How does tension collect in the body ? How is it affecting us? What can we do about it?

Tension often first shows up most obviously in the head, neck, jaw and shoulders – but also elsewhere.

Part of my job as a massage therapist is to help people lose tension held in the body, this in itself can leave some people looking transformed. Sometimes it is recently accumulated tension, relieved by letting go and relaxing; sometimes it is older more chronic tension, more solidified in bodily tissues that needed a more active intervention, sometimes something of both. Either way, releasing tension is good for us and holding tension in the body is not for a variety of reasons:

  • It feels unpleasant.
  • we feel contracted and tight.
  • It can restrict breathing.
  • Muscles feel gripped.
  • It can constrict blood flow though vessels, tissues and organs.
  • It can be at the seat of some body pain.
  • It can steal our energy (it takes energy to hold tension).
  • It can leave us anxious or depressed (though that is a chicken and egg story).
  • Chronic tension and stress can have more pernicious effects on our physiology which can damage our health ( a longer story beyond the scope of this article).

Here are some suggestions around what causes it and how we can learn to handle it.

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A Very (Very) Short Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga 

Is Yoga a practice or a philosophy?

At its heart Yoga is an experiential practice with its origins embedded in Indian Hindu/Buddhist culture. But, I personally know a wide diversity of people who identify as variously as Hindu, Humanist/Atheist, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim who have adopted Yoga’s core practices of asanas (postures), pranayama (breath practices) and meditation as they perceive them as compatible with their beliefs/reasoning and provide practice based experiential support to explore their worldviews or their health. This suggests to me that Yoga is primarily a practice/experiential based system that can help and support people from any number of backgrounds and cultures.

That said there is an underpinning philosophy (arguably universal beyond Yoga) which in simple form looks like this: we experience suffering and disharmony to varying degrees because we view life and relationships through the murky lens of our family and societal conditioning and potentially inherited tendencies ( whether viewed as genetic or karmic or a combination of both). Yoga practices help us unpick and cut through these knots of conditioning so we can wipe the lens clean, ‘see’ clearly, and so live in harmony and peace with ourselves and others. 

In essence philosophy gives us an approximate map to work from and reflect on, whilst practice and life is the actual territory. 

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Yoga in Chiang Mai, and how I got from practicing Gentle Yoga to Vinyasa Flow Yoga over 30 Years.

Khru Annie Bliss practicing on one of her retreats in Northern Thailand.

I’ve been practicing yoga for more than 30 years and have explored much of the full spectrum of practices available in that time. My development in practices of the asanas has in many ways been the wrong way round (compared to many people), moving from gentler slower forms of practice in my 30’s to more dynamic vinyasa flow practices as I’ve moved into my middle 50’s . Practicing in Chiang Mai in recent years, and with one teacher in particular, has been a big part of the reason for this.

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Cycling in Chiang Mai , The Buddhist Highway Code.

In Thailand some people like to go diving, zip wiring, sky diving , bungee jumping , bamboo white water rafting and more; but actually just cycling round the city of Chiang Mai and environs was quite an adventure. Plus it’s free, in fact more than free as it got me round without the use of Grab taxis (like Uber), red cars (public bus of sorts) or any other paid transport. ‘Wild Cycling’, if you like, with generally benevolent and courteous other road users, but a few predators to be understood and avoided, sharpened my senses as much as any expensive extreme sport. The roads may seem chaotic, even dangerous at times, but there is a learnable code in place (with random exceptions to watch out for).

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Sak Yant (Magical Tattooing in Thailand).

Three of the most important Sak Yant.

Sak (tattoo) Yant (yantra) is a form of tattooing found in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos and is believed to have started during the Khmer Empire that covered this region from the 9th – 15th centuries. They are respresented by Buddhist, Hindu and Animist iconography and symbology and are applied with a long lance like needle ( that was traditionally bamboo but is now more often steel) . Traditionally they are given by Buddhist monks, ex monks or Reusi (hermit scholars and protectors of traditional arts/sciences such as traditional medicine, meditation, Sak Yant, alchemy, palmistry, astrology and more). In simple terms Sak Yant are spells put on the body and most people get them to attract what they do want and protect against what they don’t want. I’ve always liked the designs but never thought I would get one , but given that this trip was during a transitional point of my life I decided to explore getting one.

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Buddhism in Thailand. As viewed through the lens of Wat Pha Lad, Chiang Mai.

One of the shrine rooms at Wat Pha Lad.

Buddhism is infused into much of life in Thailand. It blends seamlessly with elements of Hinduism, also imported from India, and pre existing animism . Features of this are found in many facets of life: from the rarified meditative atmosphere of a forest temple, to taxi drivers hanging Buddhist charms from the rear view mirror, people visiting temples seeking luck over a particular issue or to receive a blessing, monks doing the alms round in the early morning, to karmic merit making activities such as buying a caged bird from the pet shop and releasing it. It helps explain a lot of people’s behaviour, their underlying intentions and attitudes and probably the generally harmonious flavour of life in much of Thailand. My own interest in Buddhism over 30 years has been less religious environments and rituals and more that the philosophy and psychology made sense, meditation ‘worked’ and life flowed more smoothly when I followed and practiced it . However in Thailand, now and again a temple environment or some such would touch me in a wordlessly powerful way. One such place was Wat Phra Lad near Chiang Mai with its magical setting in mountain forest and surrounding waterfalls.

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Meditation and its Philosophy in Plain English.

Meditation is a nuanced subject and practice, but there are some core elements common to most traditions . This guide reflects my own experience in the Buddhist/Yoga tradition and the most useful ideas that I have worked with. I do though feel it is not necessary to be allied to a tradition or religion to explore meditation, especially for those of use inclined towards humanism and a secular approach to exploring these matters. The framework and container provided by a tradition or religion maybe well be helpful , especially to get started ( they often have a lot of centuries of practice behind them) , but it may equally be helpful to keep a neutral open minded position to avoid pre-conceived notions on experience and confirmation biases.

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