The Most Important Posture Changing Exercise In The Universe!

… or “Rejuvenation Through Relaxation”
… or “Teach Yourself How To Monitor And Regulate Muscle Tension In Your Body”

So I have had a rather difficult time titling this post in a manner that satisfies my internet-savvy friends :-)  The exercise contained herein is everything as advertised above, however, and for those who have been practicing it regularly it has become much much more.

Let me open by saying that we are the only diurnal mammals who do not lie down in the middle of the day.  (To my mind – please let me know if I am misinformed!)  Lying down and resting from time to time is beneficial for all the reasons you are probably thinking off the top of your head, and if only we would take a break on our back from time to time I suspect that many nagging neck, shoulder, and lower back problems would “magically” disappear.  But I digress.

The purpose of this exercise, as I teach it to beginners, is to develop an awareness and control of muscular tension.  These are learnable skills that can be strengthened and honed with regular practice (and all the while you have an excuse to lie down on the floor and rest – win win).  Most folks seem to think they have to outsource this experience to massage therapists, or Yoga classes, or hot baths; but in all of these scenarios it is they that are relaxing in response to touch, or environment, or expectations.  Allow me to assert this point more strongly – there is a synapse at the fingertips of even the most skillful bodyworker across which relaxation cannot be transmitted to the client.  It is the client’s response to touch that leads to the release of muscular holding.

Frankly, I am still not 100% sure why this exercise has the effect on folks’ posture that I see daily in my practice.  I hypothesize that when one develops a sophisticated awareness of real-time muscle tension and becomes familiar with what it feels like when a muscle releases tension, then one becomes intolerant to inefficient posture and movement patterns.  When the folks I teach have this sensory world opened to them they begin experimenting with how they use their bodies based on a highly accurate sense of what “feels right” in the muscles, and this invariably leads them away from slouching, or hunching, or military-type postures that require lots of effort.  They guide themselves into the easiest postures they can, without being told to sit or stand any differently.  It’s so exciting for me when I see this process unfold!

Of course, the willful and intentional release of muscular tension might sound fantastical, but those who begin practicing this exercise find that it is in fact quite fantastic :-)  I could go on and on, but let me present the exercise in its most basic form, from two viewpoints:


Rachel Bernsen, who teaches the Alexander Technique right here in New Haven

Rachel Bernsen, who teaches the Alexander Technique right here in New Haven

Before taking Alexander Technique lessons from the incomparable Rachel Bernsen, I was totally unaware of the potential for creating an exercise to develop these important skills.  I wasn’t even aware of the surprisingly significant difference between the verbs ‘relax’ and ‘release’ :-) I am very grateful for having studied with Rachel, and I recommend her with enthusiasm.

The origins of these concepts in the West can be traced to about a hundred years ago, in two parts of the world that are about as far apart from each other as could be, two individuals recognized the importance of learning how to regulate muscular tension and began to teach and write to the public.  Their names were Professor Edmund Jacobson of Chicago, Illinois and F.M. Alexander of Wynyard, Tasmania, and their work has had a profound impact on my own.

The "Father of Progressive Relaxation," Professor Edmund Jacobson

The “Father of Progressive Relaxation,” Professor Edmund Jacobson

Interestingly, the approaches of these two couldn’t be more different, and in my private practice I use a bit of a blend of the two.  Professor Jacobson taught a method that involved deliberately tensing and then untensing muscles, after which the subject would get the hang of releasing unwanted and previously subconscious tension.  In the Yin-Yang spectrum, his method would be on the Yang side, which is self-evident in the title of his book You Must Relax.  But he may have been writing to the denizens of the City Of Broad Shoulders, whereas Mr. Alexander was in a starkly different world (he was a professional Shakespearian reciter).

Frederick Mathias Alexander

Frederick Mathias Alexander

Mr. Alexander’s approach, by comparison, is much more subtle and certainly more broadly encompassing.  Habitual use of the mind and body, and how to change the same, is the subject of his work.  For the interested reader, I highly recommend his short book Use of the Self and a course of Alexander Technique lessons from Rachel Bernsen.  You could take the book to your first lesson with Rachel and ask her how to best organize your body whilst reading it :-)


UPDATED 1/23/15




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