There’s a wide-open space in most people’s training, where an enormous potential for gain goes largely unnoticed. We all know the importance of building muscle, but it’s just as important to release the deep, chronic tensions anchored in those muscles, and in the nervous system as a whole.
Until you do, those tensions will be working against you, sabotaging you with stress, and making you work twice as hard with half the energy. Sure, almost everyone is equally afflicted by this full-body armor of unnecessary tension, but that’s no excuse not to take action. In fact, given the payoff, it should be at the top of the list of priorities.
As someone who’s experimented with countless methods of mind-body training, I can attest that Neuromuscular Release Work (NRW) is the most powerful technique for releasing that tension and recycling vast amounts of primal energy back through the nervous system. The result is high energy and low tension.
High dominance and low stress. Those are the two ingredients for a holistic, mind-body transformation. It’s mind and body combined, because you never have one without the other.
The whole system of NRW is as vast as any other exercise repertoire. But to give you a sense of what it’s all about, and to point you in the direction of some low-hanging fruit for getting started,
I’m going to give you an introduction through one of the bread-and-butter NRW exercises: face stretching. And though I’ll be focusing on just that one part of the body, pay attention, because if you get this, you’ll hold the thread that can unweave a whole lifetime’s worth of primal tension.
Why the Face?
If you’re like most folks, you probably don’t pay much attention to your face throughout the day. After all, you never see it, except in the mirror, and unless you accidentally wandered into an acting class and politely stayed a few minutes before slowly backing toward the door, you’ve probably never done any exercises with your face.
In all my days, I’ve never seen anyone in the gym working out their face, and when it comes to building muscle, it’s absurd to even think of it. But when it comes to releasing neuromuscular tension, the face is a veritable gold mine.
NRW works, and like everything that works, it works in a particular way. Understanding a little bit about the nuts and bolts, we can leverage that knowledge for bigger results with less effort. As always, we want to think in terms of the 80/20 rule, and in the case of deep tension release, that leads us right to the face.
There’s a hugely disproportionate amount of brain tissue dedicated to sensing and feeling the face compared to the rest of the body, and when you think about it, that makes perfect sense: If you couldn’t feel your face, especially your mouth, how long do you think you’d survive? That means tension in the face has a lot more impact on the overall felt sense of tension in the body than anywhere else. It also means that releasing tension there has a lot more impact—hence, low-hanging fruit. So, if you want to start sending your brain messages that the whole system can chill out, the face is the logical place to start.
Beyond that, there are a whopping 43 muscles in the face, and if you’re like most people, each one of them is charged up with layers of neuromuscular tension. But here’s something to keep in mind about how tension develops (and this applies to the whole body): those muscles are fused together with tension from years of habitual postures, reflexes, and expressions. For example, it may be hard for you to move the eyebrows without also moving the cheeks, or to move the jaw without also moving the shoulders.
Everyone’s patterns are different, but the result is essentially the same: layer upon layer chronically held physical and emotional attitudes, anchored by tension and stress. It also means that a little bit of tension anywhere easily becomes a lot of tension everywhere. The muscle fusion acts like a domino effect on the overall system. With its 43 muscles, the face makes for the perfect battlefield to start dismantling that fusion.
The Technique: Face Stretching
So here is a simple exercise to start switching the gears in the brain and defusing the muscles: face stretching. I’ll often have clients do it to warm up for a full NRW workout, but it also stands alone. Remember, if you want to really know what the work is about, you have to try it for yourself. The instructions may even seem deceptively simple, but if done correctly, the impact can be very dramatic.
You can sit or stand for this, but either way, make sure your whole body is as relaxed as possible. Take some time to feel your body, and try to anchor your awareness in your senses, rather than in your thoughts. Make sure the breath is deep, clam, and rhythmic. This is important; if you hold your breath, or breathe in a rapid or shallow manner, the technique will not work.
Now begin stretching the muscles of the face slowly and with tension. As you do this, make sure you’re mobilizing all the facial muscles: the forehead, the eyebrows, the eyes, the cheeks, the jaw, the lips, the tongue—everything. It doesn’t matter how you move these muscles, just that you’re moving them all, continuously, slowly, and with lots of tension. It should feel like you’re moving them and trying to stop yourself from moving them at the same time. It should feel difficult. If it’s doesn’t, add more tension to your movements until it does.
Continue the exercise for at least five minutes. It’s important to keep it up for that long to give your system time to react and adjust. As you go, make sure the breath stays deep, loose, and rhythmic, and that the rest of the body stays relaxed. Tension has a way of hiding in parts of the body you’re not paying attention to. At the end of five minutes, relax the face, take some deep breaths, and take a minute to sense and feel the face and the whole body, paying special attention to any new sensations that might arise.
What to Look For
You just spent five minutes sending messages to the most primal part of your nervous system; now it’s time to listen. Tuning in and receiving new sensations is just as important as the exercise itself for building new pathways between the parts of the brain.
Everyone responds to NRW differently, especially early on in their practice. With the face stretching, some people just feel discomfort at first, having come into conscious contact with the depth of tension in their face possibly for the first time. That in itself is a good sign that the muscles are “waking up,” even though it may not feel so great at first. Others may feel stronger results right away—a “reset” of the system, a sense of calm and balance, an energized relaxation.
Others still may feel more dramatic releases of energy, which could take the form of buzzing, tingling, or prickling on the skin; light tremors and shaking throughout the body; or big yawns and spontaneous vocalizations. You may even feel some spontaneous mental and emotional housecleaning happening, during or after the exercise.
None of these is “right” or “wrong.” Just pay attention to what you feel, and remember, you’re doing something real, in the same way that swinging a kettlebell is doing something real. If you do it right, your body will respond, so don’t be surprised if and when it does. But also like other types of workouts, NRW takes time and consistency to deliver its greater rewards, so if you choose to experiment with this technique, do it a couple times a day for at least a week, and see where that lands you.
Get Your Game Face On
When the face relaxes, everything relaxes, because everything takes its cue from the face—not just inside you, but around you, too. Ever wonder why people were treating you odd, and then realized you were scowling without realizing it? Maybe you were just squinting in the sun, or thinking deep thoughts, but either way, people take those cues seriously, and so does your own nervous system. So take advantage of that to encourage relaxation. When you’re relaxed, you’re powerful.
You’re loose, you’re confident, you’re not getting in your own way, and you can react spontaneously and creatively to whatever is going on around you. Everything works better, and everything feels better, and the face stretching will start pushing you down that path.
But while simple face stretching is a great place to start your NRW journey, there’s much more to explore, and far deeper to go. There are countless more NRW techniques for the face alone, and many more potent practices for detonating tension and releasing primal, powerful energy throughout the nervous system.
And it takes strong techniques to achieve a true mind-body transformation. That neuromuscular tension we all carry around is no joke. It’s tough. But so is NRW, and if you’re on this site, chances are, so are you.
If you can’t get control of your thoughts, what else can you expect to control?