It’s time to relax…
Relaxation in a spin class?
Unheard of? Nope. Monday’s spin class instructor at Revolve Fitness in Union Square kept encouraging us to relax. Throughout the class, I could hear relax your shoulders, relax your arms, relax your fingers. One would think that the word relax in a cycling room with dark lighting and pumping music don’t mix. Add to that the typical shouted words of encouragement “don’t give up” and the dreaded “ACCELERATE.” Safe to say, the word relax was unusual but very well received.
At the beginning of the class, the instructor stated: “put your shoulders up, then drop them and relax, you are off work.” I hadn’t even realized how far up my ears my shoulders were, until I directed my attention span there. I took a deep breath. I began to disconnect myself from the day and focus on the energy in the room. This was exactly what I needed. I thought about my daily life and how I go through the motions with a lot of unnecessary tension. Since I never pay attention to it, it just keeps building and brewing.
The Importance of Relaxation
No one doubts the importance of relaxation. You can see a pretty comprehensive list here. To that list I would add that learning to relax improves posture and overall workout performance.It is no coincidence that in all workout forms, from spinning to the other end of the spectrum yoga, we are always told to relax one muscle, while deeply engaging another. Click To Tweet This is because there is always one muscle that is supposed to be targeted. The others need to relax and let that targeted part (and of course the core) provide all the strength and do all the work. As we approach muscle failure and start to get tired, tension creeps up in unwanted areas in reaction to the target muscles fatiguing. Consequently, we lose our form. Hence, learning to relax is important for posture in order to have a better form while exercising.
Using the Right Amount of Effort
In exercise, just like in life, learning to use just the amount of effort needed for a particular task without developing unnecessary tension is an important concept. We often think that working out should require a lot of tension and effort. However, it does not need to be an all out effort of every muscle with every exercise. Looking back at all exercise classes, just like instructors point out which muscles should work to the point of exhaustion, they also point out certain body parts that should relax.
As stated, in spinning we are reminded to let go of the tension in our upper body and even soften the fingers on the handlebars. Our legs and core muscles should be the ones getting us up that hill.
We not only move with our breath but teachers constantly remind us to pull the shoulders away from the ears. By relaxing the shoulders, we engage the upper back muscles and let the back muscles, as opposed to hunched shoulders do the work. My favorite yoga relaxation reminder is to soften the tongue. I didn’t even realize I tensed my tongue and even jaw, until I paid attention to this.
At the barre
In standing gluteal work at a barre class, teachers often repeat “relax the shoulders and put all the effort in the working gluteal muscle.” There are a lot of hands on adjustments and teachers place their hands on our shoulders reminding us to relax them. Sometimes, we do not even realize where we hold tension, until we are reminded and we instantly feel that body part relaxing.
Bootcamp type classes like The Fhitting Room, Exceed Physical Culture, Kore, and Refine, typically involve weight lifting, kettlebell swings, and using the Korball or medicine ball. When performing these exercises, it is easy to engage the face, neck, and shoulders. We tense the jaw and shrug the shoulders up to the ears to help or even do all of the work while lifting. Hence, we’re encouraged to lift lighter or perform the movement slower so that the arms are the only ones making the effort.
Relaxation is the basis of correct alignment which is a Pilates principle. I would say that the entry-point of Pilates is to learn how to relax and release unwanted tension from the body. Specifically for Pilates, muscle balance is important. We must lengthen short tight muscles before attempting to strengthen the weak long muscles. We learn to tense only the muscles that are working.
The “selective relaxation” we experience in fitness teaches us to use just the amount of effort needed to complete the exercise correctly, no more, no less.
It goes without saying that learning to release unnecessary tension in our bodies helps us find ease and flow in movement.The relaxation of some muscles allows us to move more effectively and to use less energy. We can apply this to our everyday lives. Click To Tweet
How do we do it though?
Of course it is way easier said than done. I was thinking a lot about the importance of relaxation and how it applies to all exercises, when less than a week later at Yogaworks in Lincoln Square, I had an epiphany. I was in Warrior II for an extended period of time and felt my muscles fatiguing. My thoughts immediately went to figuring out which body part I could relax. I did a body check of where I felt discomfort and directed my attention to my back leg glute muscle. I realized that I was clenching my glute and immediately unclenched it. The pose felt better and I realized that of course I did not need that body part to sustain me in the pose. I grounded my legs and engaged my thighs further and all I did was feel my core instead.
So all I need to do is pay more attention to my body!
Just like I was able to soften a muscle by giving attention to it, I could learn to relax in my everyday life by directing attention to a body part that I know holds a lot of tension. My shoulders! This is another reason I love fitness. You discover things that can apply to your daily life. If you are able to give more attention to your body, you can discover ways to let go of stress in this way.
At my office job, I typically hunch over my computer. A lot of unwanted tension frequently creeps up. I have to periodically take moments in which I pull my shoulders up while taking a deep breath and exhale while lowering them. This helps dissolve the tension.
The importance of mindfulness comes into play here. If we go through exercises or through our day just going through the motions, a lot of unnecessary tension will be present. If we exercise and are conscious of the fact that tension is held somewhere, it is easy to let go. The same applies to everyday habits.
Next time you are practicing a sport or exercising, notice where your body is tense and ask yourself if you can release even a little of that tension. You may find that your movements become smoother; the right muscles are getting stronger. This is relaxation at work!