Tight spots hurt. Tension sucks. We all have it, and we all want it to go away. Sometimes, we try to get rid of tight spots with the same attitude that created them in the first place. Go easy on yourself and you might find they actually release a bit more easily.
When tension festers, movement is blocked, and there is a cutting-off from the surrounding system we end up with tight spots. They show up in different ways, but there’s always that telltale signs of squeezing, rigidity, and stagnancy.
These spots manifest in myriad ways; tight muscle fibers, rigid thought patterns, and disconnection from wholeness and belonging. Tight spots are a vernacular term for dissociation. Dissociation is a key component of traumatic stress. In post-traumatic stress neural networks of the brain are sectioned off to hold reminders of the threatening experience. These neural networks can show up as flashbacks, nightmares, trigger responses, and regressed personality parts. They are cut off from the surrounding system out of an attempt for the brain to keep it fresh, so it won’t ever forget the horror, so that perhaps it can prevent it from ever happening again (Steele, van der Hart and Nijenjuis, 2005). For some people, the terminology of dissociation and neural networks may be empowering, but for others these words are alienating and cold. Tight spots, on the other hand, I think we can all relate to.
While being in the tangles can be rife with pain, despair, and confusion, I hope these writings will serve as a source of hope. I have witnessed tight spots softening when they are welcomed in with loving kindness. They can gently be untangled through a dedicated practice of compassion, courage, and curiosity. Gently following a thread at time, the knots release into a sense of wholeness, belonging, and connection. Notice the word practice – accessing compassion is something to practice, it often doesn’t come easy, especially when life has been hard. Read on for an exposé of tight spots in our individual and collective selves, and explorations for opening into the blocked places.
How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being; otherwise we all remain too frightened.Hafiz, the 14th century Persian poet and mystic.
Tightening shows up in all layers of our beings. A tight spot in the body is generally reflected in the mind. A rigid way of thinking shows up in how we carry ourselves through the world. A closed off sense of self leads to cutting off from the stream of life in our breath, and so on and so on.
Yoga Philosophy’s Panchamaya Kosha, the five layers, or sheaths, of our being can help us better understand the holistic nature of tight spots:
Annamaya Kosha – this is the physical aspect of ourselves. It’s made up of muscles, bones, the nerves, organs, etc. It’s constructed from the foods we eat. In this layer, tension shows up as tense jaws, knots in our shoulders, holding the belly in, and all other kinds of aches and pains that folks visit a massage therapist for. While sometimes a tight spot in this layer may be due to a one-off injury, like a twisted ankle, many times these tight spots are from chronic held tension due to a constricted “posture” towards life due to lived experiences of danger. Phrases like “walking on eggshells,” “grin and bear it,” and “a punch to the gut” come to mind here.
Pranamaya Kosha – this is the subtle energy layer of ourselves. We can most sense it through our breath. It is our vital life force. In this layer, we see tightness manifested as holding the breath, stilted inhales, and semi-complete exhales. I think we all know that we breathe easy when we feel safe to let our guard down, and our break gets kinked up when our life is in tangles. Think of the phrases “a breath of fresh air” and “it’s over now and I can breathe easy” to get a sense of where pranamaya kosha can be when tightness softens.
Manomaya Kosha – this is our primal mind. This is where emotions, instinct, and survival oriented parts of consciousness lie. When we find ourselves easily getting sucked into fight, flight, and freeze, and then getting stuck there, this is a tight spot. It could look like erupting into violent anger at the drop of a pin (fight), bursting into planning mode to quit your job every time a challenge arises (flight), or a sense of giving up hope (freeze), we are getting into tight spots. These protective capacities of ourselves are deeply important, we wouldn’t be here without them, yet past trauma can prime these pathways for hypervigilance. Our survival systems get stuck in tight spots around safety. For many folks struggling with mental health challenges, this layer of the self is predominant and eclipsing the other layers.
Vijnanamaya Kosha – this is our wise mind. This is the layer of ourselves occupied by reasoning, executive functioning, contemplation, morality, and ethics. When we are really stuck, there is a great deal of rigidity in this aspect of self. It is barely within view. The non-judgmental compassion and curiosity that indicate a fully online vijnanamaya kosha are out of access. We tend to judge ourselves and others harshly, doubt, overanalyze, cling to a sense of control, and have “narrow-minded” divisive views on the world. There are harmful socio-political implications to rigidity in the collective consciousness.
Anandamaya Kosha – this is the bliss aspect of ourselves. It is clouded from view when we are in tight spots. This is the layer of ourselves where we settle into a state of contentment and satisfaction with life. We feel that all has its place, we are embedded in a broader web of belonging, and can meet challenges with equanimity. Most of us wish for more access to anandamaya kosha, and that’s usually what leads us to go to therapy. This is the aspect of ourselves closest to the divine, Atman.
While this multifaceted nature of the dis-ease of tightness may be overwhelming to consider, it actually has promising implications! We can work with any of these layers to unravel the whole mess. Think of a tangled ball of thread; pull with frustration on one strand, and it all tightens up even more. Follow the threads with patience, choosing one to start with, noticing how it connects to the others, stepping back from time to time to see the bigger picture, and breathing some ease into your approach. As you go, you’ll see more and more space between the threads, and more layers of the knot will be revealed to be worked with. The tightness will move more freely, and eventually you’ll hold threads in your hand, ready to be made into whatever you imagine.
Many forms of psychotherapy explore the mental aspects of ourselves, not looking at how it’s all connected through the different layers. While this style serves some, others may attend therapy for years and still notice symptoms staying stuck. Getting locked into the thinking self, devoid of feeling and sensing our way through an issue, can be like trying to put out fire with fire. This is when holistic psychotherapy, that treats the whole person, and intensive therapy, that allows time to work with all the layers, can be super supportive.
Softness is needed to balance the tightness. Many of us have hardened as life was hard on us. Not being met with the open-hearted vulnerability we met the world with as children necessitates putting on tightening armor to keep us safe. What’s needed is something softening, opening, and generative. What’s needed is something that can meet both the armor and what’s beneath it with long overdue care and tenderness.
Here are a few practices to explore at home for holistically softening tight spots:
Calming Breathing for Letting Go of Tension
Go Easy on Yourself with Gentle Self-Massage
May we all move through the world with a little more ease.
Steele K, van der Hart O, Nijenhuis ER. Phase-oriented treatment of structural dissociation in complex traumatization: overcoming trauma-related phobias. J Trauma Dissociation. 2005;6(3):11-53.