Relaxation – its many hues


Body Project Blog, Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

After writing, “Releasing Tension is like Swatting Flies, There are Always More,” my friend DW and I had this conversation:

DW: The analogy that comes to my mind is flossing. There is always more gunk to clean out from between your teeth. What I’m taking from you, is that like flossing, for relaxation, there are tools and techniques that will be more productive. Am I getting that right?

ES: Sort of. In general, flossing, even bad flossing is vastly better than no flossing. In contrast, trying to relax doesn’t work. It’s not the right solution. Or, at least, it doesn’t work if your goal is to have relaxation in action, which includes improved coordination, breathing and a calm mind. What I see when most people “relax” is a collapse, and then when alertness is required, an immediate return to tension. Or, they get tense in the effort to relax, because learning to let go is a skill.

Perhaps this is a call to define relaxation from the Alexander Technique perspective. I aim for coordinated movement that feels “relaxed” because the body is supported and the breath is free. Muscle tension (the gunk, the flies) doesn’t come back, if you learn to change the way you move.

DW: “Trying to relax doesn’t work.” WHOA. Mind blowing idea. This is really important information for me as for most of my life people have been telling me things like, “Learn to relax,” or “Why can’t you relax?” or, “Relax your jaw” or “Try to release all that tension off yours shoulders”, etc. etc.

ES: Exactly! And how has trying to relax worked for you?

The closest we get to relaxing muscle in the Alexander Technique is the idea of not doing something. If your jaw is tense you could do a little less of the action that is causing the tension, (e.g. don’t clench). Not doing something has a slightly different hue than trying to relax. “Doing a little less” is a helpful tool, but it doesn’t work well unless you consider the jaw in relation to the whole body. Can you release your jaw if your neck is jutted forward? Not easily. All the parts counterbalance each other. I’m tempted to make the analogy to spot reduction in weight loss. It doesn’t really work.

Yet, there are many enjoyable and scientifically tested relaxation methods – Biofeedback, Autogenic Training, Progressive Relaxation, etc. Here, you lie down (or rest in a chair) with your eyes closed and your body supported. You may be instructed to imagine heaviness, warmth or a safe place. Breath deepens, blood pressure drops and muscles unravel. Brain waves slow from Beta to Alpha to Theta as you fall into a trance. The stomach rumbles, signifying that the “rest and digest” mode of parasympathetic nervous system activation has begun. Deep relaxation is a like shutting down a stalled computer. You unplug, and when you restart, operations are smooth again.

I’ve used relaxation methods to recover from stressful emotional events, reduce the harm of insomnia, and even minimize muscle pain and fatigue from weight training. But my question as an Alexander Teacher is, “Do these methods improve performance?” Will you learn how to sit at your computer without pain, or play violin without a tense neck, or open your throat when singing? It’s unlikely that relaxation methods will teach you to relax in action, unless you are working with someone like a Sports Psychologist (or a Certified Alexander Teacher – excuse the industry plug), who can help you make that leap.

FM Alexander, who was working at a time when Mesmerism was still popular, took pains to differentiate his work from trance states. But, nothing in the body is totally black and white. Regular relaxation practice can lower stress reactivity – via the brain stem system that regulates arousal levels, known as the Recticular Activitating System. One student of mind, a frequent “deep relaxer” commented enthusiastically that it got her “rev” down and was a necessary part of her self-care routine as a middle school teacher. I’ve seen acting students who were unable to let go using Alexander’s conscious methods perform with fluid ease after Guided Imagery.

In the Alexander Technique, we have our own version of a relaxation practice. It’s called Semi-Supine, or The Lie Down. Sometimes we borrow the language from Mabel Todd’s motor imagery work (Ideokenisis) and call our practice Constructive Rest. As a community, we argue that our method is vastly different from relaxation – you practice the Lie Down with open eyes and an alert mind. Our goal is coordination and fresh energy. Relaxation is just a side effect. But I’m not sure that the difference is so clear to the person lying down. If you took measurements, you’d probably find all the markers of relaxation – better vagal tone, lower levels of salivary cortisol, decreased muscle activation. On the other hand, the psychological experience is different – if you focus on energy and alertness in an Alexander Technique Lie Down, you won’t go into a trance. But how many of our teachers and students are disciplined enough to prevent the trance? I confess, sometimes I let my students close their eyes and slip down the rabbit hole of relaxation. Sometimes it feels most appropriate for their well being to let go of everything, including the conscious mind. I recognize that when I allow this, I am not practicing the Alexander Technique as conceived by FM.

Want to try a relaxation method? Here are some resources:

Or try “Constructive Rest” with your local Alexander Technique Teacher, where you will also learn how to “relax” in activity.





“Releasing tensions is like swatting flies, there are always more.” – Barbara Conable


Body Project Blog – Where thought is the Active Ingredient – by Elyse Shafarman

What do you do when you notice that you have tense shoulders? “I try to relax,” would be a respectable answer. Too bad that works so poorly. First, relaxation is a skilled activity. Trying to relax for all but the practiced yogi, usually invokes more tension. Second, muscles can’t let go until the body is supported. This applies to both mechanical and emotional situations.

If you lean very far backwards, you won’t be able to let go of the muscles in the front of your body until you choose to fall backwards. Try it. With skill, you might be able to release accessory muscles in the jaw and face that are working overtime. You might be able to lean riskily off center – imagine a dance or acrobatic move – with a certain degree of grace, but this will require all kinds of skilled muscle engagements. What if leaning backwards (or forwards) is your daily postural habit? You might try every strategy in the book to let go of the muscles that are secretly preventing falling, but nothing will work until you bring your bones back into mechanical balance. Then you might have the surprising sensation of effortless movement that so many Alexander students experience.

FM Alexander called this balance “mechanical advantage”. Mechanical advantage is not a position. It’s better understood as a series of counterbalances between all the parts of the body. The head goes a little forward and up, as the neck and spine go a little back and up, and so on, as our bits balance in perpetual motion around our vertical axis.

How do you get into mechanical advantage, especially if you notice you are crunching forward at your desk?

First, stop what you are doing and make observations. Where is your head in relationship to your shoulders, back, neck, pelvis, the ceiling and the floor? Where would you like it to be? Make a gesture with your hand showing where you’d like your different parts to go. Was it in an up-and-out sort of gesture? Before moving out of the crunch, use the Alexander Technique Directions: Let your neck be free, direct your head forward and up. Direct your back to lengthen and widen. Direct your shoulders apart and your knees away.

If those Directions didn’t make sense, you would not be alone. Unfortunately, the Directions don’t specify the oppositions necessary to come into mechanical balance. It may be a good idea to change the wording of Alexander’s canonical Directions, but that’s a subject for a different essay. For here, it’s important to say that most people need an Alexander Technique teacher’s touch to give meaning to the Directions. Trickily, Directional movement comes from non-doing versus doing. This reverse perspective takes practice and objective feedback, and is usually learned intuitively in response to the gentle guidance of an Alexander teacher’s hands.

But what if your tension is not just a problem of mechanical balance? What if you hold because you are frustrated or anxious? It might be futile to physically balance your body without addressing the causal conditions. Or, it might work! There is a bi-directional link between emotions and body state. Sometimes students experience a lightening of mood after lessons even though emotions were never discussed. Still, if our goal is a higher level of conscious choice and control, working only through the body is not enough.

Many of my M.F.A. acting students ask, “How do I play anger without tensing my throat?” Is the emotion of anger physiologically hard wired to a tight throat in the way that happiness, upturned lips and sparkling eyes are linked? Or is the tight throat a strategy to hold back expressing anger? I think the latter. What’s it like to feel anger without blocking the feelings with muscle tension? Does the anger pass more freely, or as we fear, does it escalate into behaviors that we later regret? Learning to feel freely, but still make choices about behavior can broaden your inner emotional palette and guide you into emotionally intelligent behavior. For actors, this gives rise to richer performances that don’t break the physical body.

Here’s a short activity to help you correlate the connection between muscle tension and emotion.

If your shoulders (or jaw and neck, etc.) are always tight, observe which situations trigger even more tension. Then, spend one minute tracking sensations throughout your whole body. What other parts are working overtime? How’s your breath and heart rate? Then spend a minute tracking emotions. Can you simply name the emotion you feel, (e.g. “I’m anxious and frustrated…”) without going into a story about why you feel that emotion? Or, is the emotion muffled by physical tension? Spend some time sorting yourself out. Finally, spend a minute listening to the stories that go along with the emotions. Don’t change the thoughts, but notice them. Are they always true? Then take a minute to look around, (e.g. “I’m gazing at the wall in front of me, the light from the window reflects against the yellow wall in a dappled pattern, I notice a dust bunny caught in the corner…”) Does seeing with detail and alertness take you out of routine thoughts, feelings and reactions?

Usually this mindfulness activity will bring muscle and mind into harmony and cause spontaneous release. But it may not. At that point, a little rational thinking can go a long way. You might ask yourself, “Will clenching my shoulders really speed up my commute time? Who is benefiting from my tense jaw? But don’t try to relax the jaw muscles. Remember, it doesn’t usually work. Do think about doing less of what you are doing. Here, giving Alexander Directions to restore mechanical balance comes into good use. And, maybe next time you’ll choose public transportation and read a book.

Don’t waste time trying to relax tight muscles. Consider the conditions that cause tension. Make changes at the source.