Janet Sheridan: Achieving relaxation

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Janet Sheridan

As I stepped onto the gleaming lane, my bowling teacher issued last minute instructions: I should swing my arm straightforward, down, back, and forward again, in rhythm with four perfectly timed steps, remembering to release the ball at the optimum moment.

He then reminded me to relax.

Did he really think I could relax while remembering his instructions, coordinating my appendages, and worrying about the rear view I’ve exposed to fellow bowlers and innocent bystanders?

Doctors advise me to breathe deeply and relax as much as possible before beginning an invasive, unpleasant, or embarrassing procedure witnessed by a nurse, an anesthesiologist, two student interns, and three anatomical charts.

Might as well tell a lobster in a boiling pot to sing an aria.

I’m also told to relax when stretching. Lithe exercise instructors twist their willowy bodies into pretzels while informing their students that stretching requires relaxation.

I sprawl on my back, lift a leg, clutch it above the knee, and pull desperately, trying to stretch the inflexible limb toward my body while gracefully pointing my toes — as instructed.

“Doesn’t that feel wonderful?” the instructor croons as my leg muscles, tense from my strained efforts to relax, quiver, twitch, and spasm.

I’m far from relaxed in a dental chair, though I try to appear so: at my age, it’s embarrassing to exhibit the wild-eyed panic I manifested at 10 whenever a drill descended into my terror-stretched mouth.

So during the difficult parts of my dental procedures, I lock my muscles into place, gouge my fingernails into my palms, and force my mind to one of my happy places: reading to my grandchildren or eating a thick wedge of chocolate cake.

I’ve heard that a relaxed gait helps when hiking. I used to hike with a friend who seemed to float up the intimidating mountains of Colorado with a serene expression on her face and a glide to her steps, every muscle loose.

I, on the other hand, grabbed my climbing pole in a death grip, moved like Lurch of the Addams family, and told myself if I took 20 more steps, I could sit down and think of ways to hurt her.

The nurse who delivered the annual shots at Lake Shore Elementary used to peer over her bifocals, adjust her cap more firmly atop her graying hair, and tell her unnaturally quiet lineup of victims that the shots wouldn’t hurt as much if we relaxed our arm muscles. She then approached us with a needle that looked like a turkey baster.

When trying to teach me to ski, my former husband told me to tighten this, tighten that, then relax and go.

How the hell do you simultaneously tighten and relax?

Of all those who’ve advised me to relax, only one has told me how to do so.

During a stress-reduction class, the teacher suggested that when sleep eluded me, I should take a deep breath through my nose, filling my lungs completely, then exhale so forcefully through my mouth that the escaping air whooshed and whistled.

After five repetitions, the optimist promised, I’d relax and fall asleep like a model in a sleeping-pill ad.

Filled with hope, I tried deep breathing the next night.

I didn’t drift off with a smile on my face and a giant butterfly floating around my head, but I did alarm Joel: he thought a troop of whistle pigs had invaded.

My dad developed a relaxation procedure that helped him fall asleep during the years his shifts alternated around the clock and his children battled outside his bedroom.

When I complained to him after a night of fidgeting and fuming, he divulged his secret: “I relax every muscle in my body, one after the other, starting with my ears; so far, I’ve never had to loosen up my toes.”

Relaxed ears? Loose toes?

I’ll just go on whistling.

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