Q&A: Is My Tension Mental or Physical?

Tracey Rich offers advice for determining whether it's your body or your mind that's having trouble letting go.
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Tracey Rich offers advice for determining whether it's your body or your mind that's having trouble letting go.
woman gets back massage for emotional and physical tension

I have always thought of myself as a tight person. But yesterday during a restorative class, the teacher suggested that my “tightness” might be more mental than physical, perhaps more a fear of letting go or relaxing. Is this common —and what can I do about it?

Cathy Holleb, Deerfield, Illinois

The old ’60s adage applies here: Question authority. Your tightness could certainly be psychological rather than physical; we often make things harder than they need be or resist things that could enrich our lives. It'’s not uncommon for the body to speak through tightness, as the body and mind are deeply connected, and we do have physical and psychological traumas stored in our bodies. Letting go can be a great relief—but we also have to realize that there are times when the letting go may not be ready to occur. So you could explore the teacher’s insights, but make sure that they ring true for you.

Your challenge may also truly be tightness. You could either be holding back
or overexerting. I often find that people unconsciously fight themselves in postures by not understanding how to make gravity do the work for them. Tightness can appear as physical resistance from the body trying to protect itself (maybe unnecessarily) from the thought of an old injury, unexamined fear, or real scar tissue from a previous injury. There can also be tightness in the body from working too hard to attain some aspect of the asana when we unconsciously overuse the muscles instead of softening and giving way to the breath. When we allow the breath to permeate the posture and let gravity work its magic on the pose, we can experience a release we did not even imagine was possible.

The first place to begin gaining insight and understanding is through paying attention to the guidance of the primary yoga teacher in the room—your breath. Is it tight? Is it weak? Is it nonexistent? Is it staccato? Does the pose call for a refined stream of air or a full-force breath? Are you using your full lung capacity? Is your mind linked to your breath?

Yoga is holistic; it’s neither just mind nor just body. It is about self-inquiry, mining the tools that invigorate the life force and appreciating and respecting the consciousness that permeates everything.

Tracey Rich is a director of the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, California. Visit www.whitelotus.org.