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RELAX!! What Does That Even MEAN?

A couple of weeks ago, two people in two different classes asked the same question. During both classes, in order to get people to relax their lumbar spines, I suggested relaxing the muscles that make up the bum/backside/bottom – the ones that surround the pelvis. Someone asked, “I don’t know how to do that; how do I relax?”. I have a number of ways of trying to explain relaxing, but all of those ways come down to… “Stop holding on to …” (whichever part it is), or “Stop gripping …”. Saying “relax” just isn’t good enough; most people don’t know how to RELAX.

I don’t like negative instructions, but sometimes they seem to work better than a positive one. Leaving the pelvis out of it for the moment, try something yourself whilst reading this: 1) Relax your shoulders. Now try: 2) Stop holding on to your shoulders.

It might only be me, but the second instruction seems to add another dimension and go deeper. The first instruction is active, whereas the second one is more passive.

Relaxation – the mechanics

Relaxation is an undoing – a not doing. You can’t make yourself relax because that implies a ‘doing’; it’s active. A tense muscle is one that is contracted, in other words, the ends of the muscle (the origin and the insertion) are moving together – closing the gap. A relaxed muscle is one that is expanded, in other words, the origin and insertion are moving apart – separating.

So where does that leave us? The only thing you can do is to feel inside yourself in order to release the ends of the relevant muscle(s).

What does ‘relax’ mean?

If you look up the definition of the words ‘relax’ and ‘lax’ (the prefix ‘re-‘ just means ‘back’ or ‘again’), you end up with various words that may or may not help. I’ve found, when teaching, that a description that works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another.

Sponges and stress balls

Hand holding natural sponge on white background.

A tense muscle is therefore one that is squeezing together or contracting, for example a squeezed sponge or stress ball.

A relaxed muscle, on the other hand, is where space has formed between the fibres of the sponge or stress ball, or, if it’s a muscle, space has been allowed between the cells and fibres.

Finding what works for you

It comes down to language; words will trigger totally different perceptions and perspectives, depending on experience. If you apply some or all of the bulleted points below to your shoulders or neck (easier than the pelvis), there’s a good chance that some words will work better for you than others. Using the first three bullet points as examples: 1) Loosen your shoulders, 2) Open your shoulders, 3) Release your shoulders … and so on… i.e. working your way down the descriptive words below. If you suffer from any kind of headache, definitely try the neck as well.


  1. Loose

  2. Open

  3. Release

  4. Deficient in firmness

  5. Not stringent

  6. Not tense

  7. Not strict

  8. Not rigid

  9. Without rigor

  10. Lacking precision

  11. Lacking definition

  12. Not taut

  13. Not firm

  14. Not compact

  15. Slack (a lax rope)

  16. Languid

  17. Relieve from tension or strain

  18. Less compact or dense

  19. Set free

  20. Soften

  21. Reduce

  22. Widen

  23. Decrease tension

  24. Spread apart (a lax flower cluster)

A couple of observations

  1. Making yourself feel ‘heavy’ can help – try making your shoulders feel heavy.

  2. ‘Playing dead’: You might have done this as a child – you make yourself as heavy as possible to avoid being picked up off the floor.

  3. I’ve noticed that when people think they’re relaxed their shoulders, they can in fact let go even more. This becomes obvious if I put my hands on their shoulders after they think they’ve fully relaxed them. But you can even do this yourself without someone’s help; release your shoulders, and then feel what it would be like if a pair of warm hands were rested on them.

Comfortable with what we know

In many ways we are our own worst enemies; we know what we know, and we recycle it; it’s very difficult to see outside that box. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we push ourselves to learn new things all the time; by doing so, we widen our perception which leads to a wider perspective. In the case of relaxation, we need to widen our perception first of all by sensing or feeling inside our bodies, and not taking it for granted that our tension is ‘just who we are’ and we’re ‘stuck with it’. By being more aware of the tension, we alter our perspective and are immediately on the way to doing something about it. We start to be in charge again.

_________________________________________________________________________________________ James Drewe teaches Tai Chi and Qigong in both London and in Kent and online. Details of weekly classes both live and online can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Tai Chi on one Saturday a month.

CONTACT: Email: Phone: 07836-710281 _________________________________________________________________________________________

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