Are you old enough to remember when Frankie Goes to Hollywood released what was arguably the most controversial hit song of the decade in late 1983? Relax had a sluggish start but soared to the top of the charts the following year. It’s basically an ode to orgasm and was banned for a while by the BBC. I’m not offended by much, but a warning: don’t Google the video if you’re sensitive to explicit content. That aside, hidden in the song is a great posture tip.
Have you ever had someone tell you to “just relax”? How did you respond? When I was younger I was frequently told by a variety of well-meaning folks to “just relax your shoulders”. As if it was that easy. I could never seem to do it. The more I tried to relax my shoulders, the tenser they seemed to get. And the more frustrated I got.
Excessive muscular tension is a contributing factor to poor posture and musculoskeletal pain. So learning how to relax overly tense muscles is fundamental in improving posture. But here’s the problem. Muscles don’t relax.
Muscles don’t relax. Muscles contract or they don’t contract.
Try this experiment:
Curl your hand up into a loose fist. Now squeeze your fist tight. As tight as you can. Now, just stop squeezing your fist. Don’t open up your hand completely, just stop squeezing your fist. Do it a couple of times.
First, you did something — you squeezed your fist. Then you stopped doing what you were doing — you stopped squeezing your fist. You did not do something new. You simply stopped doing what you were doing.
Try this second experiment:
Place your hand palm down on the table. Spread your hand to make it as big as possible (like you might do if you were trying to palm a basketball). Now stop spreading your hand. Don’t curl your hand up. Just stop spreading it. Do it a couple of times.
First, you did something — you spread your hand. Then you stopped doing what you were doing — you stopped spreading your hand. You did not do something new. You simply stopped doing what you were doing.
In both of these experiments, I bet you didn’t have to think through how to stop doing what you were doing. You just requested it and it happened. And you can feel the change when you stop doing what you’re doing. What’s important to realize is that you have the skill to request yourself to stop doing something you don’t wish to be doing. You don’t have to figure out how to carry the request out, or what muscles to control. All you have to do is give yourself the request — to not do.
The problem you often face when you try to relax is that you approach it as something you have to do. You try to figure out how to do relax — when in fact muscles don’t relax. And in trying to figure out how to do relax you end up contracting your muscles even more — because muscles only do one thing — contract.
In the two experiments above you first contracted muscles to do what was requested (to squeeze your fist or spread your hand). You then stopped contracting muscles. You didn’t relax your muscles.
When I started to study the Alexander Technique I explored changing my approach to my shoulder tension (and ultimately a lot more). What did I have to lose? My old approach of trying hard to relax my shoulders wasn’t working. And what’s that famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Now when I notice my shoulders are overly tense, I acknowledge that my shoulders are not overly tense. I am tensing my shoulders. In other words, I’m doing something I don’t want to be doing. Then, instead of trying hard to relax my shoulders, I give myself a gentle request to do less of what I’m already doing — tensing my shoulders.
You may think this is just a bunch of semantic gymnastics, but I’ve found this small bit of knowledge about how muscles work and changing my approach to be extremely useful over time if practiced.
So, back to that controversial pop song from the 1980s. “Relax, don’t do it” is the refrain. A great piece of advice. What do you have to lose if your current approach of trying to relax overly tense muscles isn’t working for you? Instead of continuing to try harder in the same way listen to what Frankie said and just “don’t do it.” Your body will thank you for it.
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