtion I have this noted: Zazen – to be present. To meditate for relaxation, reduce blood pressure, enlightment, to “get something” or whatever, you are not really ‘here’. You are engaged in something. Your mind is somewhere else. There is some wanting that is latent in the mind. This is seeing your mind caught up in self.

Meditation for the long run is really settling down, being present, being awake of the present. If you want to take up practice in life, take it up for life. (My apologies, I didn't note my source for this reference.)

And then there is the meditation of confronting the mind itself as noted earlier.

But I would think, that the body, by default would benefit from most types mediation because of the act of just sitting still in our "must do" society. Like knitting, which becomes a type of mediation/relaxation - sitting still, being present, just following the breath as the mind is focused on the eveness of the stitches as the yarn unspools.

Okay, I warped a little. Still, it's all facinating.

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

Hi Kristen and Sara!

I would have LOVED for Yoga Journal to give me more than a 200 word limit, so I could have explicated a bit more on what I meant by that statement you find confusing.

Two things: in mindfulness meditation, often deep-seated, generally non-conscious thoughts and emotions can arise. These can be very troubling to bring into consciousness: fear, anxiety, sadness, anger etc. The practice is to stay with whatever arises, letting go of any and all reactivity. This is at times quite trying and difficult. Believe me, it is anything but relaxing!

Another form of meditation that is definitely not pursued for relaxation is the koan introspection practiced in Rinzai Zen.

Here is an ancient passage describing such a practice:

"So, then, make your whole body a mass of doubt, and with your three hundred and sixty bones and joints and your eighty-four thousand pores concentrate on this one word, 'Mu.' Day and night, keep digging into it. Don't consider it to be nothingness. Don't think in terms of 'has' and 'has not.' It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can't."

Doesn't sound too relaxing now does it!?

Hope this helps clarify the point I was making that these are indeed two different practices, with SOME overlap.

frank jude

Sara said...

Hello Frank Jude -

I'm so pleased that you found this conversation and took the time to reply. Certainly the practices you just described do not sound relaxing!

I liked your short article. It may have seemed constraining to be limited to 200 words but I think you wrote a great overview and even better, look at the conversation the article is spurring.

Thank you.

Hi Kristin -

I agree that other activities such as knitting or yoga asana can induce a meditative state. For me, staring at a fire is great way to clear my mind. But in these examples, I wonder if we are just zoning out or is something deeper going on?

poep sa frank jude said...

Hi Sara!

Thanks for your kind words.

As for your comment to Kristin, I wholeheartedly agree! The whole basis of my book, Mindfulness Yoga, is that when we bring mindfulness to the practice of any form of hatha-yoga, it becomes a moving meditation. In the Buddhist tradition, walking meditation is practiced very widely as the understanding is we need to cultivate mindfulness in all our daily activities. As I remind my students, in the Zen literature, there are more stories of practitioners becoming awakened while gardening, cleaning house, and even defecating than while sitting in meditation. However, it is the sitting that makes us available to truly hear the pebble hit the bamboo while we sweep!

Many scholars speculate that our ancestors sitting, gazing protectively in a circle around the fire were the first to 'discover' the meditative mind experience. I am fairly sure that those who lived near the coast has similar experiences sitting watching the waves.

Of course, 'zoning out' is also possible while doing these activities....BUT many yogis who sit in meditation ALSO fall into 'zoning out!' It is one of the "Five Hindrances" to meditation! Technically called "sloth and torpor!"

Thanks for cultivating this conversation!

frank jude

For more about Mindfulness practice, you may wish to check out my blog:

Kristin said...

Frank Jude, Sara,

Thank you for coming back to this. It is a facinating topic.

Using my knitting example, is it really "zoning out" when the breath is calm and even and the mind is focused on the rhythmic movement of the stitches and pattern? For myself, it's not all that different than a walking meditation. Both concentration and inward reflection are involved...

The Astanga tradition in yoga is meant to be another mindful meditation (as contradictory as that seems) - to move through the postures systematically, following the only the breath, listening to only the breath.

"Zoning out" to me is watching TV, playing a computer game, or even reading a book, all of which let some outside influence rule the mind and drown out thoughts.

Thanks again!

Sara said...

Good comments! To me, zoning out can be watching TV but it can also be my mind wandering unchecked, zipping from topic to topic or from what if to what if.

I like what Frank Jude said about bringing mindfulness to the practice - whatever practice you are doing: knitting, yoga, cleaning, meditation, etc. This helps clarify what meditation is for me. Mindfulness versus mindlessness.

Thank you both.

Honey said...

Thanks for this informative blog. You described it very well that how relaxation is different from meditation. In yoga teacher training I was told that meditation reduces our stress and provides relaxation, I think you differentiated it very carefully and clearly.