Relax All Your Muscles

In Avoiding Pitfalls, I mentioned to spend about 90% of your time doing anapana, e.g. normal mindfulness, and about 10% of your time doing vipassana, e.g. body scans, both during retreats and at home. If you ignore that advice and spend 66% of your time on body scans as the people who run the retreats tell you to, you’ll end up with the skills in this and maybe the next post. This post is copypasted from here.


What do you get out of it?

  • The good.
    • A predictable, easily actionable way to reduce stress.
      • This can go a long way after a tiring day at work etc.
    • Helps relax muscles after exercise (similar to massage).
      • If execute this really well, your body won’t be sore on the next day.
    • A gentle introduction to Sense Your Body with Extreme Clarity and Tune Your Motor Cortex.
      • Learning to relax your body is very useful on its own, which means that by learning it first you can reduce the barrier to entry to these more esoteric skills.
  • The bad.
    • You might easily fall asleep.
      • This soporific effect is not always undesirable, and in fact you can integrate the skill into your life as a way to accelerate falling asleep.

How to tell if you have it?

Note: this is an easy skill. You are likely to get value out of it on the first try, though there will still be a lot of room to improve.

  • You can intentionally relax your body to a degree that makes a clear difference.
    • Ideally, you can tell which muscles and muscle groups are already relaxed, and which ones need more work.
  • You know how to balance exercise and relaxation in a way that makes your body refreshed and ready to repeat the cycle on the next day.
    • A part of why many people exercise irregularly is that they lack awareness of this balance, and push themselves too hard.

How does it work?

  • The stress response (activation of the sympathetic nervous system) is closely linked to muscle tone.
    • Whenever you are stressed, your muscles tend to subtly get more and more tense, in a way that accumulates throughout the day.
    • The connection between these two effects is two-way, so you can also directly reduce the stress response by making all (or most) of your muscles relaxed.
  • One way to learn how to explicitly relax your muscles is to put your body in a situation in which it’s naturally going to happen anyway, and pay close attention to the process.
    • Mentally saying phrases like “I want my arm to be more relaxed” or “I notice how my arm is becoming more relaxed” helps create a link between muscle relaxation as it happens automatically and subconsciously, and your explicit awareness of it.

How to learn it?

  • Before you start.
    • It’s a very good idea to do some mild exercise.
      • The skill works perfectly fine without it, but the positive effects are amplified by combining it with exercise.
      • Try e.g. 20 minutes of light jogging.
  • Step 1.
    • Lie down comfortably on your back, and give yourself somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes to do this.
    • Make sure that your body is oriented in a natural way, and there’s nothing uncomfortable about your clothes or the position of your limbs.
    • This typically involves having your arms symmetrically spread to the sides, at an angle to your torso.
  • Step 2.
    • From this point onwards, keep your body perfectly still (for the whole duration of the exercise).
      • At some point you might get a strong urge to move some part of your body. This means you are onto something – do not yield!
    • Close your eyes gently.
    • Stop moving your tongue (just let it relax and rest on the bottom of your mouth cavity).
      • This might sound strange as the first part of your body to focus on, but there’s a simple reason for it: if you do this, after a few minutes your mouth will stop producing saliva, and you won’t be distracted by needing to swallow while going through the rest of your body.
  • Step 3.
    • Follow the template of an inner monologue that is given below (or some customized variant of it).
      • While calling out each part of your body, let your attention go completely to that place.
      • However, put no pressure on yourself to make anything happen as a result of this.
        • The best advice if you are new to this kind of mental activity is probably to take as your goal to simply say the words in your head, without worrying about whether they are causing anything to happen at all.
      • It helps to explicitly add slow, deliberate inhales and exhales as a practiced part of the monologue.
        • For example, take a slow inhale before each line, and then say the line together with a slow exhale.
        • Alternatively, to slow down even more, breathe twice for each line (you can also repeat the words).
          I want the toes of my left foot to be relaxed.
          I want my left foot to be relaxed.
          I want my left ankle to be relaxed.
          I want my left calf to be relaxed.
          I want my left knee to be relaxed.
          I want my left thigh to be relaxed.
          I want my left buttock to be relaxed.
          I want my left hip to be relaxed.
          [Then repeat the same for the right leg]
          I want my crotch to be relaxed.
          I want my belly to be relaxed.
          I want my lower back to be relaxed.
          I want my left side to be relaxed.
          I want my right side to be relaxed.
          I want my chest to be relaxed.
          I want my back to be relaxed.
          I want both my shoulders to be relaxed.
          I want my neck to be relaxed.
          I want the fingers of my left hand to be relaxed.
          I want my left hand to be relaxed.
          I want my left wrist to be relaxed.
          I want my left forearm to be relaxed.
          I want my left elbow to be relaxed.
          I want my left upper arm to be relaxed.
          I want my left shoulder to be relaxed.
          [Then do the same for the right side]
          I want my shoulders to be even more relaxed.
          I want my neck to be even more relaxed.
          I want the back of my head to rest gently on the ground.
          I want the top of my head to be relaxed.
          I want my forehead to be relaxed.
          I want my eyes to be relaxed.
          I want my nose to be relaxed.
          I want my left cheek to be relaxed.
          I want my left ear to be relaxed.
          I want my right cheek to be relaxed.
          I want my right ear to be relaxed.
          I want my mouth to be relaxed.
          I want my jaw to be relaxed.
          I want my tongue to be relaxed.
          I want my throat to be relaxed.

Further progress

Next post: Retuning Muscles

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