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What Brazilians Can Teach Us About Relaxation

09/08/2010 09:37 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Daniel Cook Eco-preneur and explorer of good, mindful living across world cultures.

It's no secret that we live bombarded by ceaseless work and life demands, swept along engulfed by a tidal wave of information and stimuli. Our Puritan work ethic, industrious strength and need to be constantly "plugged in" have all formed a perfect storm, unleashing an unfortunate social conditioning which may cost our country hundreds of billions of dollars, and even more dangerously, threatens our very ability to live healthy, enjoyable and sustainable lives.

When we are constantly "turned on," our sympathetic nervous systems defend against a perceived threat to our health by secreting hormones that mobilize muscles and organs. This fight-or-flight response entails varied biological functions, including the shift of blood flow from the limbs to the organs, increased blood pressure and the weakening of our immune systems. The debilitating compromise on our bodies is not only created through crisis situations. It is triggered by the constant barrage of everyday worries and pressures. The rattle-buzz of mobile phones on countertops. The borderline neurosis of constant text message engagement, lest the sender should feel slighted by anything short of real time response. The once every 15 seconds triple mouse click to "Get Mail."

Ominous statistics from the frontlines of the U.S. workforce include over 600 million unused vacation days each year, 50 million Americans who are "Vacation Deprived" and an abysmal 53 plus percent job dissatisfaction rate. From Ivy League infants, to ants marching towards a receding retirement horizon, what drives us to this pace?

Is there no way to reconcile progress and productivity with balanced, healthy living? What if there was a product that promised to slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, increase blood flow to major muscles, reduce muscle tension and chronic pain, improve concentration and reduce anger? What if this product could balance and even catalyze our productivity and entrepreneurship? What if this product was free?

An inspired answer shines from the land of samba, Paulo Coelho, Carnival, açaí and Pelé. The Brazilian culture has achieved true mastery of the art of doing nothing, or as they phrase it "vadiar."

vadiar: to lounge about (não trabalhar), to idle about (não estudar), to skive (perambular), to wander

Rather than spending their lives striving to be able to one day relax, the Brazilians build mechanisms for relaxation into their everyday lives. As a local Brazilian tale illustrates:

There was once a businessman who was sitting by the beach in a small Brazilian village. As he sat, he saw a Brazilian fisherman rowing a small boat towards the shore having caught quite few big fish. The businessman was impressed and asked the fisherman, "How long does it take you to catch so many fish?" The fisherman replied, "Oh, just a short while." "Then why don't you stay longer at sea and catch even more?" The businessman was astonished. This is enough to feed my whole family," the fisherman said. The businessman then asked, "So, what do you do for the rest of the day?" The fisherman replied, "Well, I usually wake up early in the morning, go out to sea and catch a few fish, then go back and play with my kids. In the afternoon, I take a nap with my wife, and evening comes, I join my buddies in the village for a drink -- we play guitar, sing and dance throughout the night."

The businessman offered a suggestion to the fisherman. "I am a PhD in business management. I could help you to become a more successful person. From now on, you should spend more time at sea and try to catch as many fish as possible. When you have saved enough money, you could buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish. Soon you will be able to afford to buy more boats, recruit more fishermen and lead a team of your own. You can set up your own company, your own production plant for canned food and distribution network. By then, you will have moved out of this village and to Sao Paulo, and finally to New York City, where you can set up HQ to manage your other branches."

The fisherman continues, "And after that?" The businessman laughs heartily, "After that, you can live like a king in your own house, and when the time is right, you can go public and float your shares in the Stock Exchange, and you will be rich." The fisherman asks, "And after that?" The businessman says, "After that, you can finally retire, you can move to a house by the fishing village, wake up early in the morning, catch a few fish, then return home to play with kids, have a nice afternoon nap with your wife, and when evening comes, you can join your buddies for a drink, play the guitar, sing and dance throughout the night!" The fisherman was puzzled, "Isn't that what I am doing now?"

Medical research supports what the Brazilians have long known. Studies revealing the hidden and obvious benefits of relaxation are popping up faster than iPhone applications. Relaxation has also been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as produce beneficial effects on the immune system. According to a report in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, relaxation training in medical students during exams was found to increase the amount of helper cells that defend against infectious disease. A report by Health Psychology describes how a month of relaxation training increased the levels of natural killer cells and antibody titers, both indicators of resistance to tumors and viruses.

Rather than to grope about for a quixotic end to technology and progress, this is an appeal for balance, moderation and cultural permission to unplug entirely that we may return to our regular lives healthier and stronger than ever. Even if it is just for a few moments every day or week, lets bring a little Brazil into our lives.

Here are a few easy suggestions for bringing pure relaxation to your life with minimal time commitment:

1. Capture small moments to breath. Close your eyes and observe the natural flow of your breath. After several moments start to elongate your inhalation and exhalation breathing evenly, and listen to the sound of your own breath.

2. Find some yoga in life. Slow down, and work to be fully present with whatever you're doing or whoever you're with.

3. Turn off anything that has a plug and cord. If necessary, pre-warn friends and associates that you will be indisposed ahead of time. Or just "forget" or don't charge your phone and laptop.

4. Find a hammock. Get in it and throw off your shoes. If reading a book, do not resist the siren call of a nap. If available listen to some wind in trees.

5. Lie in a field and take Walt Whitman's lead: "I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass." If possible stare at some clouds.

6. Travel and do not make any reservations. While you are here wander around for a moment without a map, and without a purpose. Get lost, amble about for a while and do not stress about it.

7. Listen to some Brazilian music. We're partial to some Gilberto Gill, Angenor de Oliveira or Caetano Veloso, but there is a wide range of suitable bossa nova, samba and Brazilian-jazz that will transport you south and fill you with Brazilian "alegria."

8. Read some poetry. Try works by storied lounger Keats, who pined away for "evenings steep'd in honied indolence."

Stephen Dahmer, M.D. co-wrote this post with Daniel Cook. Dr. Dahmer will appear in this column as a guest writer on articles with a focus on health and well-being.

Dr. Dahmer is a Board Certified Family Medicine physician whose passion for health and healing has taken him around the globe. His medical experience has included work with the Maori in New Zealand, Umbanda faith healers in Brazil, traditional healers in Palau, war veterans at the San Diego Veterans Hospital, and most recently the Navajo (Dine) in the Four Corners region of the United States. His travels have further reinforced his beliefs that medicine is a method not only for eliminating symptoms but also for achieving increasingly higher states of health for the unique, whole individual.