Foundations of Mind & Body Health
To understand why relaxation is so important we need to understand our stress response.
When we are stressed, our body goes into fight, flight or freeze. These affect our whole body, our breathing, muscles, heart, digestive tract, immune system, hormones and much more. Our body is concerned with survival, not pleasure, digestion or joy….
We need this reaction in actual danger but for many people this becomes a habitual state. Daily life becomes full of small events that can cause stress, say we worry about catching the next bus even if we know there will be another one in 5 minutes. We may even worry about events that haven’t happened or are unlikely to ever happen. Stress-related thinking can become a habitual state. We develop chronic stress.
Chronic stress is dangerous. It affects our whole body, including the areas I work with: our digestion and reproduction as well as our urinary tract. It affects the function of the organs either shutting them down or overstimulating them, the microbiome of these systems (a study has shown that it affects vaginal lubrication) and much more.
We can work with relaxation and mind techniques to re-establish a sense of safety and improve our health. There are many techniques to choose from, including breathing, meditation, mindfulness, muscle relaxation and restorative movement practices, self massage, eye movement, journaling and many practices that help our mind focus on the present moment.
How can movement help us to relax?
Movement can be a powerful way to relax. In a stress response our major muscle groups often tense up. Our muscular body prepares to fight or run away. Small motor movement, such as picking up a small item with the fingertips, on the other hand, become unimportant in a stress situation. So my focus is on releasing tension in the large muscle groups, say through stretching, and reawaken the smaller muscles.
Let’s start with the large muscle groups: Stretching to release tension in the major muscle groups, that is, the legs, buttocks, back and shoulders has long been used as a way to relax the mind. Stretching can also help to improve circulation and affect blood pressure and heart rate and relax a tense pelvic floor. Pelvic floor-related conditions that may affect your sleep include waking up to go to the toilet multiple times during the night, for example.
Reawaken fine motor skills: through Feldenkrais and hypnotic movements. Hypnotic movements are tiny movements that are specifically designed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Activating this part of the nervous system can help to trigger the body’s inborn mechanisms for rest, recuperation, and healing – lowering blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tone and other metabolic factors and slowing brain activity. The body relaxes and the mind becomes calm. Hypnotic movements can also be specifically tailored to various issues, such as grinding your teeth, TMJ disorder or snoring and can help with some aspects of dealing with an overactive bladder.
What about Breathing?
Breathing is fundamental in relaxation – just think of the last time you were stressed. Your breathing would have been shallow and quite fast. The opposite is true when we are relaxed. Our breathing tends to be slow and relaxed. Slowing down our breathing is a very simple way of calming our minds.
Sleep and respiratory centres seem to share the same brain area: “The brainstem – particularly the pons and medulla – is responsible for the rate at which we breathe involuntarily and also plays a special role in REM sleep; it sends signals to relax muscles…” (Hartley, 2020, p78)
“can’t remember when I last felt so calm and relaxed” Jo
“There is much that sleep can do that we in medicine currently cannot. So long as scientific evidence justifies is, we should make use of the powerful health tool that sleep represents in making our patients well” Dr Matthew Walker, English neuroscientist
Do you find it hard to fall asleep? Or do you wake up during the night and can’t get back to sleep? Maybe your bladder wakes you up several times during the night or you are simply a light sleeper. Or maybe you wake up feeling exhausted despite sleeping for 7 or 8 hours…
Most of us know how important a good night’s sleep is to our overall health, life and energy levels. Sleep is the time when we replenish our energy and our body and brain detoxifies – like a bit of cleaning up after we’ve had a party! But what if we can’t seem to find the restful and re-energising sleep that we need?
“my sleep has gone from 4-5 hours per night to 6-7 since starting the rest and recover class. Looking to get to 7-8 soon” Tony
“Your lessons are such a lifesaver Kat! I slept deeply for 10 hours again last night, just like last week. Amazing (and much needed). Thankyou!” Kate
“Well, what a session that was! I could just about raise myself from my sofa and I felt so relaxed, I could have gone straight to bed!” Sue
What about exercise in general?
A healthy lifestyle that includes daily exercise and a good diet is the foundation for a good night’s sleep. This is important for everyone but particularly for those with health issues that can affect sleep, such as reflux, nocturia or restless leg syndrome. If you have any issue that affects your sleep, talk to your health professional, say your GP, before joining my class/workshop.
Whilst exercise is important, choosing the right time of day for your exercise routine is just as important. If you have problems falling asleep, leave the fast vigorous, cardiovascular exercise for mornings and do some gentle, mindful movement, like Pilates, gentle Yoga stretching, Tai Chi or Chi Gong in the evening.
Fast, vigorous physical movements as in aerobics or competitive sports have the opposite effect: they make us feel more energized, awake and alert. They heighten our vigilance and produce a “stress response” – even though it’s generally a good stress response, they nevertheless activate our sympathetic nervous system. They increase our blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tone, other metabolic factors, and also heighten our brain activity. This is great for daytime activities but at night when we want to sleep we want the opposite to happen.
Slow, mindful movement practices such as Pilates and Yoga release tension in the major muscle groups and can calm down our nervous system: Several randomised controlled trials and surveys found that Pilates(1) and Yoga(2) can improve sleep quality.
Both also focus on breathing which is fundamental to relaxation.
Here is a short Pilates-based stretch & relax class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRCh-feA1DQ&t=208s
Before you join class:
Ensure that you are in a quiet, comfortable environment that has a comfortable temperature and have blankets and cushions to hand. You may also need a chair.
Make sure you will not be disturbed: If possible switch off any distractions and ask others not to disturb you. If you know you will be disturbed by household noise you may want to use a white noise app.
Regularity of practice is important: The more regular your practice, the more successful you will become at relaxing and at improving your sleep in the long-term – even though you may not feel immediate benefits at the moment of practice. So don’t just try to relax when you are stressed or can’t fall asleep. Do a small relaxation practice, such as breathing or meditation every day if possible – whether you think you need it or not.
Finally, in time you may find information about circadian rhythm interesting. Working with and resetting our circadian rhythm will not just improve our sleep but can help to improve many diseases. Sleep is a very important part of that circadian rhythm. So give your body the best chance to heal itself by establishing a healthy rhythm to your day and life.
I am a qualified Sleep Restoration teacher (a Yoga-based approach to insomnia), an insomnia practitioner, relaxation trainer and restorative Yoga teacher. I am also a Feldenkrais practitioner and have taken special trainings for TMJ and in Feldenkrais for tight jaws.
(1) Chen, Z et al (March 2020), Effects of Pilates on Sleep Quality: A systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomised Controlled Trials, Fontiers in Neurology
(2) Bankar, MA et al (Jan 2013), Impact of long term Yoga practice on sleep quality and quality of life in the elderly, Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine
(2) Wellness-Related Use of Common Complementary Health Approaches among Adults: United States, 2012