Free your muscles, strength lies in rest.
Something done well has been done with ease.
Strength in Rest
- Do you know how to lie down?
- Get comfortable
- Sub-relaxation: a means and an end
- The importance of relaxation
- Localised relaxation
Muscles Make Us
All our vital processes, from digestion to thought, are performed by muscles. It has already been proved that it is not important for an athlete to have impressive-looking muscles and that the major value of large biceps is, perhaps, as a symbol of strength. The main muscles responsible for the body's general state of health are modest and unassuming. Our well-being (both psychological and physical) depends on the reliable functioning of muscles such as the heart, constantly pumping blood around our body, the diaphragm, which enables us to breathe, the fine muscles of the blood vessels and internal organs, and the muscles of the stomach and pelvic region that support important organs.
The condition of our muscles determines our psychological state. All muscles have receptive zones in the brain that receive information and transmit orders. They form a complex system and relate to each other in different ways; we are conscious of only a very small part of their work.
Not Quite As We Would Like
As anyone with a basic knowledge of biology will know, we have both voluntary (or smooth) and involuntary (or striated) muscles. We normally have no power over the latter, the muscles of the intestines and the pupil of the eye, for example. They tense and relax independently and do not respond to direct conscious commands. We can, however, flex and extend voluntary muscles, (our biceps and calf muscles, say) as and when we like; although not quite as we would like, particularly when we are trying to relax, since there is an involuntary element even in the action of voluntary muscles. This is generally called tone, that is, a muscle's state of preparedness for action.
When you are sitting back perfectly relaxed the tone of your muscles is minimal; when you are active and excited, it is very high. When we are startled we tense up immediately; when terrified, we can suddenly go very weak, our legs feel like jelly. All this takes place unconsciously, automatically.
Our will plays only a limited role. If you wake up feeling weak you can try to invigorate yourself by doing physical exercises, by massage or by rubbing yourself down with a cold, damp towel. Sometimes you can be instantly galvanised into a state of intense activity simply by glancing at the clock! At other times, however, your tone just does not respond. You can close your eyes at the moment, keep then closed for as long as you like and open them when you feel like it. But when you are very tired, your eyes relentlessly close of their own accord. This happens because the muscles of the eyelids involuntarily relax as their basic tone falls. About 80% of our desire to sleep is determined by the involuntary relaxation of the muscles of the eyelids and neck other muscles then follow.
But You Can Do Something
If at this moment you suddenly had to clench your fist hard you could do so without the least trouble; but try doing this when you have just woken up in the morning and want to go back to sleep and you will find it is not as easy as you thought. It demands quite a lot of will-power (about as much as it takes to relax your hand when you are angry).
Yet your mind is already quite active: you have remembered all you have to do during the day and have even had a couple of good ideas. Clearly the delicate muscles of the eye are already aroused even though the large skeletal muscles are still in a tone of sleep. Since various groups of muscles can thus have different tone at the same time we can use those that are already active to influence the tone of others; this is the basis of psychological regulation. Our state at any moment can be seen as the sum of all the tone of different groups of muscles registered back to the brain.
In order to clench your fist on waking, you must first stretch out your fingers vigorously a few times. This is fairly easy since extensor muscles are less affected than flexor muscles by the general lowering of tone during sleep. Stretch out your fingers as hard as you can several times. You should feel the tone of the flexor muscles increase as well and it should now be quite easy to clench your fist hard and hold it. It will now be easier to make a fist with your other hand, the one you did not move. We shall return to this when we come to toning up.
Do You Know How to Lie Down?
Don’t move! At the moment you’re most likely either sitting or lying. Are you comfortable? Are you in the best possible position? Is it suitable for the matter in hand and is it conducive to the state of mind you’re hoping to create? Why are you sitting on the edge of your chair with your legs twined round each other? Why are you slouching? Why is one hand very tense? Do you really know how to lie down? Are you sure that the position you adopt before falling asleep is the best one for you?
Your pose can put you in a bad mood, cause fear or anxiety and restrict your intellect or imagination. On the other hand, it can calm you down or make you more lively or self-assured. It is always necessary to have a correct and natural pose if you want to feel well and in control. This is not as trivial as it may seem; it is an art in itself.
It is true that our pose does not always depend on us; our life-style and convention, for example, often take their toll. Our posture is affected by the position we assume and also by our attitude towards the muscles we are tensing. It is possible to adapt ourselves to almost any position, even to strap-hanging in the tube in the rush hour. An optimum pose requires us to be in a comfortable position as well as to be able to master the tone of our muscles.
Poses for Auto-Training
The "Coachman" position is the most well-known: sitting on a chair, a stool or a sofa with your legs bent at an angle of 45°, your forearms resting on your thighs, your trunk slightly forward and your head hanging loosely. This pose is both relaxed and stable: it allows you to doze without falling into a deep sleep. Another position is lying down (usually on your back) and relaxing as much as possible. An intermediate one is sitting in a comfortable armchair, with your arms on the arms of the chair and your head supported on the back.
There are lots of suitable positions: for example, sitting at a table with your head in your hands, or resting on your arms folded on the table. The important thing is for the pose to be simple, natural and stable.
There is never any need to remain perfectly still: even in a deep sleep you move around and turn over. It is quite easy to understand the advantages of a standard pose since, after a while, it will set up a conditioned reflex and trigger off the chain reaction you require. (Some people lie down because they are falling asleep, whilst others fall asleep because they are lying down). Moreover, a standard position for Auto-Training is part of the inner discipline and order you acquire with practice.
However, you can only practise Auto-Training in this ideal pose in some situations (at home during your regular practice time or anywhere else where you have room and will be undisturbed), whereas you may well find you have to be fairly flexible under other circumstances. A standard pose, therefore, is good as long as you do not become dependent on it. Consequently, you should do a part of your training in other positions and even when moving. You will see presently that this is quite possible.
During routine Auto-Training at home it is best to remove any restrictive clothing, belts, ties, shoes, etc., and loosen your neckline.
But this, too, is only relatively important, since once you have learnt how to relax properly you will find it easier to ignore anything you need to.
Copy Your Cat
"…I'm lying down with the cat on the sofa, watching him sleep and trying to imitate him. It is, however. very difficult to be so completely relaxed. It is not hard to identify your tensions and then to relax them, the trouble is that as soon as you have released one tension, another immediately appears and so on, ad infinitum…"
This passage is taken from the chapter "Muscle Relaxation" in Stanislavsky's book, "The Actor at Work on Himself". It will be a tremendous help if you learn everything a young actor needs to know.
Suppose you have assumed your pose for Auto-Training: you are sitting in the coachman position, leaning back in an armchair or lying on a bed. Everything seems fine.
But is it?
Keep sweeping the beam of your attention over your whole body. Your task now is to relax as many as possible of the muscular tensions Shultz called "residue tensions". Although we are largely unconscious of them they nevertheless dictate our overall physical and psychological state. Relaxation is essential at the beginning of any Auto-Training and can have very diverse effects that range from helping us to fall asleep to making it easier for us to mix in company.
"…The more you take note of all your body's tensions and spasms, the more there seem to be. By doing this you learn how to identify sensations you have never even noticed before. This helps you to find many more tensions: new ones keep appearing the more you discover. I managed to relax the muscles of my back and neck for a short time. I realised just how much unnecessary muscle tension we never even suspect we have and how harmful it is".
Have you noticed that to relax your muscles you have to make a small, scarcely noticeable movement: a micro-movement, an inner sign as your muscles seem to be settling back into place rather than actually moving?
When you first start concentrating on your muscles it sometimes tends to make you even more tense for a while: you can only learn very gradually how to catch yourself relaxing. It is so very difficult simply because you do not have to do anything!
Shultz used to cultivated his patients’ muscle sense. He wrote: "I propose that our psychological nervous state is the sum of the random muscular tensions which are our involuntary response to external stimuli". Stanislavsky instructed his students to study the way cats and small children are able to relax totally, and to consciously cultivate a way of controlling their muscles which will ultimately become second nature for them.
"… When lying down I was now able to relax the most rigid of tensions and to restrict the circle of my attention to my nose. At this point everything went hazy, just as though my head were starting to spin, and I slept the peaceful sleep of Mr. Cat. Relaxing your muscles whilst simultaneously decreasing the circle of your attention is clearly a good cure for insomnia ".
A Strategy of Its Own
If you have ever seen how a searchlight locates its target you will have noticed that, sweeping a wide field first of all, it gradually narrows it down and finally concentrates on a particular area. It periodically makes a wide, reconnaissance sweep and again homes in on one spot.
This is the best strategy for locating any target, one you should follow when relaxing in Auto-Training. For the first few seconds aim to relieve all tension in general, immediately relaxing the whole body: the pose itself helps a little. Then let your attention sweep over your body a couple of times without concentrating on any one point in particular: the most persistent tensions will appear of their own accord.
You can help yourself relax with verbal and mental Auto-Suggestion, for example:
Relaxation of tension
My muscles are relaxing,
relaxing easily and quickly.
my muscles are relaxing more easily,
my muscles are relaxing more fully,
my muscles are relaxing more deeply.
All tension disappears immediately.
My arms are relaxing more deeply,
now my right arm. and my left arm.
My legs are relaxing more deeply,
now my right leg,
and my left leg.
My neck's relaxing more deeply,
now the back of my head,
and my shoulders.
My chest's relaxing more deeply,
now my stomach,
and the base of my back.
My fingers are relaxing more deeply,
and my wrists.
My face is relaxing more deeply.
Continue in this vein, using any expressions you like in any order. After a while you will find what works best for you.
These formulas can be very condensed, for example:
or they can take the form of an order:
Whatever form you choose, the aim is the same: to improve muscle and nerve tone, to relax excess tension and to create a sense of confidence and peace. This does not always come easily or quickly since tensions tend to lurk in the parts of our bodies we are least conscious of where they continue to hinder our attempts to relax and act efficiently.
For a long time one of Stanislavsky's able students did not act as well as her potential promised; her talent seem suppressed in some way. Whenever something was important she always overacted and lost her spontaneity. No exercises helped in the least until someone realised that when this happened her right eyebrow always lifted slightly. This was the fateful tension that ruined everything. She began to work on relaxing her facial muscles and the results were astounding.
"…Her feelings could now find expression: they escaped from the depths of her subconscious as though released from a sack".
Clearly our psychological and physical state and behaviour hang on the finest of physiological threads.
Although the muscles we tense vary, people still have "pet tensions":
• constant tension in the forehead, the eyelids and along the bridge of the nose are common if you spend a great deal of time worrying about distressing situations, including health issues;
• tension in the mouth, lips and jaws are often found in those who are lonely, irritable and dissatisfied;
• tension in the neck, back of the head and shoulders ("tonic stooping") is common in the young and those lacking in self-confidence;
• tension in the elbow joint and fingers are often present in those who are full of nervous energy, anxious and slow to trust;
• tension in the larynx, throat, diaphragm and abdomen when we breathe and all the more so when we speak often accompany a lack of self-confidence, an irritable disposition and, in many cases, stuttering.
There are a number of different combinations of tension, each giving physical expression to an individual’s current state of mind and their attitude to themselves and the world. By observing yourself in everyday situations and during Auto-Training you will be able to see what your own pet tensions are and can then start working to eliminate them.
I have been told these exercises are a bit boring and I quite agree. But be patient, practise and you will be surprised at the results. After all, if someone hopes to become a concert pianist he or she accepts the need to practise scales. So why not get down topractising these relaxation scales with a will? There are also a few other exercises here which can be used either as a supplement to routine Auto-Training or just on their own.
Scales for relaxation
Relax your right wrist completely and, with your elbow resting on a table, let it hang down loosely. Try to make it as floppy as a whip. Do the same with the left wrist, both together, and then in turn.
1) Relax your fingers until they are like wax so each joint is as loose as possible. This is difficult since the fingers are generally tensed, but just trying to relax them totally is a good way of calming down.
2) Sitting or lying on a bed, let your shoulders hang (or lie) loosely and bend your elbow so your arm forms a right angle. Now let your arm fall back under its own weight, again like a whip. Notice the contrast: how tense your muscles are as you bend your arm and how relaxed as you let it go. Repeat with your left and right arm alternately, both together, and while relaxing the wrists and fingers.
3) Standing, sitting, lying or walking steadily raise your right arm and let it fall down loosely. Repeat with each arm alternately and with both together. Aim at making them flap loosely like the empty sleeves of a jacket.
4) Standing, sitting or walking at an even pace, swing your relaxed arms like pendulums gradually increasing and decreasing the sweep of the swing (like the empty sleeves of a jacket flapping in the wind).
5) Lying: press your right arm hard onto the bed. Relax and note the contrast. Repeat with each arm alternately and with both together.
6) Standing on a low stool or a large book, swing your unsupported leg loosely like a pendulum. Now try the other leg.
7) Sitting with your knees bent and legs slightly apart swing your thighs, bringing your legs together and then apart. Stretch one leg out, raise it slightly and release. Repeat with each leg alternately and with both together.
8) Lying down with one leg bent and supported by the heel on the bed: swing your hips to either side. Repeat with each leg alternately and with both together. Raise your legs, bending at the hip and the knee so your weight is supported evenly by the hip joint. Swing your thighs freely to either side and back and forwards as though they were on hinges. Do this at the same time as relaxing your arms, wrists and fingers.
9) Standing as in exercise 7, bend your unsupported leg at the knee and release. Repeat with the other leg. Repeat standing on the ground and trying to raise your knees as high as possible.
10) Sitting with your knees bent and your legs slightly apart: relax one leg so that it is supported freely on the heel. Repeat with each leg alternately and with both together. Repeat lying down.
11) Sitting with your knees bent at an angle of about 100°, pressing on your heels, bend your foot up towards your shin. Relax. Repeat with both feet together and alternately.
Sitting with legs slightly apart, stretched out and supported on the heel: swing your feet loosely to either side as though they were on hinges. Repeat with each foot alternately and with both together. Repeat lying down.
It is difficult to relax the feet since, after years of immobility, in adults they are chronically tense and are only fully relaxed in young babies. It is even harder to relax the toes: for most people they are just a completely inert mass.
12) Sitting and standing: raise your shoulders high and release them.
First try the left, then the right, and then each alternately and both together.
13) Standing: bend forward, letting your torso and arms hang loosely.
14) Sitting up straight: flop back into the chair.
15) Sitting up straight with your legs apart, your elbows on your thighs: slump forwards from the waist, letting your head and arms hang loosely.
16) From an upright sitting position slump heavily to one side with your arms relaxed, and lean on the arm of the chair or sofa. Repeat, to either side in turn.
17) Lying: lift your torso slightly and release.
18) Standing or sitting, drop your head onto your chest as though you were falling asleep. Repeat standing, with your elbows supported on a table. In this position you can easily rock your head from side to side.
19) Standing: roll your head round slowly, lightly and freely. Repeat in the other direction. (This can sometimes relieve headaches).
20) Lying on your back, raise your head slightly and release it. Turn your head to one side and release it. Repeat lying on your stomach: turn your head from side to side.
21) A movement recommended in yoga: lying on your back on a rug or carpet but without a pillow with your arms alongside your body and your palms upwards ("pose of oblivion" or "the sunbather pose"), without lifting your head, turn it from side to side. This is believed to make the neck supple and to improve the blood supply to the brain. It also helps to calm down and relax.
22) Another movement of a similar type: lying on your back, slowly move the back of the head as though you were trying to smooth out a ruck in the carpet. This will quickly help to relax the muscles of the neck, the back of the head and the face and is a very effective way of changing your mental state.
23) Clamp your jaws together and relax (as though chewing), open your mouth wide (yawning), let your jaw drop down into its natural position (disbelief). Notice that you involuntarily hold your breath when your jaws are either tightly clamped together or wide open. You resume normal breathing again as soon as you relax.
24) Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth and then relax it. Press it against your upper and lower teeth, to the right and the left. Stick it out as far as you can. Relax. (When relaxed. your tongue naturally rests against the upper teeth).
25) To relax your face, close your eyes and direct your gaze downwards and inwards, let your lower jaw hang down and protrude slightly and have your tongue relaxed and resting lightly against your upper teeth. Not too aesthetic but quite useful, this relaxed face is sometimes part of medical Auto-Training. It also helps you to fall asleep at will and to move quickly into advanced stages of Auto-Training.
A Smile for Yourself
It is particularly difficult but very important to be able to control the tone of your face, the focus of the "psychological" muscular system. As in the exercises for the body muscles these exercises are based on the contrast between tension and relaxation and on catching the sensations you experience.
Wrinkle your forehead by raising your eyebrows (surprise). Relax. Try to keep your forehead absolutely smooth for one minute. Frown (anger) and relax your eyebrows. Open your eyes wide (fear), relax your eyebrows and eyelids. Screw up your eyes (as if expecting a blow), and relax. Dilate your nostrils (as though sniffing), relax; contract your nostrils and release them. Raise your upper lip and wrinkle your nose (contempt). Relax. Bare your teeth (fury) and relax your cheeks and mouth. Stretch your lower lip downwards (disgust), relax.
The main aim of these and any other exercises you care to think up along these lines is to develop your muscle sense in the face and your control over the tone of the facial muscles. If you are in a stressful situation, relaxing your face is always a good way of staying calm. In addition, you will probably notice that concentrating on these facial exercises will help you to feel mentally alert.
Your smile is something entirely different and I hesitate to talk of "training" yourself to smile. It is, of course, possible to analyse the elements of tension and relaxation in a smile, but that is not the point. The important thing is that your smile gives pleasure as well as being a response to it. It is worth taking time to enjoy smiling, particularly if you are inclined to be irritable or moody. There is no need to put on a smile for anyone in particular, just smile for yourself; only a natural smile coming from within will convince others. In Samadhi (a state of bliss) the face assumes an expression similar to a slight smile (Buddha’s smile). This is attained by pulling the corners of the mouth and the eyes back and upwards and by smoothing out the cheeks as though trying to pull the ears back a little (some people find their ears do actually move). Try out this expression and hold it for a minute or two; your mood will change.
How to Look Into Your Own Eyes
If you want to discover someone's mood it is very useful to look for the answer in his or her eyes. Unfortunately, we cannot do this for ourselves since a mirror inevitably distorts our true expression.
Our present aim is very modest but nevertheless requires some skill: to relax our eyes, that is, master a way of helping ourselves feel calm. Vision is controlled by the eyelid muscles, whose state we can observe directly, and by the hidden muscles of the eyeball. With practice, it is possible to relax both sets of muscles.
Lower your eyelids a little so you can see them and you will notice that they are trembling. Try to keep them still. Although you will not succeed at first and the trembling will even increase, after a little training you can reduce and stop it altogether. Gazing out into the distance helps.
Close your eyes. Now release your eyelids and let them assume their own natural position. If you are in an active state this will leave your eyes a little open. Repeat several times, trying to find the position of maximum relaxation.
Here is a very simple but effective technique for calming down that we sometimes use unconsciously: stroke your fingers lightly around your temples, eyebrows, forehead and eyes. This can also help to calm a child and send him or her to sleep. (The endings of hypogenous nerves are evidently concentrated in these areas).
Turn your gaze inwards and downwards and your eyelids will automatically begin to droop. Let your gaze return to its original position. Do this several times and it is very likely that you will feel a slight dizziness and drowsiness. This is another method of relaxing your eye muscles that can also help insomnia.
One more exercise.
Lying down or sitting in an armchair: open your eyes wide and gaze into infinity for 3 minutes. Let your thoughts wander freely if you like, although it is best if you contemplate some abstract concept ("eternity", for example). This exercise relaxes your eyes and mind.
By improvising with eye exercises you will discover that you possess a hidden and very subtle mechanism for calming yourself, toning up, and changing your mood. I have only sketched a very few, general techniques here, you can try a lot more.
The Sliding Pendulum
This is the essence of the preceding exercises on localised relaxation; you will find it easier when your muscle sense is already fairly well developed.
When I first devised it I was delighted how easy it became to feel totally liberated from all inner inhibitions. It was, of course, a clear case of reinventing the wheel since, for example, tribal dances that are thousands of years old are clearly similar and give comparable results.
A quick way to ease tension and fatigue is to gently tense and relax all the muscles of the body's major joints in turn, from your feet to your head and back again. Do so 2-3 times, tensing and relaxing 3-5 times at each joint. You can either go down, starting with gentle shakes and nods of the head, or go up from the toes (both feet together or each in turn), tensing and relaxing the foot, the shin by bending the knees, the thighs by bending at the hip, and so on. The movements should be light and careless, as though your joints were free-moving hinges.
This exercise gives best results when performed lying down. It can be done before and after Auto-Training and helps you to relax and tone up.
Early Results of Superficial Relaxation
You now know how to relax your muscles, a fundamental technique of Auto-Training. So far, we have only touched on superficial, moderate sub-relaxation, that is, the removal of excess nervous and muscular tension. Deep relaxation that prepares the body for sleep (self-hypnosis) is still to come.
You may, of course, already have found that even moderate relaxation nearly sends you to sleep: in both relaxation and toning up (which we will be dealing with shortly), a chain reaction is set up. (Remember the pendulum in chapter 3). Nevertheless, at present, we are not concerned with trying to get to sleep (although any insomniacs will naturally be interested in this and it will come sometime soon). We are trying to learn how to gain full control of our muscle tone since this will help us regulate our moods, energy and stamina. In turn, this will liberate our ability to communicate and make it possible for us to go on to more intensive, goal-orientated Auto-Suggestion. It is extremely important to learn now to relax and remain relaxed in your everyday life: during Auto-Training you are only training.
Once you know how pleasant and easy it is to be relaxed you will start to reap the benefits whatever you are doing and whatever effort you are making: whether you are working, resting, talking or playing. You will acquire a body sense that will help you attain a more balanced state of mind and greater spontaneity and which, when perfected, is pure virtuosity. Your sense of humour will almost certainly improve even without your noticing it. As far as such delights as high blood-pressure, ulcers and the like are concerned, all I can say is, that if they do not beg for mercy immediately it is all the worse for them: the really serious stuff is still to come.
Remember when practising Auto-Training that you have all the time in the world and the order you do the exercises in is not as important as having a concentrated and confident attitude so that you feel you are totally absorbed in each one.
It you have decided to work through the whole course of Auto-Training systematically, then it is best to spend 2-3 weeks concentrating on localised relaxation. Some people require longer; anyone inclined to be tense will find it helpful to do these exercises conscientiously every day. Gradually your subconscious will discipline itself to observe your muscles automatically at all times. You can add relaxation exercises to any programme of Auto-Training you devise.
I would like to stress once more that if you first take your time looking at all the exercises and decide what you most need then this will cut down your choice. Although it is certainly worth giving everything a try.