If you need a doctor's order to relax, Kenneth Pelletier, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco, will happily write the prescription. When the mind and body are in a state of relaxation, he says, inflammation in arteries, joints, and nerves decreases, pain in the muscles subsides, the heart rate decreases while blood pressure drops, and the gastrointestinal system functions better as well.
In addition, electrical activity slows down between the two hemispheres of the brain so they "become more synchronous, more in harmony, and you have more access to both sides of the brain," Pelletier says. Relaxing can also help keep you trim, as high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to deposits of abdominal fat.
"The state of relaxation is biologically, psychologically, and chemically a time when the mind and body are in a state of regeneration," says Pelletier. But these days, stress levels are at an all-time high, believes Pelletier, who cites four contributing factors: "hurry sickness," or the sheer pace of everyday activities; financial worries in an unsettled economy; post-9/11 fears of terrorism; and the pressure on baby boomers who must care for children as well as parents.
Pelletier feels it is especially crucial, therefore, to "exercise our relaxation muscles all the time" by incorporating mini-breaks into our daily lives. So for him, part of the enduring value of a relaxing summer vacation is bringing home that "feeling of inner balance, equanimity, and unity between mind and body."
Clench and relax. If you find yourself holding an inordinate amount of tension in your arms, legs, or back, for instance, tensing then releasing the muscles in that area will remind your body to relax there.
Visualize a favorite place. In moments of stress, close your eyes and imagine a place you've spent time -- perhaps on a previous vacation -- where you felt happy, safe, and at ease.
Smile, even if you don't feel like smiling. The acts of smiling and laughing actually release biochemicals that can change your mood to happy.
"The fastest way to still the mind is to move the body," says Gabrielle Roth, director of the Moving Center dance studio in New York City. "The harder you dance, the deeper you breathe. The deeper you breathe, the deeper you live. Breath, body, beat, bliss -- they go together."
If Roth had her way, we'd all be moving all the time, tuning in to our internal rhythms as well as the rhythms of the natural world. She says, "Everything alive is moving, so why be the exception?"
During our regular, over-scheduled days, we tend to surrender to patterns and rhythms imposed on us from work, family, social interactions. Summer vacations are a prime time to "take yourself back," says Roth. "Vacation is not simply a time to stop but a time to tune in to the rhythms, patterns, cycles, and waves that make you who you are. Following your own rhythm even for a week nourishes your entire psyche."
Shake it up. Try this exercise with or without gentle, percussive, tribal music. Place your feet shoulder-width apart and gently bounce to the beat of the music without moving your feet. Keeping your feet planted helps you to relax as you move the rest of your body. Soften your knees to cushion your bounce.
Shake and relax each body part, from face to shoulders to hips to knees, until your whole body is shaking. Continue until you feel loose and sinuous. When you practice shaking, you don't get thrown when the universe shakes you up.
Unplug. Switch computers and cell phones off as much as possible. High tech keeps you in high gear.
Underschedule. Cultivate "open moments" and "empty spaces," to allow for serendipity and sensual experiences.
Over-chew. Vacations allow you to enjoy long, leisurely meals and savor flavors, settings, and conversations. Good meals often create memories that people bring back from vacation and remember for years. Eat slowly.
When you are totally absorbed in an activity, says John Daido Loori, author of "The Zen of Creativity," the mind can "take a break from that incessant internal dialogue that scatters our energy." Creative activities that engage our bodies and minds at once are especially conducive to this absorption, so bringing paints, pencils, and paper on vacations is an excellent way to stop the mind from chattering.
If drawing or painting is not your thing, don't despair. "There are so many ways to be creative," Loori points out. "You can be creative with cooking, with solving problems, with sewing or knitting."
Not only can creative activity help us to release tension, but being in a state of relaxation can also aid the creative process. "Creativity has to do with an awareness of what is around us," says Loori. "Your hearing becomes more tuned in, and all your senses wake up."
True relaxation "is a release of tension and a letting go of everyday cares and worries, combined with the letting in of fresh nourishment -- physical, emotional, spiritual, psychic, even intellectual," says Belleruth Naparstek, psychotherapist and founder of Health Journeys. "Relaxation can look like anything -- reading a book in a hammock; meditating on the beach; learning to sail a schooner or mastering the art of rock climbing; taking an intellectually stimulating tour sponsored by a university."
Those experiences can also provide us with fresh perspectives, evocative images, and sensory memories to draw on when we return home. Try conjuring up "the more delicious sensory details" of your summer and you can benefit from self-guided imagery. No matter where she is, Naparstek, who has vacationed on Martha's Vineyard for decades, can conjure up "the balmy feel of that luscious, scent-laden Martha's Vineyard breeze on my face... or the feel of waves lapping at my ankles and the sand squishing between my toes" and be instantly transported from tension to peace.