I first encountered the paradox of relaxation in years of martial arts training:
The more relaxed you are, the faster you will be
If I come to a kung-fu class tensed, I would inevitably get my ass kicked @#$$!
However, if I am relaxed, I am able to have a higher reaction time, discern attacks and be able counter-attack with speed.
This is counter-intuitive. Instinctively, our muscles and body tense when face to danger. Why should we learn to be relaxed instead?
Relaxing the mind
The first reason is related to the brain. In a moment of physical or mental danger, our mind is occupied with fear and is busy with thoughts of attacks and defense. I call this stopping because the mind is focused on only one thing, as opposed to flowing freely and taking in the broader picture.
When you are stopping , you will be slower because your reaction time will be slowed down by thoughts of fear, attack and defense. Energy is dissipated, perception slows and your techniques and talent move at the speed of a slug.
A typical example is in a work situation. You might feel slow while everyone at work seems fast-paced and aggressive. A wrong solution would be to take coffee. This will pump blood sugar, elevate heart rate and blood pressure. You can feel a rush thanks to the blood sugar, only to feel worse two hours later. A better solution is to deep breath for two minutes and follow a relaxation technique. When relaxed, you will be more able to discern the real from the fake. Your mind will also be less cluttered, and perhaps more productive. Try it!
To prevent stopping, one has to learn to be relaxed even in adverse conditions. One good example is Usain Bolt. In his training, you can see he takes things “easy” for an elite athlete of his category who has competition left and right. He does push when he runs but his mind is otherwise completely relaxed:
Think of other artists, athletes, masters or successful people you admire. Do they look stressed or relaxed when they perform? Simply, the key to speed is relaxation.
The second reason to learn how to relax is physiological. This is interesting for physical exercise.
Physical movement is the coordination of symmetric movements: contraction AND lengthening of muscles. When tensed, there will be a roadblock since your muscles will be already in a partial or total contracted state. Lengthening is also more challenging since your muscles already have a state of residual tension.
You can do a simple test. Try to impress someone with a hand punch movement. Do it first by being tense. Flex your biceps, clench your fists, as if you were faced with physical danger. Then punch. After, take a few minutes to breath deeply, close your eyes and relax. Then this time, have a loose stance, with no tension in your body. Detach yourself from the challenge. Then punch. If done right, there should be a dramatic difference between the speed of the punches.
In the first step, clenching and flexing tensed your muscles. It also creates residual movement that interferes with the desired movement and wastes energy (e.g. vibration of hand). In the second test, there was nothing braking your punch. I believe this is what Bruce Lee referred to:
You must be shapeless, formless, like water.
For those wanting to perform in sports, especially those requiring coordination and speed, it is therefore essential to learn how to be relaxed. Before you run, exercise or go to a basketball session, take a moment to relax. Otherwise your body will brake your wanted movements and you will not be able to reach your targeted speed and power.
For those who are not doing any physical exercise, learning the art of detachment is still important. There is an important connection between the mind and the body. Relaxing the body will relax your mind and will let you find flow.
Learning to Let It Go
There are many ways to relax. Regular meditation for 30mn is a good beginning. Walking through a nearby forest is another one. Cutting bad stress is a good start. Search around, and find a technique that works for you.
In a pinch, I do also the following :
Assuming a good comfortable position sitting or lying, I close my eyes and do slow and deep inhalations and exhalations. I usually count 4 seconds for inhalation, 2 sec to hold the breath and then 6 seconds for exhalation. You can do a series of 6 to 12.
Then I think about my neck. I clench it as hard as I can, physically and mentally for 10 seconds. Then I let it go, and enjoy the relaxation for about 15 seconds.
I repeat the same for other muscle groups: neck, shoulders, arms, chest, abdomen (this one is the most important), buttocks, thighs, calves and feet.
When I finish, I feed my subconscious mind: “My movements are quick and fluid because my muscles are relaxed…. I’m so fresh… My reflexes are lightning quick… My arms and my legs are weightless…”. These positive words release positive energy and I then enjoy the feelings of peace and calm.
This technique works effectively for me – both for work and for exercise. If you are not keen in meditation and self-suggestion, you can also try tai-chi, or do movements slowly. These will teach you how to be relaxed during movement or posture, and do movements with ease and smoothness.