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.