A flock of birds flying over the water at sunset.

Progressive Relaxation

Progressive Relaxation was invented and developed by Edmund Jacobson, M.D., in the 1930s and 1940s. He (and others) did extensive research on the technique, and he published numerous scholarly works and several books for the public. His protégé and successor was Joseph McGuigan, Ph.D. He also conducted scientific research on Progressive Relaxation and published technical reports as well as books for the public. If you wish to learn Progressive Relaxation, you can do so by following the instructions given in their books and manuals. I will not attempt to teach it here because their books are readily available. Other writers have offered short-cut versions, but I believe that it would be very much worth the time it would take to follow the original method.

Progressive Relaxation involves tensing a muscle, holding the tension for a full minute, studying the feeling of tension, then suddenly letting that muscle relax and studying the feeling of relaxation that reflexively follows. After doing this three times, the student simply relaxes all his muscles and his mind for the remainder of the hour. In this manner, the student progresses from one muscle group to the next, gradually learning to relax all his muscles more and more as he develops skills through practice. Every third practice session is spent simply relaxing as deeply as possible for the full hour. It takes about three months to cover the whole body while lying down. Then, the protocol is repeated while in a seated position.

The last portion of the training deals with learning to relax the area around the eyes and the area of the tongue, mouth, and jaw. He teaches us that it is impossible to think when these areas are completely relaxed. When we think, we are visualizing something and/or talking to ourselves in our minds. His research demonstrated that slight tensions occur in our eye muscles and tongue muscles when we are thinking. He has demonstrated that when our eye muscles and tongue muscles are completely relaxed, we are either asleep or in a state of deep relaxation.

One very important thing we learned from Jacobson is that there is only one thing we can do to a muscle, and that is to tense it. We can send a message from our brain to a muscle telling it to tense, but we cannot send a message telling it to relax. This is why we sometimes only get more tense instead of relaxing when we try to tell our bodies to relax. Part of learning to relax is learning to be passive and to let our muscles relax. Jacobson is famous for saying, “An effort to relax is a failure to relax.” In other words, trying too hard is counter-productive. If we just “get out of the way,” our muscles will relax.

Occasionally, I find it useful to practice the procedure Jacobson used in his first session by itself. This involves the following: Lying on your back with your arms at your sides, palms facing down, and your eyes closed, bend your hand back as far as you can, and hold it. Study the feeling of tension in the top of your forearm for a minute or so. Then, suddenly, let your hand fall forward and study the feeling of relaxation in your forearm. You can do it with one arm and then the other. It is an extremely relaxing thing to do.