Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), or “contract-relax technique,” is the perfect technique to teach a client who is new to exploring body awareness and relaxation techniques. Progressive Muscle Relaxation teaches the client to become aware of tension in his or her body and then to release that tension. The technique is easy to learn, it doesn’t require consistent practice or discipline (unlike some forms of meditation), it can be done just about anywhere, and its effects are almost immediate. Progressive Muscle Relaxation is truly the mind-body connection at work, and teaching it requires no equipment other than enough space for the client to relax. The client can be sitting, standing or lying down, but lying down will allow for deeper relaxation.
1. Begin by asking the client to become relaxed. Depending on the space you have available (and your employer’s policies), you may want to dim the lights and play some soothing music.
2. Body awareness is a crucial element in the Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique. Instruct the client to focus internally. You might say something like, “The things we focus our attention on have a profound effect on our mood, thought process and stress levels. Most of the time, we focus our attention on what’s happening outside our body. That means that our ‘internal atmosphere’ normally flows from the outside in. Close your eyes and begin to notice what’s happening inside your body right now. Just notice. And begin to let your thoughts and mood come from the inside.”
3. Instruct the client to focus on the breath. Tell him or her to take long, slow, deep breaths through the nose, letting them flow into the abdomen and rise all the way under the collar bones. You might say something like, “Your body normally controls your breathing, and you don’t have to think about it. But you can also control your breathing with your mind, insofar as you can consciously regulate the depth and rhythm of your breathing. This is why so many mind-body practices consider the breath to be something of a ‘bridge’ between mind and body. By focusing and breathing deeply, you’ll become more relaxed and more aware of your internal state.” If time allows, it’s optimal to allow the client to continue breathing and relaxing in this way for up to 2 minutes.
4. Now it’s time to begin contracting and relaxing. Working in steps from head to toe, instruct the client to consciously contract a given muscle group as much as he or she can, breathing normally, while you count slowly from 1 to 5, and then to release the tense muscles on a long exhalation. (You can choose a single muscle, such as the left biceps, or go broader, grouping together all the muscles in both arms, for example. The choice will depend on the amount of time you have and on the client’s patience and comfort level.) Repeat the process, instructing the client to tense those same muscles as you count from 1 to 5--and then to release them on an exhalation. You might say something like, “As you tighten your muscles, visualize them as balloons inflating and becoming tauter. As you release the tension, imagine that your exhalation is the air rushing out of those balloons as your muscles become smooth and flat, releasing their grip on the bone underneath them.”
5. Use this counting and breathing sequence as you move the client through all the major muscle groups. Once you have targeted them all, you can either end the session or allow the client to remain relaxed, breathing normally, for up to 5 minutes.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation has few contraindications. Intense muscle contractions are a bad idea for anybody experiencing extreme muscle soreness or recovering from an injury or recent surgery. Also, be sure the client breathes normally throughout. Holding the breath while tensing the muscles causes a temporary spike in blood pressure. This can be dangerous for older people and people with high blood pressure.