Often, I find people try to trick themselves into relaxing. Put yourself in a dark room, listen to calming music, lay down, and close your eyes and you will find yourself relaxed. Those are, after all, familiar tricks in a massage office. However, instead of thinking of them as tricks I want to encourage you to think of them as tactics within a greater strategy of practicing to relax. Relaxing is a practiced skill. Once the skill is developed, it is done consciously and actively.
The easiest way to practice a skill is to do so in a safe and controlled environment. For us, this is the massage table. Practicing relaxation in an environment which is conducive to relaxation simply makes sense; it makes the project easier.
It's easiest to practice relaxation in a quiet and calm space. The massage table is a perfect place for this. It's comfortable and it's safe. However, despite it being an easier place to relax, it is still by no means easy. Common pitfalls still do arise. Here are a few rules to help avoid pitfalls I have encountered:
1. Relaxation is active
A lot of people realize it's hard to relax. Often, that's why they come for massage therapy. Recognizing that relaxing isn't easy and recognizing that one has to try to relax by way of effort are totally different. Relaxing requires concentration and constant reminders to oneself to let things go, both physically and mentally. Relaxing is letting go of physical tension and letting go of busy thoughts.
2. Be present
When you are in the room, be in the room. This is good advice for many things but all the more when trying to relax on the table. Let go of work, clear your mind of the day's thoughts and try to focus on the experience. It will put you in the room and in your body which will make it easier for you to notice things like holding your breath.
3. Breathe deeply
Sometimes people try to breathe too deeply. They will recruit more muscle than they need, puffing up as big as they can before forcefully exhaling. Others will breathe shallowly, with their shoulders, back, abdomen, and ribs held tight. A deep breath that will encourage relaxation is almost effortless. It will challenge you to try to breathe as deep as you can with the least amount of effort. An important part of deep breathing is activating only the bare minimum of muscle necessary while focusing on softening everything else. The muscles one needs to activate are the diaphragm, often the abdominal muscles (to aid in the drop of the diaphragm), the muscles between your ribs (the intercostal muscles) and, sometimes, the scalenes (anterior neck muscles).
4. Pay attention
Before one can let go of tension, one has to know it's there and one can only do that by paying attention. Do an inventory of your body by focusing your attention on different areas. Go from your feet, through your legs, to your hips, through your torso, then down your arms, and finally into your neck, checking for tension you may be holding unawares. Soften your face, let go of your hands and repeat. Do this like a mantra; through fluid repetition it will help you develop a practice of it.
Finally, practice makes permanent. I notice that clients I work with develop these skills over time. And it isn't by coincidence. We work on these things as part of the practice. Relaxing and letting go is hard but it is also incredibly productive and, in my opinion, leads to real transformative changes in how one holds onto tension.