“Like a villain in a fairy tale, stress can wreak widespread havoc if it gets you under its spell." Cameron Diaz
Tension gets a bad rap, even though it underpins so much of what makes our lives vibrant and meaningful. Muscular tension creates the stored energy we need to run fast, jump high and scamper up trees. And excitement, attraction, anticipation and passion are all highly pleasurable forms of emotional tension.
Tension is energy. It generates action. Life would not be worth living without it. It’s when it gets stuck, that bad things start to happen. Tight muscles that we haven’t stretched out after our workouts. And the build up of emotional tension we experience when we don’t allow anger, resentment or anxiety to pass through us. Our aim should be to oscillate between periods of high and low tension—to maintain a healthy flow of energy and vitality.
"The way physiology works is that it adapts to what you do most frequently, not what you do with the best of intentions.” Katy Bowman
Until you step onto your yoga mat, you may not realise how much tension you are holding onto and exactly where it has found a home. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, a loss of interospective acuity—your sense of what is going on inside your body. Secondly, we direct our attention far more towards the outside world—sights, sounds, tastes, smells and things that we can touch—than towards our inner experience. And thirdly, our bodies tighten up gradually, in response to our habitual postural and movement patterns. And it isn’t until we push up against those edges that we realise how much we have calcified.
The most common postural habit we have to contend with, is too much sitting, largely due to our cultural mores around how we spend our work, travel and leisure time. A predominantly sedentary lifestyle leads to a fairly predictable pattern of muscular tension:
Tight hip flexors—the muscles at the front of your hips are habitually shortened, in the seated position.
Tightness in the chest, as your arms come forward in front of your body to type, cook, eat, drive or ride your bike.
A tight neck and upper back, from the head forward position, as you crane to look at screens, phones, and the road ahead.
This leads to a series of muscular imbalances:
Due to a process known as reciprocal inhibition, as the hip flexors tighten, their antagonists (opposite muscles)—the glutes or buttocks—relax, to protect themselves from tearing. Over time, the glutes suffer from gluteal amnesia and "forget" how to fire properly.
When the glutes are weak, the muscles at the base of the spine are forced to pick up the slack, which leads to pain and tightness at the lower back.
In the upper body, bringing your arms forward over-stretches and weakens the muscles that support your shoulder blades, causing pain in the upper back, neck and in between the shoulder blades.
Tightness leads to imbalance, which often leads to pain. And unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Avoidance of pain creates more tension. And the real kicker is that your brain gets really good at sensing pain and mobilising the “stress response”—one aspect of which is increasing muscle tension—and a powerful negative cycle is set in motion.
The stress response
“The body tells the mind what to think.” David Harold Fink
When your brain perceives a threat in your environment, you do not have time to think through the most appropriate response. Your body reacts automatically on your behalf, activating the “stress response”. Your heart beats faster to increase blood flow to your muscles, you take shorter breaths to bring more oxygen into your system, your pupils dilate to sharpen your vision, your hearing becomes more acute, your hands and feet get cold as blood is directed away from your extremities to your vital organs, and muscle tension increases, to prepare you to run if necessary.
Your body responds in a similar way to anxiety-provoking thoughts—to jealousy, heartbreak, guilt, anger, aggression, sexual frustration, resentment, anxiety, lack of self-worth, nervousness or loneliness. When you're holding onto secrets, fearful of the future, committed to an impossible deadline, stuck in a spiral of addiction, or constantly feeling hurt by someone close to you—each time you re-play these thoughts in your head, you trigger the stress response, contracting your body and adding onto those layers of tension. You may feel a tightness in your chest, gripping in your jaw, soreness in the neck and shoulders, throbbing head, constricted breathing, lower back pain or overall stiffness. It’s exhausting. It steals your energy. And ultimately, it blocks you from fulfilling your potential.
Contraction stifles flow, creativity, self-expression, sensation and happiness. Imagine if you could let all that go.
The relaxation response
"Learn to relax. Your body is precious, as it houses your mind and spirit. Inner peace begins with a relaxed body." Norman Vincent Peale
A yoga class is essentially an unravelling of physical and emotional tension—through diaphragmatic breathing, mindful movement, stretching, specific relaxation techniques and increased interoception (body awareness). Yoga triggers the relaxation or "rest and digest" response, decreasing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, lowering heart rate, increasing breath volume, and releasing tight muscles. It re-connects you to sensation, helps you to sleep properly, allows you to extract the maximum nutrition from your food, boosts your circulation, supports detoxification and triggers your cells to rejuvenate.
When you’re able to shift between periods of high and low tension, without getting stuck in either, you'll feel more open, relaxed, expansive, responsive, spacious and supple—in flow. You’ll notice more of what is going on in the world around you and be able to act with more ease, confidence and spontaneity.
Muhammad Ali put it best: “Float like a butterfly. And sting like a bee.”
Let’s get practical
Here are some tips to unwind and find bliss in your next yoga session.
Start the class by paying close attention to your breath. Notice it’s natural rhythm. The sensations of warmth and coolness at your nostrils as the air comes in and out of your body. The gentle rising and falling of your belly and chest. The sensations of expansion and contraction in your rib cage. Then try to consciously release any sense of contraction around your breathing. Keep your breaths smooth, steady, slow, deep and relaxed. See how little effort you can exert on the process of breathing.
As you start to move through the postures, tune into areas where you notice you are holding tension. Are you gripping with your toes, or tensing up your jaw? Do you scrunch up around your neck and shoulders or furrow your brow? Do you notice that you feel more or less tense when you practice at different times of day or when the circumstances of your life change? See if you can identify a map of contraction and relaxation in your body.
Throughout the sequence, try to strike a balance between stability and fluidity. Aim for strength and spaciousness in the poses and grace and agility in your transitions. This takes presence and close attention to the breath. Exert yourself just enough to do your best in the pose, with the least amount of tension possible and an intention to remain struggle-free. Use your breath as a barometer. If you find yourself holding your breath or straining to breathe, you’re pushing too hard—so back off a little on the intensity or take a break.
When you come into a stretch, be careful not to try to use force to increase the intensity, as this will actually trigger the body’s innate reflex reaction and cause your muscle to contract. Instead, deepen your breath, back a little way out of the stretch and then drop a fraction deeper into the pose.
Savasana is the ultimate tension-dissolving pose. As you’re scanning your body for sensations, bring a gentle feeling of relaxation to any areas of lingering tightness. Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach guides her students to visualise the transition from ice to water, and water to gas. When you are relaxed, you’ll have an increased perception of the subtler sensations in your body. Over time, this will allow you to notice a build up of anger, anxiety, frustration or disappointment earlier in the cycle, and give you the opportunity to interrupt the momentum before it gets out of control.
If you feel tension in your body, whether physical, emotional or both, yoga is one of the most effective and pleasurable ways to unwind you. It will help you to become aware of when and where you are holding onto tightness in your body. You will learn ways to breathe, stretch and relax. And with this newfound spaciousness and freedom, your whole life becomes more vibrant and colourful.
“With the fading of tension comes a whole new world of sensation.” Josh Waitzkin