This Is Why We Have So Much Tension (And How We Can Relieve It)

Certified Personal Trainer & Yoga Teacher By Abi Carver, NASM-CPT
Certified Personal Trainer & Yoga Teacher
Abi Carver is a NASM-certified personal trainer and 200-hour Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor. She is the founder of the Yoga 15 video series, which helps make yoga simple and accessible for anyone.

Image by Javier Díez / Stocksy

As human beings, we all carry some form of tension around with us every day, either in our minds, bodies, or souls, whether or not we realize it. That's right—until you try to exert yourself or move your body, you may not realize how much tension you're holding on to (or know where you're holding on to it). 

How could you not realize, you ask? Well, you could be dealing with a loss of introspective acuity (your sense of what is going on inside your body), or your attention could just be elsewhere. We direct our attention more toward the outside world (like sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and tactile feelings) than toward our inner experience. Not to mention, our bodies tighten up gradually in response to our habitual postural and movement patterns, and it isn't until we push against those patterns that we realize how much we are limited.

So let's unpack that and start to relax ourselves together.

We all have muscle tension.

The most common postural habit we have to grapple with is too much sitting. A predominantly sedentary lifestyle leads to a fairly predictable pattern of muscular tension:

  • Tight hip flexors—the muscles at the front of your hips are habitually shortened, in the seated position.
  • Tightness in the chest, as your arms come forward in front of your body to type, cook, eat, drive, or ride your bike.
  • A tight neck and upper back, from the head forward position, as you crane to look at screens, phones, and the road ahead.

And this leads to a series of muscular imbalances:

  • Due to a process known as reciprocal inhibition, as the hip flexors tighten, their antagonists (opposite muscles)—the glutes or buttocks—relax to protect themselves from tearing. Over time, the glutes suffer from gluteal amnesia and "forget" how to fire properly.
  • When the glutes are weak, the muscles at the base of the spine are forced to pick up the slack, which leads to pain and tightness in the lower back.
  • In the upper body, bringing your arms forward over-stretches and weakens the muscles that support your shoulder blades, causing pain in the upper back, neck and in between the shoulder blades.

In other words, tightness leads to imbalance, which often leads to pain. And unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. Avoidance of pain creates more tension. The real kicker is that your brain gets really good at sensing pain and mobilizing the "stress response," which also increases muscle tension, and a powerful negative cycle is set in motion.

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What is the stress response?

When your brain perceives a threat in your environment, you do not have time to think through the most appropriate response. Your body reacts automatically on your behalf, activating the "stress response." Your heart beats faster to increase blood flow to your muscles, you take shorter breaths to bring more oxygen into your system, and muscle tension increases.

Your body responds in a similar way to anxiety-provoking thoughts—to jealousy, heartbreak, guilt, anger, aggression, sexual frustration, resentment, anxiety, lack of self-worth, nervousness, or loneliness. When you're fearful of the future, committed to an impossible deadline, stuck in a spiral of addiction, or constantly feeling hurt by someone close to you—each time you replay these thoughts in your head, you trigger the stress response, contracting your body and adding on to those layers of tension. You may feel a tightness in your chest, gripping in your jaw, soreness in the neck and shoulders, throbbing head, constricted breathing, lower back pain, or overall stiffness.

It's exhausting, it steals your energy, and it blocks you from fulfilling your potential. Contraction stifles flow, creativity, self-expression, sensation, and happiness. Imagine if you could let all that go.

The relaxation response

Developing a yoga practice is one of the best things we can do to relieve tension in our bodies. A yoga class is essentially an unraveling of physical and emotional tension—through diaphragmatic breathing, mindful movement, stretching, specific relaxation techniques, and increased introspection.

Yoga triggers the relaxation or "rest and digest" response, decreasing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, lowering heart rate, increasing breath volume, and releasing tight muscles. It reconnects you to sensation, helps you to sleep properly, allows you to extract the maximum nutrition from your food, boosts your circulation, supports detoxification, and triggers your cells to rejuvenate.

When you're able to shift between periods of high and low tension, without getting stuck in either, you'll feel more open, relaxed, expansive, and supple. You'll notice more of what is going on in the world around you and be able to act with more ease, confidence, and spontaneity.

So take a deep inhale and a full exhale. You have everything you need to lessen your tension—one pause, pose, and practice at a time.

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