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Progressive Relaxation Techniques

By: Janie Franz - Updated: 26 Nov 2010 | comments*Discuss
Active Relaxation autogenics  drum

Progressive Relaxation was developed by Edmund Jacobson, a Chicago doctor. He applied techniques used by yoga practitioners on the premise that tension in the body can be changed by working on the muscles. Paying attention to the muscles helps us gain body awareness, helps relieve tension and cope with stress, and helps specific physical ailments (backache, headache, etc.) that are directly linked to stress. Relaxation can also lower high blood pressure, relieve chronic fatigue, and improve resistance to disease. In addition, the benefits of relaxation are cumulative. In other words, the more we can make the body relax, the more the body benefits.

There are two main methods used in relaxation techniques. One is active where the person tenses a group of muscles and then releases them. The other method is passive. Here the person becomes mindful of the muscle groups and is trained to relax them. These methods are often used in Lamaze and other childbirth classes.

By practicing 15-20 minutes a day or several mini sessions of five minutes each, a person generally gains relative mastery in about two weeks.

Relaxation techniques lower body temperature. When we do deep relaxation and meditation, we may want to do them, covered with a light blanket.

Active Relaxation

In this method, we focus on one body part at a time, usually beginning with the feet. We breathe deeply and focus on our toes and feet. We scrunch up our toes and feet, curling them toward our arches. We note the feeling of tension there and then relax our feet and toes. This allows the mind and body to experience muscle relaxation. We progress up the leg, tensing the shin and calf muscles, holding them for a few seconds, and then releasing those muscles. We continue to tense and release all muscle groups in the body, all the way up to the face. By the time we reach the face, our bodies should begin to feel relaxed.

This exercise can be done with soothing music to help us move into a deeper state of relaxation. Sometimes, couples can work together. One person places a hand on the part to be relaxed, and the other person tenses and relaxes. If repeated enough, one person can touch the other person and instantly relax that person. This state is often achieved in meditating couples who are taking Lamaze, but it is a technique that can be used with any two people who share a level of trust.

Passive Relaxation

This technique is similar to active relaxation in that we focus on one body part or muscle group at a time. It can be done from head to toe or from toe to head, but usually ends with the head and face. Often this technique is used with deep breathing and sometimes with music.

First, we focus our minds on our toes, for example. We note any tension that is present and how it feels. We don’t place a judgement on the tension. We just note it. We can then relax the area by using a word or phrase or by a breathing technique. Then we move on to the next body part.

If we use a breathing technique, we are thinking about breathing in oxygen and relaxation and peace and exhaling tension and any little aches or pains we feel in our bodies. So as we focus on our toes and feet, we think of breathing in relaxation and breathing out tension.

Using Special Words

When we use special words for relaxation, they often are words that evoke softening, loosening, or lengthening muscles.

Here is a list of body parts and relaxation words:

  • Feet--soften
  • Ankles-- loosen
  • Leg--soften calves
  • Knees--soften
  • Thighs--lengthen muscles
  • Hips--soften buttocks, widen joints, expand muscles
  • Lower back--widen
  • Upper back--release downward toward tail bone
  • Front of body--release the chest and abdomen
  • Arms--lengthen
  • Shoulders--drop and widen; sink shoulders into floor (or chair if sitting)
  • Throat--open and relax
  • Neck--lengthen back of neck
  • Lips--part and soften
  • Jaw--let it drop
  • Cheeks--skin softens
  • Eyes--skin around eyes expands; wrinkles are smoothed out
  • Forehead--open and wide


Developed in the 1930s by J. H. Schultz, a German psychiatrist, this relaxation technique balances the physical, mental, and emotional. The autogenics state creates the opposite of stress. It uses phrases before and after meditation, while visualising an image of relaxation.

Autogenics Phrases:

  • "My arms and legs are heavy."
  • "My arms and legs are warm."
  • "My heartbeat is calm and regular."
  • "My breathing is free and easy."
  • "My solar plexus is warm."
  • "My forehead is cool."

Other Techniques to Enhance Progressive Relaxation

There are other ways to enhance our progressive relaxation experience. While we are focusing on relaxing body parts, we can visualise the sun shining on a body part. As we focus on our toes or legs, we also feel the warm sun relaxing the muscles there. This warmth helps the body relax. But as we progress up the body to the head, we need to think of a cool breeze blowing across our faces. Warmth across our faces usually makes most people more tense and can increase blood flow. This can contribute to headaches. In contrast, a cool breeze is almost always relaxing.

Another way to calm the body, especially the rapid beating of the heart when in a state of stress, is to think of a rhythm that keeps slowing down. It can be a metronome on a piano, the pendulum on a clock that is slowing to a normal rhythm, or a drum beating slower. We can also think of water or rain dripping in a steady pattern. By focusing on that steady rhythm, we come into sync with the rhythm and can calm our bodies.

Finally, we can slowly breathe in and slow our breathing and calm our bodies. By thinking warm water is filling us and then ebbing as we breathe in and out, we can visualise warmth and relaxation.

Progressive Relaxation is an extremely useful tool to help us calm our bodies after exercise or before meditation. It also is a good way to ease into sleep at night. And, these techniques can be used for extremely stressful times at work or at home when you need to calm your body down.

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