So you want to relax? Seems we all do. When we’re so caught up in our whirlwind of thoughts we often fantasize about escaping it all and finally relaxing. So with the holidays approaching how are you going to relax?

What if that glass/bottle/carton of wine doesn’t cut it? What if when you’re sitting at the beach working on your tan, you’re still stressed? What if zoning out on the couch with the air con on, TV remote in one hand and phone in the other isn’t very relaxing? What if you plan to catch up on sleep and you can’t? While these things are all fun, they don’t revitalise the mind and body and may actually make things worse.

The stress loop

In order to truly relax our mind and body, we need to reset our nervous system. Many of us are trapped in a perpetual stress loop that we can’t escape. The body is tired but the mind is wired. We want to sleep but we can’t. The only way out of the morning brain fog and fatigue is several cups of coffee that leave us wired all day and unable to be still. Sound familiar?

In order to reset the nervous system, we need to convince the brain to relax. The brain receives signals from our body and can sense danger from the way we hold our body, the way we breathe and what thoughts we’re having. When the brain perceives threat, the stress response kicks in:

  • the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood stream.
  • our pulse and blood pressure increase while our breath becomes short and shallow
  • digestion is halted as blood is shunted to our muscles (in preparation for fight or flight)
  • the amygdala (fear center of the brain, animal brain) hops into the drivers seat – making us tense, irrational, reactive and a bit crazy.
monkey driving

When the amygdala is in charge


So what if we were to send different signals to the brain? Signals the sent a strong message to RELAX?

Making a conscious effort to relax the physical body and to breathe deeply into the belly triggers the relaxation response. The vagus nerve is triggered by deep breathing and sends the message to the brain that we’re safe. The brain releases GABA, dopamine and serotonin (feel good hormones) that help us to feel relaxed, at ease and calm.

As tension in our muscles eases, blood pressure drops, the heart rate slows, the breath slows, digestion, cell repair and growth kicks in and the fear center of the brain takes a back seat as the executive function of the  pre-frontal cortex (rational, higher brain) takes the lead. The boss takes over.

Instant calm

There’s a really simple, effective and cheap way to instant calm. It’s so effective that last week in the Thursday night Yin class, three people were asleep within the first five minutes of class (this usually happens at the end but rarely do I have to nudge people at the start of the class).


Instant calm (or calmer, depending on how wound up you are) could be yours in five minutes if you want to really relax like a boss:

  • Lie down in a comfortable position, ideally with a cushion or rolled up towel under your knees.
  • Close your eyes and release any noticeable tension you’re holding
  • Bring your focus to your breath as you breathe through the nostrils
  • Establish a count to your breath, inhaling and exhaling to a count of three or four
  • Once you’ve established a natural rhythm of breath, extend the exhale by one count (eg inhale to 3 and exhale to 4)
  • Keep the breath easy and natural, as soon as you’re straining you’re creating stress which makes this process redundant
  • When it feels comfortable, extend the count of your exhale by another count (eg inhale to 3, exhale to 5)
  • Either stay with this ratio or if it feels natural – extend the exhale again (maybe even double the inhale 3:6)
  • If it feels comfortable, bring a pause of one count to the end of the exhale. Try not to hold the breath or force this – as soon as you do, you will trigger the stress response.
  • Continue with this breath, extending the exhale and pausing slightly at the end of the exhale.

As the breath slows down, the mind slows down. And when the mind is relaxed, we can easily unwind. The link between the breath and the mind is the vagus nerve. This nerve needs to be stimulated in order to send the safety message to the brain. Once the brain gets the message the we want to relax, the nervous system can reset, our biochemistry changes and the boss returns to the driver’s seat. The goal here isn’t to fall asleep (unless you’re doing it before bed),it’s to feel peaceful and at ease.

The best thing is that this exercise is totally portable. You can do it in bed, at yoga or in your deck chair. Just five minutes to revitalise mind and body through a nervous system reset and you’ll be feeling much more relaxed.

Try it – it works.