The following seven stretches were chosen to relax the major muscle groups. In doing these exercises, keep two things in mind.
- These are gentle letting-go stretches. The best way to develop a supple, limber, and relaxed body is to focus on melting into each stretch. Never bounce or push beyond what feels comfortable. Bouncing defeats the purpose of stretching because the quick pull on the muscle fibers alerts special sensors within the muscle to the sudden overstretch. Nerve signals from those receptors then automatically shorten the muscle. Bouncing therefore causes muscle fibers to shorten and tense rather than lengthen and relax. Bouncing can also strain or tear muscles as you pull on a group of shortened muscle fibers.
- If you have any physical problem that limits your ability to exercise, consult with your physician before doing these or any other exercises. Taking responsibility for knowing your own limits is an important mind/body skill in itself, since many stressed people got that way in the first place through a tendency to overdo things! Read each exercise through and study the illustration before you try it.
RELAXER 1: THE WALL HANG
Note: If you have any tendency toward back pain, bend your knees slightly before you begin to avoid any strain on your lower back.
Stand with your back to the wall, feet about shoulder width apart and nine to twelve inches out from the wall. Press the small of your back against the wall so that every vertebra is in contact with it. Close your eyes, breathe out a sigh of relief, and shift to abdominal breathing. Breathe slowly and naturally throughout this exercise. Begin by dropping your chin toward your chest. Drop your shoulders forward and then begin peeling your backbone off the wall, a single vertebra at a time if you can, continuing to drop forward. Your hips will slide up the wall as your upper body drops down. When you have dropped as far as you can, just hang there. Let your head and shoulders go like a rag doll. Take several breaths as you hang loose. Now gradually come back up, thinking about reattaching your vertebrae to the wall, one at a time. When you get back up, lean against the wall, breathing abdominally, to rest.
RELAXER 2: THE FOUNTAIN
Stand with your legs about shoulder width apart. Inhale and stretch your arms way up over your head, locking your thumbs together, feeling the stretch along your sides. Exhale, circling to the right. Inhale and stretch way up again, exhale, and circle right. Go once more to the right and then reverse, three times to the left. Remember to just let go without pushing or straining. The idea is to be curious about what you feel, enjoying the sensations, rather than trying to touch the floor and move further into the pose. Again, if you have any tendency toward back pain, bend your knees a little.
RELAXER 3: THE CAT
Get down on all fours. Inhale, lifting your head up and pushing your spine down, feeling it lengthen as your head reaches up (A). Let your belly balloon out. Exhale, dropping your head and arching your back up like an angry cat, pulling in your abdominal muscles (B). Repeat three to five times.
RELAXER 4: LEG EXTENSIONS
Still on all fours, inhale as you lift your head up and extend your right leg out in back of you (A), toes pointed. Exhale, dropping your head down and bending your leg inward as you bring your knee toward your forehead (B). Repeat three times on the right side and three times on the left.
RELAXER 5: FORWARD BENDS
In this three-part exercise, you lengthen your torso and stretch out first over the right leg, then the left, and finally both. Start by sitting up straight with both legs stretched out straight in front of you. Bend your left leg, placing the heel next to your groin, as if you were going to sit cross-legged. Inhale, stretching your arms high above your head. Turn slightly to your left, facing your toes, exhale and stretch forward from the hips (rather than rounding your back) over the outstretched leg. Hold on to your leg wherever it is comfortable to do so—whether at the knee, the shin, the ankle, or the foot if you’re very limber. On each of the next five exhales, see if you can lift your torso, move from your hips, and come a little further into the stretch. Most of the power that helps you bend forward comes from your abdominal muscles. Repeat on the left side. Now stretch both legs out in front of you, next to one another, and repeat the stretch a last time, lengthening yourself out and coming down over both legs together.
RELAXER 6: PELVIC TILT
Lie down on your back and bring your knees up so that your feet are on the floor, close to your buttocks. Flatten your back against the floor by tilting your pelvis backward. Tilt your pelvis forward and let the space between the small of your back and the floor reappear. Now coordinate the movements with your breathing. Inhale as you rock the pelvis forward, making the space (A). Let your belly fill as you do this. Exhale as you rock backward, flattening your back against the floor (B). With a little practice, you’ll get the idea of pressing your vertebrae onto the floor one at a time and picking them up off the floor in the same fashion. This is an excellent exercise for back tension. Repeat ten to twelve times or until you feel a release.
RELAXER 7: FINAL RELAXATION
Lie on your back with your legs comfortably apart so that your toes point out gently toward either side. Let your arms rest a foot or so away from your body, and rotate your shoulder blades together (like tucking imaginary wings against your back) so that your palms turn up. Take five abdominal breaths, letting go a little more on each outbreath and letting yourself sink down into your mat.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Inhale and lift your right leg about a foot off the floor, making a fist with your toes and tensing leg and foot as much as feels good for you. Hold the tension for a few seconds and then exhale very slowly as you lower your leg, unclench your foot, and let all the tension flow out. When your leg reaches the floor, roll your foot from side to side to aid relaxation. Be curious, and savor the feelings that remain for this and all the other exercises in this series.
- Repeat on the left side.
- Inhale and tense your buttocks, making them as hard as rocks (buns of steel!). Hold the tension for a few seconds, then exhale and let go.
- Inhale and puff out your belly as far as it will go. Hold for a few seconds, then exhale and let it flatten.
- Inhale and puff out your chest as far as you can. Hold for a few seconds and then exhale and let go.
- Inhale, and lift your right arm off the mat, make a fist, and tense the arm. Hold for a few seconds then exhale and let your arm relax back into the mat.
- Inhale and lift your left arm off the mat, make a fist, and tense the arm. Hold for a few seconds, then exhale and let go.
- Roll your head from side to side several times, breathing abdominally.
- Inhale, scrunching your face toward the middle, then exhale and let go.
- Inhale, making a yawning face with open mouth and raised eyebrows, then exhale and let go.
The Complete Breath
The perfect end to a period of relaxation is the complete breath. It’s a variant of the abdominal breathing that you’re already familiar with. Imagine that in place of your lungs there is a pear-shaped balloon with a long neck. The round part of the balloon is located in your belly, and the long neck extends up through the middle and upper chest. When you breathe in, imagine the belly expanding as the round part of the balloon fills. Then feel the neck of the balloon starting to fill as your middle chest expands. Finally, feel the top of the balloon filling up under the collarbone. As you exhale, feel the top of the balloon under the collarbone empty first, then feel the middle of the balloon emptying as your chest begins to flatten, and finally feel the round part of the balloon flatten as your belly shrinks back down toward the floor.
Take ten complete breaths, concentrating on feeling how the air fills the abdomen, the middle chest, and finally the top of the chest, and then noticing how it leaves the top of the chest, the middle, and finally the abdomen. This breath is particularly restful. It can be used not only at the end of a relaxation period, but like abdominal breathing, any time you need to break the anxiety cycle.