Movement Recovery After Surgery (Part 3)

I’m six weeks post foot surgery and I’m feeling stronger and more stable every day. I’m well aware that the bunion I had removed didn’t develop overnight and neither did the subsequent movement imbalances and pain it contributed to. My return to strong, free, balanced movement is a process that is requiring me to be patient, persistent, and positive. I look forward to moving even better than I did before the surgery.

Let’s take a second to review:

When you suffer an injury or a surgery in one part of your body, the brain reflexively responds by tightening muscles in full body patterns: the front, back, or sides of the body contract. While the conscious, voluntary part of your brain makes sure you’re out of pain and nursing the injury (e.g. icing your foot, wearing your surgical shoe, using crutches) the unconscious, involuntary part of your brain takes care of keeping weight off that limb or area through muscular contraction. This compensatory cringing reflex is called the Trauma Reflex. You don’t have to tell your waist muscles to tighten to hitch your foot off the floor; it happens automatically.

Structure versus Function

Once your doctor has cleared you for movement, a daily practice of gentle somatic movements begins to reverse the tension your brain reflexively created in response to the pain and stress of surgery.

In my case, I had bunion surgery on my right foot. My brain responds involuntarily by tightening the muscles of the waist to keep weight off of my foot when I’m walking or, rather, limping around. The surgical boot creates a further imbalance as it is thicker than the shoe I wear on my other foot. If I don’t address this compensatory pattern, I may find my hip beginning to ache. This compensatory pattern of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) exhibits itself as a Trauma Reflex. The following photos illustrate this pattern clearly.

Pictured: Front view of the Trauma Reflex caused by involuntary compensation in response to foot surgery. The surgical boot (left photo) further exaggerates my existing hip hike. After a short routine of Somatic Movement and wearing my normal shoe instead (right photo), my Trauma Reflex is already less severe.

Pictured: Front view of the Trauma Reflex caused by involuntary compensation in response to foot surgery. The surgical boot (left photo) further exaggerates my existing hip hike. After a short routine of Somatic Movement and wearing my normal shoe instead (right photo), my Trauma Reflex is already less severe.

Pictured: Back view of the Trauma Reflex caused by involuntary compensation in response to foot surgery. If not addressed, this Trauma Reflex can lead to myriad other aches and pains throughout the body.

Pictured: Back view of the Trauma Reflex caused by involuntary compensation in response to foot surgery. If not addressed, this Trauma Reflex can lead to myriad other aches and pains throughout the body.

For some of us there is a pre-existing a pattern of dysfunctional movement present even before we chose surgery. If you can nip this pattern in the bud, surgery may not be necessary. But if this pre-existing pattern of SMA is left alone, it can ultimately create structural issues that may only be solved through medical intervention. Your surgeon can “fix” the part of your that needs fixing, but your pattern of SMA will still exist — surgery does not “fix” your pattern of SMA. If you don’t address the compensatory pattern that developed over time (or in response to your surgery) you might find yourself having aches and pains in another part of your body. Only you can restore accurate balance and proprioception in your movement and release excess muscle tension.

In my last blogpost I discussed how my movement changed and the gradual improvement I’m making by applying somatic principles and movements to my rehab. It’s now time to address both the compensatory reflex at the center and the coordination of the periphery (in my case, the feet).

Try this:

Take a walk around your room. Notice your feet and legs. Notice the movement (of lack thereof) in the center of your body. Is there anywhere that you feel bracing or tension, right to left, front to back?

Watch this video and do the foot pandiculations I demonstrate. Do them on one foot first, then stand up, close your eyes, and sense the difference between that foot and the other one. Take a walk around the room. What’s changed? Repeat this with the other foot.

Now sit in a chair or lie down on the floor. For about a minute slowly move through Arch and Flatten, stopping at neutral after each repetition. Then do several Hip Hikers to get the pelvis swinging side to side as the waist muscles lengthen and shorten, always coming back to neutral. Finish up with a lazy, soft Washrag. Focus on releasing the center of the body yet connecting the tipping inward and outward of the feet to the movement you sense in the center. Bring the center and the periphery together. Stand up and take a walk around. Do you feel more balanced and connected now that you’ve addressed both the center and the periphery?

Your Somatic Movement practice is a daily opportunity to deepen your exploration of what an extraordinarily interconnected somatic organism you really are. Make use of the many support materials we have on the Essential Somatics store. Better yet, find an Essential Somatic Movement class in your area and start learning more. We are meant to move with intelligence, grace, and ease. Enjoy the journey!

Movement Recovery After Surgery (Part 2)

I am almost two weeks post-surgery and things are going really well. I’m feeling no pain when at rest and only slight discomfort if I push the limits of standing and walking. Thankfully I’m quite in tune with what my body feels and I listen very carefully to the messages it’s giving me.

I’m currently using a technique we employ in Clinical Somatics that is helping quite a bit; it’s called “means-whereby.” Means-whereby is the technique that FM Alexander used in his specific method of Somatic Education. It is an exploration of range of motion, done in a slow, exploratory way in order to notice and sense how you can and cannot move. There is never any forcing involved in means-whereby – only gentle movement, honoring your limits. This is beginning to bring back my ability to voluntarily move my toes; after almost two weeks of a sense of disconnection from my foot, this is a welcome improvement!

Restoring movement to the toes

Here’s what I’m doing: I’m passively flexing and extending my big toe several times, never going into a painful stretch. I’m testing my limits of comfort. Then I do the same thing with the other four toes. I follow with several repetitions of active flexion and extension of my toes and ankle, then move into inversion and eversion of my foot (which can be found on my Pain-Free Leg & Hip Joints or Pain-Free Athletes DVD). I can feel that jumpy, jerky, and shaky quality of movement so common in Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). This has developed due to having to keep my foot very still and then compensating when I walk —I’m currently putting more pressure on my heel so as not to place full weight on my front foot yet; I’m not ready for that. Because of this, the muscles of my lower leg are very tight.

How tension and compensation affect the body

This experience is a solid reminder of how heel pain can develop when you land predominantly on your heel and do not roll through to the front of your foot as you push off to take your next step. At the moment I cannot roll through my foot as I normally do, nor can I allow my hips to swing naturally. This has also created calf pain. This kind of unbalanced gait, while necessary for compensation until my foot is fully healed, could potentially lead to plantar fasciitis. I’m not concerned, however, since my daily Somatic Movement practice will restore balance in the center of my body and ultimately restore my gait to its normal, balanced state so that I can walk freely and easily.

One thing that is common after surgery that I’m now dealing with is fear: the fear of putting full weight on my foot and moving through the discomfort (not pain, just discomfort). I know my stitches are not going to burst and I know my bone is healing; my doctor assured me of this. Yet fear creates muscle tension and less than fluid coordination, which I can certainly feel. Our emotions create a muscular response in our bodies, and it can be hard to notice and correct those responses without a Somatic Movement practice.

So, what do you do? Graded exposure. Take things one step at a time (pun intended) and in small doses. Let your physical sensations and pain level be your guide, then add a little bit more each day until you’re beginning to feel comfortable and you trust your body. Know that you are merely going through a process in which patience is primary. Your body knows how to heal, so don’t rush it!

Additional foot explorations

For those of you looking to become more acquainted with your feet and relieve foot pain and tension, Laura Gates, CHSE has a wonderful 3-minute video to guide you through a few foot explorations. I look forward to doing these movements myself in the near future!

Movement Recovery After Surgery (Part 1)

I spent years as a professional dancer and model stuffing my feet into shoes that were often too small for my (very large) feet. I also danced in high heels and walked in fashionable, yet deeply uncomfortable shoes. Rarely did my feet feel comfortable and relaxed; this resulted in compensation for the discomfort in my feet and ultimately created structural problems in the form of hammertoes and bunions. I finally made the choice to have a large, painful bunion taken off my right foot and a hammertoe straightened and fixed. These structural issues were getting in the way of my favorite activity — hiking — and I’m too young to be hampered by them.

I’m very grateful for a skilled surgeon to fix what I cannot fix on my own, but now the task falls to me to use my Somatic Movement practice to re-educate my feet (once my foot is fully healed), legs, and center so that I can hike for as long as I live.

In the next several blog posts I will share my movement recovery with you so that anyone that is also undergoing or has undergone surgery will have the tools to recover their movement and prevent further musculoskeletal problems.

Pictured: Trauma Reflex while using crutches

Pictured: Trauma Reflex while using crutches

My first few days post-surgery have been spent resting and elevating my foot and carefully testing my movement limits.

I began using crutches when I arrived home and right away I began to feel the telltale contractions of the Trauma Reflex; my brain instantly hoisted my right hip up and my weight shifted to the left leg to take the weight off my foot. The voluntary part of my brain was focused on getting around without slipping or losing my balance. I will be using crutches for about a week and this pattern of shortening of one side of my torso to take the load off my healing foot will help me get around. It’s a very good thing — I just don’t want to get stuck it! For that reason the first movement I did as soon as I got settled in bed were Hip Hikers: slowly contracting one side of the waist as the other side released, then gradually lengthening it as the other side contracts. This gets the waist muscles back into smooth coordination with each other. It felt wonderful! I added my arms to this movement to create a gentle full body Human X. This movement released tension in my shoulder girdle and down into my back. I’ll be doing this movement quite a bit during my recovery.

Surgery isn’t just a “body” experience; it can have an emotional and psychological impact as well. It stops you in your tracks and demands rest and self-care and putting many things in your life on hold. I live an active lifestyle and being sedentary makes me anxious. Intellectually I know I need to rest, so my practice, even if for a few brief minutes, resets my brain to bring me fully into the present moment, with less fear, less tension, and more connection to my bodies.

Using crutches is a vigorous activity. If I get tired and slump down into the crutches it creates discomfort in my armpits and causes me to tighten and round forward in the center of my body. I’m using the crutches as a way to stand as tall as possible and use my arms to support me. This will help keep my front open and my breathing easy.

In just a few weeks from now I will be able to start putting full weight on my foot. I may have pain in my periphery (the foot), but it doesn’t mean my center (my waist, back, abdominals, and ribs) can’t move and relax. My practice will prepare me to walk with balance again. I’ll be doing seated Somatic Movements as well, and, when I can get up and down off the floor again I will return to the basic Somatic Movements we all need, beginning with arch and flatten and ending with the walking movements part 1 & 2. You can find this routine of basics on the Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.

Hanna Somatics to Make You A Better Horseback Rider

Horseback riding is a wonderful sport that connects rider to horse in a dance that is powerful to observe and wonderful to experience. Over the years I have worked with many riders whose primary goal is to be able to get back on their horse and ride without pain. Nearly all of them have fallen off their horse, been bucked or kicked, or sustained a minor riding-related injury – after all, it's part and parcel of horseback riding. Even if their injury has not landed them in the hospital, it has a lasting effect on their riding ability in the form of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).

It's not a wonder that Essential Somatics is attracting knowledgeable riding teachers who are taking an interest in helping their students get back on their horses, so that both they and their animals can continue to feel move freely and easily, and without pain.

I'd like to introduce you all to Lisa Weiben. Lisa is a Clinical Somatic Educator-in-training in the Canada 1 training class in Calgary, AB. She isa Centered Riding teacher, using Clinical Hanna Somatics with her horseback riders, both in movement classes and one-to-one clinical sessions at the Mountain View Training Stables. Here's what Lisa has to say about how Somatics can benefit horseback riders:

"Hanna (or Clinical) Somatics is about muscles and movement. Important things to everyone, but extremely important to anyone who rides a horse! It is wonderful for people suffering from chronically contracted muscles. Even if you don’t think you have contracted muscles, the contractions can build up over time and form specific patterns in the body.

The Somatic Movements are easy for anyone to do. A short daily practice of Hanna Somatic Movements can reset the muscles and prevent future tightness from occurring. We will always have stress in our lives, we may sustain injuries, or be in accidents, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t keep our bodies free from the muscles tightness that can limit our potential as a rider. We want to be able to sit on the horse as in balance as possible so that we can help our equine partners perform to the best of their abilities. Somatics can help us get there!"

To read Lisa's article in full, with specific tips for horseback riders, click here! Lisa offers one-to-one clinical Somatics sessions, Hanna Somatic movement classes, riding lessons in centered riding, Western Dressage, English Dressage, and horsemanship. If you're a horseback rider who wants to eliminate pain, get back on your horse, or simply improve your riding capability, contact Lisa.

And you don't have to ride a horse to do Hanna Somatics. If you are active, you can learn to stay active and improve your level of activity with less tension, and more intelligent and efficient movement. You don't even have to be in pain to enjoy Hanna Somatics; you just have to want to move! 

Why Do I Have Shoulder Pain?

"Richard" was a tall, young athletic man who worked long hours as a computer consultant. He suffered a rotator cuff injury years ago in a car accident. This left him with chronic shoulder pain even after months of physical therapy, massage, and medical treatment. He said that he had never felt the same since and, despite the fact that he was only 38 years old, he was beginning to think that he was just "getting old." His daily computer usage only made his already painful right shoulder tighter than ever. He was close to developing a "frozen shoulder." The truth was that his shoulder wasn't frozen - the center of his body was.

The shoulder joint isn't just the joint itself; the muscles that move and stabilize the shoulder and coordinate synergistically to move what we think of as "the shoulder" originate in the center of the body. Tight chest muscles pull the shoulders forward and tight upper shoulder muscles (trapezius) hunch the shoulders up. Tight muscles of the side body will pull the shoulder joint downward.  When you learn to release and relax the center of the body, movement in the periphery – the shoulder in this case – will improve dramatically.

Richard was motivated to figure out how to reverse his shoulder pain and regain control of his muscles for two reasons: he had been physically active before his injury, and he had a six-month-old baby he wanted to hold without experiencing pain.

Accidents can cause accumulated muscle tension throughout the entire body.

I wasn't surprised that Richard's right side was so tight; he'd had several car accidents. He had also fractured his left leg in a sports accident without realizing it and had continued to play, compensating strongly with his right side. His right side had been accumulating muscle tension for a long time before his shoulder injury became apparent. His brain had done an efficient work-around; because the brain could no longer sense or control the muscles he should be using, it had recruited other muscles to do the job. Now everything was tight! 

If muscles can learn to stay tight, they can also learn to relax.

In our first session, I taught Richard to relax the deep muscles of the back of his body (the Green Light muscles), including the muscles of the shoulder: the upper trapezius, rhomboids, and lower trapezius. I taught him to pandiculate these muscles, so that his brain could take back voluntary control of muscles that had been involuntarily contracted. He learned to soften the muscles so that they were ready for action again.

After his session, Richard was amazed at how much better his shoulder felt and how much more movement he now had after doing such simple movements. I sent him home with four basic movements to do daily to reinforce the new and improved range of motion that he had achieved.

Release the center of the body for quick relief of shoulder pain.

I saw Richard for one more session in which he learned to release and relax the muscles of twisting and bending. These muscles, known as the "core," are merely the muscles of the center of the body that allows us to flex, extend, side bend, and rotate our spine. If they are involuntarily contracted, they restrict movement of our periphery – from the shoulder and neck down to the pelvis, legs, and feet.

Richard also learned to release the tight latissimus dors muscle on his right side. The latissimus is the broadest muscle of the body and while it attaches up into the front of the shoulder, it extends all the way into the center of the body and attaches to the pelvis. By the end of his session, his pain was completely gone. The changes he had made himself, using his brain to retrain his muscles, were impressive and inspiring. He left my office with a huge smile on his face saying, "this work makes so much sense." He vowed to continue his daily Hanna Somatic Exercises. I look forward to not seeing Richard again for any more sessions; he now has the self-awareness and skills to take care of himself. 

To learn how to relieve neck and shoulder pain on your own, you can purchase my instructional Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD.

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.

What Causes Sacroiliac Joint Pain and How Somatics Can Help

I recently taught Somatic Exercises online to T.G., a woman suffering from sacroiliac pain, commonly referred to as SI joint dysfunction or SI joint instability. When we began our sessions, she stood tilted to one side, clearly stuck in a Trauma Reflex. She was unaware of the severity of her tilt; she told me that her posture although technically out of balance, felt normal to her. She knew from reading my book, Move Without Pain, that her tilt was an unconscious habit that her brain had set as "normal" because she'd been standing like that for a very long time. She had a few falls, accidents, and a particularly difficult childbirth and labor.

How SI joint pain arises

"After working with me and watching me move, do you think the SI joint is the issue? I'm so amazed at the changes taking place in my body after learning Somatic Exercises. The psoas release you taught me made me feel so much more relaxed in my torso."
T.G., New Mexico

To answer her question: her Trauma Reflex — not her SI joint itself — was causing her pain. The painful joint was merely a symptom; the underlying cause of her pain was Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) in the muscles that attach into, and move the pelvis and SI joint. These muscles were pulling unevenly on her pelvis so that whatever activity she did caused pain in the joint. Her hamstrings were also tight because she had to alter normal, natural use of her legs to compensate for the tilt in her center. Because her muscles were in a state of chronic contraction, her movement was inefficient and painful.

How the 3 Stress Reflexes affect the SI joint

Some symptoms of SI joint dysfunction are:

  • low back pain on both sides

  • a feeling of weakness and instability at the bottom of the spine

  • sciatic pain

  • pain at the waist, towards the center of the back

  • aching in the front of the thigh and down into the groin

One-sided SI joint pain suggests that the muscles that connect the SI joint and the center of the body are pulling unevenly on the joint. An asymmetrical muscular pull often rotates one side of the pelvis. There is an feeling of being "jammed up" in the sacroiliac joint because the Trauma Reflex puts a painful torque on the pelvis, inhibiting it from moving up, down, forward, and back.

Bilateral SI joint pain suggests habituation to the Green Light Reflex, which creates excessive contraction through the muscles along our spine; this puts excess pressure on the SI joint and lumbar spine. If the Red Light Reflex is habituated, the pelvis doesn't move freely when walking; the iliopsoas is tightly contracted and the joint feels stuck.

These are all cases of Sensory Motor Amnesia and can be eliminated through Somatic Educationpandiculation, and a daily practice of Somatic Movements.

The key to regaining stability and mobility

A critically important aspect of reversing SI joint instability and pain is to learn to move the pelvis freely again. It is precisely that lack of freedom in the pelvis that is absent in those with SI joint (as well as hip and pelvic) pain. In order to regain stability and mobility, you must be able to sense, feel, and control yourself fully from within.

T.G. learned quite a few Somatic Movements (in this order):*

* These Somatic Movements were taught over the course of several sessions*

Through consistent repetition of these movements she learned to slowly and intelligently reduce muscle tension in the muscles of the back, waist and front of her body so she could extend, flex, bend, and rotate her body with ease and comfort. These Somatic Movements pandiculated the muscles causing SI joint pain and reconnected her brain to her muscles, and reset muscle length, function, sensation, and control.

How to eliminate and prevent SI joint pain – on your own!

Below are some options for learning to prevent and eliminate SI joint pain and instability and learn to move freely again. It is highly recommended that you seek the help of a skilled Clinical (Hanna Somatic Educator) for more precise guidance and rapid improvement:

Back Pain: It's Time To Ask Why

A mindful approach to back pain

A recent New York Times article discusses a new approach to easing back pain, called "mindfulness-based stress reduction." This method involves "a combination of meditation, body awareness and yoga, and focuses on increasing awareness and acceptance of one’s experiences, whether they involve physical discomfort or emotional pain."

The article cites a study conducted on mindfulness meditation and behavioral cognitive therapy for back pain, which reports that "many people may find relief with a form of meditation that harnesses the power of the mind to manage pain."

It is a relief to see an article in a major newspaper that reports a different perspective (a somatic perspective!) on back pain. The somatic perspective is the understanding that we humans are not inanimate objects that can fixed like a broken toy or washing machine, but are self-guiding, self-sensing, self-teaching synergistic systems that are experienced from the inside out and, given the right feedback and stimulation, can improve through retraining of the mind, brain, and body.

Somatic Education pioneers as Elsa Gindler, F.M. Alexander ("the Alexander Technique"), Moshe Feldenkrais, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and Thomas Hanna, PhD, have known for decades that by turning our attention inward to the sensations, through movement, of our own bodies, we can affect profound improvement and change our ability to function in an efficient, balanced, coordinated, and controlled manner. We can reverse the adverse effects of stress, relieve our own pain, and improve life through reeducating our brains and our movement.

This paradigm shift was bound to happen because, as the article states,

Sixty-five million Americans suffer from chronic lower back pain, and many feel they have tried it all: physical therapy, painkillers, shots.

This is something I hear every day when I work with clients: "I've tried everything to relieve my pain and only gotten short-term relief. There is something I'm doing - or have done that is causing the pain." I have written previously about the questionable use of MRIs as a diagnostic tool for back pain, as well as why muscle pain is not a medical problem, but a functional problem in need of reeducation.

The Importance of Asking WHY

And yet there is still something missing from the mindfulness approach to healing back pain: an understanding of why back pain (or neck, shoulder, hip, knee or foot pain) occurs and an interest in finding the answer. The simple question, "why does this happen?" is not being asked. When that question is left out of the equation, comments such as this one from the New York Times article, will be repeated:

It may not be for everybody,” [Dr. Goyal] said, noting that some people with back pain find yoga painful.

Until the day that researchers pick up the books and research of Thomas Hanna and begin learning about Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), brain reflexes, and pandiculation, nature's "reboot" for the sensory motor cortex, they will always come up short in their quest to help those in pain. SMA is what researchers and practitioners the world over are looking at when they study back (or neck/shoulder/hip) pain – they just don't know it.

Meditation is a wonderful tool for self-regulation, stress reduction, and pain relief, yet the root cause of muscle pain - the brain, and the way in which it habituates to stress reflexes, and thus organizes and moves our bodies - is where the gold lies. When you lose the ability to sense and move yourself fully, you will find yourself moving with less freedom, more pain, and more frustration. The answer lies within you and your ability to regain your movement. Without addressing the sensory motor system, brain reflexes, and how and why muscles become tight and painful, studies will continue to report that "this approach doesn't work for everyone."

And that would be a shame for those 65 million back pain sufferers across the United States.

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.

Regain Freedom of Movement (for the rest of your life!)

The desire for freedom is intrinsic to human nature and essential to human development. It is so crucial to our development that children who are not allowed to move (restricted recess, sitting still for long periods of time, etc.) can develop cognitive, emotional and psychological problems (as discussed on NPR Ed).

In our youth, we learn by trial and error to move our bodies, from the moment we first lift our head to our first success at riding a bicycle without falling off. Through repetition and habituation we create stability through movement patterns. Movement habits are formed in order to allow for efficient movement and conservation of energy.

freedom2The freedom to climb trees, run after soap bubbles, chase our friends, ride bicycles, dance, jump, yell and shout teaches us about ourselves both on a personal, social, emotional, and physical level. We learn how to problem solve, collaborate, create, and strengthen ourselves - processes that occur from the inside out often unseen by others as we grow into adulthood.This is, at its essence, how we get to know who we are.

All life is sensory motor in nature.

Babies have one way of experiencing the world: through sensory feedback. They sense discomfort and they cry; they sense safety or comfort and they relax; they sense danger or fear and they cry; they awaken from a nap and paniculate their limbs, yawn, and squirm in order to sense their bodies. 

As we get older things change. Many of us, for a variety of reasons, stop moving as freely as we once did. We adopt ways of moving that reflects societal rules or restrictions and, inevitably, the many “insults” of life: accident, illness, physical or emotional trauma, psychological fear, and family patterns. Others keep physically active (sports, playing, dancing, or walking), as well as mentally or emotionally active, seeking help when we need it to create emotional patterns that serve us. All of this learning shows up in our bodies, our health and specifically our movement.

The goal of Hanna Somatic Education is to teach you to take back physical independence and control of your own ever changing, dynamic body and life. Our bodies and our lives are never static. As human organisms we are an ever changing, dynamic, living process that can only ever be sensed individually. Life is, indeed, lived from the inside out.

Muscle pain can disappear and aging can still be active and healthy. By learning to sense what it feels like to be "you," from the inside out (physically and emotionally) you redirect your dependency on others and move toward authentic physical freedom.

A daily practice of Somatic Exercises and conscious movement that is pleasurable and fosters awareness is necessary to maintain the the self-awareness and skill it takes to maintain freedom - physical, mental and emotional freedom from patterns that don’t serve us.

Visit the Essential Somatics® store for our easy-to-follow instructional DVDs.

Check out our Clinical Somatic Education Professional training.

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.

 

A Strong Core is a Core the Brain Can Control

I recently received this email from a woman who purchased Move Without Pain and my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD:

We are often told (by doctors, exercise experts in the media) that it is good to strengthen our "core muscles" - and often Pilates or Yoga is recommended for that purpose. We're also told that soft muscles and ligaments make us vulnerable to low back pain. Do Hanna Somatic exercises help strengthen our core, such that we don't necessarily have to add another type of strengthening exercise routine to our already busy lives?

"Core strengthening" is often considered a panacea for low back pain, and a lack of "core strength" is often blamed for low back pain! Neither one is accurate. In reality, most people with back pain, limited movement and poor posture are suffering from Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The muscles of the core respond involuntarily to stress reflexes by twisting or rotating  to avoid pain or injury (Trauma Reflex), slumping and drawing inward (Red Light/Startle Reflex) and contracting the back (Green Light/Landau Response) to move forward. If you continuously repeat these actions, the muscles of the core learn to stay tight, short and overly contracted. Strengthening muscles that have habituated to stress reflexes is a recipe for more pain. It simply doesn't work and can sometimes cause harm.

What is "the core" anyway?

"The core" of the body comprises the front, sides d5c71e70ed10d57c667d879908bb48ccand back of the body, from the skull to the pelvic floor and out to the hips. It is not just those abdominal muscles that we are told to suck in and draw up in order to support the back. The core includes the deep muscles of the back that flex and extend our spine and the muscles of the waist (which strap our ribcage to our pelvis) that allow us to laterally flex as well as twist. It is like a girdle of muscles that strap the upper and lower halves of the body to each other.

Repeatedly contracting your abdominals (as one does with sit-ups) creates excessive muscle tension that can prevent fluid, efficient and pain-free movement. Overly contracted abdominal muscles contribute to back pain, neck pain and pelvic floor dysfunction. When the muscles of the back, waist and abdominals are supple, relaxed, and fully under the brain's control, movement is easy and efficient. The trouble is, most people can tighten their core but cannot fully relax it. This poses a problem when it comes to strengthening for long term health and fitness.

Hanna Somatics helps strengthen the core and relieve low back pain by restoring full brain control of the muscles.

Hanna Somatic exercises do not intentionally teach you to strengthen the muscles of the posture pillow excore. They teach you to regain voluntary control over those muscles of your core which are, for most people, in a state of Sensory Motor Amnesia. They restore full muscle length at the brain level through slow, aware movement, and pandiculation so you can regain balance and have a supple core whose long muscles can flex, extend, side bend, and rotate voluntarily. Hanna Somatics doesn't take the place of the movement you love to do; it prepares you to do what like, only better.  Hanna Somatic Exercises teach you to find your own comfortable, neutral posture for support of your spine as you learn to sense and control your muscles from the inside out.

Is it important to strengthen the core?

Yes, it's important to be strong and it doesn't have to be a burden - one more thing you feel obligated to do in your busy life. It all depends on how you do it and what you choose to do.

We all need to be strong. Being strong stresses our skeleton in a good way, and can prevent osteoporosis as it aids in bone density. Strong muscles that the brain can control support and stabilize you in any given task so that you can maintain your physical independence as you age. Somatic Exercises improve your sensory motor awareness so you can self-monitor and self-correct your movement and posture in response to the stresses of life.

In another post I will discuss some ideas for functional daily strengthening that will be less of a burden and can be integrated into your 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.

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:

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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.

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..."

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?