Soft music and the faint sound of birds chirping permeate the air inside the cozy Healing Elements yoga studio in St. Paul. Candles glow from votives placed near yoga mats where a half-dozen students sit amid blankets and cushions. Instructor Azahar Aguilar’s soothing voice directs them to close their eyes and relax as they lean against large cushions, legs stretched out in front, arms propped up on yoga blocks.

“Breathe in deeply, count to six and hold it there,” she says, pausing briefly. “Good. Now exhale slowly.”

Group nap? Nah. The people in this restorative yoga class aren’t paying for a few extra winks. They’re craving something else: deep relaxation.

The art of seriously chilling out is a wellness trend popping up in Twin Cities yoga studios, meditation centers and even some hospitals. People are using mind-body practices designed to induce a state of relaxation to quiet the mind, relieve pain, treat anxiety and depression, and manage stress. About 19 percent of American adults reported in a 2007 National Health Interview Survey that they had used at least one mind-body therapy in the previous year.

Now, science is backing these practices, showing that time spent in deep relaxation may have lasting health benefits.

Recent research from Harvard Medical School suggests the “relaxation effect” is a powerful protector against a range of health problems — from pain to infertility to hypertension. Those who practiced deep relaxation methods such as yoga and meditation over a long period of time had significantly more disease-fighting genes switched on than those who did not, the Harvard scientists found.

The rise of the relaxation movement, some say, is a direct response to the ever-increasing stresses of modern life.

“We’re overstimulated from our environment,” says Dr. Courtney Baechler, vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis, where deep relaxation methods are routinely prescribed for a host of health issues.

The pressure to keep up in an increasingly fast-paced world, anxiety from our politically divided nation and heightened fears about terrorism and economic pressures have created stress levels that can be toxic, Baechler says.

“For many of us, our bodies manifest that stress whether it’s dizziness or abdominal pains or chest pains,” she says.

Antidote to ‘fight or flight’

The body’s fight-or-flight response acts like your car’s gas pedal. Hitting the accelerator may help you survive — useful in the days when you might have had a tiger chasing you, Baechler says. But today, we’re constantly on the run and hitting the gas too frequently — elevating our heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Over time, this chronic revved-up state can set people up for serious problems such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, Baechler says.

“What we’re finding is that we need other ways to down-regulate that [system] so that our body feels safe again,” she says.

Just as the body has a gas pedal, it also has a brake — the relaxation response. Growing awareness of its importance is driving the deep relaxation movement.

At the Penny George Institute, health professionals often use acupuncture and biofeedback to induce deep relaxation.

“Our whole thinking philosophically with integrative health is that your body is better able to cope when it has some reserve. You’re less likely to get cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure or stroke if your body is able to be more resilient when you’re tapped into that deep relaxation state,” Baechler says.

Deep relaxation also helps your body withstand a health crisis — for example, undergoing painful cancer treatments.

“We do see lots of cancer patients. Chemotherapy is pretty grueling and exhausting on the body. So we do frequently use deep relaxation techniques to help people be able to tolerate chemotherapy,” Baechler says.

Training the mind and body to really wind down takes some practice. Plopping on the couch and watching TV doesn’t cut it, nor does resting in a hammock while scanning Facebook on your phone.

More than vegging out

Deep relaxation involves stepping out of that “everyday monkey mind,” says Lana Abboud, a psychologist and acupuncturist at Penny George Institute. “The mind is a lovely and powerful thing. But there’s that layer of chatter.”

One of her patients, Jack Pierce, uses a combination of acupuncture treatments and meditation to manage stress-related pain.

“When I started working with Lana on pain, in one session, I cut my serious pain meds in half,” says Pierce of Victoria. “I walked out the door and I never had daytime pain again.”

Joyce Marienfeld teaches yoga nidra classes at Drishti Yoga in White Bear Lake.

She describes yoga nidra — which means “yogic sleep” — as a systematic method of inducing complete physical, emotional and mental relaxation.

“Your consciousness is functioning on a deeper level of awareness,” Marienfeld says. “It’s that state between sleep and wakefulness.”

She has worked with clients who were referred to her by their doctors for a range of medical issues, including anxiety.

Evey Krammer-Carlson has post-traumatic stress disorder and practices meditation and yoga to manage it. The White Bear Lake resident takes Marienfeld’s class, where she says she feels safe and grounded. “With PTSD, you just get sucked into the past. When you’re doing something like yoga or a guided meditation, it helps you stay present and it helps you breathe. For me, it’s helpful.”

Amber Welter is another deep relaxation enthusiast. The Minneapolis insurance underwriter relies on her Wednesday night restorative yoga class to manage the stress of her busy life.

“It quiets my mind, releases tension and prevents stress and anxiety,” she says. “It’s like a middle of the week pause to take time for yourself and relax and unwind.”

Spending money to wrap herself in a blanket and lie on cushions at a yoga studio may seem like an expensive way to chill out.

But Welter insists it’s worth it.

“I have a lot of people who say you pay to lay there. But it’s more than that,” she says. “When I’m at home, I start focusing on other things I could be doing. My phone is always next to me or the TV is on.”

Restorative yoga melts away all her stress, she says.

Not that it’s always easy to reach that healing relaxation zone.

“There are definitely days when you know you have something on your mind and you can’t get rid of it,” Welter says. “But I feel overall, after I leave my class, I’m in a way better place than when I came in.”