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.

Why Do I Have Neck Pain?

Why can't I turn my neck without pain? Why is it hard to turn around to look behind me?

How do I relieve my neck pain so I can easily twist and turn?

Learning to turn to look behind you is a learned movement skill. It involves all the muscles of the body that allow the hips, abdominals, neck and shoulders to aid in the movement of the head and neck. Owls can turn their heads almost 360º without involving the center of their bodies.

As hunters gatherers we evolved to differentiate the movement of the eyes from the head from the neck and trunk in order to be aware of our surroundings. In today's modern society we no longer need to be able to do this. We don't hunt for our food, nor do we need to be on the lookout for predators who would like to have us for dinner. We do, however, spend most of our time facing forward as we stare at computer screens, TVs, iPads or drive in traffic. This creates tight muscles not only in the neck and shoulders, but more importantly in the center of the body. Here's a perfect example of how modern technology is actively encouraging us to develop Sensory Motor Amnesia, that condition of chronically contracted muscles that can no longer let go, nor function fully:

IMG_5855

I decided not to get one of these back-up cameras in my car so that I would not lose my awareness and forget how to turn around while reversing. While these devices can be handy, it's best to maintain the quintessential skill of all humans: the ability to twist and turn, like this:

IMG_5856

If you don't turn to look around behind you you will lose that skill altogether.

As Thomas Hanna said, "A stiff neck is a stiff body." Neck and shoulder pain result more from tight back, waist and abdominal muscles in the center of the body than from an actual problem with the neck itself. The brain and nervous system, the control center of the muscles, has forgotten how to coordinate the natural movement of twisting, which is at the core of smooth walking and running.

Learn how to release tight, painful necks and shoulders with the Essential Somatics® Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD

 

How To Improve Posture & Reverse Your Back Pain

There are "posture experts" everywhere that teach you to how to stand: bones in alignment, body parts stacked just so. Many yoga teachers stress alignment more than they do somatic awareness and proprioception. Because most people have Sensory Motor Amnesia and don't know it, it's even more important to understand how our brains control our muscular system as a whole and how stress reflexes create a distorted internal sense of how our body is connected, how our joints move and what it feels like to stand squarely on our feet. One of the worst pieces of advice people are given is to "stand up straight!" One of the least helpful opinions about "why" people have poor posture and back pain is "the back muscles are weak." I am a former professional dancer and many of my teachers had intractable back pain (and retired early) while having extremely strong back muscles.

When I ask people to stand up - and sit up - to what they think is "straight," they typically arch their lower back in an effort to pull the shoulders back and open the chest. I see this in yoga class as well. This posture - a strongly arched lower back and tight shoulders - is called the Green Light Reflex (or Landau Response) and it is a major cause of chronic low back pain.

Life is dynamic - so are you without back pain

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A healthy body is one that can adapt and adjust to whatever feedback comes in through the environment, yet can find its way back to balance and relaxation. Yes, life is dynamic, as is efficient, functional posture. Just like the ladies in the photo at right, balancing life and balancing books requires the ability to find center naturally as you move.

Many people work really hard to "get the right posture" not realizing that they're actually tightening and bracing certain muscles in an effort to attain it. Again, this contributes to back pain as well as neck pain, shoulder pain and hip pain. What would it feel like if you learned to let go of muscles that are unconsciously tight and tense in order to find your "perfect posture?"

Achieving good posture is about learning to relax muscles that aren't crucial to holding you up, while allowing the muscles that need to work to coordinate together in perfect balance and ease.

Good Health Doesn't Just Happen

One of my colleagues recently wrote me an uplifting email. I thought I'd share it with you.

I had a doctor's appointment last week, complete with blood work (which I have done every 6 months). My lab stats were even better than they were last time - and last time my doctor said they were "perfect!" So despite my perfect stats, the stats just keep on getting better and better.  I had another doctor appointment yesterday, and told her about the stats from my last visit. She looked them up and she commented that "good health like that doesn't just happen."I feel I am living proof of the unlimited potential to improve all aspects of our health - not just relief of aches and pains - as we continue to strengthen sensory motor awareness.  I'm wondering who out there who has a daily practice of Hanna Somatic is experiencing the same benefits?

Improving one's sensory motor awareness - the sense of what it feels like to be "you" as you live and respond in your life - has myriad benefits: reduction of muscular pain, improved brain to muscle control, improved joint stability and strength, and increased neural pathways in the brain due to movement differentiation and pandiculation. A body that is under the voluntary control of one's brain is a body whose autonomic nervous system is also more likely to function optimally.

As a Hanna Somatic Educator and trainer my goal is to teach people to move through life pain-free, with choice, mastery and joy. It can be done.

Somatics in Calgary, AB

Debra Denison can stand and move for 30 minutes at a time after two years of intense chronic pain left her on crutches. Sue French is back to running after barely being able to walk for months due to severe back and hip pain.

Jude Ewan can finally move and control her arm after suffering a stroke that left her entire right side nearly paralyzed six years ago.

All three believe they have reclaimed their bodies and their lives because of simple exercises called Hanna Somatics.

I attended a Hanna Somatics training in Calgary this past summer. For the first time ever there were medical professionals in this training who understood that while manual bodywork has much to offer for those in pain, there was "something missing" in their perspective and their treatment plans. There was also Debra (mentioned above) who, for two years, had not been able to stand for morknob-hille than a few minutes at a time. She had rediscovered herself through Hanna Somatic Exercises and slow, gentle movement exploration. Yoga teachers and massage therapists also attended in a quest to deepen and "tweak" their perspective on their bodies, their own movement, and this concept they'd heard so much about: Sensory Motor Amnesia.

What came out of this training is an exceptionally well written article about Hanna Somatics and how its methods can transform the course of one's well-being as well as add "missing link" information to the medical perspective on chronic muscle pain, aging, repetitive stress and injury recovery.

READ THE ARTICLE FROM THE CALGARY HERALD HERE!

 

 

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.

Movement to Clear the Mind and Reawaken the Body

This New Yorker article reflects my experience exactly. Recently I took a long hike in, Snowdonia, North Wales. This part of the IMG_5277world is a completely new landscape for me. The weather, windy and rainy, was weather I avoid at all costs when hiking. This time, however, I embarked on a hike up Mt. Snowdon, the tallest mountain in Wales, and decided to not let the weather get in my way. My experience was unlike any hike I'd taken in years: new smells, shifting clouds and light patterns, and terrain that challenged my brain and balance. The best part of the hike is that I took it with a dear friend.

According to Dr. John Ratey in his book, Spark, I had just experienced one of the most useful and effective activities one could ever have for the brain -  the winning combination of:

  • vigorous physical exercise
  • done outdoors in nature
  • with another person, preferably a good friend

Not only does movement, outside in nature, with another person, strengthen our physical body, but it changes our brains and can be a defense against ADHD, depression, Alzheimer's and other issues.

There is nothing that clears my mind and helps me attune to my movement and mental state the way hiking and walking does. There's no time for mental chatter; the movement and sensory appreciation of the surroundings takes precedence. What is it about moving - in nature - that changes the way one feels? Is it just the physical exertion? The beautiful surroundings? The smells? The sounds of nature, so unfamiliar to those of us living in the suburbs or inner city? Or was it all of the above, a sensory and motor experience that can only be had when one puts one foot in front of the other and leaves the city and concrete behind? For some it's not only the movement, but IMG_3267the way in which it is done.

My daughter, her friend and I were hiking last year in New Hampshire. My daughter tends to have problems finding shoes that fit comfortably. Blisters are an intimate friend. A third of the way up the mountain my daughter said, "oh man, these boots are giving me blisters!!" I replied, "you can go back, but I'm continuing on up. Or you can take off those boots and finish the hike barefoot. That might be fun!" And she did; she continued up and climbed all the way back down. When we reached the bottom she remarked that hiking barefoot over rocks, gravel and dirt had given her a completely different appreciation of her feet, her legs, her hips and her gait. In fact, she said, her whole body felt different!

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, writes that exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development as well as for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. From my own personal experience I couldn't agree more.

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.

Freedom and Habits: Can They Exist at the Same Time?

How easily we allow our old habits and set patterns to dominate us! Even though they bring us suffering, we accept them with almost fatalistic resignation, for we are so used to giving in to them. We may idealize freedom, but when it comes to our habits, we are completely enslaved. Still, reflection can slowly bring us wisdom. We may, of course, fall back into fixed repetitive patterns again and again, but slowly we can emerge from them and change.

While this quote comes from Rigpa, a Buddhist website, it is the same philosophy underpinning Hanna Somatics. From a Hanna Somatics perspective it means that set patterns and habits, while useful in many ways, can dominate our posture and movement if we are unaware of them and unable to control them.  The fixed habits of walking that develop through trial and error as toddlers are critically important. They allow us the freedom to move forward in life. Yet, when other habits take over and become fixed patterns, like slumping at the computer, gritting our teeth when we're angry, tightening our bellies when we're anxious, contracting our back muscles as we rush through our busy lives - we gradually lose our sense of well-being and our freedom. Unconscious habits can change who we are.  getty-cartwheel

Habitual responses to stress become muscular habits at the level of our brain and nervous system. Once we develop a habit we are helpless to change it until we spend thoughtful time becoming aware of:

  • What the habit feels like (back pain, hip pain, sciatica, neck pain).
  • How it shows up in our bodies (slumped shoulders, face forward, leg length discrepancy).
  • How it is limiting us ("I used to dance and now it just hurts my hip... I can only walk a few blocks and then my back gives out...").

Many people feel defeated: "Well, I'm not getting any younger." "It's all down hill from here..." or "I probably ache because of my age." Many accept their unfortunate limitations with fatalistic resignation. They feel trapped and frustrated by muscle pain and few sensible solutions as they seek a solution to their pain "out there" - massage therapy, bodywork, physical therapy, the latest trends and remedies to relax muscles. They don't realize that in most cases the answer lies within their own brain and sensory motor system, and how an awareness of what they're doing repeatedly, (whether emotional, physical or psychological) can be the piece of the puzzle that they're missing.

This is the message of Hanna Somatics: freedom comes through awareness of one's ability to sense and control oneself from the inside out as they move through life. It is a patient and persistent practice of awareness - of what it feels like to be you, how your old habits have created habits of pain and limitation, the meaning you have given to what has happened to you over the years, and how you can change limitation to freedom - on your own, from the inside out. We need habits in our lives; they create a necessary element of stability - in movement. It's whether these habits serve us or not that is the question.

What does freedom look and feel like to you?

Movement Mornings: Do You Start Your Day With Movement?

I am always inspired when I meet people whose curiosity about movement takes them into exploration outside the box. One such person is the ever-curious Panayiotis Karabetis of Movement Mornings. I was a recent guest on his podcast  and we had a blast recording it. Here are some highlights from our discussion:IMG_4689

  • Pandiculation vs. Stretching
  • How to move “somatically”
  • Martha's 3 should's in life
  • Moshe Feldenkrais and Thomas Hanna
  • A brief history and explanation of Hanna Somatics
  • Sensory Motor Amnesia
  • Making room for play in your life is important
  • Falling apart as we get older is a choice
  • Pain-free moving starts with walking

Click here to listen and enjoy!

Here's what Panayiotis has to say about Movement Mornings and its dedication to sharing the good news about movement:

As movers, we're motivated by a unique force that makes our fidgety goals impossible to ignore and that's what Movement Mornings sets out to explore. Each month, we dive into the morning routine of influential people in the movement community to share new insights and inspire us to get better at what we love doing most: moving!

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!

Movements That Don't Feel Good For My Hip

As promised, in my last post I shared my daily Somatics routine. In this post I'll discuss the movements that don't feel good for my body and hip, as well as movements I enjoy that help me feel strong without stressing my hip and causing pain. To start, here's what I've learned about my labral tears:

Because I can't fix the structural problem I need to listen to my body, move in a way that feels good and stay away from movements that cause pain. I had to get past my self-competitive nature and embrace acceptance of what I can't change and know that I can be strong, healthy and happy without pushing my body into places that don't serve it. It's calling letting go of your ego. Not always easy.

Movements that aren't pleasant for me:

Running. Though I like to run a block, walk, run another block, then walk, I can only do this a few times. Not having equal structural stability in my right hip simply causes my brain and muscles to come down just a bit harder on the right side. I wind up quite sore for a day if I do this and it puts unnecessary stress on my hip joint. It's not worth it.

"Core strengthening:" Sit ups, certain Pilates mat exercises. Why? Because the more I tighten my "core" the more it hurts my right hip. Sounds odd, right? Not really. Many people with a labral tear also have a cyst on their hip. Their hip joint structure isn't symmetrical. This can create some sensitivity that those without tears don't have.

Look at an anatomy chart and you'll see where the abdominal muscles insert into the pubic bone, the pelvis and you'll get a better idea of how excessive strengthening exercises can create pressure and tightness into the hip joint.

The best abdominal/core strengthening for me is functional body weight movement like vigorous hiking. I also love the movements of Exuberant Animal. They're fun, functional, creative and strengthening.

Fast twisting movements: Zumba doesn't work for me. It's simply too fast and one is never able to get to the full range of the muscle, nor have enough time to learn to do the movement properly. Slow hip movements are great, but super fast? It serves no purpose that I can see.

Stretching: Stretching only makes muscles tighter and, when done statically, invokes the stretch reflex. I pandiculate - a lot. And it means that I move in a comfort range that is right for me and optimum for my muscles.

I have had to become extremely aware of my tendency to revert to the original pattern that likely caused the tears in the first place: the Trauma Reflex. When stress hits most people revert to their most deeply familiar habit. For me it's the Trauma Reflex. Don’t worry. The beauty of the human brain is that we have the capacity to be internally aware of and in control of these habits. This leads to the ability to be self-correcting, self-actualizing and self-healing. We can start all over again every minute of the day.

Becoming aware of how you emotionally respond to stress is a critical part of the process. Do you cringe into that hip? Do you tighten your back, hunch your shoulders? Does that hip begin to ache when you’re stressed? Has it never occurred to you that your emotional or psychological state is connected to how your muscles move and how you feel in your body?

The lesson is to learn to listen to yourself, sense the information your brain is giving you about your body and move in ways that create pleasure, learning, growth and strength. It's a life long process that makes us smarter and more resilient.

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?