I could feel the stress in my chest. A knot the size of a tennis ball would build up at the top of my ribcage, and just kind of fester. My breathing was shallow, my thoughts were tense. All I could do was think about my knee, the stress, and my inability to do anything about it. I tried to ignore all this, but that just seemed to make it worse.
This was when I knew I needed to decompress the stress. That maybe the anxiety about my knee not healing was prolonging the process. But the standard advice to “think positively” didn’t work for me. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t ignore the fact that my knee didn’t seem to be getting better, and my stress levels were through the roof. I had all the motivation in the world to heal, but I found empty sayings such as “think happy thoughts” to be vague advice. How do I think positively? I wanted to know.
Hacking My Way to Zen
Many in the Bay Area are obsessed with life hacking, or taking a scientific approach to productivity, efficiency, and getting things done in everyday life. Followers often apply research founded in behavioral psychology and apply it to a specific lifestyle goal such as going to the gym more often, or remembering their friends’ birthdays. If we can form habits that reinforce our desired behavior, the thinking goes, we won’t have to rely on willpower alone.
This seems to make sense. Most choices we make throughout the day are based on engrained habits rather than conscious acts of will. Plus, as psychologist and philosopher William James alluded, you can’t really separate the two:
“Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”
– William James
Hmm. Maybe instead of trying to supress my stressful feelings, I should try to coax my body into a state of physical relaxation. James implies feelings are triggered by physiological reactions in the body, rather than will. If emotions and feelings are guided by physical state, relaxing my body could be the key to feeling less stress.
But telling me to relax is like telling a five year old to throw a baseball. I can try, but I probably won’t be very effective. The problem is I don’t really know how to quiet my mind. It can be hard to for me to relax because I can’t stop thinking about things. Not necessarily important things, just life things – work, dinner, my knee, rehab, I-can’t-believe-it’s-already-September, etc. Without some tips or “hacks” to foster relaxation, I felt a little lost on my own.
So I started searching for an action, a ritual I could implement to relax my body. If I could train my body to relax, I hoped my mind would follow.
Ancient Chinese tradition believes there is a life force within and around all of us. This life force, called Qi (Chi), is an essential element in all living things, and is the basis for traditional Chinese healing and medicinal practices. One way the Chinese cultivate and activate this healing life force is through Tai Chi, a martial art known to bring calm and clarity. By focusing the mind on soft, gentle movements and deep breathing, you enter a state of physical and mental relaxation. This relaxation activates Chi, which many believe to have medicinal benefits throughout the body.
I was exposed to this concept through Roger Jahnke’s book, The Healer Within. The book provides practical advice for implementing a self-healing and health enhancement practice, with a focus on activating the body’s natural healing mechanisms. Regularly practicing gentle movement is one of the primary ways Jahnke recommends beginning such a practice.
I found one exercise in particular to be exactly what I was looking for. Called Flowing Motion, it starts by slowly raising your arms, palms up, to shoulder height while rising gently up onto your toes and taking a long, deep breath. Your arms then trace the path back down as you slowly exhale and rock back on your heels while raising your toes. Your mind is focused on the slow movements the entire time.
The ancient Chinese say those who practice the Flowing Motion 1,000 times each day become immortal. If you do it 100 times each day, you’ll live a long healthy life. I decided to settle for a realistic goal of 25 repetitions every morning. This physical practice would ease my body into starting the day relaxed, and trigger my mind to follow.
Going after immortality would have to wait, at least for now.
As much as the body regulates feeling, the mind also gives instructions to the body. Ever get nervous before a job interview, and feel butterflies in your stomach? That’s just one example of a physiological response to a mental and emotional state.
It can be hard for your body to follow the mind’s instructions if thoughts are constantly racing a mile a minute. As we’ve discussed, one way to quiet the noise is to focus on something else, like physical movement. But you can also benefit from positive affirmation – repeating a key phrase meditatively to bring about a desired outcome.
So in addition to a physical ritual, I also needed a mental frame to separate from the noise. I needed a mantra.
Since I was aiming for a state of relaxation, I decided on the phrase I am relaxed. Whenever I have a stressful thought, or feel the ball in my chest tighten up, I take a deep in breath and think I am relaxed as I slowly exhale. The slower I do this, and the more reps I link together in succession, the more relaxed I become.
Using Body and Mind to Relax
Finding a solution to reversing stress and inducing a state of relaxation was easier than I thought. It turns out I just needed the right mix of effective practices and practical habits to get me there.
Using body and mind, I’ve been able to reduce stress and become more relaxed by following these two guidelines:
- Let my body guide my mind – Daily practice of the Flowing Motion
- Think the way I want to feel – Repeating my mantra, I am relaxed
I can already feel the benefits of these practices as they help me heal. The best part is, they’re completely sustainable. Daily gentle movement and using a mantra to practice positive affirmation are so easy to implement, I plan to use them for the rest of my life.