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  • Marcia

Tension Does Not Equal Strength

Above is a Chinese proverb, and I love it! When I first read it, the 'rightness' of it resonated deep and I found myself saying, "Yes, exactly!" How many times had I tried to say just this thing to a class or student? And here it was, so concise, so clear, so self evident. Just like movement is, when it's done well.

Self acceptance is a very difficult thing. We are inundated with images and voices telling us what we should be, ought to be, are expected to be. There are fitness regimes, creams, lotions, potions, procedures, pills, diets, drinks, fasts, clothes, accessories and more supposedly helping us be more, ... well more. Or less, depending on what you feel is excessive or lacking in your physical appearance.

But I am on a mission, and hope to help anyone who's inspired by my own experience. I am interested in becoming truly myself, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and I am finding that the process of this first begins with a Great Undoing. Like a huge onion, I've begun peeling layer after layer of who I've been told I should be, and I doubt I'm anywhere near done yet. I'll keep you updated. But there's been a lot of enlightenment and learning so far, and it's the reason I named my studio Kensho. Kensho = seeing your own true self. Your true self. And not just seeing, but to see with eyes that accept and appreciate your own unique self. I would argue in this day and age it's harder than ever to discover this. We're constantly shown and told why we are inferior, lacking, or in some way excessive; outside the 'norm' we should be conforming to. Too fat, too thin, too boisterous, too shy, too outspoken, too opinionated, too this, too that. Not enough, not enough. Try this, change that. Should, shouldn't. As though we could simply alter ourselves and our body and nature with the ease of changing clothes. It's tiring, isn't it?

And the world of exercise and fitness is just as guilty of this as anything else. If we truly question ourselves, do you show up for physical activity because you feel good doing it, feel more like yourself and feel empowered in your body and easeful in your mind? Or do you do it because 'they' said you should, or because you're too big, too heavy, too skinny, your butt's too big, not big enough, you don't wear the latest fashion well, you're ... well not right. Not enough.

I don't know about you, but showing up for my physical activity with these thoughts in my head just makes me tired and sad.

And as the above quote says so clearly, tension is who you think you should be. And I would argue we all, all of us, walk around with varying degrees of this. Look inside your body. Notice the places that are tight and tense. Are they comfortable? Is it pleasant? I don't have to hear your answer, years of working with bodies tells me the answer is 'no.' And yet we feel unempowered to change it, due to lack of understanding, or wrong understanding in thinking that's how the body 'should' be. So let me give you my ideas of what tension is and what it's not.

Tension is NOT tone. Tone is the resting shape of muscles when they are strong. If you're gripping your abs or butt 24/7 because you think they look better that way or you think that's how they perform best, you are wasting your energy. Tone is the result of strong muscles that are perfoming correctly.

Tension is NOT strength. As with the above, if you walk around sucking in your gut, you do not have a strong gut. But with all the strain you're putting on your organs, you very probably do have digestion issues, breathing difficulties, and back pain, and neck pain. Muscles are not designed to contract all the time. They contract, and then they release. Leaving a muscle firing all the time is like leaving the tap on because you may want to wash your hands later. It's a waste of resources. Our bodies are designed to be efficient.

Tension IS a muscle that is 'overworked and underpaid.' A muscle will hold excess energy when it feels like your body would cease to function without it. This is a sign of dysfunction. For example - many of us have forward head posture due to poor posture or 'smart phone head.' The muscles of the back of the neck must work excessively to hold our head so that we can see where we are going. At this angle, if our back neck muscles let go we would be looking at our feet, unable to look up or forward. This is problematic, but until we adjust the angle of the neck and the tightness accumulated by this posture our neck muscles will continue to be tight and strained because we would not function otherwise. These tensions are cues we can use to correct imbalances and improper usages of the body.

Tension IS a muscle too weak/dysfunctional to do it's job. Spasms and strain tell us a muscle is ill equipped to do the job it's doing. And a lot of time that is a clue to the savvy bodyworker that the muscle in question is either being disenfranchised by another muscle group or is the muscle doing the wrong job. Hamstrings are notorious for this. Every muscle in the the body has a specific, unique purpose. And it is happiest and performs best when allowed to do that job. It is unhappy when other muscles underperform, requiring it to do a job it was never designed for. As I like to say, a screwdriver is a great tool for screws, but it's a terrible hammer.

So what's the opposite of tension? Relaxation!

Relaxation is NOT the same as lazy or sleeping. As I said above, a muscle works efficiently when it contracts when required and then relaxes when the requirement is done. Squeeze and release. Tension would be grip and grab, relaxation is the smooth incline to full contraction and then the smooth decline to release. I compare it to skillful driving. If you jump on the brakes everything, including you, is jarred. If you smoothly apply the brake, and then smoothly release it, your body (and your passengers!) will thank you. The same is true of skillful muscles contraction.

Relaxation is NOT soft and flabby. As we described with tone, when you use your muscles as they are designed to work, squeeze and release when biomechanically required to do so, your muscles will naturally aquire the tone we attribute to being fit and healthy. Spot training doesn't work. Neither does keeping constant tension in your body. Squeezing your butt all the time just makes you appear constipated, not sexy. Just saying.

Relaxation IS healthy tissue. A muscle that knows how to fire and then release is a healthy and intelligent muscle. It receives good information from the brain, it contracts and releases to allow maximum bloodflow and nutrients to pass through, and allows for proper disposal of waste. Did you know that the action of your heart moving blood is only supposed to be part of the circulation system, not the whole? Your skeletal muscles squeezing and releasing is just as effective in moving blood as your cardiac muscle. Don't believe me? Well, look at the lymph system, the waste disposal side of circulation. It has no 'heart' pump. It relies soley on the movement of your muscles to function, and it has about 4 times the volume of blood. Pretty cool, right?

Relaxation IS 'ready for anything.' Which is the definition of fitness, by the way. If you're tense, you're burning energy and locking yourself up, getting in your own way. If you are alert and relaxed, your body is ready to handle anything required of it, whether lifting a heavy box or getting up from the floor, or dodging out of the way of a speeding car. It's fluid, graceful, powerful and supple. As the old saying goes, when the wind blows a rigid bow breaks but a supple one bends. Relaxation is supple, tension is rigid.

Pilates, for me, is a remarkable education in movement. And it's a workout! As a lover of BOGO (buy one get one) if I can be educating my body and mind to correct use of my parts while strengthening and enlivening those parts, I call that a win. But I can tell you from experience, one wthout the other is fairly worthless. Movement is definitely NOT effective when done mindlessly, but neither is it a theoretical, mental exercise only. You have to think and do. That's how it works.

I hope you're as excited as I am that such a thing exists - that we can be responsible for our health and wellbeing. We can discover ourselves, our bodies and minds, and do what's right for us, without having to contort and tense ourselves in an effort to be something 'they' say we should. It's exhilarating, isn't it? And maybe a little unnerving. But I'm game to try, and I hope you are to.

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