Meditation vs. Relaxation Techniques: What’s the Difference?

difference between meditation and relaxation

There’s a lot of confusion on the internet about meditation and mindfulness. Many people consider meditation and relaxation techniques to be the same thing. Whereas the fact is that although they offer similar benefits on a level, there’s a big difference between them. In this article, we’ll discuss these two techniques and whether meditation is better than relaxation.

The difference between meditation and relaxation is that relaxation is supposed to help you de-stress and feel better, while meditation is about learning the patterns of the mind and befriending it. Relaxation is a secondary effect of meditation, but meditative practices go way beyond just relaxing.

The techniques of meditation and relaxation also overlap in some places. They offer similar benefits for the body and the mind. Read on to learn more about these techniques and the similarities and differences between them.

Table of Contents

What is meditation?

Meditation is an ancient practice designed to train our attention and awareness. It doesn’t teach you how to control the mind or stop thinking. Rather, it teaches you how to detach from the stories in your head. Once you start to do that, the mind also starts listening to you. Meditation usually involves focusing our attention on a single object like your breath, a sound, or an image. 

For example, If you decide to meditate on your breath, you try to be aware of every inhalation and exhalation. In case of a mantra, you mindfully recall the mantra in your head. Or if it’s an image, you close your eyes and hold the image in your mind as vividly as you can. There are also techniques where you try to be mindful with your eyes open.

When it comes to meditation, you’ll often come across the word mindfulness. It refers to the ability to pay attention to what’s happening without any judgment. If you get distracted while meditating, mindfulness is to:

  1. Notice that you got distracted.
  2. Get back to meditation without judging your thoughts or getting involved in thinking.

Meditation offers various benefits for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It increases our awareness and brings inner peace. I’ve written full articles discussing the short-term and long-term benefits of meditation.

What is relaxation?

Any method or activity that helps you relax and reduce stress, anxiety, anger, etc. is called a relaxation technique. There are many relaxation techniques and learning them is easy and often free. You can find various tutorials or audio recordings online that will teach you how to practice them.

People use various techniques to relax and de-stress. Some of them are done alone, while some need the help of another person, who is usually a trained professional. In general, they involve focusing on something calming and increasing awareness of the body.

Passive relaxation exercises are performed while sitting or lying quietly. They require you to sit still and withdraw from the outer world. Some examples are guided imagery, hypnosis, deep breathing, or gong meditation. There are also movement-based relaxation exercises like walking, Qigong, T’ai chi, etc.

With relaxation techniques, the goal is to give you some moments of serenity and help you de-stress. Like meditation, relaxation also benefits the body and the mind in various ways. It:

  • Lowers blood pressure and fatigue
  • Improves digestion and sleep
  • Slows heart and breathing rate
  • Reduces stress and anger
  • Increases blood circulation and calmness
  • Improves mood and breathing rate

The stress and relaxation response

These are two natural functions of the body. Understanding them will tell us how meditation and relaxation techniques affect the body and the mind.

Your autonomic nervous system controls various functions of the body like heart rate, digestion, breathing, etc. Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are two branches of the autonomic nervous system. The former is known as the “fight or flight” system while the latter is the “rest and digest” system.

A fight-or-flight response happens when your mind perceives danger or stress. Your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and you become tense. On the contrary, relaxation response occurs when there’s no danger and the mind is relaxed. Physiological functions return to normal, and the body can heal in this period.

Similarities between meditation and relaxation techniques

Both meditation and relaxation techniques induce a relaxation response in the body. This means both of them make you calmer and happier. Studies suggest that both of them reduce stress, anxiety, pain, and depression.

Many practices involve elements of meditation and relaxation. Certain yoga techniques include relaxing components like savasana, while also encouraging controlled breathing and awareness. 

Both meditation and relaxation techniques are easy to learn. You can practice them from the comfort of your home and enjoy the benefits. Also, meditation can be practiced informally by being mindful of our day-to-day activities. Similarly, everyday activities that elicit the relaxation response can be termed relaxation practice.

They also complement each other. Practicing meditation will make you more mindful of your behavior during activities for relaxation. For example, you may watch TV to relax, but mindfulness will help you realize that it actually makes your body tense. 

Some forms of relaxation techniques may become a meditation. They may also help you go deeper into meditation. This is why I suggest taking a few deep breaths before starting their meditation practice. Diaphragmatic breathing is a relaxation technique that helps practitioners relax and settle down before they begin to meditate.

Difference between meditation and relaxation techniques

As we’ve said, the difference between these two comes down to the purpose of the technique. Relaxation practices offer you a method to relax all muscle groups in the body. Their only goal is to elicit the relaxation response. Slow breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and body scanning allow you to feel calm and stress-free.

Meditation is much more than just relaxation; it’s about making friends with yourself. Apart from the many science-backed benefits, meditation also has remarkable transformative qualities. It helps you see things for what they are and free yourself from mental conditioning. This liberating aspect of meditation is found in various religious and spiritual texts.

Meditation apps are quite popular these days. They offer guided instructions and courses for stress, anxiety, etc. But when you have a voice guiding you through each step, it’s more of a relaxation technique than meditation. So most of the recordings on these apps fall under relaxation. They’re designed to help you relax and relieve stress but are not ideal for meditation.

Meditation is supposed to be silent. The voice may help you learn to meditate, but when you actually do it, all audio instructions become distractions. So you can use these apps if you’re new to meditation. But once you’re familiar with the technique, you don’t need them. On the other hand, if you only want to de-stress in a few minutes, guided sessions are the way to go.

To learn more about how you should meditation apps, read this article.

Takeaway

I hope this article helped you understand the difference between meditation and relaxation techniques. Of course, both of them are beneficial for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Meditation has the benefits of relaxation and also goes beyond it.

Good luck.

About the author

I was introduced to spiritual practice at the age of 12. I didn't find it intriguing back then, but my curiosity about life has brought me to spirituality again, and I've been reading others' insights and learning from life for over three years. You can read more about me here.

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