Dr Herbert Benson is a well-known name in the mind-body field. For over 30 years, this respected Harvard Medical School professor has been working on mental techniques to improve physical health, and contributing his findings to scientific journals.
His belief – and it's one that's more and more widely shared – is that a lot of physical imbalances that lead to disease can be traced back to mental stress. The clever part is that he has a way of reversing the mental and physical stress which, he's repeatedly shown, helps with the disease – with symptoms like cardiac problems, headache, hypertension (high blood pressure), irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia and pain.
You don't have to be sick to benefit from this practice, of course. Anyone who's dealing with stressful circumstances on a daily or near-daily basis – which would be most of us – will find it an easy way to quickly power down.
Here's my version of Dr Benson's "Relaxation Response" practice, in 10 simple steps that can improve your health and wellbeing in just 10 minutes a day. (Experienced meditators will probably find them familiar.)
1. Pick a focus. The easiest focus to use is a word or a short phrase. It doesn't particularly matter what it is as long as it's short and has positive associations for you. You could use "peace" or "calm" if you wanted.
2. Find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed, and sit in a position that will be comfortable to sit in for a little while.
3. Set a timer for 10-20 minutes. Most cellphones have one these days.
4. Close your eyes.
5. Relax your muscles. Start with the muscles of your face, since you've already relaxed the muscles around your eyes. Allow any tension just to leak out as you progressively relax your face, scalp, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, chest and upper back, stomach and lower back, hips, thighs, knees, calves and shins, ankles and feet. Take your time on this step, and if you find particular tension in any area, just touch it gently with your mind, give it permission to relax and move on.
6. Start a series of slow, deep breaths. As you breathe out each time, say your focus word to yourself.
7. As thoughts and feelings rise, let them come and let them go. Return to your word.
8. Your mind will wander off. When you notice that your mind has wandered, gently bring yourself back to focussing on your word on each outbreath.
9. Let your thoughts return for a minute or so after the timer goes off, then open your eyes.
10. Move a little to get yourself back in your body. I lift my feet up and put them down again, and rub my face with my hands. Find something that works for you.
What happens when you go through this exercise?
Your body, if it's been geared up for fighting or fleeing by the stressful circumstances of modern life, switches itself back into what should be its normal mode – the mode where maintenance and digestion and all those other useful internal processes happen, and where your blood isn't full of stress chemicals threatening to block your arteries. This is the "relaxation response".
There are three benefits of relaxing as a deliberate daily practice. Firstly, you're not leaving relaxation to chance and hoping that it happens (it might not). Secondly, you're cultivating an internal pattern, and a capability, of being able to let go of distracting thoughts and feelings which would take you back into stress. And thirdly, just as your stress has built up over a long period, it needs to be released over a long period, by consistent practice.
Yet it's only 10 minutes a day – an investment that will be repaid many times over in increased energy, vitality, resilience and health.
What other benefits do you think you might get from a practice like this? Tell us in the comments.