Releasing tension with a contractandrelease exercise

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The object of this contract-and-release exercise is to release tension in your body and bring your mind into the present moment. You isolate different areas of your body one at a time, starting with your toes and working your way up to your head. In each body area, you contract your muscles hard and then gently relax them. The idea is to tense each muscle group hard, without straining, for about five to ten seconds, and then suddenly let go of the tension or contraction. When you release your muscles, you do so fully and abruptly, relaxing and letting your body fall completely limp. In this way, you achieve a state of deeper relaxation, and you systematically relieve tension from different areas of your body.

Visualize each muscle group you're working on in your mind's eye before you contract and relax the muscle group. By directing your thoughts into a part of your body, you can discover the nerve pathways necessary for relaxation. You discover how to relax by directing your mental energy toward your body.

Repeat the contract-and-release sequence three times with each part of your body you're working on. Hold the first contraction for five counts, the second for about seven, and the third for about ten. As you do so, inhale through your nose during contractions and exhale through pursed lips after you relax your muscles. Inhale deeply, yet not so deeply that you feel discomfort in your chest or lungs.

This exercise takes a bit of time — perhaps 10 to 20 minutes — but it's well worth the effort. Follow these steps to do the contract-and-release exercise:

1. Lie down on your back in a quiet, comfortable place, and take a few deep, slow, Abdominal Breaths (Chapter 4 explains what these breaths are).

As you exhale, notice the weight of your body and how that weight is distributed on the carpet or on your yoga mat.

In the next seven steps, starting with your toes and working upward, contract and relax muscle groups for five seconds.

2. Direct your attention to your right and left legs and, in a wavelike action that moves from your feet upward, tighten your feet by curling your toes downward, and then relax.

If your muscles cramp, relax and gently shake off the cramp or wait until it stops, and then start again. Sometimes the muscles act up because you haven't used them in such a deep way for a while.

3. Move the contractions up higher, tightening your calf muscles while flexing your toes toward you or turning your toes under (do whichever feels best).

4. Move the contraction higher again, engaging the muscles of your thighs all the way up to your hips.

You may tighten your buttocks along with your thighs, because the thigh muscles attach to that area. Feel your thigh muscles smoothing out and relaxing completely as you exhale.

5. Tighten and relax your buttocks, hips, and abdominal areas.

6. Contract and release your back and chest.

As you relax, imagine a wave of release moving smoothly downward from your chest. Feel the excess tension in your chest flowing away with each exhalation.

7. Clench your fists and feel the contraction moving up your arms; relax your arms and hands.

If you have to lift your arms from the floor, you can do so. Notice the muscles around your shoulder blades pushing in.

8. Tense and relax the muscles in your neck, forehead, face, and scalp, as well as the muscles around your ears.

Be careful not to grind your teeth. Feel the frown lines on your face melting away.

9. Repeat Steps 2 through 8, holding each muscle contraction for seven counts before releasing.

10. Repeat Steps 2 through 8 again, holding each muscle contraction for ten counts before releasing.

11. Take a deep, full breath and mentally scan your body for any tension that still remains; notice where you're still holding tight, and contract and relax the muscles there.

Feel your body resting deeply.

12. Inhale and, as you gently hold your breath, contract your muscles everywhere — bottom to top, front to back, inside to outside, outside to inside, forward and back, up and down.

Feel a wave of contraction moving from your held breath into every area of your body.

13. Exhaling quickly through your mouth, release all the muscles you've been contracting.

You'll hear a swooshing or deep-releasing ahh sound that rises from your belly as you exhale.

14. Repeat Steps 12 and 13 three times.

Finish by resting gently. Let your breathing become natural again. Enjoy the sensations of your body resting on the floor.

Playing a bit of soothing music in the background helps some people with this exercise. And this exercise is a great way to finish off a yoga-with-weights workout!

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