Struggling to Relax? Try Softening Instead

Struggling to Relax? Try Softening Instead

Getty/JLco - Julia Amaral

Does a yoga instructor’s cue of “just relax” cause you to tense up even more? Experiment with the act of softening.

In many of the yoga, somatic movement, and meditation classes I’ve attended, the teacher has frequently urged students to relax. I, too, have invited participants in my workshops and classes to do the same. “Relax your shoulders,” I say to one student while eyeing others carrying tension in their trapezius muscles.

The Benefits of Relaxation and How It Works

Being relaxed is invaluable to our health. The benefits are numerous: lower blood pressure, better sleep and energy, less anxiety and depression, and a more resilient immune system are just some of the rewards of relaxation.

Relaxation works in accordance with the parasympathetic nervous system, the network of nerves that helps run pivotal body processes like digestion. When relaxed, we’re more somatically alert, responsive to what’s going on, and in connection with who we are. A relaxed state can lead us to being in flow and in presence.

Why It’s So Hard to “Just Relax”

The problem with inviting relaxation in a yoga, movement, or meditation class, no matter how well intended, is that stress can obstruct the very path to its alleviation. If only it were as simple as hearing the word relax to prompt immediate, welcome relief.

Try relaxing your breath for deepening respiration and watch the difficulties mount. A once seemingly easy function suddenly becomes problematic and unfamiliar, and we fumble like a novice with both inhalation and exhalation. Relaxing is a process. It takes time for muscles to release and blood flow to increase. Too often, we think of relaxing as an on/off switch; any difficulty we have in toggling the switch or the absence of immediate relief provokes frustration.

Unfortunately, many of us experience unreasonable levels of stress daily. Under stress, our battery quickly loses juice, muscles contract, and we close ourselves off emotionally and mentally. A more expansive connection to self and others narrows as we use all of our available energy to complete the day’s tasks.

The Effectiveness of Softening vs. Relaxation

An alternative instruction I use to great effect in my workshops is to soften. The act of softening is a game changer. Softening elicits kinesthetic awareness. Like relaxing, softening is a process, its potency transmitted through a gentle progression of incremental changes. We slowly let go, one muscle fiber and connective tissue after another. The gradual release of softening avoids the either/or dynamic of relaxed versus unrelaxed. We allow softening to take place, our sensory intelligence engaged. Then we allow some more, going at our own speed and stopping when we feel done.

Using an image helps. Imagine butter softening in heat. Imagine a hard apricot softening on the kitchen counter. Imagine a frown softening into a smile. Imagine your stress, tightness, anxiety, or pain softening bit by bit, breath by breath, one sensual cue after another.

Practices for Softening

Soften a Part of the Body

Get into a comfortable position. Choose an area of your body you’d like to work on. Place your attention there, be still, and invite the area to soften. Use the image of butter softening or another preferred image.

Watch your breath, especially the exhale, and welcome it into your lower abdomen. Soften for several minutes or as long as needed. Alternate your awareness between the chosen area of your body and the exhalations.

Soften an Emotion or Thought

Softening works equally well with non-location-specific ailments like anxiety or a disturbing thought. Get into a comfortable position and choose an area of the body where the ailment or thought might dwell. There are only correct choices, so there’s no need to worry if it’s the wrong place. The softening will go where it’s needed. Choose the first or second place that comes to mind. Or do a quick body scan and let your attention land where it’s drawn.

Once a location is established, be still and invite it to soften. Use the butter softening image or another preferred one. Let your awareness alternate between the chosen area of your body and the exhalations. Notice any physical, mental, and emotional changes that take place. Continue until you feel done.

How Softening Can Help the Body Heal

What’s appealing about softening is that it not only works on the problem area, but it frequently also extends to the entire body. The focus of one moment of softening may be the neck, for instance, but once the softening starts, the jaw, chest, belly, and rest of the body follow.

Additionally, we may be the initiators of the softening but once it gets started, we get to experience being passive recipients of the gentle cascade of relief, each breath and gradual release of connective tissue transforming tension, energy blocks, and pain.

Softening leads to the much sought-after relaxed state which coincides with the release of endorphins, the hormone that delivers happy feelings and acts as a natural painkiller. Softening is a reminder that when we’re at ease, it’s easier to deal with the demands upon our attention. We’re responsive and supple, not reactive and rigid, in flow with a child’s laugh or yet another email requiring a reply. Additionally, and perhaps most welcome, there’s ample energy for pursuing and transforming any moment into what brings us joy.

Try this exercise for progressive relaxation.

Struggling to Relax Try Softening Instead

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.