How good are you at relaxing?

This is a question that I have been thinking about a lot lately. When I teach yoga, I constantly remind my students to relax their forehead, jaw, shoulders, and yet I see a lot of facial and body contraction when people are focused on making an effort. It is so habitual, people don’t realize they are doing it, and yet I hear all the time from students and friends that their necks are tight from all the unconscious jaw-clenching, or that they wake up with slight headaches because they grind their teeth in tension in their sleep. I notice myself, too, scrunching my forehead or clenching my jaw when I’m deep in thought or stressed, and though I don’t feel tense in those moments, if I pause and notice, there is a whole lot of tension I am holding.

It seems to me, from my own experience and from observing others, that a lot of us, habitually, carry a certain level of tension just about all the time. Even when we think we are relaxed, even when we are sleeping, we may be holding tension in different parts of our beings. The tension is both physical and, importantly, mental. Then add any significant life challenge to this, like an illness, and of course all that tension is just multiplied.

Clearly this tension does not serve us. Tensing your facial muscles doesn’t make you better at balancing on one foot. Mental tension and anxiety do not make us better at coping with our challenges. It seems to me that focusing consciously on letting go of tension that does not serve us will help us live our lives more sustainably. We need to train ourselves to relax.

How do we get better at relaxing? How do we get better at it even in the midst of incredible challenges? The answer, as with just about anything, is “one moment at a time.” You are not going to become relaxed overnight, and it will probably be a lifelong practice, but awareness is the first step, and when you make a change in one moment, you will create a shift, you will have started your training.

Clearly, yoga and meditation is once place to train to relax systematically. Every time we practice an asana (posture) sequence, or sit or lie down in meditation even for a few moments, we practice relaxation in general. Take your warrior pose: once you are there, focus on the breath. Now remember to relax your face. Can you soften enough that even though many of your muscles are working, you can find a way to rest within the pose?

The warrior pose here is of course a metaphor for life. On our yoga mat, we learn to rest in the middle of making an effort. Off the mat, we apply that same principle, learning to rest and relax in the middle of any challenge, even illness. Over time, we get better at remembering to relax, even in our toughest or busiest moments.

But even if you do not practice yoga, as two concrete tools, here are simple practices designed to promote both physical and mental relaxation. You can do these anywhere, anytime, and they are very short, although you can always get deeper into them by repeating them several times. The key is to practice repeatedly, so that you get into the habit of reminding yourself to let go of tension when you need it most.

1. Face Yoga. Squeeze your face really tightly toward your nose. Squeeze your eyes shut, pout your lips, tense every muscle. Hold the contraction for a couple of breaths, and do keep breathing. Then, widen your face: stretch all the muscles away from the center, with wide eyes, wide open mouth, cheeks stretching to the edges of your face. Hold that one for a breath or two. Then, observe a few cycles of your breath as you feel your face relax throughout. (I like to do this one while stopped at a traffic light in my car.)

2. Whole Body Relaxation. Take a deep inhale, and hold your breath. While holding your breath, gently contract every muscle in your body. Contract your face, shoulders, arms, fists, belly, legs, feet and toes. Pay attention to contracting every muscle evenly. Then when you are ready to let go of the breath, evenly let go of the contraction, and let all the muscles soften at the same time. Then just watch your breath for a while. (Try doing this one in bed before going to sleep.)

I am noticing a big difference from just paying more attention to relaxing, and adding these small practices throughout my day. I hope that the heightened awareness will help you relax better too, moment by moment.

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