Category Archives: Massage Therapy

Muscle tension. It’s not all bad!

“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralysed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings.” ― Rumi

Muscle tension gets a bad rap. But tension isn’t always a bad thing. After all, it’s tension that makes your body move. Think about it: If your muscles—which are attached to your bones—weren’t able to tense up in contraction, you would not be able to move. Yikes!

When things are working well there is a constant balancing and rebalancing between tension and relaxing, between muscle fibers firing in contraction and then releasing to rest.

When muscles don’t get enough tension leading to movement, they begin to cry out for it, so to speak, using the language of pain and discomfort which in the common vernacular we have names for, like, “that knot in my neck,” or “that pain in my butt,” to name just two.

If your body, or an area of your body, has not been getting enough movement then that pain in, say, your butt may well be trying to say: “Get up, darling! Move me! No, I’m not tired… I’m tired of sitting!”

On the other hand, when muscles don’t get enough opportunity to release and rest, they also begin to cry out, very likely using that same language of pain and discomfort.

Like daytime and nighttime, like light and like shadow, like the bird wings and the hand opening and closing in Rumi’s poem, tensing and releasing are useful and beautiful, each. Calling one good and the other bad kind of misses the whole picture. Not to mention that favoring one over the other will, very practically speaking, lead to imbalance. And imbalance always has a way of affecting our integrity.

Sometimes imbalance in the contraction-release cycle can play out like this:

One muscle or muscle area gets overused and exhausted and maybe its function starts being impaired. Then another muscle will jump in, so to speak, to pick up the slack of the muscle that is crying “Uncle!”

That sort of pinch hitting that muscles do for each other is useful, for sure, but when done for too long or too intensely, then the muscle doing the filling in for the other’s exhaustion can’t tend to its main body function. And what could happen then?

Here’s an example…

Take the diaphragm. The diaphragm (in your “gut” area) is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle and tendon whose main function is respiration. Yup, the diaphragm is all about breathing. Yay! (Still not sure where your diaphragm is? Well, it’d be where you could get the wind knocked out of you if you ever—let it never be so!—got punched.)

When you aren’t using your diaphragm to its full capacity for breathing, your neck muscles will jump in to help out. (After all, the body doesn’t mess around in making sure you are breathing. Thanks, body!)

Now neck muscles are useful and incredibly good at their main function which is all about helping you look up and look down and look around — that is, flexion, extension and rotation of the head — not breathing. They will help, for sure, but they’d rather just pitch in here and there rather than permanently. And who can blame them?

When your breathing is shallow and skimpy for too long, your neck muscles will, understandably(!), be all, “hey, man! A break? Can we go home for a rest already? We’ve been working without a break all day! And what about that diaphragm over there, just sitting around—!”

Your diaphragm, meanwhile, is completely underemployed and we can easily imagine what that is doing for its sense of wellbeing and self-esteem!

The constant balance of things… Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Also amazing that we get to take so much of it for granted: the cycles of our bodies, the cycles of nature, the balance and rebalance, constantly, always toward integrity.

Taking a moment to notice it all might be nice. You might just find yourself breathing a bit deeper just for having noticed. Ahhhh… (Thanks, diaphragm!)

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12+ Ways to Calm Down (when upset, overwhelmed and stressed out)

Sometimes it all seems like too much. Whether this happens to you once in a while or almost every day at some point, it can be very helpful to have some  ways to calm yourself down. Here are some suggestions…


1.     Take 10 slow, deep breaths. Allow those breaths to reach all the way down into your gut (diaphragm) area. Put your hand right there –that place that if someone were to punch you they’d knock the wind out of you— and feel your hand rise with every inhale, and fall with every exhale. Do that for 10 breaths.

2.     Invite your thoughts to hitch a ride on your breathing, as if your breathing were a wave, or a train, or a car, or an [insert your favorite thing that moves that you can hitch a ride on]. Give your thoughts a place to rest, a place to put their feet up, and enjoy the ride.

3.     Notice your thoughts AS thoughts rather than hooking into or engaging their content and story and following them unconsciously down that same old same old rabbit hole again. That worry about ___? Hello, Thought. That urgent push to do something about ___ right this very second now? And hello to you, too, Thought. That regret about how you didn’t ____? Ah, there there, dear Thought. That looming and quickly approaching deadline for ___? I see you, Thought. If ___ really is something you need to address, it (and you!) will be much better off for you having calmed yourself down.

4.     Don’t take your thoughts personally. Did you make that thought cross your mind? No. Neither can you make that thought disappear. Thoughts come, thoughts go. Don’t take them personally. Notice them as thoughts. Let them come and let them go. If you have trouble not taking them personally, imagine your thoughts running around in a big field somewhere. My thoughts, when I do this, look like wild horses. They can run around but I don’t have to run around in the field with them. I like to sit on that bench there under the big tree while they do their thing, thankyouverymuch.

5.    When there is a thought or a family of thoughts that has got you by the throat and is not letting you sleep or breathe or enjoy your otherwise good life, dammit!, write the stressful thought down on paper and practice meeting it with inquiry and understanding. “My boss is a jerk.” “My child should get off her iPad.” “He doesn’t understand me.” “My children should call me.” “It’s too late.” “If I don’t have a child, my life has no purpose.” What’s your stressful thought? Write it down. (My favorite way to practice inquiry on stressful thoughts is called The Work of Byron Katie. Google it!)

6.     Close your eyes, breathe and take a moment to notice where in your body you sense or feel the upset. Is it heavy in your chest? Is it a lump in your gut? Is it thick in your throat? Is it fuzzy behind your eyes? Is it a pressure in your temples? Put your hand there and say, in your own way, I see you there, I see you. And breathe.

7.     Feel the support of the ground under you. During overwhelm and upset it can feel like our mind is a kite on a flimsy thread in a windstorm. Rather than being that precarious kite, turn your awareness toward the ground under the feet of the person holding the kite. Stand or sit tall and strong like a mountain and breathe into that ground. The ground never went away, you just forgot it was there. Let the ground support you.

8.     Notice the pull of gravity. As long as we live upon and call this dear planet Earth our home, we get to enjoy the force of gravity that keeps us from floating up up and away. The force of gravity is such a part of our reality, we GET to take it for granted. Take a moment to appreciate that there is always this force pulling you back to earth, back to home, back to ground, back to body. The pull of gravity toward ground is with you whether you notice it or not (whew!) — calm comes in noticing it.

9.     Practice being sensual. Turn your awareness toward your physical body. Take a moment to touch, to swallow, to yawn, to smell, to taste, to hear…and notice. Our senses are something else we get to take for granted. Take a moment to notice the world through your body’s senses and allow your thoughts to come and rest in your body.

10.     Let your body work up a sweat doing something physical. Allow the muscle of your heart to pump up its volume while you work it for 20 minutes. Maybe you’ll dork dance in the kitchen, maybe you’ll walk around the block several times, maybe you’ll run, maybe you’ll bike to the store instead of driving, maybe you’ll put on your favorite music and jump up and down… Work up a sweat, shake up the thoughts and let the ones that no longer serve (if ever they did) float away. Thought? What thought?!

11.  Practice the art of not being impressed by your thoughts. Sometimes a very juicy thought comes along, a thought that is really hard not to lasso in and call your very own. Practice the art of noticing and not being impressed by your thoughts, no matter how juicy or enticing. That thought about that same old thing that always bothers you? Hello there. No biggie.

12.  Bring to mind the calmest and most loving person, place or thing you know. Allow yourself, in your mind’s eye, to sit in this person’s, place’s, or thing’s presence with your upset. What are the qualities of this calm person, place or thing? Go there, be there, rest there. How are they (how is it) with your upset? By imagining it, you are practicing it.

I’m about to tell you something very secret: there is an old-timey village in the mountains that I sometimes go to in my mind’s eye when I’m very upset and it all feels too much. In this village there is a group of wise old women — their laps are wide, they have chin hairs and don’t care, their eyes are fierce and ever so kind at once, and they have all the patience and wisdom (from eons of experience) in the world. They are never in a hurry. Sometimes they do a drumming and dancing ritual around me, sometimes they go off and concoct or cook me a magical brothy thing or potion for what ails me, sometimes they chant sounds in an ancient language to put me to sleep, and sometimes they hold me while I cry. They see me; they honor me; and they are never, ever upset by my upset.

13.    Practice the tenderest kindness imaginable toward yourself today and give that kindness a physical expression. Maybe you’ll put your hand on your heart or reach your arms around you and squeeze the remarkable being that is you. Notice you. Even and especially when you are at your most upset, anxious and stressed, take a moment to notice how you are showing up and doing the best you can. Hooray! I, for one, am so happy there are people like YOU in the world.

2 things to help you relax (almost anywhere!)

“How would you like to feel when you leave here today?”

Over the years I’ve heard my question answered in many ways but there is one intention that is, by far, the one that clients say the most:


What a worthy intention! When we are relaxed, hard things somehow become softer, easier. Tight places become roomier. Annoying things feel more neutral, and maybe even, humorous.

Being relaxed allows for seemingly impossible things to shift and settle into something new, something which tightness and anxiety may not have allowed us to see before. Relaxing clears space for the next and best thing to happCrazy-Cat-Sleeping-Positionsen unimpeded; seen that way, relaxing makes better things possible.

I’m certainly not one to tell people who are feeling anxious or tense to “just relax” — it’s annoying, to say the least, and a bit insulting, too. After all, you’re smart and you do your best, and if it were so easy, I’m sure you would have already.  But I love helping people relax, and today I want to tell you two things that make relaxing much more likely to happen:

1. Acknowledgement

Think of acknowledgment as saying hello to what is there, even when (or especially!) when what is there for you is unpleasant or hard. It’s a nod of recognition, a way of letting the unpleasantness or tightness know that you see it. It’s a little bow of respect. You may not like it, and you may wish it were different than it is but you are saying, nonetheless: “I notice you. Hello.”

Tension, anxiety or whatever word best describes what is hard for you, deserves your noticing and respect. After all, it is there for some good reason. Maybe it is trying to protect you. (Letting you know, for example, not to take on anything else.) Maybe it wants you to remember that “no” is a valid answer needing no further explanation. Maybe your body —through tightness and anxiety— is trying to express something that is off (like how you keep smiling and pretending everything is fine when it isn’t), or out of balance (like when you sit for hours on end, not letting your body get movement or fresh air).

Our bodies hold a wealth of wisdom and I love helping my clients learn to listen to their bodies, but simply acknowledging what is there for you right now and saying hello to that is always a good place to start.

2. Support

It’s hard to relax when we don’t feel supported.

Imagine you’re entering a room and are looking for a place to sit and the only chair available looks kind of sketchy. You aren’t sure it will support you. If you sit down at all, you’d probably do so very tentatively, holding back some of your weight and then only letting go a little bit at a time until you know that the chair is stable and strong enough.

The support of the ground or of the furniture we sit upon is something we often get to take for granted. Thankfully, most chairs we go to sit in do support us.

Habitually tense and contracted places in your body can become so accustomed to tightness that even when your body is fully supported and by all accounts could be resting, those places may have a hard time letting go. If your body remains on high alert and tight when you would love to be resting, take it as a signal to pause and notice the support that is already there for you. Especially notice the support right under and around the place of tightness. And then, after you have said your “hello I see you there,” take a conscious and deep breath and as you exhale, notice if there is any softening, any relaxing, that is ready to happen.

Yes, it’s hard to relax when you don’t feel supported, but feeling supported can often be as close and as possible as an intention to give a nod of acknowledgment followed by a conscious noticing of the support that is there… it’s worth pointing out that the support is there whether you notice it or not; the magic, however, in this matter of relaxing, is in noticing.

Go ahead. Next time you have a hard time relaxing, practice saying hello, notice the support that’s there, and on your next exhale, see what happens. Maybe, like me, you will hear the ground saying to you:

“It’s OK. I’ve got your back.”

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