Relaxation Exercises: Christians Have Been Unnecessarily Hestiant
A largely neglected aspect of cultivating spiritual life is the skill of using relaxation exercises effectively. Christians have often neglected this simple, powerful method of reducing stress. They have seen it as having ties to eastern religions, new age thought, or finding peace of mind through something other than God.
In reality, it is God Himself who created us in His image. He breathed life into us. Not only physical life, but he breathed into us the full range of capacities that humans have as image-bearers. Nevertheless, we are physical creatures designed with extraordinary precision.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
Psalm 139:13-16 NIV
When it comes to breathing, it means that we have a delicate, yet resilient central nervous system that controls our adrenaline response, muscle tension, and our lungs. As parents we comfort babies by holding them and gently controlling their movements. We breath slowly and steadily until the baby’s breathing is becoming less eratic and more synchronized with our own breathing. The result: a baby that is calmer, relaxed, and less prone to think about irritations and frustrations. It’s really very simple.
Relaxation Exercises: Physical Aid to Spiritual Growth
As adults we have to learn how to do this for ourselves. I’m not talking about singing lullabyes. Rather, we need to learn how to calm our bodies and regulate our breathing. This is what breathing exercises are about. The result is that we find it easier to turn our thoughts away from our worries and to do what Holy Scripture encourages us to do:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:6-9 NIV
It was the missionary Paul who wrote this. The same apostle who dealt with one stressful situation after another. I wonder how many times Paul’s associates witnessed him calming himself during an adrenaline-drenched situation. Can you picture it in your mind? Now, suppose you took five minutes to use the imagination that God gave you to recreate such a scene in your mind…vividly. Then, suppose you controlled the rate of your breathing to be in sync with Paul’s breathing. In your mind you zoom out to see the big picture of several people in a flap about this or that danger. But then you zoom in on Paul ‘s torso and you see his rate of breathing is slower than the rest. His breathing is regular and predictable like a metronome. Is breathing he breathing in this relaxed way because he is praying with faith? Or, is he able to pray with a clear mind because he is breathing this way?
The answer is, “Yes.” It’s very difficult to say which comes first. Is breathing slowing and evenly as if you are relaxed the first act of faith? Or, is it faith being expressed in his thoughts of God? Whatever you think the answer is, there is value in learning how to do relaxation exercises.
Some Benefits of Relaxation Exercises
Doing relaxation exercises can help create the mindset you need to meditate on Christ and His Word. Throughout the Scriptures, God’s Holy Spirit has been compared to the very breath of God. When Jesus was yet again enacting the New Covenant for His disciples, he “breathed on them” with lungs that had been brought to life during His resurrection. The young eyewitness and friend of Jesus wrote about Jesus appearing after He rose from the dead:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
John 20:19-21 NIV