The jury is out. Traditional stretching makes you tighter over time and is considered counter-productive and unnecessary. So what's the alternative? In the book, Somatics, Thomas Hanna offers the only alternative that really works to release tight muscles and re-set muscle function at the level of the central nervous system: Pandiculation. Since the beginning of time all vertebrate animals - and all humans - have naturally and spontaneously prepared themselves for action using the brain reflex pattern called pandiculation.
First let's take a quick look at why traditional stretching doesn't work. This simple explanation is excerpted from my book, Move Without Pain:
It's helpful to understand a few basic facts about muscles:
- Muscles are attached to bones, and bones never move unless the muscles attached to them move.
- Muscles never move unless directed to do so by the brain. The brain controls the entire muscular system. Muscles are controlled by the central nervous system.
When you stretch, it is safe to assume that there is some level of contraction or tightness in the muscle that you want to loosen.
Now let’s think logically: if you have a muscle that is chronically tight, you have a muscle that is holding tension. The involuntary part of the brain is, for some reason, telling that muscle to remain tight. That muscle is no longer under the brain’s conscious or voluntary control.
Physically pulling on a muscle with the intention of lengthening it by force or by use of gravity is... well... just physical. It doesn’t require any deliberate action on the part of the brain. Remember—the brain controls the muscle.
Pulling a tense muscle past its maximum length evokes the stretch reflex, a protective spinal cord reflex that contracts the muscle back against the stretch in order to protect the muscles from trauma. Your nervous system is trying to help you. It’s saying, “Wait! Stop!” When we ignore the stretch reflex, we rish a further tightening of the muscle, or, in the worst-case scenario, a muscle strain or injury.
So what’s missing? In order to fully release muscle tension and restore muscle function, the brain needs to be involved. Only then will optimum muscle length and coordination be restored. Involving the brain will help disrupt the vicious cycle of contraction that keeps our muscles tight.
Pandiculation and Hanna Somatic Exercise is the deepest level of fitness available.
The alternative to stretching is pandiculation, a brain reflex pattern which "wakes up" your brain's ability to sense the muscles that are tight and painful, then allows it to restore optimum length and function in a slow, safe, controlled manner. This voluntary action resets the brain to muscle connection in a way that stretching can't. It is the inability to fully control your muscles that keeps you from moving freely and efficiently. If your brain isn't in control of your muscles you wind up working too hard. You use muscles you don't need to use. This isn't true "fitness." The ability to access the full range of a muscle as well as relax it when it's no longer needed for an action is an essential part of fitness and strength.
Because pandiculation sends strong sensory feedback to the cortex of the brain, essentially "turning on the light" in your sensory motor system and improving voluntary control and proprioception you become more body smart. Stretching, which generally causes you to move into pain, overriding a protective spinal cord reflex (the "stretch reflex") makes you less aware of your body and can be potentially harmful.
A daily routine of Somatic Exercises is all you need to "warm up" for your sport or get ready for your day.
Since I started doing Somatic Exercises I've actually gotten better at soccer. I've had hip injuries in the past, but now I can use the muscles I actually need for kicking instead of muscles I don't need, which is what I used to do to compensate for my injuries.
Somatics added a whole new element of movement to my game.
- Z.I., United States Air Force
Somatic Exercises use pandiculation to restore brain control of muscles and movements. In arch and flatten you arch your back slowly and relax the front of your body; this is a pandiculation for all the muscles on the back of the body. The side bend is a highly effective pandiculation of the oblique muscles (waist muscles) of trunk rotation and side bending. This exercise is critical for a smooth gait and easy walking.
Somatic Exercises are simple and basic movement patterns found in all activities. They prepare you to move well in any given activity and can easily replace stretching as a more pleasurable and effective way of readying you for action.
For more information about how you can learn to properly teach Somatic Exercises, learn more about Essential Somatics® trainings. To contact Martha for a private clinical session of Hanna Somatics, click here.