A colleague of mine directed me to this article which I've since shared with my students (in the professional development course I teach for student massage therapists) and would now like to share with you. The article claims that "practice makes permanent," rather than the more well known "practice makes perfect." Though the author of the article uses practicing music as his example, he writes, and I would agree, the principles he addresses apply to any skill one wishes to develop and improve on. Though I would highly recommend reading the full article, the following is a short extrapolation of the author's conclusion.
The Author concludes that deliberate practice, rather than mindless repetition, requires focus and mindfulness. It is a process of "hypothesis testing" wherein one "relentlessly seek[s] solutions to clearly defined problems."
Deliberate practice is slow and meticulous. Using my own examples but borrowing heavily on the authors words, let's consider relaxation in terms of deliberate practice. One might recognize that one is holding tension in one's neck on the massage table. First one has to recognize this through body awareness and then, upon recognizing the tension, try to locate it. Be specific: is it at the base of the skull, in the front of the neck, in the shoulders as well? Without moving, try to embody yourself in that part of your body and feel the tension. Then, just as your attention is being placed on that part of your body and your mind is enthralling it to your consciousness, let it go. Didn't work? Why not? What happened? What did it feel like? Did you tense up? Did you hold your breath? Did you notice maybe some of it let go but then it came back again or maybe the tension moved? This is the process of meticulous hypothesis testing. One could simply try to relax again, but then why would one ever get better at relaxing if one wasn't working on the specifics of what was happening? Looking for new ways to improve means "being observant and keenly aware of what [is happening], so that you can tell yourself exactly what went wrong."
Letting go of tension, controlling tension, directing mental and physical effort internally, requires practice of a deliberate sort. The kind of results I am imagining are not mind blowing either. Consider practicing body awareness with the goal of simply being a little less tense. I am not suggesting one adopts the project of controlling the beating of one's heart or internal body temperature (like some who are very accomplished at biofeedback can). I am merely suggesting that deliberate practice might help with the very modest project of relaxing by actively letting go.
I know it can be hard to relax on the table, but the amount of work I am suggesting one does puts one's mind on the table, in one's body and it's fun. I find it incredibly meditative and insightful when I come across a problem, an area of tension or a part of my body that I have trouble connecting to. These little discoveries lead me into a fascinating process of concentration and internal analysis.
I hope this description and the article linked above serve you and perhaps encourage you to get more out of your practice.