Tension can be a stalking, smoldering leopard, creeping up on you inconspicuously, lurking just to the right of your awareness, until one day while doing a normal activity like driving, you suddenly wonder when you stopped being able to turn your head to look over your shoulder.
Or the tight, rubber band pain squeezing your shoulders keeps you rolling about all night when all you want to do is bury your head into the pillow and drop blissfully into dreamland.
Sometimes – quite often, actually – tension goes unnoticed until he’s challenged. As I slowly sink my elbow into muscles that have turned to beef jerky, their owner is surprised to feel the stabbing pain that’s tension’s constant companion.
Alternatively, tension hides until he’s threatened by movement, a leg twisted into rotation or a shoulder elevated overhead, revealing limitations previously undiscovered.
People come to me with aching, stiff bodies, and repeatedly leave completely transformed.
Anxiety diminishes, feet are grounded, tautness vanishes in a puff of illusion. People often lack descriptive words for what they experience when their movement is liberated, but better seems to be the agreed upon adjective. Better not just in their body, but in their minds.
If your body is just a machine and has no influence whatsoever over your internal state, why does any of this tension-relieving and stiffness-erasing matter?
If your all-powerful mind functions entirely separately from your body, then is it simply the inconvenience of living within a dented and dinged up vehicle that drives you to seek relief upon discovering a movement deficit?
It goes deeper than that. You need your body. It helps you gauge a situation, feel your desires. Your body isn’t just the vehicle in which you travel through life, it’s a living embodiment of your every experience (and, frankly, a lot of your ancestors’ experiences, too).
Your body is a verb, not a noun. It’s not one of those towels that arrive compressed and dehydrated and upon dropping them into water, they expand to full size. No, your body doesn’t grow and then remain static. Your cells are dancing a cosmic jig every moment you’re alive, building you up, tearing you down, and responding to all kinds of stimuli that you may or may not recognize.
More than an object, your body is a system. I’d argue it’s an information system since there’s an ever-flowing stream of input and output at all hours of the day and night.
So, let’s take a look at three types of information that influence your body, causing it to hold onto tension.
#1: Physical Injuries
This is the most obvious cause of tension and the easiest to deal with because it allows separation of the body from you as a person so you can deal with your body as though it were an object, much the way a mechanic would work on your car or a builder repair your house.
Physical injuries include such things as a sprained ankle, broken bone, whiplash or even the slow moving “injuries” that result from poor ergonomic habits.
And physical injuries typically do heal. A broken bone will grow back together, the site of the break stronger than before. A sprained ankle repairs its tissue, the inflammation fading. Your neck will relax after a whiplash experience (although, to be 100% honest here, I can always feel residual whiplash by palpating the tiny muscles at the base of the skull even ten, twenty or thirty years later).
But the body remembers these insults. And, just as you would apply an ace bandage or a cast to splint the body and protect an injury, your body uses tension for the same purpose.
For example, I broke my right femur (thigh bone) when I was only two years old. It was a total freak accident, I’m not even sure why it broke. I fell down some stairs and was completely fine until the next day when, playing chase with my brother, the leg cracked and gave out on me.
Doctors put me into a cast for several weeks. I don’t know how long I wore that thing, but it went all the way up my right leg, across my pelvis and down onto my left thigh. Needless to say, I couldn’t walk for a while.
When the cast came off, my leg was pronounced healed, the bone completely stable. Did anyone think to do physical therapy with a two year old to restore movement and the lost neurological stimulation I’d suffered during my internment in that cast? Of course not.
And I was fine. Until, in high school, I started to notice how I stood with my hips akilter, my left foot propped on the inside arch, neck twisted to the right.
It was many years later, in my twenties, that I discovered a gross imbalance in my legs, stiff splinting in the muscles along the inside of my thigh and rigid quadriceps, that was throwing my pelvis off balance.
I barely moved my right leg. That cast had “trained” my body not to move the hip joint, so even though it looked like my leg swung when I walked, the movement wasn’t happening in the joint where it belonged. I was compensating with other, less efficient muscles.
I’d never noticed because I could walk fine, but man, when I tried to challenge the hip joint in any way, even such a simple movement as a squat, I just couldn’t do it!
It’s not uncommon to see ghosts of injuries such as these living in people’s bodies – a knee going unbent after being in a brace, a neck that won’t turn right or left after an auto accident, and hip joints that are so tight the femur can barely move in the socket.
Some of it is a result of guarding, and some of neurological training due to braces and casts.
Reason #2: Emotional Wounds
I’m sure you’ve heard that emotions can “live in the body,” and probably also that this is controversial because modern medicine still treats mental and physical illnesses as though they were quite separate, despite dump trucks of evidence to the contrary.
Emotions do, in fact, live in the body. They do so in a couple of different ways. There are, of course, the hormones and neurotransmitters related to mood, such as dopamine and serotonin. These irrefutably affect your physical body beyond the globular mess of gray mush inside your skull, especially when you consider that 80-90% of your serotonin is found in your intestines.
But what I want to talk about here is something on a much more macro scale. I want to talk about your body’s inherent response to an emotional experience.
Because, you see, whenever you have a feeling, your body moves in response. This is your ancient guidance system. Since we discovered the magical, all powerful brain, we’ve had a tendency to believe that our actions are ordered think-feel-do. Or maybe just think-do and feelings have no place in the equation.
In fact, first you feel, then the doing and thinking follow, sometimes with action preceding thought as would happen if you were startled and frightened, other times with the thought preceding action. This whole process is complex and involves the development of something called somatic markers, which are really just cellular memories of an emotional experience.
When you create a memory of an experience, the emotions you felt at the time essentially make an impression on your cells so that the next time you’re in a situation that causes the same feelings to arise, you can use the emotional shortcut to determine how to act. This plays a key role in your decision making process, speeding the whole thing up for maximum efficiency.
So, when you were bullied on the playground, when your teacher told you that you’d never amount to anything, when you got fired from the job because someone else made a mistake and blamed it on you, your body responded.
One of my bodywork instructors once told the story of a girl he worked on during a community demonstration. She’d enthusiastically volunteered to be the model, and as he released the tissue around her shoulder, she became increasingly agitated.
Upon standing up, her shoulders had completely changed. The tension released, they were back and down and her posture had become more upright.
My instructor asked the girl, “You know, it seemed like you were getting a little angry there. Do you know what that was about?”
She replied that she knew exactly what it was all about. When she was a child, her father had yelled at and belittled her a lot, and when he did so, he would poke her with his finger in the shoulder.
She was so angry at her dad, but she felt powerless to do anything about it. And so, she armored her shoulder with tension and anger. All the tightness she experienced was her literally holding herself back.
When you feel emotions, whether they be anger, joy, grief, sadness or any other in the multi-varied spectrum, your body wants to act on them. If that action feels impossible or inappropriate, tension results and a sort of division of self ensues.
The emotion will live in the body, but you won’t move that area because as soon as you start to move, the body senses itself again, releasing the emotion and propelling you toward an action your brain believes you cannot take.
This, actually, is why a lot of people arrive home exhausted from their jobs. They work in toxic environments, doing work they don’t enjoy, dreaming of actually laying on the tropical beach featured in their twelve-month wall calendar. Every time they gaze upon the image, the emotions say “Go!” and the mind overrules, using tension to stifle the urge to get up and run.
In time, all that tension piles up and you call it aging, or blame it on poor ergonomics, or you just amputate your movements, making them increasingly small until you don’t notice how bound up you’ve become by the war waging within you.
Reason #3: Beliefs and Cultural Conditioning
“There are two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’
And the two young fish swim on for a bit until eventually, one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
– David Foster Wallace, This is Water, Commencement Speech at Kenyon College
Water shapes fish. It is because of their environment that they have scales and tales and gills. You, likewise, are shaped by your environment. Biologically, for sure, just as the fish has developed a sleek body well-adapted to moving through the currents of water, you, too, have evolved hands and feet and walking on two legs, using your opposable thumbs to poke your iPhone.
But we humans are shaped by something more, something animals (probably) don’t have – culture.
Whenever people find out that I work with horses (and by work with, I mean do bodywork on them), they always ask the same questions.
The first is, how do you know where to work since the horse can’t tell you what hurts?
And the second is, isn’t it hard to work on horses because they’re so big?
My answers? Horses speak much more plainly than people, and no, they are not hard to work on. Why are these things true? Because horses don’t have worldview.
A horse is simply a horse. It has no belief system about its body. It does not fret that if it lets go of gripping its abdominals that its belly will hang out and make him look fat. No one has ever told him that he should really tuck his pelvis and straighten his spine, for he is built with too much curve in his lower back.
The horse has no beliefs about his body, only feelings. His movement shows still places where his soft tissue is restricted, like rocks in a stream, blocking the flow of energy from his feet hitting the ground up through his structure. And when he senses those places release? He simply lets go.
No fighting. No struggle. No worries about what the neighbors will think.
Do you have beliefs about your body? I guarantee it. How do I know this? Because, after working with hundreds, possibly over a thousand people across a span of more than ten years, the answer to my question, “What do you notice in your body?” is universally met with something like….
Well, I know I have an anterior pelvis.
I know I tend to slouch.
I know my posture is terrible.
My Pilates instructor told me I have a sway back.
My chiropractor says my hamstrings are tight.
My parents told me I’m big.
I’ve got shoulders like a linebacker.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Those are the conscious beliefs, the ones you know you have about yourself.
There are a whole host of unconscious beliefs hibernating beneath the surface.
For example, women raised around the 1950s era, by and large, have a tendency to lock down their hip mobility. Just try to get one of them to do a fancy hip shimmy. She’ll soon be frustrated.
Your pelvis is meant to bounce and roll as you walk; that’s how it absorbs shock from your foot hitting the ground. But when you’ve been brought up to believe that only loose women wiggle their hips, are you gonna let that hip sway to the side? Uh uh.
This is only one tangible example of cultural conditioning. The reality is, this conditioning has permeated your consciousness and affected the way you move to such a depth that you don’t even know you’re baked in it, like the fish swimming in water.
I see it manifest in people’s movement every single day, most especially when I teach something new and watch the person flail around spastically as though doing it more rapidly would somehow earn them a gold star, their mind completely disconnected from the exercise at hand, all the while asking, “Is this right?”
Our need to get things right all the time, even in our movement, is downright pathological. But that’s another discussion for another time.
Right here and right now, I want to leave you with the impression that stiffness in your body is not only related to physical ailments, but also the bigger picture of who you are and how you think about yourself. All your fears, doubts and insecurities live in your cells and show up in your movements. But so do your triumphs and joys!
While the physical body is the only thing you can actually put your hands on, by making tangible changes to movement, you’re also shifting your less palpable thoughts and beliefs.
This is why I created Posture Rehab. Yes, it stretches your muscles and loosens your joints…but it also frees your mind. If you’re ready to let go of all the unnecessary tension that’s holding you back, click here to enroll.
Because when your movement is unlimited, so is your potential.1