Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Lowering tension

If you are going to engage in a struggle with a wild beast, you are all set.  The roar, the attack, the sight will trigger your fight or flight system.  Your breathing will speed up, your heart will beat faster and nourishing blood will be sent to your muscles.  However, most of our challenges in modern life are far more mental and less physical.   

As the books by Sheila Ostrander and Nancy Schroeder show, most performance, physical and mental, goes better in a state of reasonable relaxation rather than tension.  Many techniques for lowering tension and lessening stress concentrate on scanning the body for tense muscles and relaxing them.  In the case of a muscle that is difficult to relax, it can be helpful to tense it and then try to relax. As the authors make clear, all muscles come in pairs and any muscle can do its job better if its opposing muscle is relaxed.  When it is tense, the muscle must struggle against the opposition in addition to the actual task being carried out.

Ostrander and Schroeder reported on athletic research in Russia that studied ways to find athletes that were especially able to be relaxed in stressful situations and instructional research in Bulgaria on teaching foreign vocabulary in an extra-relaxed setting.

Breathing can be a valuable tool for getting the whole body calm and appropriately relaxed yet appropriately alert for performance.  My recent posts on TED talks by Dr. Alan Wallace referred to his demonstration that a math challenge before a watching audience was enough to induce tension in the body of a volunteer.  Yet, performing calm, steady breathing allowed the volunteer to quickly bring his body systems out of a state of tension and into one of alert calm.  The breathing needed to be regular so that each breath was like the ones before and after in duration, depth and effort.  My experience has been that I can experience a noticeable difference with a string of 5 such breaths.

Yoga teachers sometimes refer to "relaxing into" a stressful posture.  While the body is doing what it is supposed to be doing, it can be possible, with practice and concentration, to find and relax all the muscles that are tensed but don't need to be.  The mind too can be found to be tensed, to be in a state of serious determination, with or without actually gritted teeth.  Just moving the attention into a body scan and relaxing where possible can alleviate some of tension when trying to do a difficult task.

This morning, we cleaned the refrigerator.  Cleaning the motor and coils, I was in a small, cramped space behind it, trying to align a screwdriver with the screw slots and keeping the tool straight into the screw, while turning it gently to avoid marring and ruining the screw.  For screws right at the bottom of the refrigerator, I had to adopt a twisted, uncomfortable position while maintaining a delicate hand with the tool.  Relaxing into the stress, dropping unneeded tension, helped very much.

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