August 2, 2021


Relaxing is letting go

Olivia here. In April 2015, I started a thread on the ST Community Forums with this post:

Relaxation vs ROM

I've been thinking a lot in the past 12 months about muscle tension and flexibility, the idea that a person can be pretty flexible but at the same time very tense: good or bad or indifferent?

I've found that stretching has helped me get more flexible --- even as an adult who now spends way too much time in front of a computer! --- and of course there's the 'learning how to relax/release tension during the stretching' that is necessary to move deeper into a pose.

But, what about being less tense in daily life? I'm not sure there's been much carryover, however, the mobility work seems to be filling that gap in my body. Kit will possibly jump in and argue for lying relaxation as being what I need to do --- I seem to recall him saying that once or twice over the years --- but for whatever reason I don't do it/don't feel drawn to that practise, whereas I do mobility work many times during the day.

Following on from Kit's recent article Why being able to relax is THE most important skill one can learn now, in this article I'd like to share with you my experience of incorporating lying relaxation into my daily life in the past two–three years.

To start, though, a bit about my relevant background. As a child and through my teenage years I was involved in many, varied sporting activities, however gymnastics was the main, year-round one: I trained 4–5 times per week from age 5.5 to 16. Gymnastics is great 😀. I absolutely loved everything about that long experience, and I recommend to parents here with young children to have your kids participate, even just recreationally, for a year or two.

A central feature of gymnastics training and conditioning, from the very beginning of a child's involvement, is practising generating and maintaining muscle tension in order to produce and hold a particular shape (or line) in the body. Thousands of hours of drills are devoted to developing this capacity; this is the foundational work. More, it is necessary to train this 'holding' tension such that it becomes sub-conscious, by which I mean that it doesn't require mental energy to do. This is so that as the gymnast progresses they can develop the skill elements – the tumbling (flips and somersaults, for example) etc. – by having their mental attention on the details of how to perform the skills (most of which are dynamic in nature), rather than on tensing.

30+ years later I realise that the one deficit in my gymnastics training was that there was no practice of techniques that develop the opposite capacity to maintaining muscle tension; that is, the letting go of tension.

Learning how to relax has had no effect on my flexibility – that was already enough for what I needed – but it has had an extraordinarily beneficial effect on being more comfortable in my own body and this has led to being much less anxious and worried about normal every day life. 

Some details of my daily practice:

* I use breath counting, typically 3 x 108 breaths, and I am very aware that it is not until the third round of 108 that my body becomes truly relaxed. I find that counting my breaths brings my attention to my breathing, and amplifies the feelings of breathing as well.

* I place open-palmed hands on a number of places on the front of my torso – always lower abdomen, and also ribs left and right between the navel and nipples – and direct my breathing into where my hands are resting: so, directed breathing. These parts of my torso I have always found difficult to relax at all, let alone completely, hence my focus on them in my lying practice.

Here are some images of a set up I use often, which has me lying on a small, firm bolster. I am comfortable with my lumber spine in extension so I position my hips on the floor and one end of the bolster at the top of the lumbar spine; this expands the abdomen a small amount and allows me to breathe more deeply into the abdomen. As well, the bolster running between my shoulder blades produces a chest-opening effect, and each time I breathe out I can feel my shoulders moulding around the bolster as the chest opens more – this feels supported and marvellous! If I am aware that my shoulders are creeping up towards my ears, I gently contract my lats to pull them down – the contact with the bolster makes this feel completely comfortable. If your lower back is not comfortable in extension, however, you could choose to use the bolster but with the glutes through to the back of the skull lying on it. Alternatively, lie directly on the floor only.

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* I have a focus also on two parts of my face, my eyes in their sockets, and my mouth. I check in frequently, asking myself "are these as relaxed as they can be": if not, or I'm not sure, I gently squeeze them, pause, and on the next breath out try to relax them more.

For me, a daily relaxation practice is a rest, a break, a pause in the noise. Having been a good sleeper all my life and then that going haywire with peri-menopause starting four years ago, a huge benefit of lying relaxation is knowing that if I can't sleep, I practice, and know in myself that I am resting – the 'oh my God I can't sleep' thought, which of course made me more tense and more unable to sleep, is dispelled.

Many of you here are involved in training protocols that also train the body to produce and hold tension. There is nothing inherently 'bad' about that – it's likely you are training this way in pursuit of mastering particular skills, for example. My recommendation is to incorporate lying relaxation into your daily life as a powerful and wonderful counter experience in your body. Lying relaxation is the best technique I have experienced to practice letting go of tension, and it can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, anytime.

In addition to lying relaxation, there are two other techniques that have helped me to become more relaxed. One is RollStretch, ST's fascial softening techniques. The second is long-held, (relatively) gentle stretching exercises that incorporate movements, typically small ones: the long holds strongly effect fascia, and the movements enable infinite exploration of all fibres, as compared to a static position, which will usually focuses on one line being lengthened. I have felt for a long while that the restrictions that remain in my body are fascial, in particular the superficial and slightly deeper fascial layers: the combination of lying relaxation, RollStretch, and long-held + moving sequences has been extremely effective for me to now be able to let go of the tension holding that I had practised in my body over a very long time.

Find a number of videos for RollStretch and long-held sequences in the ST Video Wiki.

Kit has said this many times on workshops but it is worth repeating here: your personality, body language, your interior state, what you think about yourself, what you think others think about you, etc., is exactly how you hold yourself, in all the ways this might be understood, and it changes moment to moment. In other words, you are your tensions. For many of us, these patterns are nothing more than unconscious habits. To make this point with a thought experiment, imagine you are holding a little baby – you gaze into her eyes, and you feel your whole interior state soften and change. Or another thought experiment: you’re feeling mellow, and the phone rings. You answer it, and in the instant of hearing the hated father-in-law’s voice, your body reorganises itself into "hated father-in-law mode”. This, too, is simply a reorganisation of your habitual pattern of tensions.

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  • Thanks for sharing Olivia!

    I love ST and have a regular practice, I notice I gained more connection with my body after stretching. Same as you said, I am pretty flexible but I can also feel so much tension in my mind and body from time to time.

    My new approach (these 2 years) in my practice is to feel what I am feeling and what my body is guiding me at the moment – to decide what to practice today – can be ST, Rollstretch, lying relaxation (added recently), mobility work or combination of them. Lying relaxation definitely helps me feel more what’s happening inside, which can be very small and subtle.

    I started doing 2 – 3 times lying relaxation a week, will observe and see how it goes 🙂

    • Dearest Czon! A wonderful comment. In my view, the most important thing that you write is how you are focussed on the feeling aspects of your practices – this is fundamental, and something missed by many. I have the same approach to my personal training – move around each morning and feel what my body needs. Love O

  • Thank you Olivia for your article on breathing and relaxation. I have always thought along the same lines as what you mention in your article however that doesn’t mean I spend the time practicing it. I really must make the effort. I know I have the time but I need to use it more productively. It takes discipline to relax. Crazy but true.
    thank you again

    • Hi Jenny. You are welcome, and thanks for writing. Yes, all the talking, reading, and thinking about relaxing doesn’t produce much relaxation!!! Cheers, Olivia

  • I love this! It really struck a cord with me as I have been rediscovering my body (and mind) which after 10 compression fractures and being bedridden for over 9 months was a tight mess. If you can’t loosen your mind, you can’t lose your body…… whether we believe it or not, the mind and body are connected!

    • Hi S. Thanks for writing. Sounds like you have been through a rough time; best wishes for a full recovery very soon. Cheers, Olivia

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