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 paralyzed. 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 it’s not a bad thing. Think about it: If it weren’t for tension, your muscles—which are attached to your bones—could not contract and 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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