Although stress resulting from the complications of life was referred to as far back as 100-200 B.C. in The Yellow Emperor, the oldest extant major Chinese medical text, the complications of to-day’s life are surely without parallel. Especially for doctors and other health professionals whose time, energy and commitment to caring for the welfare of others are being stressed by ever more stringent guidelines, there’s no doubt that releasing tension is vital to their own, as well as their patients,’ wellbeing. The question is, how to do it?
For many, meditation, or “stilling” the mind and clearing it of the incessant, often negative or fearful chatter that precludes any sense of calm, is fast becoming the answer. Aerobic devotees on the other hand rely on some form of rigorous physical activity, while the I-don’t-want-to-work-at-it ones count on an array of sedating influences to quell their pent-up tensions – massage, steam baths, dinner out and the theatre, sex, a drive in the country, hobbies and so on, and of course, tranquilizers and drugs, legal or otherwise.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that – the “or otherwise” excepted – but they all require either time or a cash expenditure and, for the most part, the necessity of taking oneself to some physical location. What would be helpful is something that doesn’t take more than a few minutes at a time and that can be done wherever there’s quasi privacy. Or at least where others are tuned in to the same thing.
What fits the bill nicely is stretching, though it requires some explanation. Most people use stretching exercises for maintaining flexibility and as preparation for activities, as well as for cooling down afterward. This type of stretching, though beneficial, is fairly superficial and doesn’t reach the more underlying layers of muscle where deep-seated tension is firmly embedded. As long as this tension remains lodged, a true sense of relaxation is impossible.
Releasing tension from these deeper muscles requires a different approach. It means using passive body weight and, sometimes, resistance, as well as staying with a stretch long enough for the effect to reach the deeper layers. This type of stretching induces a general feeling of calm throughout the body, even though the stretch is affecting only one particular area. A special advantage is that many of these stretches can be done without a change of clothes, which makes them ideal to use during working hours. And the time involvement is negligible.
Although different people hold tension in different parts of the body, the neck, shoulders and back are, for most, prime areas of concern. These are the areas that the simple stretch below will be helpful for. The sure sign that it’s worked will be the desire to take a good, deep breath afterward; if not inhibited, that breath invariably follows the release of tension.
Sit on a stool or toward the front of a chair with your feet apart and flat on the floor and your back erect. Rest your hands on your thighs.
Lower your head slowly over your chest, close your eyes and relax your neck so the back of your head drops over as much as possible, but without forcing.
Now slowly relax your lower back and abdomen, then your upper back and chest so you sink down into yourself, shoulders over your hips.
In this slumped down position, mentally scan your body for any feeling of hold- ing, or tightness, in your neck, jaw, shoulders, stomach, back, arms, or legs, and let go of it. Let your breath out heavily with each out-breath and allow yourself to feel “collapsed.”
Stay in this weighted-down position as long as you feel comfortable. When you’re ready to bring yourself up, leave your head dropped over, your eyes closed, and slowly straighten your spine until your back feels straight. Then straighten your head, take a deep breath and let it out.
To counteract the stretch, bend your elbows raising your arms to shoulder height, then press them backward as you press your chest forward (keep your elbows wide apart so they don’t “fold” behind you!).
Lower your arms to your sides – elbows still bent – and circle your shoulders easily several times, lifting them up, back, down and forward.