by Jessica Graham
I have a long history of not being relaxed. I was one of those little kids with knots in her shoulders and chewed down nails. In my teens my only real relaxation involved copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. When I was in my early 20’s I started getting gray hair and waking up with little bits of teeth in my mouth from all the grinding. I wasn’t what you would call laid back. I didn’t hang on loosely.
A big part of my spiritual and emotional journey has been about learning to let go. Literally. Letting go of the tension in my forehead, jaw, neck, shoulders, back, stomach, vagina, thighs, hands…you get the point. I’ve been learning to relax my whole body. This hasn’t been a cakewalk by any means and I still have a ways to go. There is a retraining that is occurring on a very deep level and it requires lots of practice and patience. My meditation practice facilitates this retraining, as well as promoting equanimity though the slow process of learning to take it easy. Here are a few things that have been helpful for me along the way:
Remember That Relaxing Is A Brave Thing To Do
I start my weekly meditation group by leading a relaxation exercise. I have everyone scan through the body, inviting each section to relax. Usually at the beginning of this I remind everyone how brave it is to relax. For many of us we are tense for good reasons. We start out as mushy little babies, as relaxed as can be – and then life happens. Maybe you had an abusive parent or sibling. Each kick, punch, or cruel word gave your body a reason to tighten up. Maybe you have been in some car accidents that caused your muscles to brace against the impact. Whatever the reason at some time your body tightened up in an effort to protect you, but then it became a habitual habit. When you start to learn to relax you may find that some of these original traumas resurface. You may be sitting in meditation relaxing your jaw when BAM you are hit with a huge wave of fear or sadness. Working through the reasons you are tense with meditation, writing, therapy, and bodywork can be really helpful in the journey to relaxed shoulders. Remind yourself that relaxing is brave and that means you are brave.
Take Ten Deep Breaths
When I was 12 my Dad went to rehab for alcoholism and pill addiction. When he got out and was briefly on the wagon, he was more tense than usual. I remember he was constantly getting frustrated with my sisters and I. When he started to boil over he would do what he learned in rehab – take 10 deep breaths counting them out loud as he went. It seemed to work, as he would calm down and become a little friendlier. Now years later, I use that technique as a mini meditation during particularly stressful days. It’s like a reset that gets you in your body and breathing. Often times when we start to tighten up our breath gets very shallow which doesn’t help at all. Try it now! Even if you don’t feel especially tense you might be surprised by how much more the body can relax.
Get To Know Your Psoas Muscle
For years got terrible, incapacitating, “take-your-breath-away-because-it-hurts-so-bad” backaches. Really painful. Just remembering it makes me shudder. They continued as I began practicing meditation, but eventually my practice gave me some insight into what was causing this painful experience. It was my psoas muscle (a long fusiform muscle located on the side of the lumbar region of the vertebral column and brim of the lesser pelvis) reacting to stress. Body workers and yogis consider the psoas to be the “fight or flight muscle,” and in my experience that seems right on. I looked back over the last several backaches and they all corresponded with a situation that was emotionally overwhelming. The fight or flight (or freeze) reaction I had to the circumstance triggered my psoas to tighten up, which lead to extreme pain.
By the time I figured this out (with the help of a body worker and therapist) I had also become a more skilled meditation practitioner. Through mindfulness of thoughts and emotions I became much better at noticing when I was moving towards a fight/flight/freeze moment. The next time it happened I was ready. Using a version of Focus on Positive (a technique of mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young) I told myself that even though I felt overwhelmed I didn’t have to tighten up. Then I took a few minutes to be still and intentionally relax my body, focusing on the psoas areas. I didn’t get the backache and I haven’t had it since. Yoga, bodywork, and restful meditation techniques have helped my psoas to stay relaxed and pain-free.
Learn How To Meditate On Relaxation
In my first few years of meditation I just wanted to go balls out into the most challenging material. I did process through a lot of layers of my “stuff,” but I wasn’t all that relaxed. As my practice has matured I’ve come to appreciate relaxation techniques as much (if not more) as the hardcore stuff.
A simple technique is to move through your body and intentionally relax each area, from your head to your toes. Once you have done this, find the most relaxed (or least tense) part of your body and focus on it. Really feel it. Each time your mind wanders or you are pulled away to an uncomfortable sensation, bring your attention back to that relaxed spot.
As you are learning to meditate on relaxation, it’s important to remember that you may not be totally relaxed, and that’s okay. Instead of beating yourself up or quitting, just relax around the tension in your body. Let go of resisting and you will probably find that you loosen up quite a bit. Often when we start to focus on relaxation we can become hyper-aware of everything that isn’t relaxed. This is really normal and not a reason to give up. Just keep coming back to the parts that are relaxed, no matter how small they are.
It may be helpful to find some extra support with this. Try playing nature sounds in the background, or practicing right after a hot bath. I also find that guided relaxation meditations are very helpful. Try one from Michael Taft here.
Create A Relaxing Environment
When I’m having trouble maintaining a relaxed body and mind I support myself by creating a relaxing home, work, and car environment. At home, simple things like keeping my desk and bedroom tidy, having fresh flowers in the living room, limiting violent movies, and listening to classical music go a long way to aid in relaxing. Living in Los Angeles I spend a lot of time in the car, which for a lot of people is a place of great stress. I like to make my car time into an opportunity to relax instead. Sometimes that means turning off the radio, tossing the phone and headset in the backseat, and bringing an attitude of relaxation to the drive. At work, rather than taking a five-minute break to watch a cat video, take that time for a mini relaxation meditation. I like to infuse my day with short meditations. I find that I’m more productive and way more relaxed at the end of the day when I do this.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Relaxation has been shown to have massive health benefits, everything from lowering your stroke risk to protecting you from the common cold. It also feels good to be relaxed and a relaxed person is nice to be around. Like I said at the beginning, learning to relax, especially if your tension comes from old traumas, can take some time. Be patient and practice relaxation every day. Start your day by relaxing your whole body while you are still in bed. End your day the same way, intentionally relaxing the body before falling asleep. Throughout the day, each time you find your jaw locked or your hands clenched, let go and relax. Don’t scold yourself for being tense (“If I was really a spiritual person I wouldn’t be so stressed”) and don’t ignore it either. Make a commitment to yourself to practice relaxation every day. Little by little your body will learn that it’s safe to relax.
My ability to relax has increased over the years. It’s become more and more a way of life. The tension that is still present is sometimes frustrating, but I try to greet it with patience and even curiosity. Relaxing allows me to be more open to what is actually happening, even when what is happening isn’t very relaxing. Relaxing helps me to have more acceptance, and acceptance has a way of melting my problems away.