What Places Does the Body Hold Tension and How Yoga Can Help
By: Steph Ball-Mitchell, E-RYT-500, RPYT, RCYT, YACEP
What Places Does the Body Hold Tension and How Can Yoga Help?
You may have noticed that when you feel stressed or your body is tense, very specific parts of the body feel sore, achy or even painful. We may feel stress in our neck, shoulders, hips or lower back. When these parts of the body carry the stress in a painful or uncomfortable way it is usually repetitive, reoccurring and personal. When we tune in and practice mindfulness, we may start to recognize these patterns of stress in our body as we realize that our physical health is very closely tied to our emotional health.
Tension is normally physically uncomfortable and can feel like a weight is constantly contracting our muscles. It's hard to imagine that this stress building in the body often has more to do with our deep emotions than it has to do with muscular tension. Experts believe that the places where our tension shows up in the body is linked to certain repressed emotions. We can figure out what emotions we are repressing by looking at where our body holds tension. This is the beginning of releasing the tension and living a more content life, in the body and in the mind.
When our muscles stay contracted in our body for extended periods of time, this results in tension. These spots of tension often show up as knots which are known as myofascial trigger points inside the muscle tissue. Over a period of time, these knots can create pain that is sensitive when touched or that shoots through the body constantly.
Knots are actually lactic acid that builds up in the body from over-contracting our muscles. People often don't realize that they're contracting their muscles. A lot of times the shoulders start to move up towards the ears or people clinch their jaw which tenses the muscles. When the muscles are tense, blood is not able to flow into the area freely. Mental and emotional stress, bad posture and physical strain can all cause hyper-tense muscles. Lack of blood flow into these parts of the body just makes it worse.
The most common part of the body that holds tension from muscular knots is the trapezius. The trapezius is the triangle shaped muscle that is across the back of the neck, shoulders and upper back. We also often see tension held in the hips, neck, shoulders and lower back.
For thousands of years, its been well understood that there is a connection between tension in the body and emotional stress. Think about common phrases like, "the weight of the world is on your shoulders." Stress is really just a state of mental tension. Research has taught us that where we hold stress in our bodies tells us something about our repressed emotions.
When people have tension in the neck and shoulders, this is connected to the feeling of being burdened down or weighted down with heavy responsibilities. It seems that more women suffer from stress in this area than men do. It is widely believed that this could be due to the weight of women's traditional parenting and homemaking roles combined with working and balancing careers. In modern times, there is a shift taking place, but studies show that women still carry more of the tension in their shoulders and neck.
The shoulders are also connected to the throat chakra, the Vishuddha chakra. This is the chakra of communication and sometimes when people cant let go, they have an imbalance in this chakra. A lot of times this type of imbalance can show up as self-directed negativity. Negative self-talk can lead to neck and shoulder tension.
Yoga poses that help with neck and shoulder tension include:
Tight hips are usually a sign of inflexibility or rigidity. The hips also hold repressed sexual tension or repressed sexual energy. The hips are the place where we send all the emotions that we aren't sure what to do with.
Physically, there are many explanations for tight hips. In our society, we spend so much time sitting in our cars, at our desks, watching tv and sitting with friends. All of this sitting can cause tightness through the quadriceps, inner thighs, hamstrings, psoas, lateral rotators and hip flexors. Lower back pain can often comes from tight glutes and hips.
When it comes to our hips and our emotions, the hips are emotionally charged and can say a lot of things about our repressed emotions.
When the front of the hips is holding tension, it may mean that there is a fear of the future. This shows up as tight hips across, psoas and hip flexors. When people have resistance to facing the future, or are concerned about fulfilling their own potential, we tend to see the tension carried in the front of the hips. This can include worrying about getting the right degree, or finding the perfect job or perfect partner.
When the back of the hips is holding tension, this is connected to holding onto repressed emotions from the past, not being able to release or let go when its time to let go. This shows up as tension in the back of the hips or the glutes. It can also show up as a tight lower back.
The hips also hold a lot of emotional trauma and physical trauma. Often after women deliver a baby, there are tight hips from the physical trauma of birth. When something emotionally traumatic happens, the negative energy is often stored in the hips too.
Relationship troubles are also stored in the hips. This is especially true of romantic relationships but includes all types of relationships. When people have tight hips for this reason, they may fear loving others or being loved by others. Work relationship problems can show up in the hips in the form of negative tension. At times, tight hips can even indicate that we are unable to love ourselves or to open completely to ourselves.
Issues with the Svadhisthana chakra, the sacral chakra, can also cause tension in the hips. The sacral chakra is all about creativity, pleasure, desire and sensuality. When this chakra is blocked we are not able to let go and let things flow organically. When people are really unable to fully release and let go in deep hip openers like pigeon pose, it is often because we are gripping on to things we should release or we can't fully open because we are holding on and have trouble in the Svadhisthana chakra.
One of the ways we can release tight hips is through hip-opening postures in yoga. Some of these can include:
Learning to sit with discomfort can be an important element of opening the hips fully and releasing tension. Sometimes we try to run from repressed emotions stemming from the past, or escape anxieties about the future. We may hold on to emotions that we need to release because we are not dealing with these repressed emotions. It's important to get comfortable being uncomfortable with tension in the hips. Breathing into tight places can help us to sit with that tension and eventually release it.
Tension in the lower back is one of the most common problems that people complain of when they come to yoga. Tension in this part of the body is connected to repressed anger. The repressed anger can come from all types of relationships and life situations.
Pain in the low back is connected to the root chakra or muladhara chakra. The root chakra is connected to fears in your basic needs such as food, sleep, safety and shelter. When people are struggling with survival needs, there is often something off balance with the root chakra.
Practicing yoga to release tension in the lower back can be helpful. Postures that we can practice for lower back tension may include:
Sometimes the anger that we hold on to in the lower back can come from not dealing with our emotions. Anger is a secondary emotion, and the primary emotion is typically pain or embarrassment. Sitting with those emotions and becoming aware of the root cause can be helpful. We can also breathe into the places where we feel tension in the lower back.
There are many things that people can do to ease tension in the body. Some people turn to deep tissue massage or soft tissue massage. This is a good start. However, it's important to be able to manage your bodily stress on your own in times when you aren't able to get in for a massage.
Yoga can be a good movement modality for reducing tension in the body. Sun salutations are helpful in working tension out of the body. Traditionally, yogis would do sun salutations so that they could sit for extended periods of time in meditation. Yoga allows us to release the tension we hold in our neck, shoulders, hips and lower back. Yin yoga can also be helpful for easing tension in the body.
Craniosacral therapy in Ayurveda can be helpful in releasing repressed emotions. This is a method of somatic emotional release where the practitioner realigns the cerebral fluid to restore balance to the whole body and bathe the nervous system. Reiki can also be helpful in healing the energy blockages in the body.
Healing emotional tissue and physical tension takes awareness, time and energy. Yoga will help break open repressed emotions that have built up and can also help ease the tension in the body. Reiki and craniosacral therapy can also help to release repressed emotions and energy blocks in the body.