As the Wheel of the Year turns to winter, it is natural for us to turn inward as well, using the increasing darkness to help us concentrate on internal matters and to work with trance states and meditative journeys. Progressive muscle relaxation is a simple but useful technique for quieting the body so that the spirit can engage in these experiences without being distracted by external influences. It can also be used as part of a larger meditative practice to help us recognize where we tend to experience stress physically and learn to release that tension.
Describing stress as a feeling of pressure or tension isn’t just a figure of speech; most of us have particular muscles that we tend to tense up unconsciously when we’re worried about something. Some people “store” stress like this in their neck or back; others in the legs or abdomen. After too long, a muscle kept tense will feel achy and stiff. That feeling is annoying in and of itself, and can be tremendously distracting while you’re trying to engage in inner work.
It would be easy to say that if we just removed stress from our lives, we wouldn’t get tense, stiff, and sore muscles as a result! Since totally eliminating the cares and concerns of a normal life isn’t likely to happen anytime soon for most of us, progressive muscle relaxation is a way to work backwards from the effects to the cause. By relaxing, calming, and stilling the body, we make it possible to do the same in the mind and spirit.
Being able to relax the body to a comfortable, neutral state is also essential for doing trance work or guided meditations that involve a lot of detailed visualization or action. In these experiences, you want to be able to “leave your body behind,” and it’s much more difficult to do that when achy muscles are clamoring for your attention and intruding on your awareness.
To do progressive muscle relaxation, you first tense and then relax each group of muscles in your body. You’re using pairs or groups of muscles because you want to keep your body mostly still while you’re doing this. Where there’s a pair of muscles that have opposite functions, like your biceps and triceps in your upper arm, or your quads and hamstrings in your thigh, you tense both of them at the same time so that your limb doesn’t actually move at all. For areas like your feet and hands, you’ll be using whole groups of muscles.
Starting at your feet, first try to point your toes or to curl them inward, and while you take a slow breath in tense all the muscles there at once, then relax as you exhale. Now imagine that you’re pressing hard on a pedal with the ball of your foot, and tense and relax in sync with your breath. As you relax, that part of your body may feel heavy or warm; go with that feeling and let yourself sink into it, bit by bit.
It can actually be hard for us to identify tension or to know what really loosening up particular muscles feels like. By tensing the muscles first, we kick-start the relaxation process: if it can’t get any tenser, there’s nowhere else to go. Once that starts, we can go with the flow and let it keep going to relax out the initial tension we were storing there. As you become more familiar with what it feels like to be truly relaxed in certain parts of your body, you’ll be better able to identify tension and start the process of relaxing.
Do not hold your breath while tensing your muscles! That will raise your blood pressure and actually create more stress in your body; let the timing of your breathing determine how long you are tight, and then feel the strain and tension flowing out as you exhale.
As you progress from your feet up your legs and through your core, you will know when you get to the muscles where you tend to store stress because there will be less difference between the starting feeling of the muscle and the really tensed state – it will feel already tight when you get to it. As you let it relax, the looser state will feel even better than where you started out.
Keep going up through your core, to your arms and hands. Tense your hands in two different ways, like you did your feet – once in a fist, and once with your fingers spread out as wide as you can move them, pressing your palm down. Then work through your shoulders, neck, and face. Yes, even your facial muscles can feel tense and benefit from some relaxation!
When you finish, go back to your feet and slowly check on each group of muscles. If any of them have tensed up again, squeeze and relax them, slowly, until your whole body feels open and calm. If you want to do a trance exercise, do this while laying or sitting down, and as your muscles feel warm and heavy, imagine that they are sinking down into closer contact with the floor or chair. When you’re ready, you can let your attention drift up and away, gently moving out of your body to begiin your trance.
Calm the body and the mind will follow; still the body so the mind can roam.