Ease Relaxation Into Your Classes

by Shirley Archer, JD, MA on Apr 01, 2003

To the well-being of your participants, deep relaxation is as important as regular exercise and is therefore a logical addition to your class cool-downs. Daily stresses can trigger physical and emotional tension that, if unmanaged, can harm health. Progressive relaxation and guided imagery are easy skills to learn and great services to add to your repertoire.

Plan your relaxation closings in the same manner that you design workouts—using exercise selection, sequencing, cuing and music. Here are some descriptions of different physical and mental relaxation methods, suggestions on how to lead mind-body relaxation exercises and a few teaching tips. To succeed, all you need to do is apply the skills and get plenty of practice. The best part is that you will have no trouble finding willing subjects. ‰ Supplement to April 2003 IDEA Health & Fitness Source

Why Bother?

Stress manifests itself in several different ways. Physical signs include increased blood pressure, heart rate, blood flow to the extremities, perspiration and muscle tension. Mentally, stress causes anxiety, tension and hyperalertness. Prolonged, unmanaged stress leads to irritability, loss of concentration and a weakened immune system. Learning how to relax can counteract this stress response.

By releasing both physical and mental tension, relaxation restores the mind and body to a balanced state. Breathing exercises, stretching, repetitive movement and progressive relaxation all soothe the body. Guided imagery and visualization instill peace of mind, especially when combined with physical relaxation. Striking a balance is the key.

The Physical Aspect

Effective physical relaxation methods include simple breathing exercises; progressive relaxation; and gentle, static stretching. If you don’t have time to lead a full guided relaxation, simply have your class participants take a few moments to focus on their breathing. Encourage them to observe their inhalation and exhalation, without making any effort to control the breath. Have them pay particular attention to how the breath moves the body. Ask them to notice subtleties, such as whether the chest or belly rises with inhalation, and how the body responds to exhalation. This singular focus brings people into the present moment and into the immediate experience of their bodies. It often results in slower, deeper diaphragmatic breaths that further relax the body.

After you have guided your students through a few sessions of conscious experiential breathing, introduce progressive relaxation, which consists of sequentially tensing and relaxing individual muscles. This technique helps people develop body awareness and is particularly valuable for those who are unaware of how much muscular tension they carry. It also educates participants on how to release that tension.

When you lead progressive relaxation, start from the top of the body and progress to the bottom, or vice versa. Proceeding sequentially gives your participants an easy-to-follow sense of order. Observe reactions to gauge whether people understand your instructions; and if necessary, adjust your cues. Use your voice for emphasis. For example, raise your voice when instructing participants to tense a muscle and soften it when you encourage release and relaxation.

After you have relaxed the major muscles, focus a few moments on breathing. Allow your participants to feel the peace and comfort within their bodies. Close the exercise by having the class do some gentle stretching and return to an external focus on the room and surrounding environment. At the same time, ask people to remain aware of their internal sense of relaxation.

The Mental Aspect

Visualization and guided imagery are similar techniques but differ in their ultimate objectives. Both use images that appeal to the senses—sight, sound, smell, touch and taste—to create mental and physical responses. Visualization consists of “end state” imagery. It involves mentally rehearsing a perfect performance or specific goal and includes all aspects of the experience, triggering sense and memory. Athletes use visualization to enhance sports performance. The technique is effective because images are almost as real to the mind as actual experience.

Regularly using visualization can create confidence, direct positive behavioral change, strengthen motivation and engender feelings of control. When leading visualization, it’s important to reinforce that participants are always in control of their own imagery and its uses. They can choose to participate in the imagery on whatever level is comfortable or not at all.

In contrast, guided imagery is not used to rehearse any specific behavior. Rather, it is used to create a mind-body relaxation experience. Guided imagery incorporates all the senses and focuses attention inward. Using this technique, you lead participants to envision a comfortable place or private sanctuary. This exercise helps people who have difficulty bringing up specific images to focus on recreating feelings associated with a comfortable and relaxed experience.

Finding the Balance Within

Deep within each of us lies a well of peaceful calm. Your participants will appreciate your efforts to add relaxation to classes. As with anything new, your delivery skills will improve over time and your confidence will grow. Believe in yourself and the power to promote health and well-being. As you lead your students toward finding serenity, you will also discover in yourself the road to greater harmony and balance of mind, body and spirit.

IDEA Fitness Edge, Volume 2004, Issue 2

© 2003 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, was the 2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and is IDEA's mind-body-spirit spokesperson. She is a certified yoga and Pilates teacher and an award-winning author based in L...