cultivate calm podcast

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If you find it hard to relax, you’re not alone – relaxation doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It’s a learned ability to shift into the parasympathetic state, the relaxation response, which requires practice and guidance. Today I’m sharing five challenges associated with relaxing and how to overcome them. So, take a moment to pause, breathe, and join me on this journey to deeper rest.

One major obstacle to relaxation is guilt. Society often portrays rest as a luxury or a reward for hard work, rather than a fundamental human need. I talk about how we’re conditioned to associate rest with laziness or weakness, but in reality, rest is essential for our physical and mental well-being.

Another relaxation blocker is that stress hormones can become addictive, offering us a temporary rush of energy. This addiction keeps us trapped in fight or flight mode, making relaxation seem foreign and uncomfortable. I also share how suppressed emotions can be a significant barrier to relaxation. Many of us weren’t taught healthy ways to express negative feelings and these bottled-up emotions cause stress and anxiety.

I also dive into self-worth and how when we build our identity on our job performance and life roles, relaxation can feel uncomfortable. In a society that glorifies productivity, slowing down and resting can feel counterintuitive. However, we need to understand that having a regulated nervous system is key to us performing at our best.

In this episode, I share some of the benefits of yoga in teaching our bodies how to relax. A regular yoga practice helps to connect us with our core essence beyond external roles, discharge nervous energy, release muscle tension and calm the nervous system. In yoga, we also use specific breathwork and mindfulness techniques to down-regulate the nervous system and keep our minds focused on the present moment. There are so many benefits.

Relaxation isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity for our overall well-being. By practising yoga regularly and prioritising relaxation, we can unlock our potential, improve our mental and physical health, and reconnect with our true selves. So, if you’ve been struggling to relax, I hope this episode encourages you to join the relaxation rebels and experience the transformative power of relaxation. Your future self will thank you.

[00:00:00] Monica: Welcome, friend. If you struggle to relax, this episode’s for you. A lot of people have a hard time relaxing and even stress about not being able to relax. There’s even a term for that, it’s called stress laxing. And today I’ll be sharing why this happens and what we can do about it. But before we begin, let’s take a slow exhale together.

[00:01:23] Now the information I share in this episode is for entertainment purposes and it’s not medical advice. It’s always best to speak to your doctor or health professional. people come to yoga to relax, but when it comes to lie down and close their eyes, their minds start racing, their bodies tense up, they can have a really hard time letting themselves relax.

[00:01:45] if you’ve ever found yourself unable to relax, you’re not alone. It’s actually a lot more common than we realize. And there’s this thing called the relaxation paradox, which is where we feel stressed and anxious when we try to relax. And there are a number of reasons for this. But the main reason that I want to share with you today is that no one taught us how to relax.

[00:02:09] It’s just assumed that we know how to do it, and relaxation is a skill. It’s something that can be learned. It doesn’t come naturally to some of us, but we can learn how to do it and get better at it. And often when we think about relaxing, we might imagine ourselves on a beach, sipping cocktails, or perhaps being pampered in a day spa, or just having a nap on the couch.

[00:02:32] But the thing with relaxation is that it’s not so much the activity we’re doing, it’s what’s going on in our nervous system and our mind. So many people save up for their annual holiday only to spend the whole time stressing about work, or they look forward to that relaxation massage only to find themselves all tense and wound up on the table.

[00:02:53] You see, in order for both our body and our mind to relax, we need our nervous system to be in the parasympathetic state, or the relaxation response. And rest is so much more than just chilling on the couch watching Netflix. It’s teaching our nervous system that we’re safe enough to come out of fight or flight and into that relaxation response.

[00:03:15] And no one’s really taught us how to do that. So if you struggle to relax, it’s not your fault. The first reason we struggle to relax is that we feel guilty for This is because we feel that relaxation is a waste of time, or that we should be doing something more productive.

[00:03:33] But here’s the thing, in order to perform at our best, we need adequate rest and relaxation. And all too often we view rest as a reward for hard work, being a basic human need like water and oxygen. Many of us fail to understand how important rest is for our physical and mental health, and we view our need for rest as laziness or weakness.

[00:03:57] The guilt or shame we feel for needing rest isn’t even ours. It’s our toxic culture that’s incredibly harmful for our mental health. We weren’t born to work and maximize our productivity. We’re born to experience the fullness of life, and we can’t do that if we’re overworked, underrested, and burnt out.

[00:04:20] Rest and relaxation is how we bring the being into human beings. So let yourself switch off once in a while, my friend. You don’t hesitate to charge your phone. You don’t think your phone’s lazy for needing to recharge the batteries. You know that your computer resets and works better when you switch it off every now and again.

[00:04:41] Will our body and brain thrive when we’re well rested? The second reason we can have trouble relaxing is because stress hormones can be addictive. We get a rush of energy when our nervous system’s in fight or flight mode, as adrenaline surges through our bloodstream. And adrenaline gives us this temporary rush that can feel really addictive.

[00:05:03] And we don’t need to be an adrenaline junkie and go skydiving to get our fix. We can just stay trapped in the fight or flight state of our nervous system. Adrenaline causes us to experience everything as urgent. or an emergency and we feel there’s never enough time so we rush from one crisis to the next and this rush can be so familiar and even comforting that when we slow down and rest it feels so weird, it feels so foreign that we just create more stress in our minds.

[00:05:33] And here’s the interesting thing. Humans have this unique and strange ability to activate the stress response with thought alone. Our mind can create stress in our body just by what we’re thinking about. So life can be going well. We might not have any problems in our lives. But our brain cooks up all these problems by thinking about the past or worrying about the future.

[00:05:59] And because our nervous system can’t tell the difference between a real event or an imagined one, so we start stressing out because of all of our thoughts. And this gives us that rush of adrenaline, and we repeat this cycle. Over and over. And since our brain prefers the familiar, relaxation is going to feel weird, it’s going to feel uncomfortable, that we create stress so our brain can get its hit of adrenaline.

[00:06:24] The third reason we have trouble relaxing is that our sense of self worth and importance is often tied to our work or how busy and productive we are. So rest can feel deeply uncomfortable if we’ve attached our self worth to our work. And many of us are overly identified with our jobs or the roles that we play in life.

[00:06:46] And when we’re not performing these roles, we can feel less important. Empty, or even purposeless. And that’s why a lot of my clients struggle with the transition to retirement. Because they have to figure out who they are if they’re not their job. It’s why a lot of people also struggle when their kids finally move out of home and they’ve got an empty nest.

[00:07:07] Because all those years they were being an active parent, they’re no longer needed in that way. They feel less important, they feel empty and purposeless. It’s a huge transition of identity. many of us, including myself at times, seek external validation, meaning that we look outwards and to other people to validate our sense of selves.

[00:07:29] Am I doing enough? Am I good enough? Am I okay? And so if our only source of validation or esteem is coming from outside of ourselves, it’s going to feel really uncomfortable to stop performing and just let ourselves be. Now, one of the things that I love about yoga is how it teaches us to connect with ourselves and who we really are beyond our job, beyond our relationships, beyond our achievements and possessions.

[00:08:01] It helps us to connect with our very core essence, our essential nature, and yogis call that Atman. And there’s this really interesting concept in yoga called the Koshas, which represents all the different layers to our being. And these layers are like those nested Russian dolls where you open one up and there’s another one inside.

[00:08:23] And eventually we peel back all the layers of our lives and ourselves until we arrive at our fundamental nature, which is pure conscious awareness. We don’t need to be doing anything to be worthy. We’re born that way. And yoga reveals this part of ourselves that was always there. So when we become overly attached to our job or our relationships, yoga philosophy describes this as avidya.

[00:08:49] Or a lack of awareness of our true nature. And incidentally, this lack of awareness of our true nature is the number one cause of mental suffering, according to the Yoga Sutras. Okay, so getting back to why we can’t relax. So first we feel guilty about it. Second, we’re addicted to stress hormones. Third, we derive our identity and sense of self from our work.

[00:09:13] The next reason we have trouble relaxing is because of our emotions, and more specifically avoiding our emotions. Now our emotions are experienced in our body, and humans are meant to feel the full spectrum of emotions. We can’t just feel the good stuff and block out the bad stuff, it just doesn’t work that way.

[00:09:33] Yet many of us weren’t taught healthy ways to express our negative emotions, so we just bottle them up. We weren’t allowed to get angry, so we bottle it up until we’re seething with rage and resentment. We weren’t allowed to cry, so we shut it down and became cold and hard. We weren’t allowed to be scared, so we put our armor on and braced ourselves as we went out into the world.

[00:09:57] And the point is that emotions are an energy, and that energy wants to move through the body. So when we suppress our emotions, when we avoid feeling them, or when we numb them, they don’t go away. They don’t go anywhere. We just sweep them under the carpet until that pile gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and then somewhere around midlife we can’t hide those emotions anymore, and they all come out in a really ugly way.

[00:10:26] And I’m speaking from experience here. Now here’s the really interesting thing. Our brain prefers the familiar, so rather than feeling the uncomfortable emotions, we feel stress and anxiety instead. Our nervous system detects that something’s not right, and that something being those old emotions that we’ve been stuffing down.

[00:10:46] But rather than feeling those uncomfortable feelings, which would be unfamiliar, our nervous system just goes into fight or flight mode, and instead we feel stress and anxious. So even though we hate feeling stress and anxious, Our nervous system prefers that over feeling the underlying feeling. And in my yoga alchemy program, I work with a lot of people who have anxiety.

[00:11:10] And often that anxiety is a mask for those unexpressed emotions. And over seven months, we work together to learn healthy and safe ways to slowly release those stuck emotions from the body. It’s not pretty work, but it works. So if you struggle to relax and you become stressed when you try to rest, it could be your nervous system alerting you to some old emotions that want to come up and out.

[00:11:35] And a really interesting question that we can ask ourselves is, if I wasn’t feeling anxious right now, what would I be feeling? And often that’s a clue to the thing beneath the thing that can point us to the underlying feeling beneath anxiety. There’s usually a reason for our anxiety, and if we dig a little deeper, we can usually find it in some old emotion that wants to come out.

[00:12:01] And the fifth reason we find it hard to relax is that it was never modeled for us. We live in a world that glorifies busy, idealizes hard work and normalizes burnout so it can feel like an act of rebellion to slow down and rest. We don’t have many examples of well rested people and our lifestyles are becoming increasingly anxious and we’re not to blame for it.

[00:12:28] It takes conscious effort to go against the grain, to be different, to stop and do less. And this is something that I have to remind myself of. you know, we teach what we most need to learn, right? So if I’ve got a deadline or if I’m under work pressure, it can be really tempting to push through and try to use force and hard work.

[00:12:52] But if I’m stressed, if my nervous system is in fight or flight mode, It impairs my thinking. Stress makes us stupid as it shuts down our prefrontal cortex. And this is the most advanced part of our brain. This is where our real intellect resides. And instead, when we’re in that fight or flight mode, our amygdala is in charge.

[00:13:13] And this is that really basic, animal, instinctual part of the brain, the fear center of the brain. So when we’re under the influence of the amygdala, we don’t think very well. Our full cognitive capabilities aren’t available to us. We make poor decisions. We lack creativity. We can’t see the big picture. We miss insights and it diminishes our intellectual capacity when we’re stressed.

[00:13:40] Yet many of us think that we thrive under pressure or thrive under stress and we think we can just push through it to get a result. And the thing to remember here is that the nervous system is the key to relaxation and the nervous system will also unlock our brain’s full potential. We are not at our best when we’re stressed.

[00:14:03] So instead of telling ourselves, have I worked hard enough to earn this rest? We can reframe it to, am I relaxed enough to perform at my best? And if we want to be at our best, we need to get some rest. So, if you struggle to relax, the really good news is that it’s a skill like anything else that can be learned and cultivated.

[00:14:27] And, it just so happens that it’s my business. To teach people like yourself how to relax. And the way we do it is threefold. First, it involves the body. So when we’re in fight or flight mode, we’ve got adrenaline coursing through our bloodstream and that gives us a surge of energy. And that energy wants to move.

[00:14:49] So the yoga poses that we do at our studio help to discharge that nervous energy from the body. The poses release tension from our muscles and being present in our body calms the nervous system. And there’s some poses that I really love doing when I’m feeling stressed, when I’m feeling anxious, when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

[00:15:08] If I’m feeling really angry and frustrated, for me, there’s nothing like a good vinyasa practice. That flowing movement with breath. That synchronizing movement to breath helps us to get out of our head. Doing repetitive sequences is also known to be relaxing and just getting things moving, discharging that stress energy from the body can help us to feel a whole lot better.

[00:15:33] The other thing that we do in our classes is we combine the physical poses with breath work. But not just any kind of breathing, we guide you with specific techniques that are designed to downregulate the nervous system and bring you into that parasympathetic state. And the best breathing techniques are low, slow, and through the nose.

[00:15:57] Low meaning engaging the diaphragm, so breathing into the belly rather than the chest. Slow meaning to extend the exhale, so these are calming. And nasal breathing is far superior to mouth breathing. There’s a whole range of mental health benefits from preferring nose breathing over mouth breathing.

[00:16:19] And I’ve done a whole podcast episode on breathing away to less stress, so you can go check that out. The third thing that we do in our classes is we practice mindfulness. And this is the key because yoga is about uniting mind and body. The poses in the breath work are redundant if our mind is off somewhere else cooking up some stressful scenarios and made up dramas.

[00:16:41] The most relaxing place for our mind is when it’s focused on something simple and repetitive like our breath or flowing through a repetitive yoga sequence like a vinyasa class. And when we focus our minds on what we’re doing in the present moment, it diverts our attention away from thinking. And this is a really effective skill to cultivate, if you’ve got the type of mind that likes to cook up stress just with your thoughts.

[00:17:06] So we still have thoughts in yoga, because that’s normal, but our thoughts won’t be the dominant part of our experience. Our thoughts won’t overwhelm us, they’re just part of the experience, they’re not the main thing. Instead, we train ourselves to focus on being present in the body, as this calms the nervous system.

[00:17:25] Yeah. Relaxation is a practice. Not many of us are naturally gifted and that’s why people practice yoga regularly because they’re exposed to stress daily. So think about it, we brush our teeth daily because we’re exposed to stress every day. We can’t just brush our teeth on Monday and expect them to still be clean on Friday.

[00:17:47] We’re exposed to stress daily, so doing things on a regular basis to lower our stress levels, to relax our body, to calm our mind, is going to make sure that we’re at our optimum. So one yoga class here and there might feel good. But practicing yoga three times a week is optimal for building resilience in our nervous system, training our nervous system to feel safe.

[00:18:15] And it’s only when our nervous system feels safe that we can get out of that fight or flight response, get back into the relaxation response, and that automatically will change how we think and feel. And the clients who get the best results from yoga, the ones who say that it’s transformed their lives, all attend yoga several times a week.

[00:18:37] And they do it because they make it a priority, because they know it has a ripple effect on all other areas of their lives. And it’s not just young fit. Healthy people doing yoga. We’ve got lots of people with chronic illness, with autoimmune conditions, chronic pain. We’ve got a lot of people in very stressful situations who are prioritizing yoga because they know it makes the rest of their lives easier.

[00:19:03] They sleep better with regular yoga because their nervous system’s regulated. They feel better in their body because they’ve got less tension and more energy. They’re calmer and they’re thinking better because their brain isn’t marinating in stress hormones. And they feel more positive about life, they have a greater sense of purpose, and they feel connected to their soul.

[00:19:28] And if you want this for yourself, you just have to start. And your first three weeks of yoga with us are only 77 so you can experience for yourself what true relaxation feels like. And we’re so confident that you’ll be thinking and feeling better in three weeks that we offer a peace of mind guarantee.

[00:19:48] And you can see our website for the terms. So if you have trouble relaxing, my friend, it’s not your fault. In our fast paced society that glorifies busyness, burnout, and anxious living, it’s an act of subversion to stop and rest. But I guarantee you that your future self will thank you for deciding to prioritize rest and relaxation.

[00:20:11] So if you want to join this movement of relaxation rebels, then come along to our classes in East Brisbane. We’d love to have you there.