Inviting Relaxation

By Til Luchau
[The Somatic Edge]

What’s going on when clients just can’t let go—the times clients don’t seem to be able to let their arm be heavy (above), relax their neck, or let you have the weight of their leg? As a practitioner, you feel this as stiffness or a jerky resistance to movement. But as a client, this not-letting-go might be hard to feel and, as a result, make it even harder to relax. Helping our clients be aware of this holding-on (and getting them to relax) is a skill even the most experienced practitioners can improve on.
This is not about structural, tissue-based stiffness.1 Bodies vary in their tissue resilience and joint mobility. I’m referring here to the client’s ability to sense and relax an at-rest muscle’s residual muscle tension, or tonus. This contraction-based resistance to passive movement is regulated by the central nervous system and is normally a low level of motor neuron activity involved in posture, protection, and movement-readiness functions.2 This background tonus is reduced during sleep and is even lower under anesthesia, but much higher under load or stress.3 Subject to both voluntary and involuntary control, one of the main factors influencing our ability to relax unnecessary tonus is our proprioceptive sensitivity, or body awareness.
When clients can’t seem to let their body relax, here are some things to try:
• Refining body awareness is key to getting lasting results from manual therapy. Simply being touched improves body awareness, but adding skillful questions, invitations, or pauses increases the intrinsic power of touch to enhance proprioception and the body sense.
• Tonus habits can seem slow to shift, but the refinements to body awareness that good hands-on work can bring is a great start. Awareness-based “homework” exercises, such as those involving simply noticing and relaxing tense places in one’s body, can bridge the on-table experience back into clients’ everyday lives. Of course, the question of how to give homework that clients actually do is another topic, and one I hope to write about in a future column.
• Chronic stress and other sources of sympathetic (fight-or-flight) arousal can cause muscle tightness and reactivity in several ways. Adrenaline, for example, can directly increase skeletal muscle contractibility.4 The good news for your stressed clients is that hands-on work has a well-documented ability to reduce stress and its detrimental effects.5
• Unconscious kinesthetic matching responses are important to consider as well. Everyday examples of this below-the-radar interpersonal body-matching include contagious yawns, coordinated body language, and mirror neuron phenomena. Specifically, if you’re physically stiff or immobile as a practitioner, your client is more likely to be that way too.
• Current physical, emotional, or mental discomfort is crucial to keep in mind as a possible cause of stiffening. Does your client need a pillow? Or a different pace to the work? A little more privacy? Some small talk? Silence? Developing listening and rapport skills helps clients be comfortable on all levels and is an art we’re never too experienced to refine and improve.
• Guarding due to past or anticipated pain is another common cause of difficulty in relaxing. When we’ve been hurt, we’re naturally more protective of that part of our body. Gently, sensitively, and patiently coaxing mobility back into guarded areas can provide a kinesthetic “reset” for the nervous system’s largely unconscious guarding reflexes.
• If in-the-moment pain is the reason for your client’s stiffening in response to passive movement, you’ll want to be sure that you aren’t the cause. Is your pressure or pace too much, or is there a less painful position you could use? If someone’s current pain isn’t related to anything you have direct control over (for example, they’re hurting after a recently sprained ankle), you might see if mobility somewhere else (such as their opposite-side arm) helps decrease the unpleasantness or intensity of their pain experience.
• Finally, there are medical and neurological conditions that can increase muscle tonus. These include stroke, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, dementia, and upper motor neuron diseases. In almost all cases, it can be helpful to invite gentle mobility and awareness, even when there’s an underlying medical condition.
Relaxing is no small thing: it involves trust, habituated postural reflexes, protective responses, awareness, and more. Whether your work emphasizes relaxation as a goal in and of itself, or sees it as a prelude to other work, having a range of relaxation-inducing options, approaches, and tools can make the difference between a good session and a life-changing one.

Ideas for helping clients let go:
• Work on rapport, safety, and trust.
• Slow down.
• Pause from time to time, so that your client can feel their own body.
• Use a different pressure (usually less).
• Try gentle rhythmic motions, varying your pace.
• Use a more supportive, steadier grip when moving the body.
• Relax your own body; stay comfortable, at rest, and mobile. Breathe.
• Listen with your hands, so you can adjust quickly to any resistance.
• Don’t be shy about verbal communication. Instead of limiting it to “How’s the pressure?” you can:
1. Use inquiries to increase body awareness when you feel stiffening:
• What are you aware of here?
• What do you notice when I lower your arm?
• What happens in your neck when I slowly roll your head?
2. Offer invitations and possibilities:
• How about letting it soften?
• Can you let it sink?
• See if you can allow it to just stay heavy.
3. Avoid imperatives, such as:
• Relax this spot.
• Soften your arm.
• Don’t be stiff.

1. A. T. Masi and J. C. Hannon, “Human Resting Muscle Tone (HRMT): Narrative, Introduction and Modern Concepts,” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 12 (2008): 320–32.
2. S. B. O’Sullivan, “Examination of Motor Function: Motor Control and Motor Learning,” in Physical Rehabilitation, 5th ed., eds S. B. O’Sullivan and T. J. Schmitz (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis, 2007): 233–4.
3. G. Tinguely et al. “Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep with Low Muscle Tone as a Marker of Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Regulation,” BMC Neuroscience 7 (2006): 2; Michael B. Dobson, Anaesthesia at the District Hospital, 2nd ed. (Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2000).
4. C. D. Marsden and J. C. Meadows, “The Effect of Adrenaline on the Contraction of Human Muscle,” Journal of Physiology 207, no. 2 (April 1970): 429–48.
5. A. Moraska et al., “Physiological Adjustments to Stress Measures Following Massage Therapy: A Review of the Literature,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 7, no. 4 (2010): 409–18.

Til Luchau is the author of Advanced Myofascial Techniques (Handspring Publishing, 2016), a Certified Advanced Rolfer, and a member of the faculty, which offers online learning and in-person seminars throughout the United States and abroad. He invites questions or comments via and’s Facebook page.