Why relaxation exercises do more harm than good is a question which F.Matthias Alexander raises and then explains in his first book.(1)
And he describes the type of exercise which he particularly dislikes thus: “The usual procedure is to instruct the pupil, who is either sitting or lying on the floor, to relax, or to do what he or she understands by relaxing. The result is invariably collapse (2)
According to Alexander “there must inevitably follow a general lowering of vitality which will be felt the moment regular duties are taken up again, and which will soon bring about the return of the old troubles in an exaggerated form.” (3)
Different meanings of the term “relaxation”
Alexander then goes on to identify two meanings of the term “relaxation.
1. The first involves an overall letting go of muscle tension, or a letting go of muscle tension in a particular part of the body without at the same time bringing the whole body into a state of overall coordination. I think that this is the way in which the term relaxation is most commonly used today.
2. He then goes on to explain a second meaning of relaxation, which is the type we are looking to develop with the Alexander technique. “For relaxation really means a due tension of the parts of the muscular system intended by nature to be constantly more or less tensed, together with a relaxation of those parts intended by nature to be more or less relaxed.”(4)
When we say that a runner or a singer has a relaxed style of running or singing, what we are seeing is only the muscular activity precisely required for the activity and no more. Comfortable, fluid and graceful use of the body has this dual combination which Alexander describes.
Relaxation in Tai Chi
In Chinese we don’t have a precise English equivalent for the word “song” 松 which is very often translated as relaxed.
In his translator's introduction to Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan, Louis Swaim describes the nuances of this term thus:
“Etymologically the term song is based on a character for "long hair that hangs down" -- that is, hair that is loosened and expanded, not "drawn up." Therefore, "loosened" and "loosen" are more accurate renderings for song and fang song. The phonetic element that gives the character song its pronunciation means, by itself, "a pine tree," which carries an associated imagery of "longevity," much as evergreens are associated with ongoing vitality in the West. This may provide a clue to the Taijiquan usage of this term, which must not be confused with total relaxation, but is closer to an optimal state of the condition referred to as tonus in English anatomical parlance; that is, the partial contraction of the musculature, which allows one to maintain equilibrium and upright posture. The aligned equilibrium this is prescribed in Taijiquan is associated with imagery of being "suspended" from the crown of the head. One can, therefore, draw upon the available imagery of both something that is loosened and hangs down, and that of the upright pine, whose limbs do not droop down, but are buoyant and lively.”
Relaxation in meditation practice
We encounter the archetypal picture of the Buddha sitting in meditation in every Buddhist temple e in the world. What we see in all of these images is a body pose embodying 松 (song) and the second type of relaxation which Alexander describes. We have the steady and connected core from the top of the head to the contact of the legs and pelvis on the floor (the pine tree) along with the complete flowing ease though every muscle not required to hold the posture.
Most people find it impossible to assume such a pose and often suffer considerable discomfort as they attempt to do so. Over-rigidity or collapse become the only options if we have not re-learned or have maintained from childhood a free and natural coordination in our everyday activities. In some traditions that pain and discomfort felt in meditation are attributed to “samskaras” - the subtle impressions of our past actions. And samskaras of course are embodied in our postural habits. The Alexander technique provides the most efficient means which I know of, of regaining this coordination.
Alexander F.M. – Man’s Supreme Inheritance – Chaterson Ltd, London 1946 p.vi
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