In April 2018, I had been teaching yoga for all of three months at the YMCA. Then, I was slowly working on branching out and practicing new things and learning more about the space, and where I fit into it, when I was offered to take on a 2x-a-week class at a nearby chiropractic practice. This was one of the most transformational parts of my teaching career, and where I first started using progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)in class.
But classes were never big – it averaged 4 ladies, 3 of whom lived in a row – and a few other folks who wandered in time to time, stayed for a bit, then left. And at the time, I was so, unbelievably green when I started at this clinic. But these ladies were so gracious and kind, they welcomed my style and were game for any new techniques I wanted to try out with them. And PMR was something that became a regular part of our classes.
What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation
PMR is a technique to alleviate tension and stress in the body. People also use it in conjunction with cognitive behavioral theory or systematic desensitization. But PMR can help with more than anxiety with chronic tension and stress. PMR helps with low back pain, high blood pressure, migraines, and more. I would venture to say that anyone, no matter how healthy or fit, would benefit from a regular PMR practice.
This is how I typically teach PMR in my yoga classes. But there are many other ways to teach it or integrate it into your day as well. Try on variations and find what works for you (or reach out for alternative ideas).
- Prepare by dressing in loose, comfy clothes. Find a warm space that’s as free from distractions as possible. This practice is most effective with eyes closed, so removing contacts ahead of time can help take away any potential disruption. Gather any props that help you lay comfortably, like a bolster under knees or pillow under the head. Eyepillows can be especially effective as well.
- Allow your hands to rest on your belly to start. First noticing the breath, and where it goes. Is it shallow? Is it deep? Can you engage your abdomen so that you feel your stomach inflate before your chest? Help students learn how to drive their breath lower and deeper. Engage in a diaphragmatic breath. I usually begin to institute a kind of count here for the breath to create rhythm.
- Talk through the different muscle groups you’re going to focus on. I usually divide into 5 areas:
- Below the knees: toes, feet and calves
- Between the knees and belly button: thighs, glutes, pelvic floor, and psoas
- Torso: belly, chest and back
- Neck, shoulders, arms, hands and fingers
- Face and head
- The whole body
- Begin to cue introducing tension on an inhale. Tightening muscles as appropriate for each section. Curl the toes or fingers. Squish up your face and open the mouth in a snarl. Feel your tummy twist up. I usually cue something like, inhale for 5 and begin to tense and hold.
- Exhale and cue the release, letting it take the entirety of their breath out to release the tension. Wait a few breaths in between before repeating (I do each section two times) or moving on. Push them to luxuriate in the softness of release and relaxation.
- Travel up the body (some practices recommend starting from the head down, but I feel it’s more effective from the feet up). At the end, after the whole body approach, take a long savasana.
Pairing PMR with Yoga Practice
Progressive muscle relaxation clearly lends itself to a restorative practice well. But you can include elements in a faster paced power yoga setting, or set aside time in savasana to do a shortened version. Wherever you can build it into a practice, I guarantee your students will benefit from it.