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  • Writer's pictureJohn Blue

Why Can't We Relax??

The most common question beginners ask is, "Why can't I relax?" Let's explore the problem and experiment with tension together.




Hello friends! I think you’ll love today’s lesson.

In our next practice phase, we will discuss techniques for training specific body areas. For instance, movements to release our stuck shoulders and ways to get our hips to relax. Before we begin, however, I want to address one of the most common questions:

"Why can't we relax?"

You've noticed that I spend a lot of time talking about softening the body and easing the mind. But, obviously, if you knew how to let go, you'd have done it already! It's normal for beginners to be eager to relax but to need clarification about how to make it happen.


Let's try an experiment together. Hold your hand in front of you and squeeze it into a tight fist.

(If you have hand pain, difficulties with circulation, or nerve damage, please sit this out.)

Are you still squeezing? Don't stop now.

Squeeze a little bit tighter. Look at your hand as you exert even more pressure on your fingers. Can you see how your fingers turn pale as blood compresses away? Small areas might be turning purple as the circulation becomes stagnant.

Just a few more seconds, squeezing your thumb tighter toward your little finger.

When we finish in a moment, please do not open your hand or shake it out. Instead, only stop the inward squeezing pressure. Don't add an opening, just stop the closing, and we will see what happens.

Ready? Stop.


Pay attention to what is happening. How long did it take before the color returned to your hand as circulation was restored? Was it becoming painful? Do you notice that your hand did not immediately spring back open and return to normal? Did it remain in basically the same shape as the fist? How much does it reopen without moving or shaking your hand? Again, we are only experimenting with letting go of the inward-moving tension without adding force on the outside of your hand to counterbalance it.


Now, use some strength to open your fingers and palm. Do you notice how stiff and hesitant they are to move? How about your wrist and forearm? It's as though some of the force is trapped in your hand from that brief moment of tension. Like you partially maintain that fist, even when your hand is open. Isn't that fascinating? You can have an open hand while still holding the ghost of a fist.


Now you can understand what much of our tension is! It's movement that gets stuck in our bodies. Expressions that we forgot to let it go when they finished. Phantoms of the past, trapped and ignored in the present moment.

We only held the clenching for a short moment. What would have happened if you kept that fist for an hour? Can you imagine how stiff you'd feel? How far up your arm the tension and fatigue would spread? What about if you held it for a week? A year? 20 years?


What I am describing is a common state of many humans. This rigidity is one of the imbalances healed during qigong practice. Imagine how much better you'll feel when freed from this stagnation. How light and open once you stop tightening your whole body? How much more rested and vibrant once you stop wasting so much energy? Recall when you were a child before these patterns became cemented into your body. Can you remember the feeling of moving like water during play? Effortless and free. Bookmark that feeling in your memory because we will return to it soon.


This remembered sense of comfort invites the nagging question: How did we get like this? Life is complicated, but we can imagine an example.

A kid going to school may wear a backpack filled with books. Their legs get tired, and they start locking their knees every day. This rigidity takes the pressure off their immature muscles and puts the weight into their joints. And, because they are young, this feels like a good trade-off. Only later do we suffer the side effects of weak muscles and worn-out joints. With our knees locked, we push our hips forward to stand up straight. This angle forces our lower back to arch excessively and our neck and shoulders to round forward in a hunch. In this posture, the weight of our head weighs down on our neck and upper back. It's impossible to relax in this new and deformed posture! Does any of this sound familiar? It's only one possible root cause, but it's pervasive.


DOI: 10.1097/01.bpo.0000217723.14631.6e


DOI: 10.1097/01.BRS.0000058725.18067.F7


When I was young and carrying a backpack to school, I had many back pain and spinal alignment issues. I discovered that when I got home from school, I could drop my book bag simply through relaxing my shoulders. It would slide easily to the floor because I had been holding it up by keeping my shoulders tense. Decades later, I noticed the same habit when wearing overalls as a carpenter. My shoulder straps would slide off if I practiced qigong while wearing work clothing. I had been unconsciously holding up my pants by holding up my shoulders. No wonder I began developing arm pain during the workday!


This is a very typical problem to have. People wearing baggy pants must walk with hip and leg tension to keep their slacks up. Somebody wearing flip-flops will keep their feet tight to prevent their shoes from falling off. Someone with ill-fitting glasses may compress their face to keep their lenses from sliding down. One of the most common concerns in my clinic has been clients constantly clenching their abdomen in public to give the illusion of a slim waist. These are destructive habits for a host of reasons.


Take a moment and write down the backstory to your imbalances in the comment section below. I read and respond to everything you share and am genuinely curious about your experiences!

After decades of the pain started by their poor childhood habits, you'd think people would fix the imbalances and heal their spine. We're finally adults and should be able to solve our problems. Right? Wrong. Most people have no idea why they are in pain. Or worse, they use methods that only worsen the situation over time.


Let's return to the example of the clenched fist.

The most common way of changing the shape of your hand is to force it open. You move your fingers without first releasing the tension of the grip. The fist is still there, but you overcame that tension with enough effort to force your hand open.

Let me repeat that. Because you didn't first let go of the pressure holding the fist, you had to push the hand open, effectively doubling the tension in your arm.


Notice how tension continues to accumulate with each new movement? We must continually release some of the old tension to keep our whole arm from locking up. Ideally, we would completely let go of the previous hand shape with each new movement. That's our goal. To constantly release the past to be fully where we are. It is a powerful lesson, and one that we can use our bodies to teach to our hearts & minds.

Instead, we tend to ignore our accumulating problems. Look at your fist, and then hide it behind your back so you can't see it anymore. Look, the problem is gone! It's only a joke, but it represents the choices we make about our lives. We stop being able to feel our rigid lower back, our repressed emotions, and our held breath. So, they continue to worsen, forgotten, entirely outside our conscious awareness.


What experiences are you currently hiding from? What can you do today to deal with them more directly? Again, share with the community here or on social media. Visiting a therapist or other expert can also be beneficial if you feel it's too big to deal with alone. Bringing awareness to our lives is always the first step in healing. You can do it!


Again, clench your hand into a fist. Notice your mind. What is your internal relationship to your hand? Try holding a pen or pencil. What is your mental-emotional relationship to the object in your grip? How will that impact how you express yourself through writing or drawing? These clumsy and rigid interactions hold true for the rest of the tension in your mind and body. Tension makes us unable to move smoothly, feel clearly, or act elegantly in the world. How does your current mental and emotional stress level change how you behave in your relationships? How different will you feel and live once you again find the freedom you experienced as a youth? How much easier will life become?


Like before, don't force your hand open, but stop clenching. This time, instead of trying to spread your fingers, begin to make circles with your wrist. You can even include your elbow a bit. Notice what is happening to your fist. The movement can be directed outward through your fingers, loosening and restoring your hand. It shows the effectiveness of movement as a method for reducing frozen spaces throughout your body. As long as we let go of the tight holding patterns, the qigong will be able to open our bodies effortlessly over time.


Try shaking your hand as though flicking water from your fingertips. How does that change the sensations in your hand? Is it more or less vibrant and sensitive? Is it more calming or energizing? Begin to notice how each technique brings a different quality to your body-mind. Each qigong exercise is carefully chosen to guide your cultivation. Follow the steps outlined for you, and your progress toward healing is assured.


What's Next?:


Spend the next little while paying attention to stagnation in your body and mind. Don't obsess over it, as that may lead to a cycle of tension creating more tension, creating more tension, until you explode or have a meltdown. Instead, develop a friendly awareness of how you are doing at any moment, and practice learning to let go. Take a note in your practice journal about the places that seem the least responsive to your attention. You can even draw a little illustration of your body and highlight spots that need special care and love.

The next lesson will explore why relaxing individual muscles, one at a time, isn't a very effective way to train. We will learn how to release the grip at a deeper level instead of chasing sensations of discomfort from one place to another. You might want to review the lesson called "Stop Gripping Your Mind" if you tend to hyperfocus during practice.


Homework:


To develop the ability to feel tension in our body, we can practice tightening a muscle and then letting it go. As with our fist experiment, it draws lots of awareness to an area that might otherwise be numb and ignored. Please pay attention to how it feels to compress and release around a joint. This activity announces to a sluggish nervous system that it needs to pay attention. Play with this method until you find it easy to feel any localized tension around your joints.




Carefully notice that tension is a freezing movement traveling inward and often upward. The release then allows that movement to soften outward through the body, usually downward, with the flow of gravity.

Remember that feeling of being a child, free and easy? Find that again. Be playful and curious. Try smiling at your experiences of stress. Grinning helps to ease the qi. You cannot even say "qigong" without smiling. Try it!

And enjoy your practice.


Remember that this is only a tiny part of a more extensive system and sequence of teaching videos. Subscribe to my channel to learn more!


Make sure that you begin your practice at the beginning of the sequence



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