Using Progressive Muscle Relaxation to Understand Muscle Contraction and Isolation (and to just plain relax, dagnabbit!!)

Asana practice grants us access to a deep awareness of our bodies and the subtleties in our movement. There are infinite levels and layers of noticing and exploring, each as valuable as the next. Simply moving with the breath is a great way to introduce yourself to your body. Deepening the meditative aspect of your practice, whether through an isolated meditation practice or increased mindfulness throughout asana practice provides a different, sometimes more nuanced understanding of the physical self. Often these aha moments surprise us and this is wonderful, exciting, and fulfilling, but sometimes experimenting with specific exercises can facilitate this learning and integration of our new self-knowledge into future practices.

As a teacher, I often observe students struggling to comprehend and implement muscular cues. For me, teacher training was a structured context to learn about how our anatomy and yoga poses synergize to create certain effects, build strength, and increase flexibility. For many others, when you’re in a yoga class of 15+ people grappling with didactic material can feel overwhelming; you may be anticipating the next cue and feel rushed to explore and/or you may find it unfamiliar to translate cues to sensation and movement.

One area I’ve noticed this issue coming up is activating and relaxing muscle groups. In most poses, actively squeezing muscles opposite those you seek to stretch changes the experience, minimizes opportunities for injury, and increases the overall benefit of the movement. If you’ve ever taken an Anusara-style class, for instance, you may have heard the teacher invite you to squeeze the muscles to the bone, a cue intended to recruit the muscles and bones at play to support one another (this is called Muscular Energy, and it is complimented by the practice of Organic Energy; you can read more here if you like).

I’ve found that practicing progressive muscle relaxation – whether before practice or just as a mindfulness tool in your mindfulness toolbox – is a great technique for becoming more attuned to what muscle contraction and muscle isolation feels like.

As a disclaimer, while this exercise can help us become more acquainted with these subtle movements and help us teach ourselves through exploration, in practice the hug may be softer (this doesn’t mean less powerful). Additionally, poses often require slightly more intentionality, such as considering the direction the muscles should be moving; teachers may describe this as isometrically hugging, squeezing, or moving the muscles. Finally, this exercise is simply one tool in our yogi toolbox and only focused on one aspect of our practice. In reality, at any given moment, we should be integrating many, many things at once, something that we can build up throughout the years that we practice. I personally believe there is really no rush, so long as you are feeling safe and are injury free.

Below I’ve transcribed a progressive muscle relaxation you can read over, as well as a relaxation I think is helpful to let go of any unnecessary tension before the muscle relaxation. I’m also sharing with you a couple audio recordings that I’ve enjoyed. At the end of this piece, I’m also including examples of asanas you might explore after you’ve completed the exercise.

Pre-laxation (is this a word?)

Make sure you’re in a comfortable position preferably lying down if this is available to your body; you can add a pillow, bolster, or two blocks under your knees if your low back needs a little extra support; it is also possible to do this exercise seated with your feet planted firmly on the ground. Inhale through your nose and exhale audibly (like a big sigh) through your mouth three times.

Start with a body scan, releasing any tension you notice as you move from your head to your toes. Allow yourself to move through your body as slowly as you can, mindfully and without judgement or reaction simply gathering feedback from your body.

Relax your head, your forehead, ears, cheeks, nose, jaw, and tongue. Relax your neck and shoulders, right shoulder and left shoulder. Relax your right arm, elbow, forearm and wrist. Relax your right hand and each one of your fingers.  Relax your left arm, elbow, forearm and wrist. Relax your left hand and each one of your fingers. Now move your attention back to your torso. Relax your chest, relax your belly. Relax the sides of your rib cage. Relax your back, from the top of your spine, through the middle of your spine, all the way down to your tailbone. Relax your hips and glutes. Relax the pelvic floor. Relax your right leg, right knee, calf, and ankle. Relax your right foot, relax the top of the foot and the sole of the foot. Relax each toe. Relax your left leg, left knee, calf, and ankle. Relax your left foot, relax the top of the foot and the sole of the foot. Relax each toe.

Hold space for yourself for a few moments here, seeing if you can completely relax your entire body at once. Inhale. Exhale. You are breathing. Notice how the breath feels moving in and out of the lungs and through the rest of your body. Imagine you are breathing with your entire body. Allow yourself to exhale audibly through the mouth a few times.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

On your next inhale squeeze only your feet, curling your toes under on each foot and imagine you’re trying to reach your toes across the sole of your foot to your heel. Hold for a few seconds and exhale as you release the hold. Now move up into the calves. Inhale and squeeze only the calf muscles as tight as you can. Hold for a few seconds and then release. Next move up the legs, squeeze the muscles in your upper leg — see if you can squeeze both the quadriceps (The muscles on the front of your leg) and your hamstrings (the muscles on the back); do your best to relax the calves and glutes. Hold and then release. Now squeeze the glutes on your next inhale; see if you can recruit the muscles on the sides of your hips to contract as well. Hold and release on the exhale. Inhale and squeeze the muscles in the core of your body in (belly muscles, back muscles). Exhale and release. Inhale and contract all the muscles in your arms and shoulders, squeezing your shoulders up near the ears and hugging your arms in towards the midline. Hold and release. Next, isolate the hands, squeezing them into strong fists. Hold for a few seconds, then exhale and let go. Finally, focus on your face. Squeeze as much as you can in towards the center of your face holding in the breath. Release as you exhale. Finally, explore squeezing every muscle in your body on an inhale. Hold for a few seconds and release with a big, audible exhale. Inhale and exhale here for a moment.

Allow your body to absorb the contradictory experience of squeezing and releasing your muscles, and notice what it was like to isolate specific muscles while relaxing others. Reflect on the amount of control you have over your body and the muscles in side.

Core

As a mostly sedentary society, many of us have little awareness of our core and therefore underutilize it both on and off the mat. However, our core is essential to every yoga pose and critical in many of the more advanced postures we’d like to explore (such as floating up to headstand). A few ways I’d suggest playing with contracting your core muscles include:

  • Lay on your back with your feet planted on the mat. Keep your knees bent at a right angle and bring the knees and legs together as best you can. Hug the legs toward one another as you lift the feet off the floor, bringing your shins and calves parallel to the floor. Inhale and on your exhale contract your abdominal muscles. Inhale as you slowly lower the feet toward the floor; keep contracting your core. You may find that the low back begins to peel off of the mat, add direction to the contraction by pulling the very low ab muscles up, hug the belly button in, and tuck the tailbone so you can keep the low back on the ground. Play with this as a little core work, inhaling legs down, exhaling up, hugging in the whole time. You may even feel steady enough to extend the legs long, but be aware this will make the exercise more challenging!

 

  • Come onto your knees, keeping them two fists-widths apart. Tuck the toes under. You’re preparing for camel pose here, but slowly moving into the pose. Standing on your knees, inhale and allow the sternum to lift; hug your shoulder blades behind you. Notice you may be arching your back. Exhale and hug the core, pull the low abs up, and tuck the tailbone. Notice that you can both expand through the chest and keep the back neutralized. Stay here for a few moments, inhaling and exhaling, keep expanding the chest and hugging the core. It’s truly from our heart center that safe backbends begin. When you’re ready, bring hands or fists onto the low back to encourage safety in the low back. Hug your core as you lean back. Often in backbends we focus on the back body; see if utilizing your front body helps you to feel more secure here and/or able to stay for longer. When you’re ready to come up, inhale and squeeze the core. Let the core pull you up, rather than your low back or glutes.

Forward Fold

Forward folds largely focus on stretching the back body, including the hamstrings (back of the upper legs). For instance, contracting the quadriceps (opposite the hamstrings, on the front of the upper leg) in uttanasana can help the hamstrings lengthen as well as provide the strength needed to ensure the body is moving forward over the toes, rather than pushing the hips back past the heels.

Standing Poses – Renditions of Warrior

When invited to move into a standing pose such as Warrior I, Warrior II, or Crescent lunge, it’s not uncommon to simply put your feet where you’re instructed to do so and simply hang out. I also think there’s something to the fact that because many of us (in the west) begin yoga because we hear about its physical benefits, it’s likely that we’ve explored more common exercise modalities, such as cardio, calisthenics, and strength training. If you’ve ever done squats (and regretted it the next day 😛 ) you’ll recall that you normally stand, feet perhaps a little wider than the hips, and move your seat down and back. While I enjoy a good workout here and there, moving through a series of squats, while we may have super strong legs, does not afford the same level of mindfulness when it comes to engaging our leg muscles (and the core!). Regardless, if we’ve never had the opportunity to mindfully explore our bodies, implementing what we’re learning through these exercises might make our next Warrior experiences feel completely different. Try this:

  • Come into a standing pose with the feet apart of your choice (Warrior or Crescent). First, press down through the heel. At the same time, imagine you are pulling energy upward through the feet and encourage yourself to manifest this energy up through the shins. Now isometrically draw the heels toward each other (imagine you’re going to wrinkle the mat up between the feet, but don’t actually move them!). See how this helps you pull the thigh muscles toward the bones to make your stance more stable and powerful. Perhaps you can even lunge a little deeper (keep the front knee over the heel or behind it if necessary). I love staying here and noticing that all the work I’m putting into the lower body allows my upper body more freedom to move, breathe, and explore where to go from there.

Happy practicing!

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A Home Practice of Your Very Own is Possible

[4 minute read]

As a yoga teacher, two of the most common explanations I hear for not exploring the practice are:  “I can’t even touch my toes” and “I don’t want to/can’t afford to/don’t feel comfortable taking classes as studios.” I empathize with these very real challenges, two that are exacerbated by selective images and narratives that advertise only the most idyllic yoga bodies. Yoga’s increasing popularity is at once intentionally welcoming and impactfully intimidating. For those who have deep personal practices, the concept that yoga should fit your ever-changing body – and not the opposite way around – has become a well-kept secret. I mean, why post the photo of yourself falling on your face when you can share the half-second moment when you nailed the handstand? Similarly, why take risks to grow your practice – or even just start one – in a space filled with sweaty strangers?

While achieving confidence and comfort in a group space is possible and should be accessible, for me, cultivating a home practice was essential to extricating myself from expectations of my body and shifting my focus to responding to my body as it is on any given day. Practicing on my own has been hands down one of the greatest gifts I have ever given myself. It wasn’t – and still often isn’t –  easy. I was expected to do it as part of my yoga teacher training, but it took a massive amount of time and effort to embed it into my life and habits, and, most importantly, trust my ability to guide myself. Today it is absolutely crucial to my wellbeing – physically, emotionally, professionally.

You don’t need much to start a home practice, save a mat and ample space, and even these are debatably unnecessary. Check out the suggestions below, based on my own experience as well as what I have heard from other yoga practitioners – beginner to expert!

Designate a space. Keep a mat at home. Buy yourself a couple props or makeshift them with books, belts, and large, firm pillows. You may not have an entire room or every block, bolster, strap and wheel you think you need, but by picking a spot you’ll return to you’ll decrease distractions like deciding where to practice or moving things out of your way that you notice once you’re upside down, and this space will start to feel like a home base. Eventually.

Roll your mat out. Get on it. Do some sun salutations, some basic stretches you saw on a YouTube video once, or a silly dance. It might be an hour or it may only be five minutes. Just because you can’t dedicate the time you would if you were going to a class, just because you’re not sequencing through 20 poses or culminating in a peak pose doesn’t mean it’s not a valid practice. Your movement, in and of itself, is valid and valuable. You might consider trying different times of day. Maybe you like the idea of setting your day up for success. Maybe you’re less stiff after work.  

Breathe. This is crucial. Start with deep breaths and allow that to carry you through the practice. If you do nothing else but breathe, and maybe a child’s pose, that’s sufficient. That’s yoga. Let yourself off the hook from your expectations, enjoy the sensation of your breath moving through your body, and explore spots of tension and release, give yourself time to figure out what it all means for how you’ll carry yourself through once you step off of the mat.

Be creative. Be brave. Investigate asanas. Check out books from the library, utilize Google, identify trusted resources and take your time exploring them. There are many online resources – both paid and unpaid. If you go to a yoga class every once and awhile (or every week, or every day) ask your yoga teacher to clarify any questions you have before or after class, or ask a friend to play around with you.

Go at your own pace. Some days you might decide to focus on a specific pose or body part, other days you may work with an intention such as being present, breathing, or feeling free. One of the best parts about a home practice is you have the time to play around with poses you might not normally have time or space for in class, and you can also fall all over your living room floor without embarrassment (though embarrassment need not be a feeling you experience during a group class).

Consider tracking your practice. Get on the bullet journal bandwagon, start a habit tracker, write down what you’re focusing on for the day or the week, or journal what comes up for you at the end of each session.

Keep going. You will be on a roll, and then you’ll fall off. You won’t practice for a few weeks. Or you’ll practice something and be discouraged. Your home practice will not be linear and don’t for one moment trick yourself into thinking it so! The important thing is to come back. Yoga teachers can talk all they want about being present and the importance of the journey over the destination, but it’s your own personal exploration of this narrative that is critical to your home practice. Let yourself be surprised and remind yourself that you once started something you didn’t think you could do, and you sure as hell can start all over again.

Follow this link to the Self-Care Syllabus for resources and please feel free to comment below with your own suggestions!!