Undoing the Belt Buckle

As a bodyworker, I hear a common observation from my clients - about how they hold all their tension here ____________ (insert body part).

Often, it's in the neck and/or the shoulders and/or the upper back. But it can also show up in the forearms and wrists, the jaws, the butt, the whole gastrointestinal system… wherever we are stopping our energy and expression from flowing freely.

There's a phrase that gets passed along in wellness circles (included by yours truly, because, well, it makes so much sense…):

"Tension is who you think you must be - relaxation is who you are."

In pondering the implications of this supposed Chinese proverb*, and wanting to share some examples of what this might mean, I realized that we should first clarify the use of the word 'tension'.

'Tension', like 'stress', is used here in the negative - as a state to be avoided. Indeed, a quick dictionary search offers the definition of tension as 'mental or emotional strain'.

But tension in the neutral is really just a state of being stretched.

And like stress, it is a necessary aspect of our structure. Our bodies, specifically our connective tissue, are a continual interplay of tension and release. Without it we would have no movement. We would not remain upright - gravity would have us in a heap on the floor.

Being 'stretched' is a phrase used to describe when we are being pulled out of our comfort zones - being challenged in some way, that ideally will lead to growth and strengthening.

But we know that, like stress, too much tension without the balance of release can become a literal pain in the neck, or worse.

The tension this proverb is alluding to may show up in forms such as these:

- Sucking the gut in to appear thinner

- Clenching fists, jaws, buttocks in order to keep from expressing 'non-acceptable' emotions

- Stomach-in-a-knot for the same reasons

- Tightness and pain in the neck, shoulders, upper-mid-lower back from a majority of waking hours spent in one position, while the body was designed with an expectation to move in many different ways

- Walking on eggshells around certain people to avoid confrontation, provocation or other unpleasantness

- Squeezing ourselves into clothes, shoes, hairstyles, cosmetics and postures that do not honor the natural beauty of our bodies, but attempt to conform to some external (and arbitrary) standard of appearance.

- Losing the natural grace and sway of head and shoulders and hips and spine and the relationship between them out of shame and repression, or fear of appearing inappropriate, goofy, 'gay', whatever.

- Shallow breathing learned out of self-defense and protection from vulnerability. (Same with constipation.)

- Dogmatic or rigid thinking, that does not trust or allow for creativity, intuitive insight, leaps of faith and play.

You can see in many of these examples, the tension we are incurring is about fitting into external expectations or structures.

Is that all bad? Not necessarily. There are social norms and expectations that we might want to adhere to depending on what circles we want to be welcome in.

But those expectations can cross over the line into causing us to tighten up and pinch off vital parts of ourselves, especially if those circles are not in alignment with who we really are.

Can you feel the difference in your body between when you are at home in a situation - breathing easily and fully, and when you are trying to conform, or play nice, or keep the peace, or close the sale?

When do you feel safe to undo the belt buckle and let it all hang out? And which state - tension or relaxation -  are you in more often than not?

(*I often see this quote credited as "Chinese proverb", but I tend to be suspicious of such attributions.)

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