Helping Clients Relax: Techniques that Focus on the Body

Most relaxation approaches understand that the main point is for the relaxation practitioner to attain a greater state of focus and concentration. What’s up for grabs with each technique is that which is focused on, and how. In this article, we explore techniques where the practitioner focuses in some way on the body, either just observing it, or in some cases, actively tensing and then relaxing it. These techniques are: Progressive muscle relaxation, passive muscle relaxation, body scan meditation, yoga, Tai chi, and rhythmic movement techniques.

Progressive muscle relaxation

This common form of relaxation involves a two-step process in which the practitioner systematically tenses and relaxes different muscle groups in the body. As clients engage this regularly, they become intimately familiar with what tension, and also complete relaxation, feels like in the various parts of the body. As practitioners become more adept, they are able to spot early on the increasing muscular tension that comes with stress – and counteract it right away. As the client’s body relaxes, so does the mind. Generally, the sequence is to go from foot to head, pausing to tense and then relax each of these parts:

  • Right foot, then left foot
  • Right calf, left calf
  • Right thigh, left thigh
  • Hips and buttocks
  • Stomach
  • Chest
  • Back
  • Right arm and hand, left arm and hand
  • Neck and shoulders
  • Face

General instructions (to the client)

  1. With loose clothing, no shoes, and a comfortable position, take a few minutes to bring the focus inward, breathing in and out in slow, deep breaths.
  2. When you are ready to begin, shift your attention to your right foot, taking a moment to focus on how it feels.
  3. Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as possible. Hold for a count of 10.
  4. Relax your right foot. Notice the tension flowing away, and how your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
  5. Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
  6. When you’re ready, shift your attention to your left foot. Again squeeze tightly, holding for a count of 10 and then releasing the tension.
  7. Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the muscle groups as you go.
  8. Attempt to not tense muscles on which you are not focusing.


This form of relaxation practice can elevate blood pressure. Thus, those with high blood pressure and/or cardiovascular illness, and also those with a history of muscle spasms, back problems, or other injuries that may be aggravated by tensing muscles, should consult with their doctor before beginning this type of relaxation (Robinson et al, 2016).

Passive muscle relaxation

Similar to progressive muscle relaxation, passive muscle relaxation aims to relax each body part as it is focused on, but unlike the former, it does not involve tensing the muscles. In this sort of practice, clients imagine that their muscles are in a relaxed state. Does this work? Research has shown that just thinking about a stressor can cause muscles to tense up; similarly, thinking about relaxing them sends a signal to the brain to relax the muscles involved (Tripod, n.d.).

General instructions (to the client)

Work from foot to head, focusing on each body part in turn and imagining it relaxed. As with progressive muscle relaxation, you can use this sequence:

  1. Right foot, then left foot
  2. Right calf, left calf
  3. Right thigh, left thigh
  4. Hips and buttocks
  5. Stomach
  6. Chest
  7. Back
  8. Right arm and hand, left arm and hand
  9. Neck and shoulders
  10. Face


None indicated. Those with high blood pressure, cardiovascular illness, or chronic pain problems may be served better by this form of relaxation than progressive muscle relaxation in that muscle tension is avoided (Tripod, n.d.).

Body scan meditation

Similar to the previous two relaxation practices, the body scan meditation also focuses on each body part in turn, but rather than actively tense/relax each body part or imagine it to be relaxed, the practitioner simply brings the attention to each body part, focusing on the sensations that are found there. In this practice, more (and smaller) muscle groups are focused on.

General instructions (to the client)

Prepare for the meditation by lying on your back with legs uncrossed and arms at your sides; eyes can be open or closed. Spend a minute or two focusing on your breathing, watching your belly rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Then:

  1. Bring your attention to the toes of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel while continuing to also focus on your breathing. Imagine each deep breath flowing to your toes. Keep this focus for 1-2 minutes.
  2. Move your attention to the sole of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel there and imagine each breath flowing to the sole of your foot. After 1-2 minutes, shift your focus to the right ankle; repeat the sequence.
  3. Move to your calf, knee, thigh, and hip, again with a 1-2 minute focus on each.
  4. Repeat the sequence for each part of the left leg.
  5. Move up the torso, through the lower back and abdomen, the upper back and chest, and the shoulders, giving each part 1-2 minutes’ attention. Pay close attention to any part of the body causing pain or discomfort.
  6. Now bring your attention to the fingers of your right hand. After 1-2 minutes’ observation of sensations there, move to the wrist, forearm, and throat in turn, focusing 1-2 minutes on each of these parts. Repeat this sequence for your left arm.
  7. Then spend 1-2 minutes moving through each of the following: the neck and throat, all the areas of your face, the back of the head, and the top of the head. Pay close attention for 1-2 minutes each to your jaw, chin, lips, tongue, nose, cheeks, eyes, forehead, temples, and scalp.
  8. When you reach the very top of your head, let your breath reach out beyond your body and imagine hovering above yourself.
  9. After finishing the scan of each of the above body parts, relax for a while in silent stillness, staying attuned to how your body feels. Open your eyes, stretch, and slowly resume “normal life” (Robinson et al, 2016).


None indicated.


Yoga, the ancient Indian practice involving a series of both moving and stationary postures, combines with deep breathing to reduce anxiety and stress; enhance flexibility, strength, balance, and stamina; and induce the relaxation response. Having loyal proponents for thousands of years, yoga is now backed up by research showing that it lowers sympathetic nervous system arousal, blood pressure, and levels of stress hormones (such as cortisol). There are many forms of it, including satyananda yoga (a traditional form featuring gentle poses, deep relaxation, and meditation), hatha yoga (reasonably gentle and suitable for beginners), and power yoga, such as Astanga yoga: an intense style with dynamic postures.

General instructions

It is best to begin any practice of yoga with an instructor, either privately or in a class, as incorrect postures can lead to injuries. Failing a live teacher, the internet, most health-oriented outlets, and also some shops selling Indian goods have many choices of DVDs to guide new practitioners through the postures.


As noted, the intense stretches of some of the postures can exacerbate injuries when done incorrectly. Even when performed correctly, many yoga stretches may need to be modified for chronic injuries or even temporary conditions (such as when menstruating women agree to forgo upside-down postures to avoid discouraging the monthly flow from taking its normal course) (Robinson et al, 2016; Tripod, n.d.).

Tai Chi

Ever noticed that group of people in the park when walking the dog early in the morning? If they are moving slowly and rhythmically somewhat in unison, they may be doing Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese form of exercise originally conceived as a martial art. It is performed non-competitively now as a series of flowing movements which help calm the mind and tone the body, enhancing balance, and strengthening the relaxation response. Proponents claim it is also increases flexibility, strength, and muscular endurance (Weil, 2015). The focus in Tai Chi is on the breath and on being present in the moment.

General instructions

Clients should look for a class in their area, as most communities run a class through either community education programmes or sometimes privately.


The situation is more like indications than contraindications, as Tai Chi is a good low-impact option for all ages and fitness levels, and is particularly helpful for older adults and people recovering from injuries. With minimal stress put on joints and muscles and low risk of injury, it is an “anywhere, anytime” activity that can be done at one’s own pace (Weil, 2015; Robinson et al, 2016; Tripod, n.d.).

Other rhythmic movement techniques

Regular runners and swimmers can attest to the calming influence of rhythmic exercise movement, especially aerobic. One foot after the other, left arm/right arm in swimming strokes, or perhaps the regular, rhythmic movements of rowing: all can all create a meditative movement highly effective at producing the relaxation response. Dancing, walking, kayaking, and climbing can also engender the stress-relieving effects.

General instructions

The “trick” with these is to be fully engaged in the present moment, focusing not on thoughts, but on the sensation’s in one’s body and how breathing complements the movement. With walking, for example, a person could tend to the sensation of each foot as it hits the pavement/sand/grass, the rhythm of the breath, and the feel of the breeze against one’s body. Especially for those who have experienced trauma, the mindfulness element of these movements can help “re-wire” nervous systems stuck in traumatic response.


Not all relaxation practitioners will be able to engage all forms of rhythmic movement techniques. Obvious examples are that those with arthritic knees will probably not be able to run. Shoulder or arm injuries may preclude rowing or kayaking. Some people do not know how to swim or feel traumatised being in/near water. Profoundly deaf people will not be able to hear the music in order to move in time to the beat for dancing, and so on. Too, other health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, or other problems may prevent participation in these activities, but to the extent that one is able and interested, they can be helpful facilitators of the relaxation response (adapted from Robinson et al, 2016).

This article was adapted from Mental Health Academy’s upcoming “Helping Stressed Clients Relax” professional development course.


  • Robinson, L., Segal, R., Segal, J., & Smith, M. (2016). Relaxation techniques for stress relief. Retrieved on 22 March, 2017, from: hyperlink.
  • Tripod. (n.d.). Comparison between the fight/flight response and relaxation response. In Stress Management for Health Course. Retrieved on 22 March, 2017, from: hyperlink.
  • Weil, R. (2015). Tai Chi: What are the benefits of Tai Chi? Retrieved on 27 March, 2017, from: hyperlink.