Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mindfully Minding The Muscles

Can you really relax your body and affect the tension in your muscles simply by bringing your awareness there?

ABSOLUTELY! Relaxing the muscles is actually quite simple. Being mindfully aware of the need to relax the muscles is actually quite challenging.

Where to start? Like all skills, consistent practice when the mind and body are relatively tranquil will facilitate the ability to implement muscle relaxing techniques when stressed and in pain.

When teaching yoga or meditation, I methodically guide students through the process of mindfully relaxing the muscles in their face, neck and shoulders. As we journey through the class, I periodically remind everyone to take notice of the physical sensation in these muscles and to consciously release and relax any tightness that has crept back into these sensitive areas. I have found that whatever we feel in and around our face and neck is usually a pretty good reflection of what is going on in our minds and bodies. Releasing and relaxing these muscles can initiate a chain reaction easing some of the physical soreness that so frequently plagues us.

The first time you try to mentally scan your face, neck and shoulders, it is important to be in a completely comfortable and relaxed position and not constrained by time. Sitting in a supportive chair or lying down are both good choices so opt for the one that works best for you.

If you choose to lie down, you might find it helpful to place a light eye pillow or some other covering over your eyes. This light pressure can help relax the muscles in and around the eyes. The pressure should be gentle. Many of the eye pillows sold commercially come overly stuffed and the weight can be more of an annoyance and distraction than a complement to your efforts. (Hand made and custom filled eye pillows are available for purchase at

Once you are comfortable, with or without your eye pillow, start to bring your awareness to the eyes. If you find it hard to evaluate if these muscles are tight or not, try to squeeze your eyes tightly shut, silently count to three and then release. Feel the upper lids resting softly on the lower lids and notice the muscles behind and around the eyes encouraging them to relax. Now, allow the tongue to rest softly between the teeth and then mindfully turn all of your senses inward, feeling, seeing and experiencing the releasing of any straining around the cheeks, chin and especially the jaw. Once again, if you're not sure if you are releasing these muscles, clench your jaw and count to three, noticing the effect on the eyes, temples, cheeks, teeth, jaw, neck, shoulders, and surrounding tissues. What does it feel like? Do words like rigid, stiff, taut, or strained jump to mind?

Continue to shift your awareness from one part of the face and neck to another, pausing for several or more breaths as you your mind tells your muscles to relax. Let the breath remain calm and even as you scan and observe the gradual releasing of any tensing that returns. Notice if the softening in your face, especially around the eyes and jaw, prompts the noise in your mind to quiet.

The next challenge is to discipline yourself to employ these skills periodically throughout your day especially when you recognize you are feeling stressed, worried or anxious.

Remember, our bodies and minds are inextricably connected. When left on their own, one will insist on taking the other on a mindless, chaotic excursion to all sorts of dark, scary places, inflicting a diabolical array of physical and emotional torment on each other.

Check back soon for a video guide to scanning and relaxing the face and neck muscles. In the meantime, I hope you begin your own practice and find some welcome relief from the deep pain that uncontrolled tension inflicts on our bodies and minds.

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