Finding INTENTIONAL tension. Why relaxing might not be the solution to Focal Dystonia
Failing to Relax
After the onset of my focal dystonia more than a decade ago, one of the first ideas I had for solution was just trying to keep my hand and my body from tensing up.
This tension inhibited me from performing many tasks and dragged me down emotionally. I was just simply experimenting ways to just not tense up my hand.
So naturally, my thought process was to get my mind , body and hand to relax.
I thought if I could just learn how to relax again, I would not be in the state of unwanted tension.
I tried to relax by taking a big breath in and out, step one step backwards and…. try not tense up in the way I just did.
I had a broad idea on what relaxing is..
Relaxing is the opposite of having tension….. or is really?
I knew that was somewhat along the correct line but I also sensed that relaxing in way that I understood at the time, was not working at all.
So I decided to deconstruct this idea of relaxing in the quest of resolving the tension of focal dystonia.
How can I relax?
Or… was relaxing even a solution to the dystonic tension?
I knew that if i were completely relaxed in front of a piano, I won’t be sitting upright nor I’d get my hand on the keyboard. If I were to be completely relaxed, I would not be able to lift a muscle to even start playing.
Was there a fine line where I was supposed to have just the right amount of relaxation and just the right amount of tension to be at the optimal place to operate?
I had tremendous amount of tension in my hand that originated from tension of my thumb if I tried to engage any finger to playing my thumb hid itself in the palm and would also lock up my four other fingers in the most awkward way .
I noticed that when I try to control my dystonic tension and weird positioning of my hand by trying to force my hand to be in a better position by locking my hand into a better position visibly, I still couldn’t move and it felt like one force was trying to fight another.
But sometimes, when I felt rested and found a different state of being than usual self, my hands will start moving. I could be in a place where I can observe what was happening and sometimes it surprisingly worked well.
So I thought ..great! Relaxing does work!
But then when I tried to replicate what happened at various times, … it sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. I desperately wanted to find out what was the special ingredients that made things work like it randomly happened from time to time.
Failing to find the 'special' mindset
The next stage of thinking was to find a specific mindset.
Maybe it’s certain type of mindset I have to be in order to be in this state where I can let my body do what it wants to do and work.
So I tried not to worry.
I tried to let go of negative thoughts.
I was more aware of tension in my body.
I tried to calm my thinking, I tried to embrace the love of music, I tried to create music, I tried to change my focus to achieve that different state of being that seemingly work from time to time.
I also managed to find many techniques to relax my thoughts and my body.
And sometimes I was able to play through a whole Rachmaninoff concerto without really bad tension when managed to find a state where things worked.
But when it came to finding a place where I felt less dystonic tension, I felt the results were too inconsistent just by trying to relax.
Not being able to find the missing ingredients to make it work threw me off, and made me believe that I was failing to find the correct mindset.
Tensing, the not so secret ingredient
One day, my pilates teacher was leading a relaxation exercise.
She suggested to bring our bodies close together to see how it feels as we tense up let go to really feel the sensation of relaxing.
I thought... I know how to relax, I do this all the time!
As I tensed my body, something struck me.
I recalled how snug and fit that really felt as though someone was giving me a big hug.
Actually, tensing of the body and bringing all body parts closer to each other felt really good. I felt more connected to the body.
It was as though I can feel connection between each of the body parts when I tensed my muscles in that way. I could sense the friction between each of the body parts, and when I tried to move while being snug, it was as though my body can recognise each of the body parts and the connection between them.
My body felt a lot more secure with the heightened awareness of the muscles of the body as though it was the sensation that I might have been missing.
Days later, as I was trying to practice piano I was trying to loosen up my shoulders and arms to control my tension. It was one of those days that no matter what and how I tried to relax, nothing seemed to work.
The more I tried to relax my body and let loose of some parts, the more unwanted tension I felt elsewhere.
Sometimes it felt like there I have no control over my hands and fingers, almost as thought I have completely have forgotten the sensation of what it is like to play the piano.
As a recalled the tension and relaxing exercise from the pilates session the other day, I had an odd thought.
What if I were wrong all along? What will possibly happen if I try to play the piano with intentional tension?
I brought my body close and tightened up all my muscles and joints together.
Suddenly I felt my body. I felt it and I felt more secure.
Why can't I have this sensation when I play?
I knew the answer… it was because if I knew that if I were tense, I will be tight and I won’t be able to move freely.
What if I can maintain that feeling of a tight hug, feeling of the body close together, feeling the friction of muscles and joints rubbing against each other, AND was still able to move freely?
That question that I asked myself changed how I would approach dystonic tension.
As I experimented with that idea, I started to understanding the concept of how sensory feedback was essential to be able to understand of where and how our body is positioned and located ( proprioception ) to move freely.
I tried to actually bring my shoulders tighter to my body, and tried sensing my limbs by tensing a bit.
As I flexed my muscles where I can still move freely in all ways, suddenly the awkward feeling was gone.
Amazing. It works.
It was almost as though, I could now feel that sensation of my whole body working together.
And my body could finally move because it can feel it’s now feeling itself.
Playing with traditional sense of tension is not healthy at all.
Tension implies that part or parts of the body is immobile.
But flexing various parts of the body while you are moving, might actually help you create more sensory feedback that your body is craving in order to make sense of a movement.
By making conscious effort to bring shoulders, arms and wrists closer together all while not restricting movements, things started to feel like it was working much more consistently.
How you can apply this idea
Then try experimenting with the idea of tensing your body but not going all the way as to where you can't move. You want to keep that idea of flexing your whole body but just subtle enough that you can still move freely.
More importantly, try to feel various body parts. The extra flexing makes it easier to bring attention to them.
As you move, try to imagine feeling the friction between the muscles, tendons and the bones. What works for me is to trying to feel friction of each joints.
Play your instrument as you maintain awareness that the flexing brought to your body.
Overtime, you are not going to be requiring so much flexing to maintain the same awareness.