It’s almost too simple. Just lie down. Well, not just, I can add on a little bit more, but essentially, lie down.
This posture can help free your breathing; reduce your back, neck, abdominal and leg pain; reduce stress; and release stuck emotion. It can really be a marvelous position. There are multiple options you can choose. You’ll have to find the one in the moment that works best for your body and with what you have available. Here they are in order from best to greatest (please excuse my grammar humor):
- Lie on your back with your legs fully extended.
- Lie on your back with your legs bent, feet a foot or so from your hips and your thigh bones falling into one another.
- Lie on your back with your knee and hips joints bent to 90° and your legs supported.
If you can, please try #3 at some point. It creates more ideal conditions for change, particularly in often-neglected areas of the body. I’ll explain why further on.
Lie on a firm surface (but not one that hurts) and support the back of your skull with a small firm support as well. In the picture I’m using a Mary Renault book. Any author you enjoy will do. The support is there to slightly elevate your head so your skull isn’t falling back and compressing your spine. Rest there for about 15-20 minutes. If you’re feeling adventurous try for 40 minutes and see what happens (what an adventure! you don’t go anywhere!). This idea of lying down as a practice is in many modalities (e.g. Alexander Technique, Pilates, yoga, Feldenkrais), all with slight variations and different emphases. The fact that it’s so widespread as an idea shows how effective people believe it to be. In my training in the Alexander Technique I learned how to make it even more effective with my thinking and observation.
That’s pretty much it. You can stop here and go try it out or, if you’re like me and like to know more about the why and how of things, keep reading to find out how to go deeper and get more benefits.
Just getting on your back on the floor can be wonderful for your muscles. If you’ve been trying to hold yourself up all day, this change in your relationship to gravity will give your tired muscles much needed rest. And when muscles begin to let go so does your mind. Almost every yoga class I’ve taken ends in lying on the floor for this very reason. And nearly every modern dance class I’ve taken starts this way. Except in the ideal version, I’m advocating bent, supported legs. There are a few reasons.
In general, bending your legs here and having them supported is kinder to your body, and I’m a big advocate of being kind to one’s own body. (That’s a whole topic right there and the crux of one of my classes, Kind Yoga.) For most people I see, their torso and legs are a bit stuck together, contracted into one another as one large, grey, stressed, emotional mass. And when their legs are fully extended on the ground their back gets pulled forward, because things are stuck. So there’s a strain between the back and the legs, namely in the psoas muscles. The psoas major is a set of muscles that attaches the spine and the legs. It’s a deep set of muscles that is difficult to fully rest. Having the legs extended puts a stretch on the psoas that makes it more difficult to release. When the legs are bent and supported this puts the psoas in a passively shortened state, thereby setting up ideal conditions for the psoas to release. There’s no strain on it, no stretch, no responsibilities, so maybe it can finally let go. It’s hard for your body to let go if you’re still putting a strain on it, even a small one.
For example, let’s look at your body on the macro level. Imagine someone is about to throw a ball at you. You get ready to catch it, alert in your body. But then they only pretend to throw it. They’re trying to psyche you out with it. You realize they didn’t throw it so you relax. And then they pretend to throw it again and again you’re ready…and they don’t. And then they do! And later they pretend again. And again. And every once in a while they actually do throw it so you have to be ready to catch it. After a while you don’t trust them anymore. You’re always on edge, alert for that ball, subtly tense, waiting for the ball that might come. Even when they tell you they’re not going to throw it, you don’t trust them; you’re still on edge. Your body is like this too. It’s stuck in this pattern of waiting, of holding. So when you lie down and fully extend your legs you put this subtle stretch and strain on your psoas. You’re asking it to let go but you’re still giving it something to do, still pulling on it. You’re asking it to let go and you’re pulling on it at the same time. It doesn’t want to let go if you’re pulling on it. It has to keep doing its job. So when your legs are fully supported your psoas has a chance to stop. It’s like you’re telling your psoas, “Hey, it’s OK. Now you really can let go. I’m not asking you to do anything, just let go.” It’s like that person with the ball saying, “Hey, it’s OK. You don’t have to wait for this ball. I’ve put it down; it’s over there. You can see it’s not in my hands. You can let go of getting ready to catch it.”
For another example, are you ever tense at the dentist? I am but I’ve gotten a lot better through this kind of work. This is how my typical visits used to be. As my dentist works on my teeth I catch myself holding my body stiffly until she stops. I think she’s finished so I relax. But she was only taking a short break and suddenly she’s in my mouth again and I’m tense! After the second or third pause I stop relaxing when she takes a break, I stay tense. The dentist puts down her tools and tells me I’m done. I get out of the chair. Now I can let go of that holding pattern of waiting for the drill. Or more accurately, I start letting go of it once I’m outside again. Or later that evening. The point is, letting go of that pattern of bracing and waiting isn’t immediate.
So when you lie down and place your legs on a bench or chair the ground then supports them, and your muscles can let go. Then your body can start to let go. It takes time for your body to let go because — back to the reference to the person throwing a ball — if they just did it a couple of times you could probably let go of that preparation pretty quickly. But this has been happening for years. So this person’s been doing it for years to you, pretending to throw something at you. You know they put that ball down but you’re not ready to believe them; you think they’re going to grab it again because they’ve done that before. Your body reacts the same way. Just because you lie down it’s not going to immediately let go. It’s had years of practice of holding onto things. That’s where you need to be really kind and where your thinking can come into play too. Lie down and start to check things out and say: “Hey, now I am lying down. I can let go. This is OK. I’m asking my pelvis to let go. I’m asking my butt to let go. I’m asking my neck to release, my shoulders to unwind. I’m asking my breath to release so that I can let the ground support me.” Give that message to yourself. And give it again. Do a body scan and check yourself out, starting with your toes, letting them go, moving up your body, just observing what’s going on and asking to release. It may happen or it may not. You’re still letting your body know it’s OK. It’s OK to let go. You created the conditions in which it could let go.
When things start to let go muscularly your emotion can change too. We all hold stress and emotion in our bodies. And when that muscular stress starts to release, the emotion can start to release as well. A lot of people hold their day in their pelvis. As I’m working with them I’ll ask them to release their glutes, i.e. their butt muscles. They didn’t realize they were doing anything in the first place but they’ll have that thought and sure enough those muscles release. They get a little more space.
They’re just holding on without even knowing. Like they’ve been waiting for that person to throw the ball. They’ve been holding on to what? To life.
Life is that person throwing the ball.
It’s been happening so long that they don’t even know they’re waiting anymore. They don’t even know that they’re holding on anymore, it’s become unconscious.
So that’s why I advocate lying down for 15-20 minutes giving these thoughts to yourself, these directions. Give yourself this time to be kind to yourself, to know it’s OK to let go. It’s OK to open up. When you lie down you get the benefit of your body changing its relationship to gravity. That’s a given when you’re flat on the ground. You get an added benefit with your legs bent and supported. Then you get another benefit from your mind, from being conscious, giving a conscious direction to yourself that you can open and let go. You’ve been giving these other directions to yourself unconsciously for a long time: directions to tense, to guard, to hide, to protect, whatever they might be. These unconscious directions have an effect. So start saying something conscious to yourself.
“It’s OK. I can let go. I’m safe. I can open.”
Want another opinion?