"Tension is part and parcel of what we call the mind. Tension does not exist by itself, but is reflexively integrated into the total organism. The patterns in our muscles vary from moment to moment, constituting in part the modus operandi of our thinking and engage [other] muscles variously all over our body, just as do our grossly visible movements." - Edmund Jacobson (1888-1983), creator of the Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique, ProgressiveRelaxation.org.
"When the domain of being is actively cultivated during slow and gentle stretching and strengthening exercises, such as yoga or physical therapy, what people think of traditionally as "exercise" is transformed into meditation." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p97.In Part 1, teachings on the opening up of one's body and mind relative to East Asian yoga were presented. This post will now look into how noticing and working with physical tension lies at the core of mindfulness meditation and yoga.
It seems classical Indian yoga, and specifically Hatha yoga, has been broadly accepted in the West as an effective method for enhancing one's physical health and stress-management capabilities. This is probably due to the huge levels of stress Westerners are experiencing in their modern 'developed' societies.
The human genome did not evolve into its present state under the pressures of busy shops, traffic, and sophisticated social interaction. Therefore, we need to use acquired skills to manoeuvre certain things, like large vehicles, for example, safely though our complexly constructed communities. In the same way, we also need to use new skills to manoeuvre our nervous systems through our newer, more complex social environments.
The big luxuries we have been enjoying since we first began developing ingenious technology come with big drawbacks - the luxuries amplify the magnitude of the problems which still remain. Being able to manage our positive and negative experiences in life with increasing competence means that inevitable unpleasant events such as the death of loved ones and our own inevitable old age, sickness, and passing away becomes suffered that much more intensely. We have a lower tolerance for loss than did our ancestors, and anxiously cling to our positive experiences; often seeing any necessary loss - whether of the novelty of some new car, house, or hobby, or a romantic partner or mobile phone - as an obstacle standing in the way of our enjoyment.
Depending on how one views the world, such obstacles can be considered worthy challenges to overcome, and yet when one feels overwhelmed by multiple or seemingly impassable obstacles, it is easy to become anxious and frustrated with one's failed attempts at moving forward into a happier place. As the author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) states, this anxiety and frustration manifests physically as tension within the body, p19-20:
"The body and mind are almost one entity. If your mind is tense with anxious thoughts, your body automatically tenses as well. They go together, hand in hand. Why does your body become tense when you experience high levels of stress? The reason is mechanical and wired in the human body. When you experience stress, a chain reaction starts in your body, and your whole being prepares to fight or flee the situation."This ancient wiring of the human body - formed in very different social and technological environments from what we experience today - is further emphasised by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, in his book The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), p25:
"In general, when we encounter something negative, the body tends to tense up. Our evolutionary history has bequeathed us a body that will prepare for action when it perceives a threat in the environment, such as a tiger, that we need to avoid or escape from. [...] When a negative thought or image arises in the mind, there will be a sense of contraction, tightening, or bracing in the body somewhere. It may be a frown, a stomach churning, a pallor in the skin, or a tension in the lower back - all part of a preparation to freeze, fight, or run."He also writes of this in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p251:
"People go through the same physiological reaction that animals do. When we feel threatened, the fight-or-flight reaction occurs almost instantly. The result is a state of physiological and psychological hyperarousal, characterized by a great deal of muscle tension and strong emotions, which may vary from terror, fright, or anxiety to rage and anger. The fight-or-flight reaction involves a very rapid cascade of nervous-system firings and release of stress hormones, the most well known of which is epinephrine (adrenaline), which are unleashed in response to an immediate acute threat."These days, however, such a reaction is unnecessary - we have, in most cases, found simple ways to control or even eradicate the threats our nervous systems evolved to deal with, and so by not physically running or fighting, which would normally have released the tension, we are often just left with the residual tension caught up in our bodies. If not 'earthed' somehow, this tension can lead to all kinds of problems - within the body, for example; from muscular stiffness to immune system weakness. Kabat-Zinn writes of this in Coming To Our Senses (2006), p120-121:
"A simple example would be not paying attention to, say, neck pain that might first appear as sensations of stiffness or muscle tightness. [...] Ignored, it might gradually become more frequent and severe, turning into a chronic complaint, a symptom perhaps of something deeper going on. [...] ...if we are very busy we might write it off to tension or stress, and continue to ignore it. Over weeks, months, even years, if not attended to, such a condition will either go away on its own, or tend to worsen, especially in response to stress, and it might make us more prone to injury...[...] Things can get disregulated to the point where our neck no longer functions normally, and the pain and discomfort and physical limitations in range of motion and posture worsen. This in turn can predispose us to inflammation in response to irritation or injury; a further disordering of things..."Also, as Kabat-Zinn states in The Mindful Way Through Depression, unresolved tension in the body can in turn create anxious thoughts, which follow on to create further tension, p26-27:
"When we're unhappy, the effect of that mood on our body can bias the way we evaluate and interpret things around us without our being even the slightest bit aware that this is happening. [...] It's not just that patterns of negative thinking can affect our moods and our bodies. Feedback loops in the other direction, from the body to the mind, also play a critical role in the persistent return and deepening of unhappiness and dissatisfaction ."It is not difficult to see how such a situation can spiral into severe consequences. We need, therefore, to firstly become more aware of the tension arising and residing in our body at any time, and secondly allow for it to dissipate successfully.
Becoming more aware of the explicit links between our minds and the internal processes within our bodies can be easy; all one has to do is vividly imagine eating a piece of lemon and feel one's mouth begin to water, or imagine an intensely upsetting experience, thus causing one's body to tense up. In both cases there is an alteration of the body's internal state as a result of a 'mere' thought or two.
In the case of physical tension constantly arising throughout the day due to various sources of stress, however, we may not be aware of it simply because the stress does not disappear for long enough for us to realise that we are tensing up so much.
As soon as the alarm goes off in the morning, anxious thoughts can flood the mind, or may be still present due to stressful dreams, and we can begin our day tensed up right from the start. As Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living, p312:
"...as you wake up in the morning and are getting out of bed. One anxious thought can make you tense before your feet touch the floor, although you may be completely unaware of the thought."In this way our lives can be so busy that anxious thoughts come one after another as we go through the day - creating more and more tension. Kabat-Zinn writes that this is a kind of 'autopilot' mode that most of us operate within, in Full Catastrophe Living, p.xxvii:
"We are apt to get so caught up in the urgency of everything we have to do, and so caught up in our heads and in what we think is important, that it is easy to fall into a state of chronic tension and anxiety that continually drives our lives on automatic pilot"And so, possibly as an another autopilot response - this time to the stress, we try to deal with the anxiety and tension as best we can, but with a limited amount of information regarding how tense we actually feel. Kabat-Zinn states in Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p.xii:
"We look for someplace else to stand, where we hope things will be better, happier, more the way we want them to be, or the way they used to be. Most of the time we are only partially aware of this inner tension, if we are aware of it at all."So the measures we take whilst on autopilot are often ineffective, as our efforts to control our circumstances create additional tensions in our lives. Kabat-Zinn highlights in Full Catastrophe Living how this drains our energy reserves and prevents us from healing and growing, p38:
"...in the course of our daily lives we often waste a lot of energy denying and resisting what is already fact. When we do that, we are basically trying to force situations to be the way we would like them to be, which only makes for more tension. This actually prevents positive change from occurring. We may be so busy denying and forcing and struggling that we have little energy left for healing and growing, and what little we have may be dissipated by our lack of awareness and intentionality."Beyond the standard dramas and drugs used to release tension, people often seek sleep as a method of release after a difficult day, and yet, as Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh states in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), sleep does not actually provide total release from the grip of stress, p33:
"Even a night of sleep doesn't provide total rest. Twisting and turning, the facial muscles tense, all the while dreaming - hardly rest! Nor is lying down rest when you still feel restless and twist and turn."So instead of sleeping off our stress, we would be better off actively seeking a wakeful state of being which is as free from unhealthy tension as possible.
As far back as one hundred years ago, effective methods for dealing with unhealthy tension were practically unknown in the West, very possibly for the simple reason that the Western perspective on the relationship between mind and body was wrong due to the influential ideas of the emminent thinker and scientist René Descartes (1596-1650). In the book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (1994), Dr. Antonio Demasio, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, describes the reason for the West's dislocation of body and mind as follows, p249:
"This is Descartes’ error: the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizable, undimensioned, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgment, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body. Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism."It was not until 1924 that the American physician in internal medicine, psychiatry, and physiology, Edmund Jacobson, wrote The Technic of Progressive Relaxation which taught the following, which was intended for patients with tension disorders (from ProgressiveRelaxation.org):
"1. Lying in a quiet place, bend the hand back at the wrist and study the sensation arising from the act (the sensation in the forearm). This first item of instruction is not relaxation but observation, the all-important ability to monitor tension, the basic element of action and behavior.This "re-bodying", as Kabat-Zinn likes to say, allowed Jacobson's patients to notice when tension was arising, or was already present. Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living that watching our body, as events come and go, can teach us a lot, p162:
2. Discontinue that activity, and observe the changes in sensation. Practice relaxing, under the direction of awareness.
This maneuver is repeated twice more, allowing several minutes between each contraction. The reminder of the recommended hour of practice is spent lying quietly, essentially doing nothing. This doing of nothing is also a highly technical matter, including maintaining a light concentration, a slight focus of awareness on the proprioceptive senses, mainly on the muscle being studied in that session.
In successive periods, a similar approach is taken to the various muscle groups. Jacobson organized his training by geographic anatomy: limbs, the trunk, the neck, and the head. It was based on the gross movements of each major part. Every third practice session is to be a "zero period" dedicated to relaxation only, with no contraction being performed. After completing the body survey lying down, the whole process is repeated sitting up"
"...what we see in the workings of our body teaches us many lessons that apply in other domains of our lives. What's more, our bodies usually require some healing. We all carry around at least some physical and psychological tension and armor. Our body has a lot to teach us about stress and pain, illness and health."Even greater results can be gained from simultaneously watching the relationship between thoughts and physical tension in a detached way, as American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes in her book Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p26:
"We have to notice how the mind produces these swarms of self-centered thoughts, thus creating tension in the body. The process of stepping back is not complicated"Kabat-Zinn supports this approach in Full Catastrophe Living, p266:
"You can actually allow yourself to feel threatened or fearful or angry or hurt and to feel the tension in your body in these moments. Being conscious in the present, you can easily recognize these agitations for what they are, namely thoughts and feelings and sensations."So in the same way that an Indian classical yoga practitioner seeks to detect tension in the body as they work within a posture, anyone can practice detecting tension within their being in whatever situation they find themselves. The author of Mindfulness for Dummies describes the optimum posture for continually watching for unhealthy tension within one's being - a traditional Indian yoga posture - as follows, p97:
"Imagine that your head is a helium-filled balloon. Allow your head to lift naturally and gently and straighten your spine without straining. You want to achieve an upright back without tension. Picture the vertebrae as stacked coins. Tuck in your chin slightly."As we sit in our meditation posture, we become more aware of what is happening within us, as Charlotte Joko Beck states in Everyday Zen (1997), p100:
"We can be aware of irritability, annoyance, impatience. And such thoughts we can label. We can patiently do that, we can experience the tension the thoughts generate."This step backwards - away from the thoughts we so habitually identify with, can be an enlightening experience in itself, since taking refuge in the tangible solidity of our body gives our being a new origin. Joko Beck writes of this experience in Everyday Zen as follows, p121:
"It may take us aback to realize that nothing outside of ourselves is attacking us. We are only assaulted by our thoughts, our needs, our attachments, all born from our identification with our false thinking which in turn creates a closed-in, separate, miserable life."Many of the thoughts we may be "assaulted" by are negative ones causing us to try and manipulate the situation, and yet positive; 'clingey' thoughts can cause us to attempt to control proceedings also. Therefore, both negative and positive thoughts - judgemental thoughts - create additional tension and work against us. In Nothing Special, Joko Beck speaks of the effect of judgemental thoughts relative to internal tension, and the harmful dimension that goes with it, p104:
"We need to see our actual thoughts, to be aware of what is actually true for us. If we do this, we will notice that whenever we judge, our body tightens up. Behind the judgment is a self-centered thought that produces tension in our body. Over time, that tension is harmful to us, and indirectly harmful to others. Not only is the tension harmful; the judgments we express about others (and ourselves) are harmful, too."Once we detect the tension building, then we can remaind ourselves to relax the body in order to dissolve the tension, as Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p26:
" ...this involves zeroing in on your body with a focused mind, experiencing the sensations coming from within the muscles themselves, and sending them messages to let the tension dissolve and release. This is something that can be done at the time the tension is accumulating if you are mindful enough to sense it. There is no need to wait until it has built to the point that your body feels like a two-by-four. If you let it go that long, the tension will have become so ingrained that you will have probably forgotten what it felt like to be relaxed, and you may have little hope of ever feeling relaxed again."The process of purposefully and continuously scanning one's body for tension in a non-judgemental manner has been taught by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn as an integral part of his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme for more than 30 years. He calls it the 'body scan', and says the following about it in Full Catastrophe Living, p77-78:
"The idea in scanning your body is to actually feel each region you focus on and linger there with your mind right on it or in it. You breathe in to and out from each region a few times and then let go of it in your mind's eye as your attention moves on to the next region. As you let go of the sensations you find in each region and of any of the thoughts and inner images you may have found associated with it, the muscles in that region literally let go too, lengthening and releasing much of the tension they have accumulated. It helps if you can feel or imagine that the tension in your body and the feelings of fatigue associated with it are flowing out on each outbreath and that, on each inbreath, you are breathing in energy, vitality, and relaxation."The use of the breath as a relaxant is a key feature of the bodyscan, and of mindfulness meditation in general. The author of Mindfulness for Dummies illustrates the process of identifying the tension, and then allowing the breath to release the tension on it's own, p20:
"...if you’re tense, mindfulness means becoming aware of that tension. Which part of your body feels tense?... What’s your reaction to the tension, your thoughts? Mindfulness is about bringing curiosity to your experience. Then you can begin breathing into the tense part of your body, bringing kindness and acknowledging your experience – again, not trying to change or get rid of the tension."As well as encouraging one to relax, breathing from deep within the body acts like a kind of radar which can detect changes in tension, as the movement of one's diaphragm massages one's internal organs; allowing the nervous system to detect any restrictions. Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p269:
"The breath reconnects you with calmness and awareness when you lose touch momentarily. It brings you to an awareness of your body in that moment, including any increase in muscle tension. It can also remind you to check your thoughts and feelings. Perhaps you will see how reactive they are. Perhaps you will question their accuracy."As we practice in this way, our minds and bodies automatically purify themselves - just our scanning and noticing can be enough for tension to disappear all by itself. Kabat-Zinn further illustrates this process during the body scan in Full Catastrope Living, p88:
"...the body scan can be thought of as an active purification of the body. The moving zone of your attention harvests tension and pain as it passes through various regions and carries them to the top of your head, where, with the aid of your breathing, you allow them to discharge out of your body, leaving it purified. Each time you scan your body in this way, you can think of it or visualize it as a purification or detoxification process, a process that is promoting healing by restoring a feeling of wholeness and integrity to your body. ...we let any purification that might occur take care of itself. We just persevere in the practice."After this, Kabat-Zinn goes on to explain that the more detached and accepting one can be of whatever arisises during the bodyscan, the more effective the healing process can be. He states that mindfulness is beyond pure relaxation, but is about allowing the body to be free to do what it wants, p89:
"When practicing the body scan, the key point is to maintain awareness in every moment, a detached witnessing of your breath and your body, region by region, as you scan from your feet to the top of your head. The quality of your attention and your willingness just to feel what is there and be with it no matter what is much more important than imagining the tension leaving your body or the inbreath revitalizing your body. If you just work at getting rid of tension, you may or may not succeed, but you are not practicing mindfulness. But if you are practicing being present in each moment and at the same time you are allowing your breathing and your attention to purify the body within this context of awareness and with a willingness to accept whatever-happens, then you are truly practicing mindfulness and tapping its power to heal. ...the best way to get results from the meditation is not to try to get anything from it but just to do it for its own sake"Kabat-Zinn is a highly experienced practitioner of Hatha yoga, and teaches yoga as another integral part of his MBSR course. The similarity between the bodyscan and yoga methodology can be seen when one reads Kabat-Zinn's instructions for yoga practice in Full Catastrophe Living, p103:
"While in each posture, be aware of the sensations that you are experiencing in various parts of your body, and if you like, direct your breath in to and out from the region of greatest intensity in a particular stretch or posture. The idea is to relax into each posture as best you can and breathe with what you are feeling."And on p105:
"The other rule is to dwell in each posture long enough to let go into it. The idea is to relax into each one. If you find yourself struggling and fighting with it, remind yourself to let go into your breathing. In the beginning you may find that you are unconsciously bracing yourself in many areas while you are in a particular position. After a while your body will realize this in some way, and you will find yourself relaxing and sinking farther into it"In this way it can be seen that exactly the same core principles apply for seated mindfulness meditation as do for yoga and the bodyscan; something explicitly referred to by Kabat-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living, p341-342:
"In the body scan, the sitting meditation, and the yoga, we work at recognizing and accepting any feelings of tension we find in our body and any agitated thoughts and feelings that occur as we dwell in the domain of being. The meditation instructions emphasize that we don't have to do anything about bodily sensations or anxious feelings except to become aware of them and desist from judging them and condemning ourselves. In this way, practicing moment-to-moment awareness amounts to a systematic way of teaching your body and mind to develop calmness within or beneath anxious feelings."In The Mindful Way Through Depression, Kabat-Zinn again frames the need to be detached from the proceedings, p199:
"With each out-breath, any sense of tightness, bracing, or resistance may release or soften naturally. Where this occurs, the tension and sense of holding on often dissolve with the outbreath, although by no means are we trying to make this happen. If it happens, that's fine, but it's equally fine if it does not. The simple act of bringing awareness to the sense of aversion and resistance is enough, without becoming fixated on achieving relaxation. We may find it helpful to remind ourselves of the general intention to allow and accept our experience by saying in our minds Softening, opening, embracing."He also emphasises the importance in Full Catastrophe Living to allow for thoughts to come and go unhindered relative to releasing tension, p69:
"...it is important to emphasize that thinking is not bad nor is it even undesirable during meditation. What matters is whether you are aware of your thoughts and feelings during meditation and how you handle them. Trying to suppress them will only result in greater tension and frustration and more problems, not in calmness and peace."Joko Beck, in Everyday Zen, talks of taking this step back as follows, p50:
"If we truly step back and observe... we will be capable in time of seeing our thoughts as thoughts (unreal) and not as the truth. [...] I am left with the direct experience of the physical reaction in my body, the residue, so to speak. When I directly experience this residue (as tension, contraction), since there is no duality in direct experience, I will slowly enter the dimension (samadhi) which knows what to do, what action to take."And so, as this practice continues over time, a solid trust in the process develops, as stated in Mindfulness for Dummies, p54-55:
"You may not trust in the process to begin with, but with patience and dedicated, regular practice, you may begin to trust it. The more you trust in its power to heal and restore you, the more you relax into it, and allow meditation to happen to you, in a sense, rather than trying to do meditation. Meditation is an act of non-doing, or being, which arises out of the security of trust."By trusting our body and connecting with it in this way, Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living that we learn how to intentionally regulate our tension, p230:
"When we work systematically to bring our undivided attention to the body, as we do when we practice the body scan or the sitting or the yoga, we are literally increasing our connectedness with it. We know our body better as a result. We trust it more, we read its signals more accurately, and we know how good it can feel to be completely at one with our body in a state of deep relaxation. We also learn to regulate its level of tension intentionally, in ways that are not possible without awareness."And so our increased awareness brings balance into our lives, as Kabat-Zinn states in The Mindful Way Through Depression, p150:
"When we are able to sense in the body that we are tensing up or bracing ourselves in anticipation of something threatening, that is an indicator that the brain is switching into avoidance mode. In response, our mindfulness brings in approach qualities such as curiosity, compassion, and goodwill, and balances out the brain's tendency to switch into its avoidance pattern with a pattern associated with "welcoming. ""None of this can happen, however, if we do not continue with the basic practice on a regular basis - the bodyscan, the yoga, the seated mindfulness meditation. Joko Beck sums up the practice in a nutshell very nicely when she writes the following in Everyday Zen, p182;
"I keep returning to the direct experience in my body of the truth of this matter. I just sit with the tension and contraction, breathing through it."