If you want to jump start your lucid dreaming abilities, manage the symptoms of chronic stress, or just get to sleep faster, practicing relaxation techniques can help you center yourself and achieve a deeper state of mental and physical calm. Many of the relaxation techniques below are activities anyone can fit into their schedule: deep breathing exercises, muscle stretches, and mental relaxation techniques like visualization. However, despite their apparent simplicity, these techniques of relaxation can be potent tools for getting yourself into the coveted twilight state from which you could launch a wake-induced lucid dream, or even an out-of-body experience. Relaxation techniques can also be a lifesaver for people who suffer from stress, illness, and painful chronic conditions like neuralgia.
In the last couple of decades, scientific studies have finally come out that back up the centuries of anecdotal evidence about the physical and mental benefits of learning to relax. In the physical realm, relaxation techniques have been demonstrated to slow breathing and heart rate and reduce blood pressure while increasing blood flow to major muscle groups. By virtue of relieving stress, techniques of relaxation can lessen the burden of tension many of us carry, and ease chronic pain stemming from old injuries or medical conditions. On the mental side of the coin, teaching yourself techniques to relax can help improve your ability to concentrate, boost self-confidence, reduce anger and irritability, and enable you to be calmer in stressful situations when they arise.
Although we tend to forget it, we are thinking beings incarnated in physical bodies; to become truly relaxed, we must attend to both dimensions of our well being. For instance, effective breathing is an ancient relaxation technique that’s one of the most immediate ways you can put yourself into a calm state of mind: when you sit or stand upright and breathe in deeply using your abdominal muscles, air is drawn into the lungs all the way to the bottom. Deep breathing better oxygenates your body and activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system. When you breathe shallowly—as many people do unconsciously— it activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for triggering our fight-or-flight response in times of danger. While this is useful if you’re being chased by a bear, for instance, if you have it activated all the time, the result is chronic stress, and with it the risks of illness and a reduced quality of life.
Even relaxation techniques that seem purely physical, such as yoga or tai chi, include some mental component: to really get the most out of these kinds of exercises, you must be able to focus your attention on your actions in the moment. However, by the same token, a discipline like yoga trains your concentration abilities with its physically demanding poses and emphasis on effective breathing. Another beneficial element to a yoga or tai chi routine is that you can do them either in a class or at home, go at your own pace, and only push yourself as much as you are comfortable with.
Other types of physical relaxation techniques include massage and progressive muscle relaxation. If you associate massage with professional spas, think again! You can actually massage away stress at your desk with this easy five-minute routine: just place your hands on your shoulders and neck, keeping your shoulders relaxed and away from your ears. Gently squeeze your shoulder muscles and rub your hands in circles over them while breathing deeply.
Progressive muscle relaxation is one technique that can be especially useful if you’re trying to access the twilight state that precedes lucid dreaming, and is also a great bedtime routine to help you get to sleep quickly. It’s easiest to do progressive relaxation on your back, lying on a flat yet comfy surface like a couch or your bed. Focus on progressively tensing and then relaxing each major muscle group, starting with your feet and legs and working up to your head. After you relax each muscle group, you’ll probably notice that your muscles actually feel looser and more relaxed than before, as if the tension has drained out of your body. Practice this technique lying in bed some night and you’ll see what I mean!
Then there are the autogenic relaxation techniques: autogenic means that something is “generated from within” yourself, so some useful autogenic calming techniques include breathing meditation, guided visualization, and object meditation using an icon or mantra as a focal point. In its most basic sense, meditation is a type of relaxation technique with both mental and physical elements that develops your awareness with the goal of reducing stress. The simplest form of meditation uses the breath as the focal point of one’s awareness. However, if you’re new to the idea of focusing within, you could try a guided visualization technique: imagine yourself into a peaceful scene, like a beach or forest, including as many sensory details as you can. While in that imagined space, focus on relaxing your muscles and slowing your breathing. This is also great practice for achieving a wake-induced lucid dream from a rested state.
The more you practice relaxation techniques, the more quickly you’ll notice yourself becoming stressed. Different people have different reactions to stress. Some people get overexcited and try to do everything at once, while others may feel overwhelmed and simply freeze, unable to do anything. Once you realize how you typically respond to stress, you can tailor your arsenal of relaxation techniques to suit your needs: the overexcitable will respond well to calming techniques such as breathing meditation and guided visualization; people who tend to freeze often benefit from more stimulating techniques like yoga or walking outside in nature. Lastly, it’s important to be patient with yourself. Just like methods of lucid dreaming, not all relaxation techniques work for all people. Try a number of different strategies, and you will eventually hit on the combination that works for you.