Embodied Relaxation

When I first started meditating, I didn’t think it was for me. At the group where I’d sit, we would meditate for 25 minutes, watching our breath, and every time it felt like the longest 25 minutes of my life. I’d feel tremendous anxiety and discomfort, I’d get headaches, and it seemed like every part of my body was just brimming with pain. And to be honest, it wasn’t unfamiliar: all that discomfort, all that pain was something that had dogged me as long as I could remember, surfacing in whatever quiet moment arose during the day. I’d spent my whole life trying to keep it at bay, and after looking in many places for help with it, I hoped meditation could make it all go away.

As it turned out, I didn’t need it to.

The sense of wholeness and peace I was striving for was to be found by dropping the striving.

That’s pretty much Buddhism 101, but I didn’t know how to actually carry that out. I knew I was supposed to relax and let go, but how did I do that? Sitting with meditation groups, working with meditation teachers, and going on retreats helped me get clear on how to actually do that in an experiential, embodied way.

Last night at our meditation group, we explored that. While our focus was on noticing our breath, first we walked through a few exercises to make sure we were using the right kind of effort. I thought I’d write a brief blog post to share just one of those exercises. It can be helpful at releasing latent tension in our body, and connecting experientially with our capacity to let go. (Please note: if you have pain in your hands, feet, or abdomen, please skip this exercise.)

Sit up straight, but not rigid. It’s best to not have your back against a chair so that your mind is alert, but if there’s significant pain feel free to sit back.

Relax your body. Don’t use any more effort than you need to in order to remain sitting.

Now, clench your hands into fists. Don’t clench them so hard that there’s pain, but put in a decent amount of tension.

As your hands remain clenched, notice the tension there. Notice the actual, felt sensation of the tension.

Now release your hands, noticing the actual, felt sensation. Let that permeate up your arms.

It may be that there are areas where the tension does not release. That’s OK. In that case, rather than you bringing relaxation to it, you relax to it. Give it 100% permission to be tense. Don’t fight it. Don’t ignore it either; allow it to be there, taking up as much space as it would like.

Do the same with your feet. Clench them up. Not too tight, we don’t want to get a cramp. But enough so that you can feel some tension there. Notice the actual, felt sensation.

Now, release your feet, and again, notice the actual, felt sensation. Let it permeate through your legs.

Next, tense your abdomen. Notice the actual, felt sense of the tension.

And, again, release. Feel the sensations in your abdomen. Feel them spread.

We carry so much tension in our bodies. When we resist what is going on, we tense our bodies in response. Taking some time to notice that, allow it, and release it gives us practice in dropping the war against our experience. There is an incredible richness, satisfaction, and nourishment in ending that striving.