On Tension / by Edmund Milly

The past four weeks have been extremely physically demanding - in fact, much more so than a lot of marathon training I've undergone in the past. But actually, marathon training isn't the culprit this time, as I've been taking some time off from running to try and find my way back to a refreshed state of health; this time, the demands I've been making on my body are entirely due to the amount of singing (and standing) I've been doing. Like all of the challenges we put ourselves through, this intense, relentless period of musical activity has been hugely rewarding. But at the same time, I think it's exacerbated some muscular tension.

Yesterday, it hit me that the crunch time is over, and now I have three weeks to rest, recover, and get ready for my next series of gigs. Even that thought wasn't relaxing, because I immediately started feeling a self-imposed "pressure to relax"! Yeesh. All the tension I'd been storing up in my body and my mind reached a bit of a boiling point yesterday, and only then was I able to let it go.

So, I've just been thinking about the nature of tension. Stress and tension are related, as they're phenomena that can both help and hurt us. Accordingly, we have to regulate them to feel our best. Numerous studies have shown that running necessarily results in a loss of muscular flexibility, and that this loss of flexibility is actually beneficial to performance; the stiffer the spring, the greater its potential energy. Running economy is inversely correlated with the flexibility of certain muscles. But at the same time, many runners seem to obtain performance benefits from judicious targeted stretching or yoga. Similarly, psychological stress is what drives us to achieve, but it is possible to reach a state of mind so saturated with stress that your abilities begin to decline. Worse still, there seems to be a tendency towards comorbidity: if you're stressed, it's probably causing you to hold more tension, and if you build up a lot of physical tension in your body, it probably starts to manifest itself psychologically as stress. (Side note. I realize that these subjective "probably" statements are not very scientific, but I have seen so much scientific research supporting these self-evident truths in the past that I just don't see the point in googling them so I can offer links.)

The tension we hold in our bodies is difficult to release. You release some tension from your muscles when you lose consciousness, but not all of it. Suppose you were to suddenly drop dead - even then, though your muscles would instantaneously lose all their tension, the shape of your spine and the way your limbs hang would not return to normal because of the patterns you've ingrained into them which have effected structural change (e.g. a person with hunched posture who suddenly dies does not completely straighten out, because what used to be tension has become structural).

Here's a game you can play. Last night I spent some time lying face-down, spread-eagled on my bed, trying to imagine I had been dropped from the top of a really tall building and died on impact, and my limbs were no longer holding any of the tension they had in life. This wasn't morbid or depressing at all, and it was surprisingly difficult. It sounds simple, but it's not, and it sounds obvious, but there are times when we all need the reminder. Any position you find yourself in, experiment with playing dead, letting everything go. Bonus: it's hilarious, and if you're stressed, the laughter will probably do you good.

These past few weeks have been a great opportunity to experience the flow of singing all day, every day, waking up still warmed up, and singing some more. Breathing and standing mindfully, remembering that there is a technique to everything we do, and all while making beautiful music with great people. I'm thinking back to the principle I have repeatedly emphasized in this blog, that by not crossing our aerobic threshold (literal or metaphorical) we can develop skills sustainably, without the setbacks that excess stress and overuse can necessitate. Obviously, I overstepped some fine line in my marathon training this Fall, and I've had to pay the price with a break these past few weeks. Maybe I did the same with singing and academics in my final semester at Yale, cramming in so much. But you know what? Every time you cross one of those lines is a learning experience, and you get a little closer to figuring out what exactly your limits are so you can be more successful at avoiding crossing them in the future. Every break you take is a little shorter than the last, because you haven't transgressed your limits as egregiously as the previous time.

Here's to deliberate, mindful recovery, and sustainable skill development in 2016.