How Relaxation Techniques Help Actors
“Relaxation is the foundation on which almost all of the actor's work is based.”
Whether you trained in Method, Classical, Meisner or another technique, most likely you learned about the importance of relaxation in acting. As an actor, your instrument—your body, mind and imagination—functions so much better when you are relaxed and free of tension. If you have already mastered relaxation in your work and it feels effortless, that is wonderful. If you still struggle from time to time, I invite you to read on…
Tension Limits the Actor
When you are tense, do you tend to feel self-conscious, worried, insecure and overly analytical? These feelings can interfere with your ability to stay open to different ways of being and points of view as you create your character. Tension has both physical and mental aspects. It dwells in the body, inhibiting movement and causing discomfort, which can be distracting. Tension can also be a state of mind. a holding on to certain thoughts and behaviors that might get in the way of the free expression of your emotions and creativity. Too much tension can affect the authenticity of your reactions and emotional responses in a performance. Relaxation is the key to releasing these inhibitions.
Relaxation Frees the Actor
Think about when you are relaxed—are you more aware and focused, able to move freely and try out different aspects of your character? When you are relaxed physically, emotionally and mentally, it opens up your creative process. In my work as a relaxation coach, I’ve found that relaxation taps into the subconscious mind, which helps us to move from self-conscious, tense ways of being to a higher level of consciousness. With this higher level of consciousness, we feel like our true selves, and actors can take that feeling and expand upon it as they perform.
What Is Relaxation?
Relaxation involves surrendering, trusting and letting go. To whom do you surrender and trust, and what do you let go? For the most part, you are trusting and surrendering to the process of relaxation, and at least in the beginning, this might involve some type of guide or teacher showing you ways to relax. During this process, you will also learn to trust yourself, which enables you to shed the attitude of trying, pleasing and overthinking, and to embrace an effortless ease of being. The letting go part of relaxation means letting go of tension as well as judgments, and I’ve found that letting go of judgments allows you to release tension—it’s all connected!
How to Relax
You might already possess tools to relax, but how often do you use them, and are you looking for more? The relaxation technique for actors that I remember learning as a kid in acting class and have read about over the years is Strasberg’s Relaxation Exercise, which is similar to the body scan used by many relaxation practitioners. It involves searching for tension in the body and willing it to release. The great part about this technique is you can use it even in the middle of a performance without anyone realizing you are doing it. The downside is that if you are anything like me, it’s not always so easy to simply “will” tension away, and so it is helpful to have a variety of relaxation techniques to practice in your daily life.
I want to introduce you to the wide, wonderful world of relaxation techniques! There are four main categories I use, and many, many different versions of each. Since I do so many relaxation training sessions for groups and individuals, I am always looking for new scripts that present an array of techniques. Here are the four categories of relaxation techniques and examples of different variations:
Breathing: Breathing is the foundation for all relaxation, and beginning with a focused breathing exercise is a good way to begin the process of relaxation. Some breathing techniques I like to use in my work are deep breathing, exhaling with sound, the stimulating breath (also called bellows breath), the traveling breath and the cleansing breath. I will give a brief example of exhaling with sound, which is my favorite breathing technique:
Inhale deeply, expanding your belly… Hold the breath for a few moments… Now exhale with a sigh of release—ahhhhh! The key to this technique is to not be shy about making a sound. Sighing gets a bad rap, but it actually is a phenomenal way to release tension from deep inside.
Muscle Relaxation: Practicing different types of muscle relaxation techniques will expand your ability to release tension from your body, which frees your creativity and inhibitions. Some of the muscle relaxation techniques I use in my practice are progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training, body scan and imagery-based muscle relaxation. One that might be especially helpful for actors is progressive muscle relaxation:
Progressive muscle relaxation is a classic technique developed in the 1920's by Dr. Edmund Jacobson, but I find it's still one of the most effective ways to release stress and stubborn muscle tension. Tense a muscle group, hold for a few seconds, repeat, and then move on to each muscle group. It might sound counter-intuitive to tense an already tense muscle, but there is something about this process that allows a muscle to relax more profoundly than some other techniques. It works well for sleep, de-stressing during traffic jams, after workouts, and before performances.
Guided Imagery: When it comes to relaxation techniques and stress management, I consider guided imagery the star of the show, because it can help with improving performance, taming "monkey mind" or mind chatter, building confidence, promoting healing, problem-solving, and general stress relief. During guided imagery, you are engaging all of your senses on an imaginative journey:
Imagine you are in nature, a beautiful place where you feel safe and completely at ease. Notice the sights and sounds around you—the clear blue sky, the lush plant life, maybe some animals playing, birds singing their songs. Breathe in deeply and smell the fresh air, relaxing your body and mind. You sit in a comfortable spot, feeling the ground fully supporting you, with the soft grass touching your skin. In this place, nobody is wanting anything from you, nobody is expecting anything from you, and all you have to do is relax. You spend some time daydreaming, relishing this time to yourself. In this moment, you can understand everything so clearly without making any effort at all...just allowing yourself to simply be...and let that powerful subconscious of yours help you realize all that you wish to achieve…
Meditation: Although silent meditation is an effective and popular relaxation technique, I use guided meditation in my practice, because many people struggle with sitting silently and alone with their thoughts. The guidance helps keep the mind focused on the mediation. Loving kindness meditation is my favorite way to meditate, and I use it with groups and individuals. It’s a universal, inclusive practice that fosters a sense of kindness and friendliness toward the self and others through extending good wishes and intentions, and opening the heart to unconditional love and acceptance. Here are some loving kindness meditation phrases:
May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger.
May I be safe and protected.
May I be free of mental suffering or distress.
May I be happy.
May I be free of physical pain and suffering.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.
You extend the wishes first for yourself, then to near and dear ones, and eventually all living things. It’s a gentle, comforting way to meditate on the positive and calm your mind and heart.
Final Thoughts on Relaxation
Working in a relaxed manner is essential for the actor, because having a relaxed instrument will give you a sense of ease and will help make your acting effortless, naturally expressive and a joy to watch. If you have any questions about relaxation training or are interested in my coaching, feel free to visit my website www.atimeforexpression.com
Beth Freschi, M.A., Relaxation & Life Coach
A Time for Expression, LLC