Achieving Relaxation

As I cradled a bowling ball and tried to look confident, my teacher reminded me to extend my arm forward, then smoothly move it down, back, and forward again in rhythm with my steps, maintaining eye contact with my selected point throughout, and releasing the ball at the optimum moment. He then added, “And relax; don’t forget to relax.”

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

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 boiling water 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.

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Obviously, this is not a self portrait: no frowning face, no quivering limbs.

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 pointing my toes as instructed.

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

I’ve heard that a relaxed gait helps when hiking. I used to hike with a friend who floated 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, staggered like Lurch, and told myself if I took twenty more steps, I could sit down and think of ways to hurt my slithering friend.

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Trying to look relaxed, but achieving only a grimace: I still have to hike back down.

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 said I need 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, fill my lungs completely, then exhale through my mouth so forcefully 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, who thought we’d been invaded by a troop of whistle pigs.

My dad developed a relaxation procedure that helped him fall sleep during the years his shifts alternated around the clock and his children battled outside his bedroom. When I complained to him after a night during which I fidgeted and fumed, he divulged his secret: “I relax every muscle in my body, one after the other, starting with my ears and working down; so far, I’ve fallen asleep before I had to loosen up my toes.”

Relaxed ears? Loose toes?

I’ll just go on whistling.