It seems part of our human nature to push ourselves, to strive for things, to exert our energy and our influence in order to feel productive and even a little bit in control of the messy universe. I see my students over reaching, torquing joints in twists, yanking and pulling themselves inside and out. This is partly why they are in my class doing yoga, to have me reminding, cajoling, enticing, and surprising them as I gently suggest ways to let that go and find space of a different sort.
I have had some experiences with The Alexander Technique that had deep repercussions simply by suggesting that I think about something a different way. Just the suggestion evoked a new brain pattern, which in turn supported a new body pattern that brought ease where there had been tension, peace where there had been pain. Making the effort to put space in my painful shoulder did not work. There was no way I could muscularly pull that joint apart without tensing other muscles, and making more trouble for myself.
My yoga practice offers me the breath as the first tool, the first vehicle for change. Even though I practice often, teach often, and am living more and more in the framework of this practice, when I think of it I exhale and release my shoulders -- they are almost always carrying tension when I am not thinking about them. So I know that the vast majority of my students are also carrying their tensions, attitudes, anxieties in active ways throughout their bodies when they are not focused on releasing them.
Here is where the power of suggestion comes in. Doing less is certainly key when it comes to reducing the tendency to over-effort. But telling yourself to "do less" is like telling yourself "to relax" when you are tense. Yeah, sure, right, RELAX!! DO LESS!! (Can you tell I'm smiling?) We cannot effort our way into doing less or into relaxing, but we can make suggestions that often have quite wonderful effects.
Here are a few you can try with yourself.
Suggest that your skull is simply resting atop your spine. (It doesn't require any major effort to hold it there, it will not fall off!) Explore with tiny micro movements the way it can move by nodding ever so slightly, and turning as if saying no ever so subtly. Suggest that this connection can remain loose and spacious. (Just notice if this has any influence on the tension in your neck.)
Suggest that your shoulders, collar bones, and shoulder blades are floating above your ribcage. Let your inhale explore this feeling, rising throughout the ribs and allowing your shoulders to float like sticks atop the gentle waves of breath. Suggest that your exhale might leave bits of space between the bones of the shoulders, as the ribs gently rest on the receding breath. (See if your shoulders begin to relax as your heart opens, lungs filling the top of the rib cage, as the weight of the shoulders lightens.)
Suggest softness and space in your hip joints as you walk, imagining the bones of your thighs loosely wrapped by cushions of stretchy flexible bands. Allow this softness to permeate your movements, feeling the freedom of the swinging bones, the width of the motion, the range of your own stride. (Notice if your breath begins to follow your steps as you walk, taking pleasure in this new freedom!)
No one likes to be told what to do when they already know what to do. Perhaps we feel differently when we imagine that we do not know. I suggest that by opening an inquiry with suggestions rather than directions, you will discover all kinds of space and ease, and feel how much more there is in you when you do less! And of course, in every one of these suggestions you have shifted your focus, inward, to the breath, releasing the grip a little on the urge to control, to judge, to muscle. Through suggestion you offer yourself a moment -- this moment -- to be in the inquiry of who you are and how your body and mind work together in the present tense. That feeling is enough all by itself to help let go and breath a little easier!