Relaxation is the Opposite of Meditation

In 2011 I was an organiser of a big summer event in London called Meditation in the Park. Another yoga teacher and I were doing the event in collaboration with the ecologist who maintained the park and long-term local resident who was a jovial and well-respected man and local cause supporter. His name was Steve and he had a wonderful, generous and open-hearted spirit, but for the sake of this story it need be known that this whole yoga/meditation thing was a bit new to him…

My fellow yogini and I weren’t the proselytising types and generally kept the details of what we did for our practice on the quiet. But after a while of working together there was a day when Steve finally broached the topic: “So what do you do when you meditate?”

We replied that we get up early, do this, do that, then before bed do some more, and so on… He seemed perhaps a little shocked at the rigour of our routine. Either way, his retort was priceless: “My idea of meditation is sitting down by the docks on a Saturday morning with my fishing pole and a six pack of beer!”

Ha! Truly classic, Steve. But beneath the light humour there was no sarcasm. He was genuinely serious! In his mind, whatever he believed “meditation” to be, I believe that experience very much gave it to him.

The moment passed with a bit of shared laughter, but later on I began to ponder: “Well, what’s wrong with that?” Or perhaps more to the point: “Is that really meditation?”

You might spiritually bypass the question by saying “to each his own” or “that’s his truth” or something like that, but let’s look at it this way: If that experience qualifies as meditation, then would you be prepared to adopt that practice? A 40 day sadhana perhaps??

My gut feeling said that something was missing from the picture. Even letting the whole alcohol thing slip by, something told me that this practice did not have much overlap with what I did in my daily meditations. Fishing alone on a sunny morning drinking beer might very well be relaxing but it just wasn’t the same as meditation. But wait! Maybe that’s it….

It suddenly dawned on me: I was correct in my assessment that the experience Steve described was not meditation because it was something else…It was relaxation. It also occurred to me that this is a very common misconception: The idea that meditation is somehow related to relaxation. I would say that they are opposites.

In order to understand why, let’s consult the writings of the 5th century mystic, Patanjali, whose Yoga Sutras is a profoundly concise treatise describing the purpose, aspects and stages of a yoga practice (fundamental reading for all keen students). In Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes meditation as a state of being called “dhyana”. He says to achieve this stage, one first has to go through “dharana”, which translates roughly to “concentration”.

But wait a minute! You might say you concentrate all day long at work and that doesn’t feel very meditative??

“Concentration”, here, does not mean “thinking hard”. Concentration, in this context, is something you do, not with your thoughts, but with your awareness. When you bring your awareness to the flow of your breath, the tip of your nose, or the sound of a mantra you are “concentrating”. You are focusing the ray beam of your consciousness into a single point through the lens of awareness to increase its potency. Think: orange juice from concentrate.

By concentrating our consciousness a number of good things begin to happen. First, we get back in touch with our inner nature, the one underneath all the roles we play. This gives us a deep feeling of acknowledgement and renewed sense of connection. Our true self knows the answers to our deepest questions. In meditation we get closer to that inner voice.

Second, we detach ourselves from the influence of the never-ending stream of thoughts from the mind. It’s like we are being tossed about in the river rapids, and suddenly we grab a rock and hold on tight. Some people think that in order to meditate you have to be thoughtless. Actually, one key purpose of mediation is to clean out the thoughts so that they don’t overflow into our subconscious and unconscious mind where they become destructive. To clean them out, we don’t fight them, but instead, allow them. We observe them but don’t get caught up in their tidal currents.

But why then, if meditation isn’t relaxation, do we always feel calmer after meditating? Well, this is precisely because they are opposites. It’s like going to the gym and working out all your muscles. Afterwards you can’t help but relax. You needn’t even try.

So which is better, relaxation or meditation? Meditation is clearly the more en vogue at the moment, but I would suggest that the often neglected relaxation is at least equally as important to a healthy human life, especially in these high octane times.

We all know deep relaxation as the usual sivasana at the end of a yoga class or maybe a warm bath, or a massage, but another important facet of deep relaxation includes activities that we might call play — a skill we once were all experts at! This kind of relaxation includes dancing, cooking, gardening, music making, or day dreaming on a long walk.

In these activities we allow the mind to wander freely, preferably with some positive external stimulus — e.g. sunshine, nature, good music — so the mind wanders in good directions. In these moments there is nothing to worry about, no one to keep track of, no image to uphold. Here’s where Steve’s sunshine and fishing comes in. It’s a break from his normal demands and routines, a place where his only purpose is to be. I’ll bet he doesn’t even care if he catches any fish!

Meditation and relaxation are the Yin and Yang of the inner workout, two basic requirements of a healthy human maintenance routine. They are the “shower” and “brush your teeth” of the inner psyche! Do you include them both? Does your meditation involve any focus or concentration? How often do you “practice” deep relaxation? What would you do if you had a day to yourself, no tasks allowed, no yoga allowed, no friends or family? How would you play? Why not make it happen…weekly even? In the meantime, below is a very powerful deep relaxation technique to try….

Deep Relaxation Shower Technique

Set the shower to a warm temperature (not too hot). Kneel down in the shower and, if you are able, place your head on the shower floor and arms at your sides (child’s pose). Be comfortable and close your eyes. Allow the water to run down your back. Any length of time is great but try 11–31 minutes for a very powerful healing experience.