I know when I started my adventures understanding more about the body, the main preoccupation was in developing softness, pliability, and flexibility. Tension was something we wanted to get rid of, or that served no purpose other than to indicate areas of stress, dis-ease, and potentially even pain.
This narrow lens that framed my understandings of tension often prevented me from seeing the bigger picture and I would even go as far as to say, got in the way of my body moving towards more optimal ways of being. To better understand this, let’s consider the concept of tension from a couple of different viewpoints.
In the first instance, the body requires the interplay of various tensile forces to support itself from the inside out. My work understands posture, for instance, to be the product of different internal pressure systems and structural forces that all work together to support the magnificence that is our physical body from the tubes of our blood vessels to the surface of our skin.
Take, for instance, the neck. If we want to take a log of physical complaints, neck pain is way up there. If we understand the relationship of biomechanics to the nervous system, this is, often easily explained. In the fight flight system, the body uses the cervical spine to power the movement of the shoulder girdle. When the nervous system is adaptable, we would only do this for limited periods of time. But in modern life, we find ourselves “stuck” in this operating system and it causes wear, tear, and pain as a result.
Contrary to popular thought, the neck is not designed to be super mobile and “soft”. Instead, it’s designed to be quite a “tense” structure. The top of the lungs, when operating in the parasympathetic system, sit in the neck tube and press on the deep front line of fascia, stabilizing the cervical vertebrae and the entire structure of the neck.
When people I work with start to develop more stability in the neck, one of the things that they will experience is the subjective experience of “tension”. But this tension is necessary, “normal” and desirable. Once this position has settled, we no longer experience it as tension (we only consciously experience something for as long as it’s novel). But in the interim, we can get in our own way through the assumption that something is wrong by massaging, poking, and manipulating our way out of it.
The point I want to make is that our experience of tension is subjective. And it’s not always “bad”.
The other thing is that regardless of whether we perceive tension to be positive or negative, tension is always functional. It exists because:
- The brain lacks the necessary sensory information to bring the body into the present moment and consequently leaves it freeze framed in time.
- Tension has been created as a compensatory or protective pattern to support the body in some way.
- The muscles have developed patterns around supporting the body to be stable rather than mobile.
Simple “releasing tension” is not desirable if it not the decision of the body in question to do so. We need to provide the brain with more information about its current position so it can make any changes that are relevant (should they be relevant), which happens through the stimulation and activation of the sensory system.
When I look at the body know, be it horse, human or otherwise, I’m full of reverence. At that moment in time, regardless of my perception of what’s going on, the brain has made choices with the information available to it that is always in that being’s best interest. My “job” then is to support it to make its own changes at the pace and depth that it so chooses.