Week Three: Tension Release
About the Meditation
Pain, illness and stress walk hand in hand together. They feed off each other in a vicious cycle that leads to ever greater suffering and disability.
Nothing creates stress with such brutal efficiency as the feeling of being trapped by illness. Painful questions can begin nagging at your soul: Is it getting worse? Maybe they’ve missed something? Perhaps it’s terminal and they won’t tell me…
Such negative thoughts are incredibly powerful and almost impossible to stop. One thought triggers the next, and the next, in a vicious cycle that can leave you burnt-out and broken.
But it’s often far worse than this because such thoughts create tension in the body, aggravating illnesses and injuries. Stress also dampens the immune system and shuts down the body’s self-repair mechanisms. Stress isn’t just a miserable experience, it erodes physical health too.
Although it’s impossible to prevent stress from arising, you can change what happens next. You can stop the spiral from feeding off itself and triggering the cycle of negative thoughts that makes suffering far worse.
Mindfulness helps you step outside such vicious cycles by teaching you a different way of dealing with stress. With practice you come to realise that stress (like pain) is a ‘message’ that tends to melt away of its own accord once it has been ‘delivered’, or felt with full mindful awareness. When this occurs, an extraordinary thing can happen: a profound sense of happiness and peace fills the void.
Such bone-deep contentment isn’t just pleasant, it also boosts the immune system and restarts the body’s self-repair mechanisms. Even if you have an incurable condition, it will substantially improve your quality of life.
In previous weeks we taught you how to reduce pain using the Body Scan and Mindful Movement meditations. These were taken from our book Mindfulness for Health: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeing. This week you will learn to reduce stress with the Tension Release Meditation. Follow the instructions below or download the audio track HERE:
Tension Release Meditation Instructions
The aim of this meditation is to move your awareness around the body, paying special attention to areas of tension and discomfort, and then to gently breathe ‘into’ them. Often the most discomfort is held in the neck, shoulders, back, or stomach.
To begin this meditation, adopt as comfortable a position as possible. You can do it either sitting or lying down. If you’re lying down, let the arms rest at the sides of the body with the hands palms upwards. Alternatively you may prefer to rest the hands on the belly, hips or ribs with the hands palms downwards – whatever is most comfortable. Allow your shoulders to be soft. If you’re sitting, place your hands in your lap with as little strain on the arms and shoulders as possible. Allow you face to soften; soft jaw; soft throat; soft belly, soft body.
Allow your body to settle down into gravity – feeling the points of contact between your body and the surface upon which it’s resting. Allow your weight to sink down through these points of contact again and again.
Very gently gather your awareness around the sensations and movement of the breath in the body. Can you feel the breath in the chest, the belly and even the back of the body? Can you feel the movement of the ribs in the back of the body as well as the front? Maybe you can even feel the breath in the lower back? Feel the way the whole body expands a little on the in-breath and subsides a little on the outbreath. Be careful not to force or alter the natural breath. Can you let the breath breathe itself?
Now very very gently guide your awareness to the areas of pain and discomfort in your body. Can you let your awareness gently rest there? Can you feel the breath in that part of the body? Let the breath gently soothe and massage these areas of tension. Can you bring a quality of care to the breath? Saturate the breath with kindliness, gentleness and tenderness as it rocks and cradles this part of the body. Treat yourself the way you’d naturally treat somebody that you loved and cared for who was hurting.
If at any time this feels a little intense, broaden your awareness to include the whole body and pay particular attention to the sense of the body settling down into gravity again and again. Each time you catch yourself tensing up, gently settle down onto the floor again. Do this over and over if necessary.
Spend a few moments resting deep in the body, in the breath, and allow your discomfort to be soothed by the rhythm of the breath again and again.
Now bring this short meditation to a close. Broaden your awareness to include sounds around you, open the eyes and begin to gently move your body.
See if you can take this quality of breath-based body awareness with you as you re-engage with the activities of your day.
Dr Danny Penman discusses mindfulness for pain relief on BBC Breakfast
About the Meditation
If you have lived with pain, illness or stress for some time, you will find the gentle free-flowing movements of the Mindful Movement meditation especially useful. Over the months and years, you may have become less mobile – or even scared of moving – for fear of hurting yourself further. While this is perfectly understandable, it tends to create problems of its own. The human body is designed to move, so remaining still for too long can lead to many secondary health problems. Lack of exercise causes lethargy, nausea, aches, pains and general ‘fugginess’. Even feelings of stress and depression can be brought on by remaining still for too long.
The ‘exercises’ in the Mindful Movement programme are different from ones you may have tried in the past. Firstly, they are not exercises in the traditional sense. The aim is not to stretch as far as possible or to maintain a position for as long as you can. They are not designed primarily to enhance fitness and flexibility, although they will have these benefits in the long run. Rather, they emphasise the quality of awareness you bring to them as you carry them out. We ask you to rest your consciousness deep inside your body, so that you bring a kindly awareness to your movements. In a sense, they simply extend the breath into a wider exercise. You can see them as breath in action. Or as a moving meditation.
Performing mindful movements
Before you begin, you might like to watch a short video demonstration of the exercises and how to set up your posture (you will find them on www.breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk and https://franticworld.com/resources/). These videos are for guidance only. It’s best to carry out the practices themselves while listening to track 3 (Click HERE or you can find it on the audio CD that comes free with our book Mindfulness for Health). This will enhance the meditative aspects of the movements.
The Mindful Movements can be performed either sitting or standing. At the start of each exercise, we will suggest the most suitable posture. However, you should always work within your own physical constraints, so please adopt whatever position is the most comfortable for you. If you find any of the exercises too challenging, adapt them to suit your own needs. Try to become sensitive to your body’s movements. See them as an expression of the rhythm of the breath. If your fitness and flexibility are limited, be careful not to push yourself too far. Instead, progressively enhance your range of movement. Always bear in mind that it is the quality of awareness you bring to the movements that is paramount. If you are unable to carry out some of the exercises, try visualising yourself carrying them out in your mind’s eye. Research shows that this too can improve your fitness and health.
This week’s exercises have been developed over many years with the help of thousands of patients, so they are safe to carry out. Nevertheless, you might like to discuss them with your doctor, specialist or physiotherapist, and practise them with care, leaving out any that you – or they – feel are unsuitable for your illness, injury or disability. Try to avoid the trap of believing that you ‘should’ be able to move in a certain way – or to a certain extent. Forcing yourself to meet your preconceptions can lead to injury. Instead, try to inhabit your body mindfully, with kindly awareness and curiosity. Even the smallest movement can be surprisingly fulfilling and beneficial.
Hard and soft edges
Try to strike a balance between pushing yourself too far and not stretching yourself enough. This can be tricky, so aim to become aware of your own character when it comes to exercise. If you tend to push yourself, then pay attention to this temptation as you move – and perhaps back off a little. If exercise tends to alarm or frighten you, then see if you can ask a little more of yourself.
How do you strike such a balance? A good way is to try to work within your ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ edges. So when you bend your knee, for example, the soft edge is the point at which you first feel a sensation of stretch and compression. Finding the soft edge requires sensitivity, so work slowly and mindfully. Gently probe your sensations. When you feel a stretch or a challenge, move a little deeper into the movement with the help of the breath. Move only a little deeper into the movement – and no further.
If you go too far, you’ll reach the ‘hard’ edge. This is the last point of movement before a strain or injury occurs. You’ll know that you’ve passed the hard edge when it feels as if you’ve begun forcing the movement. You might even start to tremble a little.
Working between these hard and soft edges is ideal. It means that your body is being mobilised without strain. The most creative place to work is a moderate stretch that can be sustained, not an intense one that you can’t hold for long. It’s also worth bearing in mind that your edges will change as you grow stronger and more flexible. They may change from day to day as well.
Different sorts of pain to watch out for
It can be hard to distinguish between the healthy aches and pains that signify progress and those which indicate that you have pushed yourself too far. A dull ache, muscle tiredness or sensations of stretch are natural and lessen over time. If you notice ‘electrical’, ‘nervy’ or sharp sensations, you should reduce the range of the movement or, if it becomes too intense, you should stop for the day. It’s sensible to err on the side of caution; you can always carry on tomorrow. Mindful Movements are a journey, not a destination. So there is no rush. And remember: you can always check with your health professional if you have any concerns.
Try to remember
• As best you can, aim to adopt an attitude of play and curiosity. See if you can drop into a deep awareness of the breath as you move, allowing it to lead the pace of the movement, rather than forcing it or rushing through them.
• If you’re working with an injury, it’s usually helpful to do the less challenged parts of your body first.
• Practising the movements regularly can bring surprising progress, even if you seem to be doing very little in any one session.
• Always leave a few minutes at the end of a session to relax completely in a comfortable position. Give your mind and body time to assimilate the effects.
Mindful Movement Meditation Instructions
If you are sitting, choose a straight-backed chair with a firm base, something like a dining-room chair. Make sure the pelvis is in a neutral position, neither rolling forwards nor backwards, and that your spine is upright, following its natural curves. If you are standing, have your feet hip width apart with your knees soft.
Relax your body into gravity, giving your weight up to the floor or to the chair. Drop your awareness deep in the body.
Let your shoulders be relaxed, dropping away from your ears. Breathe as naturally as you can. Gently support one forearm with the opposite hand in a very light hold and gently and smoothly rotate the hand around the wrist in a circle, within your range of movement. Be careful not to overgrip the arm or tense the face, shoulders or belly. Keep the breath soft and even. After you’ve done a few rotations, turn your wrist in the other direction for a few circles.
Now relax back down into the starting position for a few breaths and notice the effect of the movement, comparing the two sides of the body. Does the side you have just moved feel different from the other? A little more alive, perhaps? Or even a little ‘stretched’ or perhaps warmer? Notice any sensations you feel in your body. And if you don’t observe any particular difference between the two sides of the body, don’t worry. Just be aware of that.
Now repeat on the other side. Rest the forearm in the opposite hand and then smoothly rotate the hand around the wrist for a few circles, always checking that the face is soft, the belly is soft, the shoulders are soft, and that the hand holding the forearm is not gripping too tightly. And then reverse direction for a few rotations. At the end, relax your arms back down so they hang loosely at the sides of your body, and shake your arms and hands a little, relaxing the shoulders. Then come back to stillness – having your arms hanging lightly at the sides of the body if you are standing, or resting on your lap if you are sitting, as you feel the effects of the movement.
Before beginning, check that your pelvis is still in neutral – that it’s not rolling backwards or forwards – and that the spine is gently upright, following its natural curves. When you’re ready, raise one hand up in front of the body and join the thumb and index finger of this raised hand together so they form a circle. Then flick them apart, so they lightly snap out. And now go through each of the other fingers, perhaps repeating several times with each finger. Move and flick each finger lightly and gently, keeping the breathing soft. It’s always good to check if you’re holding the breath, as we often tend to do so in these kinds of movements. If you notice that you are holding the breath, just relax it again and see if you can bring softness to the face, belly and whole body as you flick the fingers.
Now relax the hand back down and notice if the side you have moved feels different from the other. Be curious, without judgement.
Now repeat the movement with the other hand – raising it up, forming a light circle with the thumb and index finger and then lightly flicking them apart. Do this a few times with the thumb and index finger and then with each of the other fingers in turn. Now repeat the exercise with both hands at the same time. Keep the shoulders relaxed, the face soft, the belly soft, the buttocks soft. At the end, allow the arms to hang loosely on the sides of the body, shaking them a little before coming back to rest. Feel the effects of the movement as you give the weight of your body up to the floor, and let the breath drop deep into the body.
Warm, hugging arms
Start with the arms hanging loosely at the sides of the body. Before moving, tune into the breath for a few moments. On the in-breath, extend both arms at the sides of the body, so the hands come up to shoulder level with the palms facing forwards. As you breathe out, very gently draw both arms across your chest, crossing the arms and giving yourself a very gentle hug. Imagine the hug is saturated with warmth and care. On the next in-breath, open the arms again, and on the next out-breath give yourself a hug again. Continue within your own range of movement making the movement quite small if necessary. And you can alternate which arm is on top when you give yourself the hug. As your arms open, feel a corresponding opening in the chest, with the shoulder blades very gently drawing together in the upper back. And as you give yourself a hug with the arms crossed, feel how the upper back broadens and opens. This is a good movement for very gently massaging the spine. Check that the shoulders stay as relaxed as possible as you do this movement. And allow the pace of the movement to be dictated by the rhythm of the natural breath, neither rushing nor holding the breath. After a few hugs, come back to rest. Let the hands hang loosely at the sides of the body and give them a little shake. Feel the effects of the movement. Give your weight up to the floor, letting yourself rest downwards into gravity whether you are sitting or standing. Feel the breath in your whole body.
Peeling off a top
Once again, start with your arms hanging loosely at the sides of the body and tune into the breath for a few moments. Then, on the in-breath, extend both arms up so that the hands are in line with your shoulders with the palms facing downwards, keeping your shoulders relaxed. As you breathe out, cross your arms in front of the body like the hug. On the next in-breath, imagine you’re peeling off a top with both hands, raising the crossed arms up over your head. On the next out-breath, allow your arms to float down the sides of the body with the palms facing downwards, back to the starting position. Repeat this movement a few times in a flowing rhythm, allowing the pace to be dictated by the natural breath. Let your whole spine be massaged very gently by this movement with the chest and back flexing and expanding in the different phases. When you’ve completed a few cycles, come back to rest. Gently shake the fingers, hands, arms, wrists, elbows and shoulders at the sides of the body before allowing them to come back to stillness. Feel the effects of the movement as you give your weight to the earth beneath you.
Spend some time resting at the end of your Mindful Movement session.You can do this sitting quietly or you might prefer to lie down on the floor or on the bed. Allow your body to release moment by moment, with a kindly breath. Allow any thoughts, emotions or feelings to come and go without getting caught up in them. When you are ready, begin to move and prepare for the rest of your day.
Dr Danny Penman discusses mindfulness for pain relief on BBC Breakfast
This meditation is taken from our book You Are Not Your Pain: Using Mindfulness to Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Restore Well-Being – An Eight-Week Program
‘A beautiful and compassionate book, Mindfulness for Health will put you back in touch with the extraordinary person you already are’ Professor Mark Williams, University of Oxford
‘This book provides an extremely effective and elegant mind-body approach to healing . . . Highly recommended’ Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, author of Full Catastrophe Living and Coming to Our Senses
‘In a world of much suffering this book is a gift of wisdom and practical help’ Professor Paul Gilbert, PhD, OBE, author of The Compassionate Mind
About the Meditation
The Body Scan begins the process of reintegrating your mind and body. This is crucial for distinguishing between Primary and Secondary Suffering, and, ultimately, reducing the pain that you actually suffer. It will also begin the process of dissolving stress along with any anxiety or depression that you are feeling. It should be performed twice per day on six days out of the next seven. The best times are in the morning and in the evening (or perhaps the afternoon). It is also preferable to carry them out at the same times each day. It is important to establish a routine, as this will support you on those days when your energy or enthusiasm is lacking.
It is best carried out in warm and quiet surroundings, and remember to arrange to not be disturbed. For example, you might want to let others in your home know when you are meditating. You should also switch off your phone or set it to divert to voicemail.
The body scan meditation is generally carried out lying down. Lying on a mat on the floor is ideal. Sometimes it’s best to avoid a bed as you will subconsciously associate it with sleep and may naturally become quite dozy. But if your bed is the only place you can be comfortable, then by all means meditate there.
It is perfectly normal when starting a mindfulness programme to feel resistance. Your mind may suddenly find many new and more pressing matters to attend to. You might start to feel guilty about devoting time to meditation. If this should happen, remind yourself that this is your time that has been set aside to heal and nourish you. And remember that when you begin to heal, everyone around you will benefit too. If resistance should still persist, then gently remind yourself of what others have found: mindfulness tends to liberate more time than it consumes.
Virtually everyone’s mind wanders while meditating. This is entirely normal. It’s what minds do. When your mind wanders in this way, try as best you can to shepherd your awareness back to the body and the breath. Try to be as understanding as possible. Your mind will repeatedly wander. And there is nothing to be gained from punishing it for doing what it is designed to do; instead, try to work with your mind. Try inviting it back to the body or breath with a sense of curiosity. Encourage it to discover what can be found in the continuous flow of life through your body.
The meditation invites you to gently move your awareness around your body, region by region, and to observe, with as much objectivity as you can, what you find. The idea is to hold each area centre stage for a while, before gently letting go and moving on to the next. It encourages you to bring, as best you can, a calm and inquisitive flavour of awareness to the meditation. Try to leave behind any preconceptions about what you ‘should’ feel and instead try to simply observe what you find. You might find areas that are numb. Other regions might be burning or throbbing. You might discover stabbing pains or perhaps a dull ache. It is not unusual to find areas of calm neutrality; a sense of pulsating life. Try to feel whether the sensations are fixed and unchanging or if they flux from moment to moment. You may be surprised to discover that your pain is not a ‘solid’ enemy, but is somehow more ‘fluid’ than that. If it’s possible, try to get a sense of the thoughts and emotions that accompany these sensations. Fear, anger and sorrow are common. These might be accompanied by anxious, stressed and depressed thoughts. But relief and a sense of peace and happiness might also be found. Whatever you find, try not to judge it in any way. As best you can, simply observe. When you do this, you will notice your suffering and stress begin to gradually soften and dissolve. After a while, you will discover that:
Relaxation is your natural state when you stop creating tension.
Try to be as kind and understanding towards yourself as you can. If you are slightly fearful or anxious about what you will find, remember that you don’t have to jump into the meditation with both feet. Be an explorer. Move inch by inch, and only as far as you feel able. Meditation is neither a marathon nor a sprint, but should be seen as a gentle ramble that encourages you to move at your own pace.
Remember that if any sensations become too unpleasant you can move your body to relieve your suffering. Make a conscious choice about how you will respond. You can try changing position or relaxing into the pain. See if the ebb and flow of the breath affects the pain. Often the breath will help dissolve your suffering. Always try to remember that you are free to do whatever you require to be comfortable. The practice will be far more beneficial if you are relaxed, rather than fighting pain or discomfort.
As you progress through the meditation you will notice that it asks you to pay particular attention to the breath. This is a common theme that runs through the whole programme. The breath is not only the source of life, but is also a sensitive barometer for any emotions or physical sensations that you are feeling just below the threshold of awareness. With practice, you can learn to use the breath as an early-warning system that allows you to sense and defuse suffering and stress before they become a problem. Often, simply observing the breath – making sure it is as natural as possible – can dissolve pain, suffering and stress without your needing to do anything else at all.
To gain a sense of how powerful this effect can be, try the following: clench your fist and notice what happens to the breath. You’ll probably find that you hold your breath and that it feels frozen in the abdomen. Now, relax around your breath and breathe into the sensations of clenching. Do you notice how your fist relaxes a little as well?
Most people automatically hold their breath when they feel pain, stress or discomfort. The habit of inhibiting the breath can also manifest as shallow breathing or as hyperventilation. Such disturbed breathing triggers the mind’s alarm systems, which, in turn, create tension and stress in the body. The mind then senses this increase in tension and stress and becomes even more alarmed. In this way, disturbed breathing can drive Secondary Suffering in a vicious and distressing cycle that also fuels anxiety and stress. The reverse is also true: breathing into pain or dis- tressing feelings tends to dissolve them. So mindfulness and breath awareness can be used to sap this vicious cycle of its momentum. Very quickly, your distress spins down into a state of peacefulness.
Mindfulness works on another deeper and more physiological level too. When you pay attention to the breath, and it becomes calmer, it naturally becomes deeper and more rhythmic. You also start to use the back of your lungs and ribcage a little more. In fact, your whole back moves when you breathe naturally. Combined with the movements in the chest and abdomen, along with the massaging of the internal organs with each breath, this is known as ‘whole-body breathing’. This is naturally calming. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which releases many hormones into the body that defuse tension and stress and promote healing. In turn, this creates deep-seated feelings of peacefulness and relaxation. These feelings then encourage more whole-body breathing. This virtuous cycle is also an extremely powerful antidote to pain, suffering, stress and anxiety.
Dr Danny Penman discusses mindfulness for pain relief on BBC Breakfast