Improve Your Movement Within Minutes

Over the last month I’ve had the good fortune to not only be teaching others, but to also take weekly Somatic Movement classes. I’ve noticed that after participating in a class there is a marked improvement in what I can physically do in addition to how I feel from within. Considering my travel schedule throughout the year, I am grateful for a Somatic Movement practice that leaves me more proprioceptively intelligent as well as more capable of controlling my body and physical resources.

Somatic Movement provides a number of benefits:

  • Releasing accumulated muscle tension

  • Improving breathing (which improves oxygen uptake)

  • Increased alertness and sense of renewal

  • Heightened awareness of one’s body

One of the biggest benefits of a daily Somatic Movement practice is that it provides you with the tools to improve your ability to do even the simplest actions and to move more efficiently.

Somatic Movements address muscle tension at the level of your nervous system. You learn to improve your physical functioning, coordination, self-control, and balance through improved sensory motor awareness.  

Thomas Hanna once lectured about the unique experience of those practicing Somatic Education and Movement. He said that Somatic Education is much more than absorbing new information in the traditional sense; you are asking yourself to become aware of yourself for the purpose of being able to become masterful at controlling yourself from within, thus changing and improving your physical state. Yet how do we know if we’ve learned something well?

Move Well with These 4 Somatic Movements

Let's set a goal. Say you want to improve your reach

Find a wall in your home and, keeping feet flat on the floor, reach up with one arm and place a piece of colored tape or a post-it on the wall. Repeat with your other arm. Now lie down on a comfortable spot on the floor and do the following movements:

  1. Arch and flatten 8-10 times slowly, sensing both the front and back of your body and taking a breath in between each repetition. Sense neutral as you move through your arch and into your flatten.

  2. Side bend 4 times on each side, relaxing between each repetition

  3. Washrag slowly and luxuriously for one minute, coordinating the lazy twisting of your shoulders with the movement of your pelvis and legs

  4. Human X (with feet planted on the floor) slowly, like a yawn, for a few minutes.

As you practice, bring awareness to the release through your waist as you gently expand your ribcage on the inhale. Can you allow one side of your body to lengthen as the other side shortens as you move through the Side Bend and Human X? Would the Human X be more pleasurable if you allowed your hips and pelvis to gently swing in response to the reaching of your arms?

After completing your practice, slowly find your way to standing. Stand still for a minute and notice how you feel. Notice your thoughts and your breath. Can you send breath into your ribcage and waist?  Go to the wall and, with two new pieces of tape, reach up to place one piece on the wall, and then the other.

Did you improve your reach on one side or the other? Maybe both?

If you found that you improved your ability to reach by restoring coordination and softening the waist, back, and belly muscles, consider other activities you would like to improve. Which movements could you combine to help improve your golf swing, your ability to hike on uneven ground, or your yoga poses? Or even something as simple as getting up from the floor with ease? Try it out and let me know how it goes!

**Thanks to Carrie Day for this “Reach to the Top Shelf” mini-class.**

Breathe Smarter, Not Harder

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In a recent Fundamentals Immersion Course, I asked the participants to share one aha! moment from the weekend – something they learned about themselves, or about Somatic Movement that was profound for them.

One participant said that “playing with his breath” unlocked his movement. He realized that he had been working too hard to “inhale, and exhale, and inhale, and exhale” as if doing movement drills. At a certain point in the weekend I guided the participants “go with their own breath cycle” and take two breath cycles (a full inhale, gentle exhale, then inhale and exhale gently again) to move into arch and release to neutral. We did the same with the back lift – and the movements felt freer and easier – more pleasant and natural. He was amazed.

Sensory Motor Amnesia and chronic stress can literally take our breath away and we find ourselves “reverse breathing:” sucking our bellies inward as we inhale rather than letting our bellies soften to allow the air to be drawn into the lungs. Breathing itself is a pandiculation – a gentle contraction and release of the diaphragm – so there’s no need to be overly rigid about your breathing. Sometimes we need to experiment with our breath in order to get the most sensation and control out of a movement!

Pandiculate your breathing

Try this: Lie on one side (for the Side Bend). Make sure your head is supported by a pillow or rolled up towel. Take the hand of the underside arm and place it, as feedback, on your topside ribs. Place your topside arm over your head for the “arm sweep variation” of the Side Bend. Inhale, and as you exhale fully, squeeze all the air out of your topside ribs and move into your “accordion,” tightening the waist muscles to allow the head and foot to float up naturally.  As you release, take two full breath cycles to release back to the floor, inhaling gently into your own hand so you can feel what’s opening and releasing through the side of your body. Can you sense more when you take more time to breathe? Repeat that again.

Then, come up into your side bend, hand still on your waist – and stop! Inhale deeply into the underside ribcage. Take your time and allow your ribs to spread open like little mouths sucking in the air. Exhale, and then continue with two breaths to lengthen and release.

Do this on both sides.

How can you play with your breath to get the most out of your practice? Try it and see.

A Somatic Approach to Holiday Stress

The holiday season can be a time of stress and overstimulation for many people. From running to catch a plane (in order to sit in an uncomfortable position for five hours) to, meet up with family members who might send us into a Red Light Reflex, to carrying heavy bags of groceries (or presents!) in from your car. Perhaps the stress of holiday preparation sends us into a Green Light Reflex as we rush from task to task. And even if that isn’t our exact experience, we all know someone for whom that rings closer to true than not.

But the holidays don’t have to cause us to unconsciously respond both emotionally and physically from our “default mode,” whether that is to “get things done now!” (Green Light), or avoid that which we don’t want to deal with (Red Light). The holiday season can and should be a time where we release the tightness and stiff uprightness that our jobs or other day-to-day obligations demand. Somatics can help us through the season so we can be more present to ourselves and those around us.

When you pandiculate, you create new neural pathways of awareness, sensation, and motor control in your brain. It is from these pathways of thought, feeling and action that we live and respond to ourselves and those around us.

Try this in your daily Somatics practice:

Ask yourself, “what can I let go of that I don’t need to be doing this movement?” By practicing this you will discover which areas let go to aid in the movement and which areas contract to “do” the movement.

The Flower can be done on the floor, in a chair, or even while sitting on an airplane.

The Flower can be done on the floor, in a chair, or even while sitting on an airplane.

  • If you tend to rush and do everything for everyone, try adding the Back Lift to your daily practice. Move in and out of the movement with two full breath cycles, yawning as you do so. Take a full resting breath in between each repetition.
     
  • If you feel emotionally stressed, make the Flower a movement you do on the floor, in a chair, or even sitting on the airplane. Again, use two breaths to move in and out of the movement for a more spacious experience.
     
  • The Washrag is an excellent movement for “wringing out your whole self” and finding soft length and relaxation. Make your Soma Scan at the end of your practice longer.

Sense yourself in the present and take that inner awareness into your holidays and know that everyone you meet is moving towards a similar desire to feel good, both inside and out during this wonderful time of year. 

More Power In Your Lifting With the Flower

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Brian Justin is one of our 2nd year clinical-practitioners-in-training and is passionate about spreading the word on the benefits of physical activity for health, performance, and injury prevention. Brian is also a professor of kinesiology in Vancouver, BC, a boxing coach, and a strength and conditioning coach. His recent blog post discusses how the Flower can improve your workout routine.

"The Flower is an excellent somatic exercise to help restore ideal length to our pectorals. It utilizes pandiculation...This technique involves contracting a muscle so that it is tighter than its currently tight resting posture. Thereafter, it is lengthened at the speed of a yawn resulting in more length and reduced resting tension. Lastly, a period of relaxation occurs and this allows our brain to process the new information to gain control of the muscle... This happens all without stretching!"

Read more about what Brian has to say about gaining more power in your workout here...

If you are an athlete, fitness instructor, or whether you are merely searching for an effective method through which to improve your ability and performance, be sure to also check out our new Somatics for Athletics workshop, taught by Karyn Clark, CCSE and Martha Peterson, CHSE! In this two-day course, you will learn how Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) is keeping you from reaching your maximum potential, how to bounce back from muscle injuries, how to apply Somatic Movements to your daily routine, and so much more.

How Your Response to Stress Contributes to Pain

The Three Somatic Reflexes

We know why muscle pain occurs and how to release it, but how much do you know about the Three Somatic ReflexesFamiliarizing yourself with these reflexes and how they cause Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) is an integral part of understanding your own muscle pain. It isn't enough to know that the pain in your hip is from SMA; you need to know how your responses to stress causes your SMA to begin with.

There are some 44 reflexes in the human body, yet the Red Light, Green Light, and Trauma reflexes, as outlined by Thomas Hanna in his book, Somatics, are predictable when it comes to habituating to chronic stress. When you can recognize your specific “stuck” reflexive patterns that occur when you are stressed, you will become more skilled at understanding why you have pain, how it's connected to a stress reflex (or a combination thereof), and how to release it in order to self-regulate and create homeostasis and balance within your own body.

How do you respond to stress?

Familiarizing yourself with the Three Somatic Reflexes will better equip you to nip your SMA in the bud and help you to self-correct. Your awareness of how you personally respond to stress mentally, physically, and emotionally will allow you to recognize when you are falling into a stress reflex pattern and how it is affecting your posture, pain, and psychological state.

  1. The Green Light Reflex (Landau Response) is the reflex of forward movement which involves the muscles of the back. The back is typically arched and the shoulders are drawn back. Do you tend to rush around? Are you "always on"? Are you very active?
  2. The Red Light Reflex (Startle Response) involves the muscles of the front. The shoulders are rounded, back is slumped, and chin jutted forward. Do you often feel anxious? Do you spend long hours at a desk or computer? Do you struggle to breathe deeply?
  3. The Trauma Reflex involves the muscles of the trunk rotators and occurs involuntarily in response to accidents and injuries. Do you have a hip hike? Have you had an accident, injury, or surgery? Do you routinely engage in one-sided movement (golfing, holding children on your hip, etc.)

More than just a physical experience...

Understanding each individual reflex and applying your knowledge to your daily life will help you understand yourself better as a person. The Green Light and Red Light reflexes are deeply emotional.

  • The Green Light Reflex can become habituated when we never allow ourselves to stop, rest, relax and let go. We’re always “on” and concerned with not losing control.
  • The Red Light Reflex is well-known in psychology and trauma work. It is a deeply primal, and protective posture, both emotionally and physically.

These reflexes are life-saving and life-giving, and are there for us to respond to, yet we are not supposed to live in them! 

4 Ways to Understand Yourself and Take Back Control

  1. Take a minute to simply BE. Check in with yourself throughout the day. Tune in and feel how it is to be you in this moment. How are you feeling physically and emotionally? What is making you feel this way and how are you responding to this stimuli? Use this time to slow down, calm your mind, and listen to your body.
  2. Recognize your reflexive habits. Use your knowledge of the Somatic Reflexes to understand how these habits contribute to your specific muscle pain. This will help you choose Somatic Exercises that help you regain and retain balance and a sense of neutral.
  3. Be aware in the moment. If you notice yourself slumping, was it because of your response to the outrageous electric bill you just opened? If your right shoulder is hurting, is it because you've been carrying that heavy bag on one shoulder for a bit too long? Did your whole back tightened in response to a phone call? Notice when and how you respond, correct as you go, and...
  4. Do your Somatic Exercises every day. If you've been sitting at your desk for 2 hours straight, utilize the Somatic Exercises from the Pain-Free at Work DVD to reset your muscles and brain to neutral. If you've been golfing all day, wind down with Somatic Exercises so that you don't fall into a Trauma Reflex. Standing for long hours at work can take a toll on your lower back (and create a domino effect throughout your body), so release the day's built-up SMA with Somatic Exercises. If you have done steps 1-3, step 4 is intended for you to use your awareness to customize your daily Somatic Exercise routine to how you felt and what you experienced today.

Without awareness of how you respond to stress mentally, physically, and emotionally, you will undo your progress in no time at all.

The latest research on neuroplasticity is clear: in order to keep our brains healthy we need differentiation and challenges. Understanding how stress affects you personally and your movement habits and physical pain and movement in particular comes from the brain. It's use it or lose it.  The less habituated to stress you are, the more you can keep your brain in a constant state of learning and regeneration.

The Fastest Route to a Pain-free Body: Clinical Hanna Somatics sessions

Janet (not her real name) came to my office this week complaining of hip pain. Walking upstairs was painful and laborious - and she was only in her 30's.  She had, as she put it, "a list a mile long of things I've tried" in her search for long term pain relief.  "I'm told I have piriformis syndrome. If I could just get my right buttock to relax, I think I could finally begin to feel better," she said. In a Clinical Somatics session that focused on the Trauma Reflex, Janet learned - very quickly - to release her tight waist muscles, ribcage and trunk rotators.I taught her to release the entire pattern of contraction that was causing her buttock to spasm: her tight buttock, abdominals and abductor muscles. Working with sensory feedback from my hand, she contracted these muscles as a pattern, then slowly released them into a fuller, more relaxed length. This technique is called assisted pandiculation - it resets the muscle control, function and length at the level of the central nervous system.  Twice more she pandiculated those same muscles, until she reached her own comfortable limit, flopping her leg inward easily.  She also learned the Back Lift to begin to relax her tightly contracted back muscles.

What happened next took me by surprise:

She began to yell, "Oh my God, oh my God! I can't believe it! I can't believe it!"

"Are you alright? Does anything hurt?" I asked. She'd scared me!

"No, no, no, it's just that I finally relaxed my buttock! I've been saying this all along and nobody believed me! This is my eureka moment!"

Janet left the office with an ability to move her hips in a way she hadn't been able to for eight years.

Most muscle pain problems are functional in nature, not structural

Why did this clinical Somatics session help her when years of physical therapy, trigger point therapy, massage, acupuncture and medical treatments hadn't? Because Janet's problem wasn't structural; it was functional. She suffered from Sensory Motor Amnesia, the habituated compensatory response to two traumatic accidents. Her muscles had learned to adapt, resulting in a twisted pelvis, altered gait and tight hip joint.  As Janet learned to release the entire pattern of tightness on her right side (and compensatory tightness on her other side) and improve the function of her muscles, her hip pain abated, and her muscle coordination and balance improved.

Janet wasn't completely out of pain. She has more to learn and practice in order to change her old way of holding her body to a new, more free sense of movement. Her brain's "new normal" will take time to integrate. In addition to a few more clinical sessions I told her to attend every Hanna Somatic Movement class and workshop she possibly could.  Being free and in control of your movement involves life-long learning. I give this same advice to every client I work with. While private clinical sessions are profoundly and rapidly effective, attending only a few sessions is like taking a few piano lessons and expecting to perform like Chopin or Mozart!

People often ask, "why do I need to come to class if I'm doing private sessions and feel much better?" The answer is simple: life is dynamic, as is movement. Every day there is the possibility of change and stress. Classes gives you the opportunity to learn more, differentiate your brain and movement, and become more skillful. Learning to override old habits and takes time! The more you sense and feel as you move, the more you can learn. The more you can learn, the more you can master. The more you master an awareness of yourself, from the inside out, the more adaptable and resilient you will be throughout your life. Eventually efficient movement will become your brain's default mode as you become more self-monitoring, self-correcting, and self-healing. Varying your daily Somatic Movement routine with classes and workshops and fun, functional movement makes your brain smarter and keeps you out of pain.

Click here to find a workshop, class or training near you.

Click here to purchase Martha's Pain Relief videos.

Correct Your Common Posture Problems in 3 Steps

Today, I read a New York Times article about how posture affects one's emotional state, physical health, and self-esteem. The solution that is offered is simply to do strengthening exercises for the back, core, and buttocks. In reality, the answer is not that simple (if it were, back pain and bad posture would be non-existent). What this article fails to address is the root cause of most poor posture. Hanna Somatics provides this missing link information. I recently wrote this blog post about posture and how Hanna Somatics teaches you to improve your posture - or better said, "efficient balance in the center,"  and relieve your back pain for the long-term.

Step 1: Be aware of your habits

The first thing you need to do is to become aware of your current postural, movement, and emotional habits. Do you use a computer, hold a bag or purse on one shoulder or sit for hours at a time? Are you frequently stressed or fearful? Just take note.

Step 2: Learn how your habits create Sensory Motor Amnesia

Your brain controls your muscles, movement, emotional responses, and the way you habituate to the stresses of your life. Sensory Motor Amnesia presents as full-body patterns of muscular tightness. Whatever you do consistently becomes a habit -  your brain's new "normal" - and you lose conscious awareness. This is when slumped posture and back pain arise. This also affects your emotional and psychological state, and self-esteem.

Step 3: Find your optimum posture

This doesn't mean simply standing straight or sitting with your feet planted on the floor. You need to restore your ability to sense and fully control your muscles to contract and relax by first retraining your brain - the control center of your body - through pandiculation and Hanna Somatic Exercises. This is a process of education, the same as learning to ride a bicycle or play the piano. You will learn body and emotional awareness, and learn to release tense muscles, which will help you to create physical comfort from the inside out.

4 Common "Bad" Postures (and their causes):

  • 32Hunched shoulders and tucked pelvis - slumping in seat, frequent computer use, emotional response to worry and fear
  • "Text neck"/Forward neck - tilting head downward to use handheld device or nurse/feed an infant, straining to see computer screen
  • Uneven weight on feet - compensation due to an accident, injury or surgery, holding baby on one hip, one-sided repetitive tasks
  • IMG_1402Forward hip tilt/Arched lower back - common in Type A personalities and active individuals, emotional response to high-stress situations

Try a few Somatic Exercises to help release tight back muscles and improve posture.

6 Somatics Exercises for Pregnancy

Here is a brief "Somatics Journal" from one of my clinical Somatics students who just had her third baby. It is her experience of doing Hanna Somatic Exercises before, during and after her pregnancy and integrating the awareness she gained from it. Enjoy!

I wanted to share my Somatics experience during the delivery of my daughter and during the last few weeks, back at home, exploring ways to avoid unnecessary pains and discomfort in my body.

It is amazing how awareness and connectedness to your body can make the childbirth experience so different.

It wasn’t easier or less painful for me, yet in the moment of truth, when I had to help my baby and push her out, I could actually imagine and picture the muscles in my body. I could see which muscles should work when I needed to push and which muscles should stay relaxed, long and open, in a way that would help me work in the most efficient way. In every contraction I actually did Arch and Curl. Then I completely relaxed my muscles in between the contractions. I felt in control of my body and the entire process. This was much different experience from my other two deliveries. I was part of it, I helped it, I had control!

Back home, there was lots of physical and repetitive stress:

Holding my baby for hours, breastfeeding her in an uncomfortable position that didn't feel good in my body. Holding her in one arm and playing with my other two kids, using the rest of my body, trying to find balance and ease. Challenging!

Thankfully, at the end of the day (well, there isn't really end of the day when you have a baby) when the other kids were asleep, I had my “Hanna Somatics cat stretch” - I had my awareness - just me taking care of my body and reminding it that it could be different. Pandiculating, feeling my muscles, isolating the areas needed to be taken care of, enjoying the movement, allowing my body to flow in such a natural, relaxing way.

It takes me about 15 minutes a day to awaken my muscles, to activate my joints, to find again the way to move freely and remind my brain and my nervous system how my body, my muscles can and should work. Three weeks after having my baby, I was laying on my yoga mat and what I felt was discomfort in my back - a huge arch in my lower back. Both my shoulders were rounded forward and it felt like someone was  pulling them up to my ears and I could not control it. I was looking for that feeling of “melting” into the mat, and just couldn’t feel it.

An easy daily movement routine to regain control of your body:

Arch & Flatten - I start to feel more in control, my movement becomes more fluid, smooth. I feel a wavy movement in my entire spine and can actually feel it and imagine it moving from bottom to top. My neck joins the movement and then the head and chin move as well. My entire body is in that movement and I already have much more control than I had when I started.

The Flower - this is where the front of my body really opens, and the shoulders release down. It BiaELA7BTfeels great because it releases my upper back. I still don’t feel comfortable laying on my belly and doing the Back Lift, so I just do a variation of it while lying on my back. After doing it, I can sense the connection between my upper body and my lower body.

Arch & Curl - I love this one! When releasing the front of the body, on the way down back to the mat, I release so slowly that I feel each vertebra, one by one, as it touches the mat. My elbows open to the sides and I go all the way down until my shoulders and elbows touch the mat. It is a complete release of my upper body when I do it slowly and control each muscle that is part of that movement.

Side Bend  - After holding my baby for only four weeks now, I know I still need to restore balance between the right and left sides of my body. This is the best exercise to restore balance. I do it first with my hand on my hip, just to feel where the movement is and which muscles are working. When doing it with my arm holding my head, I feel the entire side of my body lengthen and open all the way to my armpit.

Steeple Twist - I love connection I feel when I do the Steeple Twist the upper and lower body and sides of my body - when everything moves from the center. I'm like a well-oiled machine.

I do my Somatic Exercises every day. Sometimes I add my own movement variations and allow my body to choose the way it wants to move, in the most natural way. At the end of each practice, I stand up and feel taller, softer; I feel good in my own body, I feel that I have control again.

I thank Hanna Somatics, as well as my Nia movement practice for this. I feel lucky that I’m able to choose awareness and movement as a way of life.

 

The Best Somatic Exercise for Low Back Pain and Neck Pain

A stiff neck is a stiff body.

I've written about neck pain before, and how it is never solely a problem of the neck muscles. The brain and nervous system control our bodies as a system. While it may feel as if there is one muscle - or area of the body - causing the pain, that is rarely ever the case. So it is with "neck pain" and "back pain."

Both neck pain and low back pain are the result of tight muscles in the center of the body. "The neck" is only the top portion of the spine and it moves in conjunction with the rest of the body - the muscles on the top of the shoulders (levator scalpulae, scalenes, and upper trapezius) as well as the strong and deep muscles of the back.

In a case of whiplash from, for example, a car accident, the muscles of the back of the body, which insert from the pelvis up into the occiput of the skull, reflexively and violently contract. This can cause Sensory Motor Amnesia, in which the muscles remain "frozen," unable to release fully. These frozen muscles can contribute to migraines, TMJ, tension headaches, shoulder pain and back pain. Because nothing in the body moves or functions in isolation it's important to release the full pattern of tight muscles in order to reverse your muscle pain and restore full muscle function.

Try this gentle, easy Somatic Exercise for neck pain and back pain relief:

This movement - the Back Lift - is effective for anyone suffering from neck problems - or for office workers, technical people, engineers, teachers who stand all day or anyone who sits, stands, walks, runs or drives:

Lie on your stomach, head turned to one side. The palm is on the floor with the elbow directly in line with the shoulder.  Place your opposite cheek and the fingertips of the hand together. Make sure you're comfortable, with enough room for your shoulder to relax.

Slowly lift just the elbow several inches off the floor. Notice the contraction in the upper, middle and lower parts of the shoulder. Repeat 3 times, lowering the elbow slowly. Notice the quality of movement. Is it bumpy? Shaky? If so, slow down and smooth it out.

Slowly lift your head and notice how far down the left side of your back you can you feel the contraction. This is what a baby does at 5 months; it's a deliberate contraction of the back of the body in order to begin the eventual process of crawling, then walking. It's called the "Landau Response." Repeat two times slowly. Completely relax.

Keeping the hand and the cheek together, inhale and float the elbow, cheek, head and hand up several inches. The right arm relaxes on the floor. Notice the strong contraction down the left side of your back. This movement comes from the back of the body, not just from the top of the shoulder. Your neck muscles shouldn't be doing all the work! Did you notice something happening on the right side of your body? Your right leg wants to lift! This is an involuntary contraction. Repeat slowly two times. Completely relax between each repetition.

Lift the opposite leg slowly. Notice how the upper body contracts slightly to help counterbalance the upper body. This is what we do when we walk. Repeat two times, completely relaxing between each repetition.

Now let's put it all together: slowly lift elbow, cheek, head, hand and the opposite leg - as if you want to look over the left shoulder. Only come up as far as is comfortable. It's the back that is working to lift you. Now slowly come back down. The slow lengthening is when your brain has the most potential to change what the muscles are doing. During this phase the brain can restore the full length of the muscle. Completely  relax and melt into the floor.

Repeat this 3-4 times slowly, lifting only as far as is comfortable. Notice how the front of your body lengthens to allow you to contract the back of the body! The neck is coordinating along with the back and shoulders in an efficient, easy and natural movement.  The only goal of this movement is to teach your brain to restore awareness and motor control of your back muscles - so you can tighten them when you need them, and relax them when they're no longer needed for action.

IMPORTANT: After doing this Somatic Exercise, follow with Arch and Flatten. Then take a minute to relax completely. Let your brain soak up the sensory feedback. You are changing your nervous system by doing this movement; this is how your brain begins to make changes in your muscles.

For more helpful Somatic Exercises, visit the Essential Somatics® store to check out our instructional DVDs.

Activation Exercises For Improved Athletic Performance - Part 1 - Strength Training

A lot of athletes have asked me for a daily routine of Somatic Exercises to serve as "activation exercises." Activation exercises are a short series of exercises that will prepare you to move well.

Hanna Somatic Exercises are activation exercises as well as "deactivation exercises."

A large component of strength is full muscle control. Traditional athletic training teaches us how to "activate" (or contract) our muscles. But there is very little emphasis on learning to "deactivate" (or relax) our muscles back to their original and optimum resting length. Hanna Somatic Exercises teach you to pandiculate, which allows you to fully contract, and then de-contract your muscles for more potential for strength. Pandiculation is the safer, more effective alternative to stretching.

A word before you begin:

These movements are movement patterns - not "exercises" as such. No stretching is required - just slow, yawn-like pandiculations. Please do not "do" these movements; "create" these movements through use of the breath, as you move slowly, with conscious attention to the quality of the movement. You can't sense quality if you're moving quickly! And your ability to do ballistic movement depends on your control and quality of movement. If you want to go fast, first go slow so you know what you're doing.

The point of Somatic Exercises is to to eliminate accumulated muscle tension before you begin training and then reduce any accumulated muscle tension after your training. Accumulated tension occurs due to over-training, injuries, accidents, poor postural habits and the stresses of daily life.  Address the muscular system at the level of the brain and nervous system, and you quickly restore full muscle length and function and relearn optimal movement patterns.

Here are a few Somatic Exercises that will ready your entire body in the same way a cat or dog readies itself for action every time it gets up off the floor. We have all seen cats and dogs pandiculate when they get up from rest. They do that reflexively. If they didn't pandiculate, they would lose the ability to move as swiftly and adeptly as they do.

As you move through these Somatic Exercises treat them as the preparation for movement that they are; there's no need to go quickly, there's no need to tick repetitions off your mental clipboard. Treat them like the lengthening yawn that they are. Put your focus on the patterns that you're moving through. Stop for just a few seconds between repetitions as well as each individual movement pattern in order to allow your brain to absorb the sensory feedback you are sending it. This momentary pause will integrate new proprioceptive awareness once you stand up again and begin working out.

Please note: It is assumed that the reader has a basic understanding of Somatic Movements. The best way to use Somatic Exercises to support your workout is to learn as much as you can. Consider having a longer morning routine in which you pandiculate the extensors, flexors and trunk rotators. Then, when you get to the gym, three short, slow Somatic Exercises will suffice to sufficiently "reboot" your somatic awareness and muscle control for full recruitment of the muscles needed for your workout and full relaxation when you're finished.

Try the Somatic  Exercises in this video. They are basic human movements necessary to all sports: extension, flexion and cross lateral movement. You can apply them to any sport:

  • Arch and Flatten - extension and flexion - and a return to and awareness of neutral
  • Back Lift - extension of the spine through the posterior diagonal line
  • Cross Lateral Arch and Curl - flexion of the spine through the anterior diagonal line

Thanks to Colm McDonnell of ClinicalSomatics.ie for his collaboration on this post.

How To Reverse Iliotibial Band Pain: Addressing the Trauma Reflex

I've written about Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS) before. In my previous iliotibial band pain post I explain what it is as well as how this condition is yet another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia. Here is an email I just sent to a woman who has my DVDs, has a personal Somatics practice, yet is stumped by her IT band pain: Many people ask me if I have Somatics DVDs for specific body parts that are causing them pain. I tell everyone the same thing - which will be the focus of my upcoming book:

It is never just one muscle causing the pain or problems in your body. It is always a pattern. The brain organizes you as a system in which patterns are primary. Address the dysfunctional muscular pattern and that body part will cease to be painful. In the case of iliotibial band pain, it is the Trauma Reflex.

An habituated Trauma Reflex causes iliotibial band pain.

Pain in your iliotibial band develops because your brain and muscles have habituated to human-body-muscle-diagramthe Trauma Reflex. One side of your leg (the IT band) is working harder than the other side. You may have already seen my iliotibial band release on my YouTube channel. You'll notice that it's a variation of the Side Bend - the most important and powerful movement one can do to regain control and awareness of the waist muscles.

When the waist muscles are tighter on one side than the other, those muscles "hitch" the pelvis up slightly on one side. What happens then? Your brain, the great compensator and integrator of all sensory and motor feedback in your life, teaches your legs to work differently, one side to the other. This happens, in most cases, completely under your conscious awareness.

If you have bilateral IT band pain, you may be stuck in the Startle Reflex (red light reflex). The Startle (red light) Reflex, a full body pattern, causes your knees to bend slightly  which makes it impossible for your pelvis and legs to swing freely.

Look at the full body pattern, learn to reverse that and your iliotibial band pain will go away. Use the mirror: what do you look like side to side? Are you uneven? Do you walk in an uneven gait? Do you put more weight on leg than the other? Consider what you do during the day that may cause that to happen.

Go back to the basic Somatic Exercises on your DVDs and start from the beginning. Look for balance, symmetry, quality of movement, and the ability to move the same on one side of your body and the other. Be mindful of patterns, especially when you get to the Side Bend, Washrag, Steeple Twist and Walking Exercises. Take your time! As you get to the walking exercises you have a great opportunity to even out the pelvis and the movement of the legs. And remember that nothing you do in your practice makes any difference if you don't take that awareness and apply it to the way you move throughout your day - walking, sitting, holding a bag on your shoulder, working out, driving...

This is sensible information that needs repeating again and again and again. This woman is not alone in her frustration. After all, most people are not taught sensible information by our doctors, our physical therapists, our fitness trainers.  We aren't taught that our brains are the source of the problem and that we are the only ones who can re-educate the way our brains and muscles communicate. We are taught to see ourselves as separately moving parts, like a car or bicycle, when in fact we are a beautifully balanced, synergistic process that can only be experience from within.

Once you can walk smoothly and evenly, squat right down through the center (use a mirror!), hitch your hips up side to side smoothly and evenly, you know your iliotibial band pain will be gone for good!

 

A Somatic Solution To Chronic Psoas Pain

Mike was a week away from leaving on a 5-week trip to Italy with his wife. He came to me quite concerned about his ability to walk without limping and dragging his right leg along behind him. "I was told that it's a problem with my psoas. Can you fix my psoas?" he asked. Every time I teach a Hanna Somatic Exercise Coach training I am asked the same two questions by bodyworkers, yoga teachers and medical professionals:

  • What do you do about a tight psoas?
  • What role does the psoas have in chronic pain?

I'm always curious about the obsession with the psoas, as if that one muscle controls the entire body. My answer is always the same:

It's never just one muscle causing the problem.

While one might sense that the psoas is the main problem and must be "fixed," it is never one muscle causing the problem. The brain doesn't experience you as one muscle, but as a synergistic system of coordinating muscles. There is always a full body pattern of muscular imbalance going on in the center of the body. This pattern has become habituated due to stress reflexes - accidents, injuries, repetitive movements or poor postural habits - so much so that this pattern has become "the new normal" for the brain. The painful psoas is the symptom; Sensory Motor Amnesia is the root cause.

The psoas is a very important stabilizer of the lower trunk and aids in smooth, efficient and coordinated walking. It coordinatesPsoasBackPull together, however, with other muscles of the trunk to move us forward in an easy, smooth gait. The psoas muscle can become tight and overly contracted as a result of habituation to any one of the Three Somatic Reflexes - the Red Light, Green Light or Trauma reflex. When our backs are overly contracted, the front of our bodies are slumped and collapsed inward, or one side of our torso tighter than the other, the psoas will work harder than necessary. Our pelvis will cease to swing freely and our gait will be labored and uneven. A chronically tight muscle that can no longer contract fully or release fully will and does contribute to chronic pain.

So what do you do about it?

In order to restore full muscle function and relieve the pain of a tight psoas you need to address the pattern of habituated muscle tension that is at the root of the problem. You must learn to release muscles of the back (that extend the spine), waist (that twist and bend us), and abdominals (that flex the spine) so that you have full, voluntary movement of the pelvis and all the muscles that control it.  This is precisely what Hanna Somatics teaches clients in both a clinical hands-on  session and when doing the Somatic Exercises.

Mike was taught to release his back muscles, which had become rigidly contracted due to years of carpentry and various construction accidents. In doing so he learned to regain balance in the center of his body. I taught him Arch and Flatten, Arch and Curl, the Back Lift , movements that helped the brain regain control of the back and front of the body. The he learned the Washrag, which released and lengthened the waist muscles for easier and more balanced twisting of the center. With the back muscles as well as the front and sides of his body a bit softer Mike could stand more easily on both legs. His walk became smooth and effortless and his pelvis moved when he walked. He experienced how his psoas wasn't his problem. His tight back muscles were!

"How does your psoas feel now?" I asked him. "Wow, I can't even feel it!" he replied. "I can't wait to get Italy and start walking."

 ***Most people benefit from a series of between four and six hands-0n sessions. The loss of voluntary muscle control takes place over time; therefore people need to take time to learn how to move well again. As I say to all my clients, "Rome wasn't built in a day..."

Somatic Exercises Make Freedom of Movement Possible

Hanna Somatic Exercises are powerful in their ability to change what your brain can sense in your body and how it can move your muscles. What your brain cannot feel it cannot, physiologically, move nor control. Over time, due to stress adaptation, we can become tighter and more rigid - in our movement, our bodies and our minds.

Somatic Exercises can change how we live our lives, how we believe that our minds and bodies interrelate, how powerful we think we are in controlling our lives, and how responsible we should be in taking care of our total being.

- Thomas Hanna, PhD, author of the book, Somatics

I recently taught three online video classes over three weeks to a client who suffered from chronic neck, shoulder, hip joint, low back pain and sense of being twisted in the center. She had read my book and was sure that her muscle pain was a case of Sensory Motor Amnesia rather than a chronic, unchangeable condition. I taught her seven basic Somatic Exercises and two "Standing Somatics" movements.

During our initial assessment I took several photos of her. When we assess we look for patterns of imbalance - the back overly arched, one side of the waist more hitched up than the other, shoulders slumped forward and chest collapsed. The photo below was taken before we started the first lesson. Note the line of her back and spine; it was being held tightly (by the brain) in an  exaggerated curve, like an archer's bow. This Green Light Reflex posture made it look as if she had a protruding belly. Her neck was thrust forward and the weight of her body was on the front of her feet. No wonder she had neck and shoulder pain! To her this was her "normal, neutral" posture.

Profile before lesson 1

Below is the photo taken before her third lesson. She had been doing Somatic Exercises on her own at home, for only three weeks! Notice how much less arched her back; her "protruding belly" had disappeared. Her weight was more evenly distributed over her feet and she had slowly, but surely found a new, more efficient and comfortable neutral. Her uncomfortable twist had gone away as well. She even looked happier! Her biggest "aha! moment" had been when she noticed how she arched her back and thrust her face forward as she sat at her computer. That moment of noticing caused her to stop, self-correct and adjust and take back voluntary control of her movement and posture. The process of learning to be self-aware, self-monitoring and self-correcting is a life long process.

After 2 lesson & 3 wks of practice

So which exercises did she learn? We started where everyone should start: the beginning:

  • Arch and Flatten
  • Flower
  • Arch and Curl
  • Back Lift
  • Cross Lateral Arch and Curl
  • Side Bend (for that sense of being twisted and out of balance)
  • Washrag (gentle spinal twisting that lengthens the waist as you twist the whole spine)
  • Walking Exercises, Part 1 and 2 (which integrates the movement of the back, waist and front into the pattern of walking)
  • Reach To The Top Shelf
  • Standing Arch and Curl

She learned to sense the movements by doing them slowly, with awareness, rather than doing them like rote exercises from the gym. The more she focused on the sensation of the movement and the slow controlled release of pandiculation, the more change and improvement she was able to make.

When we consciously and patiently turn our awareness within, to our internal sensations, we can learn to release often mysterious and long term muscle pain. The best time to start learning to move freely is right now.  Freedom of movement can enrich and improve not just your body, but you as a person.

Learn to skillfully teach Hanna Somatic Exercises in the Hanna Somatic Exercise Coach Training Level One. Join the many movement professionals who have discovered the benefits of incorporating Hanna Somatic Exercises into their primary teaching.

The Mystery of "Muscle Knots" Solved: Sensory Motor Amnesia

There is some confusion as to what "muscle knots" are and where they come from. This article from the New York Times posits: "How do they happen and how can they be prevented? Are they harmful and should they be treated?" Allow me to answer these questions in the simplest way possible:

"Muscle knots" are not mysterious; they are areas of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA)

Sensory Motor Amnesia is habituated muscle tension that develops when we become habituated to stress and/or certain ways of moving. These areas of accumulated, learned muscular tension are stuck at the level of the central nervous system and cannot, physiologically, release and relax.

If you've ever had back, neck or shoulder pain and gone to a massage therapist to work the knots out of your back, only to have the knots return, it seems that there is little that can be done. Not so. The reason these knots seem to stick around despite the best massage therapist's effort, and why they don't show up on scans and MRIs is because what is happening in the muscle is a neurological event in the brain - a functional problem of the sensory motor system. SMA is not a medical problem that can be diagnosed through conventional medical methods. It is a functional  problem of the sensory motor system that can be easily "unlearned" through Hanna Somatic Education.brain-side

Muscle knots can be prevented first and foremost by understanding how SMA develops in your brain due to repetitive stress responses and/or repetitive, habituated movement habits. Muscles have two functions: contract and relax. When muscles can no longer fully relax this is an indication that you have accumulated muscle tension that you are no longer fully aware of. The only way to fully release these "knots" is to make sure that the brain is fully in control of the muscles.

Muscles knots are only harmful when they get in the way of free, efficient movement.

Movement is medicine, movement is life, and painful muscle tension can cause you to move less efficiently and, for most people, minimize the amount of movement you do. In order to live a healthy, free life we need to be able to move strongly, vigorously, and with endurance for as long as we live. If you're not planning on moving a lot then muscle knots won't hurt you. The lack of movement will, however.

Treatment of tight muscles doesn't work. Reeducation of tight muscles does.

If you want to untie a knot, you must look at the cord carefully then gently undo the tangle. Yanking on the cord will only make the knot tighter.

- Thomas Hanna

Muscle knots can't really be "treated" successfully - for the long term.  Treatment is what bodyworkers and doctors do when they attempt to fix tight muscles (or postural imbalances) from the outside; there are therapists who can help provide short term relief, yet muscle tension Pandiculation demonstrated (1)develops from the inside out (Sensory Motor Amnesia) and, since humans are self-regulating, self-sensing beings, not cars or bicycles that need fixing, their muscles must be educated so they can contract and release fully in order to get rid of muscle knots.

Through active involvement of the brain - rather than through manual manipulation - people can more easily and safely learn to  eliminate muscle knots, restore full muscle function in all planes of gravity and prevent them from coming back by doing three simple things:

  • Become aware of your daily movement habits and reflexive responses to stress. Repetitive contraction of muscles without full relaxation creates muscle knots.
  • Learn to pandiculate instead of stretch. Animals pandiculate up to 40 times a day!
  • If you have chronic muscle tension, learn how to eliminate your patterns of Sensory Motor Amnesia with a daily routine of Somatic Exercises**

Muscle knots are not an inevitable part of life; they are a symptom of stress adaptation.

**You can also learn to eliminate your patterns of SMA through a series of hands-on clinical Somatics sessions with a skilled and certified practitioner.

Why We Have Low Back Pain

In this NPR story about back pain, some old myths about back pain persist - the biggest one is that strong abdominals will help relieve back pain. I understand the opinion that the shape of one's spine (a "J" spine, as compared to an "S" spine) may be why some indigenous cultures don't have back pain, but too much is missing from this discussion.

Back pain is a functional adaptation to stress caused by chronically contracted muscles that will not release.

The answer to back pain is simpler than people realize: for the majority of back pain sufferers, back pain slowly develops over time due to what they do repeatedly in their daily life. Whatever you do consistently becomes a habit in your central nervous system, brain, muscles and movement. The inability to sense what you are doing and why - and choose to change it in the moment - results in a  loss of control over one's muscles, movement, and for many suffering from pain, their lives. Efficient, easy, effortless movement and personal freedom go by the wayside.

Thomas Hanna, Ph.D, author of the book, Somaticsputs it this way:

....the almost epidemic prevalence of pain in the lower back is not specifically a medical problem. that is, it is not a condition of break down of some kind, a disease process...it is actually something that is in some sense a kind of psychological, or emotional process. The prevalence of back pain has everything to do with the kind of lives that we live and the kind of society in which we live. Now if I were to try and put a finger on the most general pathology of urban industrial society...I would say that the pathology is that of proprioceptive illiteracy. Most human beings grow up losing the ability to perceive internal events in their own bodies.

He describes the Green Light Reflex (the Landau Response), a reflex that is invoked automatically every time there is a "call to action - " an urgent  Tanzanian-Trip-3-474deadline, or the need to rush to get somewhere. The brain contracts the  muscles of the back to move the body forward. Reflexes are neutral, helpful and often life-saving. Yet if you live in a society where this reflex is evoked thousands of times a day your brain gradually habituates to the reflex to the point where you can no longer - voluntarily - relax, nor control your back muscles. The back muscles (as well as gluteal muscles, hamstrings, shoulder muscles) can become rigidly and painfully contracted.

Indigenous people have different stresses from those in industrialized western culture, but what they have to a greater extent than us is movement. They move more than they sit; they move slowly, they differentiate their movement, they squat, and, as they walk, their pelvises move. Their pace of life is slower. It is not a "are we there yet?" culture.

Try this somatic exercise for relief of your back pain.

If a group of indigenous people were to sit in front of a computer for 40+ hours a week, drive cars in rush hour traffic, drastically reduce their movement (except the occasional workout), or be subjected to technology that demand constant attention, they would likely develop back pain. It is their environment, their lifestyle, and their attitude toward life (rather than their spines) have more to do with why they suffer less from back pain than most western societies.

We adapt to our environment for better or worse. If you want the perks that come with our stressful western industrialized society you would do well to incorporate the wisdom of movement and awareness of indigenous cultures.

How To Move Vigorously Without Stiffness and Pain - Hanna Somatics For Hiking

In the course of a typical training day in Clinical Somatic Education we have a full 60 minute somatic movement class followed by hIMG_4994ands-on pandiculation work and clinical practice, and more somatic movement exploration geared towards what we will teach our clients. Hanna Somatic Exercises, part of any Clinical Somatics session, are true "restorative exercises" that involve pandiculation rather than stretching. A hands-on, assisted pandiculation (the main clinical method used in Hanna Somatics) confers a deep release of muscles as well as renewed sensory and motor control. It sends strong feedback to the sensory motor cortex in order to "reboot" voluntary control of formerly restricted movement. The end result is that you are able to recruit and activate the muscles you need for a given action, rather than those you don't need.

Pandiculation and Somatic Exercises takes the brakes off your movement so you can move efficiently and freely in any given activity.

A recent training module in Norway lasted 10 full days. On a day off halfway through, we visited one of Norway's most spectacular natural landmarks: the Preikestolen, an extraordinary 604 meter cliff overlooking the Lysefjorden. The guide book said that the 2.4 mile would take two hours.

The path was rocky and steep, with giant rock steps and occasional boulders, as well as stretches of beautiful wooden walkways. We reached the top in 90 minutes, a full half hour faster than expected. After a simple lunch on a solitary outcropping of rock we literally skipped down the mountain, rock to rock, jumping and zig-zagging (and yes, walking when necessary). Our desire to skip, jog and dance down the mountain occurred spontaneously. It was something I recall doing as a teenager climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Rather than my knees and hips aching when I reached the bottom, my knees felt perfectly fine, strong and solid. My hips felt loose and relaxed.

The next day when we resumed class we discussed our hiking IMG_4979experience. None of us has daily access to a mountain like the Preikestolen or this kind of vigorous training on a daily basis, so we were elated, yet not surprised to discover that not a one of us was sore. Our hips, back, knees and feet felt great. Why was it that we could do such a strenuous hike and feel strong and exhilarated rather than sore and stiff the next day?

Somatic Exercises and pandiculation prepares you to move well.

The answer lies in what Somatic Exercises and pandiculation confer: brain control of muscles, efficient movement and optimum coordination. Yes, they also teach you how to relieve chronic muscle pain for the long term, yet that only occurs once you regain voluntary control of your muscles. 

If you want to be able to move vigorously in any given sport or activity - whether hiking, weight lifting, cycling, walking the dog, running, climbing stairs, or carrying your own groceries - you can do it without pain and residual soreness when you do Somatic Exercises. You may have discomfort while moving vigorously (muscles that are being taxed can feel uncomfortable when they're finally being used and stressed), but that's not the same thing as pain. Regaining freedom of movement and staying in control of your body and movement despite the stresses of your daily life is a learned skill that you can learn no matter your age. I can't wait for my next hike!

Click here for information about the Myth of Aging retreat at Hollyhock August 19 - 22, 2015.

Click here for information about the Myth of Aging Somatics and Yoga retreat in Bali in October, 2015. A full week of Somatic Movement, outdoor activities, Yoga and meditation.

2-Day Move Without Pain Somatics Workshop - York, UK

I get many emails from people asking me when I'll be teaching classes or workshops in their area.  They want personalized help with their exercises and daily routine. They've purchased my book or DVDs and would like to have me see if they're doing the exercises correctly. The best way to get that help is in person. I'm usually busy teaching clinical trainings or Somatic Exercise Coach trainings, but now, for those of  you who want to learn directly from me, ask me questions and be assessed in person...here's your chance!

Learn to move freely, efficiently and intelligently  - a 2-day Somatics workshop for the general public

Experience two days of movement classes with me, Martha Peterson, author of Move Without Pain, and Certified Hanna Somatic Educator. I will teach you the most importantIMG_2442 basic Somatic Exercises - and more - from Thomas Hanna's "Myth of Aging" series. You will enjoy a comprehensive experience of Somatic Movement, pandiculation, and how to apply the improvements you experience in your body to your daily life. There will be group discussion, and plenty of time for questions and answers about Hanna Somatics and how to address your particular muscle pain condition.

If you've been working with the Somatic Exercises and would like individualized attention from me, come learn to deepen your Somatics practice. If you've "tried everything" for your back, neck, shoulder or hip pain, and have only experienced short term relief, come learn a new perspective on movement and muscle pain and begin building your Somatics practice.

Participants will learn:

  • How to recognize the three stress reflexes (red light, green light, trauma) in yourself and others.
  • How muscles become habitually tight and painful and contribute to recurring injury, poor posture and inefficient movement.
  • How your movement habits and reflexive responses to stress contribute to conditions such as low back pain, neck, shoulder, hip and joint pain, sciatica, and chroP1020371nic headaches.
  • How to release tight, painful muscles safely without stretching.
  • A daily routine of easy, safe and profoundly effective movements that, when practiced daily restore muscle control and awareness and eliminate chronic muscle pain.

Each participant will receive an audio practice CD and a DVD of the basic Somatic Exercises which you will learn in the workshop.

Click here to read a full workshop description or to register.

This workshop is of special interest to anyone struggling with chronic functional muscle pain: back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee or foot pain - or limited movement. The workshop is appropriate for people of all ages and fitness levels. No previous experience of Somatic Exercises is necessary.

Somatics and ALS: What Is Freedom, Really?

A first-year clinical student was approached by a woman with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), requesting that my student work with her so she can retain her movement. This woman shares that her family pressures her to do physical therapy and occupational therapy treatments, yet her experience is that all the yanking and stretching they do with her only leaves her exhausted, tight, and in pain. She wants something different, something more gentle and more gradual. My student guides her through gentle movements - some passive, some active - encouraging her to do what she is able and to move in a way that gives her pleasure: small movements of the neck or shoulders, gentle flexion and extension of the feet and legs. There's not much movement, yet the client, who can no longer speak due to her condition, writes out that she feels better. She wants to return for more.

What is she seeking?  She wants to feel herself until she can no longer feel. She wants to control what she can control until it is gone. She wants to sense freedom until she has lost it. To feel herself and to sense herself through movement is the purest form of freedom a Soma has and she is doing all she can until it is taken away from her. Her mental attitude bespeaks an intention that is extraordinary and her commitment to herself is one I don’t often see, even in those who have the ability to control their movement and choose what they want to do.

Most of us are fortunate to have a choice about how we want to live, move, and express ourselves. Many think that they don't have a choice, or that it's "too complicated" to make the choice that would bring health, happiness, and an inner sense of well-being. My student's client gives me pause to consider how precious it is just to sense my own body.

Back Pain After Gardening?

I want to share the following article by Karyn Clark, one of my clinical students from the UK. For all you gardeners out there who are gearing up for the summer season, read this! It will give you some pointers about how to recuperate from a day of wonderful, yet repetitive gardening.

 

11160009_870839839648700_6727914488985578643_nThe author, pandiculating in her garden.

It struck me whilst out gardening over the weekend how many people like me jump at the chance of a nice sunny day to get out into the garden and cram in as much as possible before the rain comes or it’s time to go back to work. We pull, we dig, we shovel, we hit.

For many, we do more physical activity in those 4-6 hours than we have done since the last time we were out in the garden. People spend a lot of time reaching, bending and reaching, stretching up and reaching, pushing their bodies that little bit further to get to that last branch or weed at the back of the flower bed. They dig and plant, bend and pull. All in all, they spend the majority of the day with their back in an over-stretched forward flexion position. Then it happens...the stiffness, the tightening, the inability to move any further because of the back pain. For most it’s that deep aching across the low back. For others it's more intense radiating further into the buttocks or down the legs.

So what do we do? We hobble back into the house, chuck our clothes in a heap and sink into a nice hot bath. "Ahhhhhh," it feels so good! The pain is easier; we relax, as do the muscles, deeply.After a good half an hour we get out. Our poor relaxed muscles are required once again to jump to it and do their job, stabilizing and moving the joints of the body. As we get dried and dressed we sadly realize that the stiffness and pain is actually still there.“STRETCH” we think “I need to stretch!" NOW STOP! Lets go back over this:You’ve spent all day stretching, bending, reaching, attempting to contort yourself into positions that Iyengar would be proud of. Is stretching really the answer? I’m afraid not.

The science of stretching versus pandiculation

So you’ve been stretching inadvertently all day, evoking the "stretch reflex," also called the myotatic reflex. It is a pre-programmed response by the body to a stretch stimulus in the muscle. When a muscle spindle is stretched an impulse is immediately sent to the spinal cord and a response to contract the muscle is received. This reflex protects muscles from tearing.

By stretching further we continue to evoke and deepen the stretch reflex, yet many people when in pain are so desperate to alleviate it they continue to just push it that bit further in a vain attempt to release the pain. The best idea is to  stop stretching and try something different: pandiculation.

If the muscle is contracted and stuck in that pattern of contraction we need to reset the brain; after all it is the brain and the nervous system that controls the muscles, so lets start with that. We need to re-set something called the Alpha Gamma feedback loop, also known as Alpha Gamma Co-activation. This feedback loop ensures optimum functioning of the muscle's length from contraction all the way to relaxation.

A muscle starts at a certain length. When the muscle is stretched, the muscle spindle stretches and the fibres fire more strongly. When the muscle is released from the stretch and contracts, the muscle spindle becomes slack, causing the fibres to fall silent. The muscle spindle is rendered insensitive to further stretches of muscle. To restore sensitivity, gamma motor neurons fire and cause the spindle to contract, thereby becoming taut and able to signal the muscle length again.

When we pandiculate we start by tightening into the contracted pattern that the muscle is involuntarily stuck in and then lengthening out of it in order to retrain the muscle to relax. This re-sets the Alpha-Gamma Co-Activation loop. To pandiculate means to "yawn." When we yawn we contract and then slowly release, thus relaxing the muscle. Animals pandiculate, babies pandiculate, many adults pandiculate upon waking.

So the next time you’re gardening, firstly be kind to yourself, take regular breaks, lay down and pandiculate throughout day to help prevent the back from going into spasm. And if it it does, don’t stretch!

When your back starts to ache, lie down (like Karyn in the photo at top) and do the basic somatic movement called Arch and Flatten. This simple Somatic Exercise will teach your back muscles to release and relax. You can do it on the lawn in the middle of your gardening day. Allow the movement to flow with your breath and make sure it feels good. Arch and Flatten just may become your best friend!

My Daily Somatics Hip Pain Relief Routine

In my last labral tear update I wrote that an habituated Trauma Reflex is always a part of the posture of someone with a labral tear. Whether you get surgery for your tear or not it is critically important to regain full muscle function of the muscles of the somatic center if you're ever going to move efficiently again.

My daily pain relief tips for hip pain

Pandiculation - first thing in the morning! I never get out of bed without pandiculating. I wake IMG_3791up and take a few minutes to yawn out my arms and legs - my own natural version of the Human X - "hike" my hips up and down, and twist the center of my body, letting my head and neck move with the movement (like the Washrag).

A daily Somatics routine of between 10 - 15 minutes, morning and evening.

  • Arch and Flatten - sometimes moving into the Flower (especially if I've done a lot of computer work that day).
  • Cross Lateral Arch and Curl
  • Back Lift
  • Arch and Curl with psoas release
  • Side Bend - I prefer the "arm sweep variation"
  • Washrag (or Steeple Twist)
  • Walking Exercises

A varied routine, with movements such as:

  • Hip Lift and Reach
  • Propeller
  • Arch and Curl with Psoas Release (find it here on Laura Gates' DVD)
  • Arch and Flatten with Cactus Arms
  • Side lying shoulder and hip circles (relaxed shoulders help release the hips)
  • Seated Somatics
  • Standing Somatics (from my book)

Pandiculate often during the day! I make movements up: rolling my hips, shoulders, squatting, Screen shot 2013-09-23 at 4.14.33 PMreaching my arms up, twisting our my center, swinging my arms, bending to the side.

Stand up frequently if you're doing desk work. I stand up frequently and do "Reach to the Top Shelf," sometimes 15 times a day!

Sun Salutation - done very slowly and somatically. I take all the time I need to sense the flow of the movement without stretching or holding stretches. I do about 3 rounds 3-4 times a week.

Walking, walking and walking.  Walking integrates my movement and allows me to coordinate the whole body. Walking is, after all, the most important movement any human being needs to be able to do easily and efficiently.

Stair climbing or hill walking. Incorporating stairs or a hill allows me to strengthen and coordinate my hips, back, legs and waist within a functional movement. I can really tell what's out of balance when I go up and down stairs. It gives me a chance to go back, notice what's not moving as freely and see how I can tweak it.

In my next post I'll share with you movements that don't feel good for me considering that I have a labral tear. They might feel good to those with no structural hip issues, but not for me! So I honor what my body has to tell me and stay away from them. There are so many movement choices, why stick with something that doesn't feel good?