Heather Stegmaier, M.AmSAT

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« Let It Go: Observation Without Judgment | Main | Ask and you shall receive: Non-doing and the Alexander Technique »

Don’t Relax! A new solution for tension

Relaxing has become a favorite pastime in our culture. We’re so busy and stressed that we have to schedule time to actively relax (an oxymoron, right?). With all these things we need to relax about, relaxation gets added to the to-do list: from massages to spas to yoga retreats there are many opportunities to escape from the rushed world we live in.

When dealing with specific muscle tension the word relax is tossed around frequently. Stiff shoulders? Relax! Tight neck? Relax!

In this sense, relaxing is thought of as the opposite of tension. For example, if your shoulders are tensed up towards your ears, then you must relax them down. This turns relaxing into an activity. If tension is pulling your shoulders up, how can relaxing (i.e. pulling them down) be any better? It’s swapping out one form of tension for another.

I have an alternate solution for dealing with tension: stop tensing. That’s it! Of course, easier said than done, right?

Try this out:

  1. Make a fist with one hand. Hold it tight! Now, release/relax the fist. Try this a few times.
  2. Next, make the fist. Instead of releasing/relaxing the fist, just stop holding the fist.


When we relax a muscle that is tensed, we are actually using force to make that muscle go in a different direction. When you simply stop tensing, the muscle is restored to a neutral state.

How did this actually happen? I gave you an instruction to stop holding the fist, which you read and your brain sent that message to your nervous system and muscles, and your hand responded appropriately. Therefore, just by giving yourself a conscious thought, you were able to change how your body responded.

This is huge!!!!!

The Alexander Technique teaches that change starts with how we think. Conscious thought is very powerful.

So the next time you notice tension in your body, rather than jumping right into your habit of actively relaxing, go ahead and give yourself a conscious thought to stop tensing.

I wish to stop tensing.

Wait, renew the thought, and see what happens. Physical change is possible, but it has to start with the mind.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. What was your experience with the fist exercise? Have you ever tried relaxing to no avail? Submit your story below.

Reader Comments (4)

Interesting experiment, Heather! There was definitely a big difference for me. With the first I pretty much lost the fist completely. With the second I still more or less had a fist, but it was more "relaxed" or less tense! Much more useful in a really life situation, should I need a fist!!

October 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterImogen Ragone

Thanks for your comment, Imogen! I'm glad you like the experiment :)

October 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterHeather Stegmaier

With this little experiment, it's possible to assume any position, but without getting stuck in it.
Great advice for actors, who are playing someone with a limp but don't want to keep the limp offstage or after the show ends by having practiced it with too much overworked intensity.
Or for what to do when training a new habit, such as how to prevent a purse from slipping off your shoulder by holding your shoulder up. You'd want to do that only when wearing that purse (and not keeping your shoulder up unnecessarily at every other time...)

October 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFranis Engel

Thank you! I play guitar and neck and shoulder tension is a real problem.

October 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWayne Carmichael

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