Progressive Muscle Relaxation


I finish all of my yoga classes with a 10 minute guided relaxation and one of the most popular relaxation techniques I teach is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR).  This has received a lot of positive feedback with one student saying recently that he partucularly enjoys this form of relaxation because it gives him ‘something to do’.  By this he meant that he has something for his body to do as well as something for his mind to focus on, and I think a lot of us who lead busy lives and have chattering minds, enjoy PMR for that reason.  Many people find it hard to relax just because they are told to, so the act of tensing a muscle before we relax it – as happens in PMR – can be really helpful.

What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

A physician called Edmund Jacobsen seems to be the first person to describe the technique, back in the 1930’s.  He noticed that when he asked his patients to relax they were unable to do so due to the disconnection they were experiencing with their bodies – their minds seemed unaware of the tension they were holding in their bodies, possibly as a result of being permanently tense. He found that if he encouraged his patients to actively tense certain muscle groups, they were then able to let go of the tension and relax. He further developed this technique for therapeutic purposes, developing a practice sequence for tensing and then relaxing the major muscle groups of the body.  In turn his patients learned to actually experience tension and then to release this tension, allowing them to finally experience a state of complete relaxation.  Practitioners still use the same basic technique today, with participants progressively tensing and relaxing the major muscles of the body, most often starting at the feet and legs and finishing with the chest and abdomen.  PMR is also used for relaxation before a guided relaxation practice, where it can be useful to quiet both the body and the mind.

The Benefits of Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This technique, nearly a century old, is still in use today, and in our stressful world it is likely needed more than ever.   Used to great effect to relieve insomnia as well as reduce symptoms of chronic pain, it can also be really helpful for alleviating stress and anxiety.  Very often, a person that is anxious will be habitually tense, holding on to tension in muscle groups even without their knowledge.  In turn this may lead to headaches, neck and shoulder pain, as well as back problems, stomach and digestive problems, dependent on where in their body they are holding the tension.  Using PMR a person with anxiety can be taught to recognise when they are holding on to tension and with practice can learn to release it. I’ve written three different scripts you can use if you want to try PMR.  A short script that will only take about ten minutes to practice, a longer extended script that you can use if you have more time and want to spend about twenty minutes relaxing and a script that you can use for kids of any age.  Before you use this relaxation take a look at my previous blog post which will give you some tips for getting comfortable before starting your relaxation.

If you would like to try progressive muscle relaxation begin by learning the simple script for PMR. You can do this by recording yourself reading it, or by having someone read it for you.  After a few sessions you will be able to tense and relax the major muscle groups fairly quickly, before finally reaching a stage when you will be able to easily recognise when tension has built up in an area.  This can then be simply released before it has a chance to cause you problems.

There are three different relaxations to try, a short simple relaxation that can take five to ten minutes, a longer relaxation which can take about twenty to thirty minutes, and a relaxation for children where they can ‘experience’ a day at the beach.

Simple Script for Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Begin by coming into a comfortable position.  Now take you attention down into your feet your legs and tighten up the muscles here.  Keep holding the tension and keep breathing for about 5 seconds.  Then let the tension go, let your feet and legs soften.

Come now to your hands and arms and tighten up the muscles in your hands and arms.  Keep holding the tension and keep breathing for about 5 seconds.  Then, let the tension go, let your hands and arms soften.

Now move on up to your shoulders and neck and tighten up the muscles here.  Keep breathing and hold the tension for about five seconds.  Then let the tension release, allowing the neck and shoulders to soften.

Let your awareness now rest on your face and tighten up the whole of your face.  Keep breathing and hold the tightness for 5 seconds and then let go allowing the whole of your face to soften.

And finally come to your chest and abdomen.  Breathe in and let your chest and abdomen expand.  Hold your breath and your tension for a few seconds and then release your breath along with your tension.  Now exhale and pull your abdominal muscles in, hold your breath and your tension for a few seconds and then release, breathing in and letting your breathe return to normal.  Rest here for a few minutes more enjoying the feeling of relaxation throughout your whole body, or if using this at bedtime let yourself fall peacefully to sleep.

Extended script for Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Begin by coming into a comfortable position.  Bring your attention to your feet and scrunch your toes, tighter and tighter.  Hold the tension…feel the heat and the energy…and now release.  Let your feet and toes relax entirely.  Now take your attention to your calves and tighten here…carefully hold on to this tension, let your breath continue to flow…and now release, let your calf muscles soften completely.  Now move to your thighs and tense these muscles…hold the tension, notice the energy and the warmth…and now relax, continue to breathe smoothly and easily.  And now to your buttock muscles.  Tense the muscles here, tighter and tighter…keep holding the tension…and now release, letting your muscles soften and relax, releasing tension more and more.  Let’s move the awareness now to your torso.  Take a couple of gentle breaths and when you are ready, breath in deeply, feeling the tension generated by the very effort of breathing in, filling your lungs, and hold that breath…keep holding…and now breath out and feel the tension leaving your body with that out-breath.  Take another couple of gentle breaths and then when you are ready, breath out, a nice, full out-breath and hold that out-breath, feel your stomach muscles pulling in towards your spine…hold a moment longer if you can…and then breath in…a nice, full in-breath, and then return to breathing gently and easily.  Come now to the muscles of your shoulders, and shrug your shoulders up to your ears to create tension here, hold that tension, the feeling of tightness…hold just a second more…and now release.  Let your shoulders move away from your ears, right down, so that they are completely softened, completely relaxed.  And now move the awareness away from the shoulders, down on into the arms, and tense both arms, keep breathing but allow the arms to tense as much as is comfortable…hold that tension…feeling the energy and the heat…and now release…relax, let your arms feel heavy and soft.  Now to the hands, and tense both hands, making fists, as tight as you want to…hold and keep breathing…and now relax and release.  Keep your awareness on your hands and tense again, this time spreading your fingers and allowing them to tense in this way…hold the tension…and now release, feeling the softness, the relaxation.  Let your attention travel back through your arms and shoulders now, to your neck muscles, and tense the muscles here, keeping all other parts of the body relaxed…hold for a moment longer…and now release and relax, softening the neck once more.  Now move your awareness to your face and purse your lips together and hold on to the tightness…hold on just a moment longer…and now release, feel the lower half of your face relax and soften.  Now move your attention to your eyes and squint your eyes and eyelids…tighter and tighter…and now release, feeling the upper part of your face relax and soften.  Now spend a few moments enjoying the feeling of complete relaxation.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise for Kids – A Walk on the Beach


In your head imagine you are going to spend the day on a lovely, sandy beach.  It’s warm and sunny and you decide to start your beach day by walking down to look at the sparkling, blue sea.  You know the sea will be warm so you decide to paddle your feet in the crystal clear water.  Through the water you can see your toes sinking into the soft, golden sand. Scrunch up your toes now to bury your feet into the sand.  Keep scrunching as tight as you can, tighter and tighter and hold the tightness…and now let the tightness go, let your feet feel heavy and become still, sinking down into the sand.  As you stand and watch the waves lapping the sand around your toes, you notice that they start to get a little bit higher – just right for jumping, so you start to tense up all of the muscles in your legs, from your feet all the way to your hips, and hold that tightness, tighter and tighter, keep holding…and now let go, release all your muscles and let your legs feel heavy and still. You’re starting to feel a bit sleepy now so you decide to move away from the sea and lie down on a soft patch of sand.  As you lie down enjoying the feeling of warmth as the sun shines down on your body, you notice a cute puppy bouncing along the beach towards you.  O Oh!  Its looks as though he’s going to bounce right on to your tummy, so you tense your tummy muscles, tighter and tighter so he can just bounce right across, keep holding, here he comes!  Oh, thank goodness, his owner has called him back.  Let go of your tummy muscles now, let them really soften and relax.  Let your feet, your legs and your tummy just feel heavy and soft, sinking down into the sand.  Your hands and arms are resting by your sides and under each hand you notice a perfectly smooth, oval pebble.  You take a pebble in each hand and squeeze the pebbles as hard as you can, tighter and tighter, tensing your arm muscles as well, tighter and tighter, right up to your shoulders, now hold that tightness…and now let go of your pebbles, let your hands soften, feel them becoming heavy and still, let your arms relax down into the soft sand.  Now the suns’ starting to feel really bright, even through your closed eyelids, so you scrunch them up, tighter and tighter…and then a fluffy, white cloud passes over the sun so you can relax your eyes and eyelids, let them feel heavy and soft.  You can hear voices in the distance now, and as they get closer you realise it’s the voices of the people you love and care about the most, coming to spend the rest of the day with you here on the beach.  That thought makes you want to grin your biggest grin, wider and wider, and hold the grin so it’s as big as you can make it…and now relax, let the whole of your mouth, your jaw and your chin feel soft.  Now just lay here quietly for a few more moments, feeling your body lying heavily on the sand and listening to the voices of your loved ones in the distance, and know that you are going to have a happy and fun day at the beach.

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