What's the difference between relaxation and meditation?
—Dorothy Campbell, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom
Frank Jude Boccio's reply:
We often think of watching TV, sitting down with a cocktail or a good book, or simply vegging out as relaxing. But true relaxation is something that is practiced and cultivated; it is defined by the stimulation of the relaxation response. Some forms of conscious relaxation may become meditation, and many meditators find that their practice benefits from using a relaxation technique to access an inner stillness helpful for meditating. But while relaxation is a secondary effect of some meditation, other forms of meditation are anything but relaxing. Ultimately, it all comes down to the intention and purpose of the technique.
All conscious relaxation techniques offer the practitioner a method for slowly relaxing all the major muscle groups in the body, with the goal being the stimulation of the relaxation response; deeper, slower breathing and other physiological changes help the practitioner to experience the whole body as relaxed. Techniques include autogenic training, the use of words suggesting heaviness and warmth in the limbs; progressive muscle relaxation, systematically bringing attention to various parts of the body to consciously release tension, then noticing the feelings of softness and ease that arise; body scanning, moving attention slowly through the body; and breathing, gradually extending the exhalations.
Meditation—generally presented in the three broad categories of concentration, mindfulness, and contemplation—are forms of mind training, operating on the fundamental premise that the mind determines the quality of your life. Meditation is about making friends with yourself, learning to see what is just as it is, and freeing yourself from reactive conditioning. This liberating aspect of meditation is conceptualized in varied ways, from purely psychological and secular to deeply spiritual and religious. For further information, you might want to check out Meditation and Relaxation in Plain English by Bob Sharples.
Frank Jude Boccio is a yoga teacher, Ayurveda practitioner, hypnotherapist, and the author of Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind.