When you think of meditation, you might picture yourself sitting cross-legged on the floor with your back straight and feet grounded. What you don’t picture is staying in one position until your muscles start to tremble and pins and needles kick in. However, that’s exactly what happens with shaking meditation. The premise is that by setting up natural tremors within the body and learning how to respond to them (rather than feeling stressed), you’ll feel safe, as you can cope with the trembles, and your mind won’t automatically switch to worst-case-scenario mode.
Shaking meditation isn’t the official term, though—the practice is actually known as trauma-releasing exercises (or TRE for short), aka a simple set of seven exercises designed to retrain the brain. “Understanding how primitive protective reflexes work is very powerful,” explains UK-based practitioner Steve Haines. “It teaches you how to relate to intense feelings in a grounded and self-regulated way by releasing tension and waking the body up. In the right context, the feelings generated by shaking can also be a powerful stimulus to come out of old, fixed habits.”
He goes on to use the classic fight-or-flight example: “It’s like running away from a tiger. When we’re stressed, old parts of the brain are gearing up all the systems in the body for danger, so our heart rate goes up, we increase our breathing and the activity in the senses. At the same time, stress causes us to switch off long-term projects such as digestion, libido, growth and repair, reproductive hormones and the immune system. TRE helps us come out of the stress responses and works as a reboot to stop us reverting to those habitual protective patterns.”
The Magic Seven
Just like with any exercises, the aim of the game is to introduce some tiredness into the muscles. In TRE, it’s focused on the leg and hip muscles. Taking up to 15 minutes to get through all seven, you won’t get a sweat on, and there’s nothing dramatic about the movements, so you can erase that image of you wailing and flailing on the floor.
Instead, expect ankle stretches, calf raises, single-leg squats, forward bending and psoas stretches. Even things like sitting against a wall for five minutes to tire your legs out before you lie down and meditate. To be honest, they’re not dissimilar to exercises a physio would dish out to overcome physical ailments, but who knew they could have such an impact on the brain too?
Another is the butterfly position. “Everyone starts shaking when they stand on one leg, and the butterfly position is similar. You lie on the floor with your knees wide and soles of the feet together to stretch the groin and then slowly bring the knees together. The mix of tiredness, stretch and unusual position allows the tremor mechanism to develop,” says Haines. “We also teach people how to turn off the tremors; things like extending the legs or slow out breaths and looking around the room.”
The idea is that if you can turn them off when you’re practicing the sequence you can utilise the same powers when you’re experiencing stress or trauma in real time. By internally letting go, TRE meditators have reported feeling easier, happier, more present in the moment as well as physical boosts such as better sleep, digestion, circulation and breathing.
When and Where Should You Be Shaking?
Unlike mindfulness, TRE is a good shout for those who struggle to switch off when doing nothing (i.e., sitting still), as it’s more of active practice. It’s also been found to help those dealing with trauma, grief and even phobias that cause both a physical and emotional reaction within the body. “Involuntary shaking is a burst of good news from the shaking muscles direct to the central nervous system and the signals generated can create new neural pathways inside the brain,” says Haines.
Ideally, as a beginner, a practice between five and 20 minutes, two to three times a week is a good starting point. Once you’re more accomplished, it’s up to you—once a day or once a week can be enough to feel the benefits, and the pros encourage people to play with their shaking dose. And because there’s no equipment needed, so you can do it anywhere and anytime (although it’s advised you always complete the sequence).
Speaking of the sequence, there are currently around 100 TRE providers in the UK and many offer classes, including Steve who has brought his methods to Triyoga. There’s also a phone app
(Stress Less TRE), and coming soon, there will be a TRE Association where trainers and mentors will share their tips, knowledge and expertise for shaking meditators.