Off to tai chi class I go, not knowing that I am about to take away something completely unexpected. Yes, I’ll be learning a form that I have wanted to learn for a really long time, and I’m eager for the experience, but what I don’t know is that my teacher will say, on day one, in our very first interaction, something so simple that he’s said a thousand times before, that I’ll take away and manage to turn into my very own practice.
My tai chi teacher comes over to me, the beginning student. Holds the fingertips of my hand up to cue me to let my elbow and shoulder drop.
“Relax,” he says.
I am, I think, and try to relax, but he sees through it.
“Relax more,” he says.
I think I am. Could it be that I don’t know what it feels like to relax, not really?
Finally I feel the tension release from my upper body, and my shoulder drops.
He smiles knowingly.
I think I’ve mastered relaxation.
Until he comes around again, and I think I’m being all good and all relaxed. But I’m not. So again, he starts:
Dude, I am.
I said I am, man, can you not see that I AM relaxing?!
As a last resort, he presses his finger on a spot on my wrist that makes it so my shoulder automatically drops. Because I cannot get there on my own. No matter how hard I try. (Yes, I see the irony!)
FINALLY – my body releases the hold it has on the tension. “Good,” he quietly says, again with the knowing smile. He knows how hard it can be to learn to let go.
And now I see that I don’t actually know what it feels like to be relaxed on any sort of regular basis, so I’m not recreating it and experiencing it in my everyday life. I can feel the tension. I’m certainly far too used to the feeling of my shoulders rising up in ever-increasing increments throughout the day until they are up around my ears. But I’m not used to feeling what true relaxation feels like. And I didn’t realize until I felt it in my system how much I am craving it.
I start without really meaning to, to do this simple practice throughout the day whenever I find myself feeling any tension, when I notice that I am most certainly not relaxed – when I’m walking up a steep hill, when I’m scrubbing dishes, when I’m in pain or when I want to stop thinking about something stressful. I realize that it works not only on the body but also on the mind and the emotions. The more I practice it throughout the day, the more it begins to feel more and more natural, and the more I’m finding it to be a welcome relief from the tension in my system.
“Relax into the effort, allow it to be effortless,” he tells us. “This is the one time in life when it’s good to give up. It’s when we do that that everything changes.” Deep breath. Exhale. I give up. And THAT is the moment. All the tension leaves and I have finally, fully let go. NOW I am really here.
This simple practice literally takes a few seconds and changes, entirely, your experience of whatever you’re doing AND brings you into the present moment by immediately grounding you in the here and now. Whenever you notice tension or straining in body or in mind:
- Say to yourself: Relax. Usually this is followed by a deep breath and the beginning of a release.
- Quick body scan: Where am I feeling tension in my body? Where am I feeling tension in my mind?
- Relax more. Let it go in those areas that you notice.
- Quick body scan: Where am I feeling tension in my body? Where am I feeling tension in my mind? Where is there still tension that can be released?
- Relax more. Continue to release the last of the tension, let it drop out. Feel yourself give it up entirely.
You can do this all within the span of a couple breaths, or if you prefer, you can do the scan on an inhale then say Relax more on the exhale. Try both ways and see which works best for you and also which works best under specific circumstances. The more you practice this, the more there will be an automatic, immediate release of tension when you cue yourself with the very first “Relax.”