Inviting Relaxation

By Til Luchau

Have you ever been on the massage table and found yourself unable to relax or let go? Maybe throughout the session your therapist gently asks you to “let your arm be heavy,” “relax your neck,” or “let me hold the weight of your leg.” Try as you might, you’re left wondering why you can’t let the tension go.

Storing Stress

As massage therapists, we feel this “held stress” in your body as stiffness or a jerky resistance to movement. But for you, this not-letting-go might be hard to feel and, as a result, make it even harder for you to relax.

This is not about structural, tissue-based stiffness. I’m referring here to your ability to sense and relax an at-rest muscle’s residual muscle tension, or what we call tonus. This tonus is reduced during sleep and is even lower under anesthesia, but much higher under physical tension or stress.1

One of the main factors influencing your ability to relax tonus in the body is body awareness. Here are some key body awareness points to be aware of:

• Refining your body awareness is key to getting lasting results from manual therapy. By being a massage client, you’ve already made that important first step toward awareness of your body. Think about what other ways you can get in tune with your body.

• Your body’s tonus habits can seem slow to shift, but the refinements to body awareness that good hands-on bodywork can bring is a great start. Awareness-based “homework” exercises, such as those involving simply noticing and relaxing tense places in your body, can bridge the on-table massage experience to your everyday life.

• Chronic stress and other sources of sympathetic (fight-or-flight) arousal can cause muscle tightness in several ways. Adrenaline, for example, can directly increase skeletal muscle contractibility.2 The good news for you is that hands-on bodywork has a well-documented ability to reduce stress and its detrimental effects.3

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. Letting your therapist gently, sensitively, and patiently coax mobility back into those guarded areas can provide a kinesthetic “reset” for your nervous system’s largely unconscious guarding reflexes.

• 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 to your body, even when there’s an underlying medical condition.

Relaxing is no small thing in the treatment room: it involves trust, awareness, and more. When your therapist offers you a range of relaxation-inducing options, approaches, and tools, it can make the difference between a good session and a life-changing one.

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.


1. G. Tinguely et al., (2006). “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).

2.  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.

3.  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.