The Best Way to Relax

by Sharon on October 14, 2011

When you are suffering from neck, back, hip or shoulder pain, even if you’re just plain tired, Constructive Rest, practiced just 10 minutes a day, is the way to go.

Constructive Rest, pictured below, is a resting position of the body, in which the arms and legs are supported rather than held by the muscles of the neck and spine. By relieving the spine of the weight of the legs at their articulation with the trunk, the pelvis, trunk muscles, fascia and internal organs are also given a chance to rest. As the weight of the arms across the chest presses into the articulation of the shoulders where they meet the trunk, chronically tight and overworked neck, shoulder and back muscles are given an opportunity to reset, too.

Relaxation and Healing for Neck and Back Pain

Constructive Rest Image provided by Ann F. Cowlin¹

Basic Position: open your feet hip-width apart with the heels outside the toes in a slightly pigeon-toed position. Let your knees fall together so your legs support one another. Cross and drape your arms one over the other, resting them on your chest like empty coat sleeves. Your hands should be relaxed and open, falling off the arms.*

In The Thinking Body, Mabel Todd, who originated Constructive Rest, recommends it for “relieving the spine from strain of leg weights and favoring a return of blood to heart.”² She describes how, throughout nature, cycles of work are always followed by a dynamic pause, or rest. Different from sleep, these dynamic rest periods are intrinsic to life — from the tiniest cells to the heart, lungs, digestive and neuromuscular systems. The moment of rest and silence in the lub dub of the heart is when the heart’s atrial chambers fill with oxygenated blood in preparation for the next squeeze of the heart, which then sends newly oxygenated blood out to each and every cell in the body. It is a dynamic pause.

Lulu Sweigard, a student of Todd’s, wrote in the Human Movement Potential that “the distribution of its structural weight should balance the body so that no muscle work need be added to maintain equilibrium in the position.”³ What we are seeking to accomplish with Constructive Rest, then, is to bring the body into effortless mechanical equilibrium.

Constructive Rest creates an opportunity for the spinal curves, from head to tailbone, from left to right, to relax and lengthen onto the even surface of a supportive ground. Tense muscles, tissues, joints and organs throughout the body can relax and literally unwind from the demands of maintaining an upright position against gravity.

Remember, the point is to be absolutely comfortable and use as little muscular effort as possible to maintain the position. If you don’t find this position comfortable, perhaps another variation on Constructive Rest might work better for you.

Practicing Constructive Rest only 10 minutes a day has delicious effects. By supporting your body in dynamic relaxation, you can unwind from pain and fatigue while you tune into your breath and your body, relax and let go.**

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NOTES AND REFERENCES

* Try not to forcefully bend your arms or hold your arms in place by gripping with your hands.

** Other benefits may be similar to those of meditation and yoga where lowered stress levels, decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure, decreased heart rate, improved mood and energy levels are well documented. However, to discuss these bonus effects is beyond the scope of this article.

¹ Image provided by Ann F. Cowlin, Yale University, and Dancing Thru Pregnancy.

² Todd, Mabel Elsworth, The Thinking Body: A Study of the Balancing Forces of Dynamic Man,  Dance Horizons, Incorporated, 1937, p.290.

³ Sweigard, Lulu E., Human Movement Potential: Its Ideokinetic Facilitation, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1974, p. 216

Variations on Constructive Rest

by Sharon on October 14, 2011

Relaxation and Rest for Neck and Back Pain

Constructive Rest*

In a previous blog post, The Best Way to Relax, I described the many benefits of Constructive Rest. Here, I wish to offer a few variations on the basic position, pictured at left. At different times, or because of your body type, you might find one of these variations more comfortable. And comfort is what we’re looking for here.

 

  • Try placing a small pillow under the head if you have a deep chest (thoracic kyphosis) or forward head. If you notice your chin is pointing towards the ceiling and your head is cocked back, you need a pillow. If you simply feel strain in your neck or back, try a pillow. It should be as small as possible to comfortably support your head and neck. The goal is to support your body’s neutral alignment in a comfortable, balanced way so that you can let go of all muscular holding.
  • If the backs of the hips are tight (this is true for many men), try lining up your knees with your hips and ankles rather than trying to force the knees together. Then cross the arms over your chest. If your legs stay in place on their own without drifting to the sides or falling open, this may be the optimal position for your body.
  • If you have a large chest, or if for any reason you are simply uncomfortable crossing your arms over the chest, try resting your arms about 45 degrees away from the trunk of your body with your palms facing up. Allow the weight of the arms to release into gravity.
  • You can loosely tie your thighs together with a scarf or theraband to keep legs from falling open.
  • If the floor feels hard or uncomfortable, try putting more padding down.
  • Sometimes a small pillow placed under the pelvis or low back may feel good.
  • Another approach to Constructive Rest is to prop the legs, bent 90 degrees at the hips and knees, onto a chair seat or sofa. Open the arms out to the sides, palms up, or cross your arms across your chest as in the basic position.

Whichever adaptation you choose, try lying in the same position for 10 minutes a day for a few days. Notice the difference in how you feel.

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* Image provided by Ann F. Cowlin, Yale University, and Dancing Thru Pregnancy.

Is Your Posture Causing Shoulder Pain?

by Sharon on September 7, 2011

Have you been taught by your Physical Therapist, Yoga teacher, Pilates teacher or trainer to press your shoulders back and down for good posture?

What if, instead, you were to ease your shoulders up; rotate them slightly back to open the chest; and then allow them to gently drop into place. Then forget about them and move on with your day.

Up and open, not back and down?

Shirley Sahrmann, an influential Physical Therapist, first introduced me to this concept. Her work emphasizes that many, if not most, pain and orthopedic problems are created and maintained by faulty postures and movement patterns.* When I volunteered to be a guinea pig in her continuing ed class, she curtly informed me that I hold my shoulders in an overly depressed position. Really? But wait — I learned to do this as a dancer for good posture. Now you’re telling me that the years-long habit of pressing my shoulders back and down may actually have caused chronic shoulder pain and dysfunction?

Have you never secretly wondered about the instruction to “press your shoulders back and down” — that it sounds, and looks, just a little like the old military instruction “stand up straight, chest out, shoulders back.” Though well-intentioned, it may not be the best advice to correct either internally rotated shoulders or an habitual slouch. Yes, it might facilitate chest opening and elongate tight pectoralis muscles. You may even activate the posterior shoulder blade and postural muscles, like the lower trapezius. Unfortunately, the rhomboids may also become overly activated, too. According to Shirley, shortened rhomboids are not desirable. Besides, you are probably freezing other shoulder blade muscles, like the important serratus anterior, into a chronically tense and overly elongated position. This is NOT desirable. Muscles need to be free and balanced to move bones, especially those of the shoulder blades.

Besides, holding almost any muscle in a static position isn’t usually a good idea. It can create a new host of problems.

Ask yourself, is it possible that pressing your shoulders back and down may actually increase tension in the cervical/shoulder complex and contribute to neck strain and pain? Might it also cause you to press the top of your shoulder, the acromion, down onto the humeral head, creating a moment of impingement within the shoulder joint, contributing to wear and tear of the rotator cuff or a frozen shoulder? The shoulders, particularly in men and women in their 40′s, 50′s and 60′s, not infrequently become problematic through impingement syndromes, frozen shoulder or rotator cuff pulls, strains and tears.

Just for now, try easing your shoulders up, back and then relax them into gravity, easing them into place. You can accomplish the same desired goal of decreasing rounded shoulders, while at the same time creating more relaxation and ease in your neck and shoulders.

 

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*This may or may not include athletic or other kinds of accidents and injuries caused by sudden impact.  Having said that, even a sudden injury or accident can be contributed to by the habitual strain caused by faulty posture, poor training, conditioning or ineffective movement habits.

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