Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Learn a basic mind-body technique that can blend into your personal training sessions.
In the fitness industry, trends come and go. Yesterday’s high-low is today’s Pilates, and only time will tell if the indoor cycling classes that now pack participants wall to wall will eventually go the way of Jane Fonda–era aerobics. A steady stream of developments in exercise science, combined with the ever-turning tides of popular culture, means that trainers will always have a rich source of new routines, techniques and philosophies to keep clients interested and motivated.
The mind-body trend has gained particular momentum over the last couple of years. Any trainer worth his or her salt knows that a number of mind-body approaches to exercise are enjoying wild popularity. The 2004 IDEA Programs & Equipment Survey put yoga and Pilates at the top of the list of trends infusing fitness facilities. The numbers are compelling: Yoga Journal’s second annual “Yoga in America” survey tells us that 7.5% of U.S. adults (16.5 million people) now practice yoga, and the Pilates Method Alliance® estimates that 9 million Americans are doing Pilates. Tai chi and meditation classes are also on the rise in health clubs. And if the predictions hold true, personal training clients will continue to demand more mind-body elements in their sessions.
It’s easy to see why mind-body is so popular. These days, people are increasingly adopting a wider view of what it means to be healthy and fit, but they are also more stressed out and pressed for time. For many, their trip to the gym may be the only hour in their day that they can dedicate solely to themselves, and they are looking for maximum overall benefit.
That means that more and more, clients are seeking a training session for “the whole person”—an experience that blends physical fitness with mental and emotional wellness.
If you’re not already qualified to teach a mind-body discipline, you might be tempted to run out and buy a couple of yoga or Pilates DVDs and start teaching the exercises and breath techniques to your clients. Bad idea. Mind-body disciplines cannot be mastered in a weekend. Yoga Alliance requires registered yoga teachers to have a minimum of 200 hours of training, 500 hours for more advanced instruction. The Pilates Method Alliance urges anyone interested in teaching Pilates to practice the discipline and attend comprehensive training before leading others.
You can go as far as you like in integrating mind-body disciplines into your training sessions, provided you pursue the proper training. What follows is a basic technique that you can start using right away. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is simple, safe and effective, and just about anyone can learn to teach it. It’s a great way to end any training session.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation, or “contract-relax technique,” is the perfect technique to teach a client who is new to exploring body awareness and relaxation techniques. It teaches the client to become aware of tension in his or her body and then to release that tension. Progressive Muscle Relaxation 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. When teaching Progressive Muscle Relaxation, 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 Progressive Muscle Relaxation. 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.
Eastern and Western philosophers alike have pondered the mind-body connection for centuries. Today, the debate persists in philosophical circles, but a connection between mind and body is largely accepted in the “real” world.
Here’s a very simple example. Let’s imagine that you are in a stressed mood. You’re frustrated, and your thoughts are racing. What else happens? If you’re like most people, you’ll experience one or more physical symptoms: sweaty palms, a clenched jaw, shallow breathing or a tension headache, perhaps. Let’s consider it from the other end: You have a pounding headache. It’s a purely physical phenomenon, but how does it affect your thinking and mood? This is the mind-body connection at work in its most basic, direct and obvious form: Tension or relaxation of the mind promotes tension or relaxation of the body, and vice versa.
A growing number of people in the global scientific community are also adopting a more global view of mind-body wellness that states that the overall well-being of the mind is intricately tied to the overall well-being of the body. Studies have shown very real relationships between emotional stress and heart health and between regular exercise and a measurable reduction in depression and anxiety. (Editor’s Note: See this month’s Mind-Body News on p. 102 for recent research findings on how exercise affects depression and mood.)
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