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.

Top 3 Myths About Neck Pain

I've work with a lot of people with neck pain, some so severe that they had to go on disability. In the past  Tiger Woods dropped out of a golf tournament due to neck pain - a bulging disc. He said, "I can deal with the pain, but once it locked up I couldn't go back or come through..." While adamant that his neck pain had nothing whatsoever to do with his car accident, as I wrote in this post, Tiger has a bad case of Sensory Motor Amnesia. Here are three myths about neck pain to consider:

Myth #1: Neck pain is caused by the neck muscles

Thomas Hanna once said, "a stiff neck is a stiff body." Muscle tightness in the neck is only a part of a larger IMG_3845muscular pattern of contraction closer to the center of the body. The vertebrae that comprise what we think of as "the neck" are only 7 vertebrae of 24 that comprise the spinal column. There are several layers of strong paravertebral muscles on both sides of the spine that extend from the tailbone all the way up into the base of the skull. If the muscles on the back of the body - from neck to pelvis - are tight, the neck will be affected. This kind of "Green Light Reflex" posture creates pain in the back of the neck and into the base of the skull.

If the front of the body is hunched and slumped, the neck will be affected as well; this "Red Light Reflex" posture draws the head forward, which causes the muscles that move the neck and balance the head to contract strongly to maintain balance.

Simply addressing the neck muscles will not solve the problem - for the long term. The body moves as a system, not a jumble of individual parts. Relaxing the back and front of the body can result in a more relaxed and pain-free neck.

Myth #2: Neck problems come with old age

The older we get, the more opportunities our muscles have had to learn to stay tight, "frozen," and contracted. This is how Sensory Motor Amnesia develops. It occurs due to accidents, injuries, surgeries, repetitive use, and emotional stress.  If that state of habitually contracted muscles progresses over the years, it will appear that the neck problem is a result of age, when in fact, it is the result of muscular dysfunction left unchecked. There is no substantive evidence to prove that age itself has anything to do with neck problems. There is, however, substantive evidence that a lack of movement can result in tighter muscles and restricted movement. This can happen at any age, especially in today's technological world.

Myth #3: Neck problems mean the neck muscles are weak and need strengthening

I addressed this issue of painful muscles being "weak muscles," in an old post about the Top Four Myths About Back Pain. Painful, tight muscles are rarely weak; in fact, they are usually so tight that they can neither release fully, nor move efficiently. Tightly contracted muscles which lack proper blood and oxygen are painful, sore and, because they cannot fully release, feel weak. What is needed is to restore fully muscle function, so the muscles can do the two things they are meant to do: fully contract and fully release. A muscle that cannot fully relax is holding unnecessary tension. Learn to relax and control the neck, back, shoulders, and hips and move the entire body efficiently and your neck pain will probably disappear forever.

Try this easy movement in order to relax and release not only the back muscles, but the neck muscles as well. Notice the connection between the neck and the lower back:

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To learn to reverse chronic muscle pain with gentle, easy Somatic Movements for the back, neck, shoulders, and hips, click here for my Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD.

How To Improve Posture and Gain Body Confidence

There is a widely held belief perpetuated by Yoga teachers and many medical practitioners that when people are stooped or slumped it is because their backs are weak. I hear this from my clients repeatedly:

I need to strengthen my back; I can't hold myself up because my back muscles are weak.

Not always true.

The root cause of the problem is that the front of your body has learned to so stay so tight you can no longer IMG_3852voluntary relax it and stand up straight. This is a learned response to the stress. It is called the Red Light Reflex. Yes, long hours of sitting contributes to the problem and can habituate this reflex. The antidote to this learned posture is not to draw the shoulders back like a soldier at attention. That action is an exaggeration of what we think of as "standing up straight." It, too, is a reflex called the Landau Response, or Green Light Reflex.

When people are stuck in this kind of posture there is a basic absence of somatic awareness and sensory motor control over the muscles. You may know that you're slumped and be upset about it, but you don't know how to change it. Pulling on and strengthening the antagonist muscles (in this case, the back muscles) only creates an equal and opposing contraction through the back of the body.

The solution is process of education: your brain, the command center of your muscles, must teach the muscles of the front of the body to release, relax, and lengthen. Then, and only then, you will be able to begin to coordinate the back of the body with the front of the body in order to stand up to a neutral straight and maintain that posture voluntarily.

This yoga video is typical of the misinformation given to those who want to learn how to stand tall and why one would have trouble standing tall, shoulders at neutral. The teacher is asking the viewer to do something that the brain actually doesn't want you to do: tighten the shoulders, lift the head, but relax the buttocks. The buttock naturally coordinate with the back and shoulders. The brain, which organizes you as a system, contracts all the muscles on the back of the body when the head is lifted and shoulders contract.

Neutral and balanced posture is confident posture.

Here are a few excellent Somatic Exercises that will teach you relax and release the front and back of your body so you can stand taller and more confident. Do them slowly, gently and with awareness to the movement.

The Flower will begin to teach you how to release the muscles of the front of the body that, when chronically contracted in response to stress, round you forward. The more you do this movement, the more your brain will be able to self-correct your posture should you begin to slump again.

The Back Lift, from my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD, is the most profoundly effective Somatic Exercise IMG_3540for getting your brain back in control of the muscles of the back of the body - relaxing and releasing them so the front and the back can coordinate together. For a video about the Back Lift click here.

The Washrag brings the back, front and sides of the body together as a connected whole. It helps to open the front in a safe, natural way.

Somatic Exercises teach you to regain awareness of the way in which you move, how you adapt to stress and what it feels like to regain control of your body and movement. They are the best way to improve posture and find the easiest, most efficient way to move. Rather than doing mindless repetitions of strengthening, you will learn to sense and move voluntarily. Strength is important, but never strengthen something you can't feel.

Somatic Exercises Make You Happy!

I taught a Somatic Movement class the other morning. It was a cold, snowy morning and honestly, I was surprised that anyone showed up for class. You know how it is when it's cold outside -  you hunch your shoulders up, pull your scarf up around your neck and tighten your center as you walk so you don't slip. Winter can really cause the muscles to become tight. Then I remembered that there is nothing more invigorating and effective for opening yourself up from the winter cold to a relaxed state than a slow, gentle Somatic Movement class.

Everyone in the class had some kind of hip and shoulder pain. Here is what I taught this morning:

  • Arch and Flatten - first arching and flattening to neutral on the floor, then arching and flattening into the floor, moving from the Green Light Reflex into the Red Light Reflex.
  • Arch and Curl - with a gentle psoas release (thanks to Laura Gates, CHSE)
  • Side Bend
  • Propeller
  • Washrag - first with the feet about a foot apart, then with the feet wider apart ("windshield wiper legs")

By the end of the class, those who had had a twist in their pelvis had evened their pelvis out. One woman had felt scattered and anxious and after class she felt grounded and strong. Everyone's hip pain was gone, their walking was lighter and, best of all, the students had a clearer understanding of which stress patterns had contributed to their discomfort - and how they were able to reverse them.

In my teaching I have found that if people don't understand why they're being told to do a movement or exercise, they simply won't stick to it. That which makes sense to us in our own experience is that which will serve us as we continue to grow.

Why do Arch and Flatten? Because it recreates the Green Light Reflex of forward action (go, go, go!!) and the Red Light Reflex (or worry, fear, anxiety, slumping over the computer) that is invoked every day, hundreds of time. Recreate it so you can recognize it when it happens and de-create it.

Why do the Side Bend? Because it gets the brain back in control of the waist muscles - the very muscles that contract and "freeze up" when you have a sudden injury or slip or fall.

And so on...

Somatic Exercises brings you more awareness, efficiency of movement and help you "shake off" the stress of daily life.

Reflexes are merely unconditioned responses to stress. They are neutral. Problems with movement and muscle pain occur when we become habituated to and stuck in a reflex pattern - our shoulder rounded forward or one hip hitched up higher than the other. We want to be able to respond to the reflexes when we have to, but we don't want to "live" in any one of them. We want to live life at neutral.

Here is an explanation of why Somatics is great for everyone, every day. It's from Kristin Jackson, a Somatic Exercise Coach in Portland, OR. Her reasons for teaching Somatic Movement echo mine. Enjoy her video at the end; her students' experience of Hanna Somatics is common to that of hundreds of people experiencing Somatic Movement around the world.

Somatics makes everything in your life easier.

In addition to helping you move with more ease, Somatics helps you think more clearly, sleep better, even relate to people better. It all has to do with your nervous system. The constant stress of today's fast-faster-fastest world puts your sympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that stimulates fight-or-flight bodily responses) into overdrive and never lets your parasympathetic nervous system kick in so we can enjoy the pleasant things in life like relaxing, digesting and making babies.

Somatics makes you happy!

Who wouldn't want to offer something that makes a client exclaim, "I feel like I'm 10 years old again!" after her first session. Honestly, I'm tired of "selling" exercise. I can't compete with big-box gyms or Groupon or flashy trainers. That's not me. But educating people how to move well and feel amazing is a wonderful thing to share!



Politics Can Be a Pain in the Neck - Literally

The midterm elections are over. The results are in. But are the aches and pains of election season over in your body? Did political ads create residual aches and pains? Political ads are designed to elicit emotional reactions and responses - those of anger, fear, hope, or excitement. political-attack-ads-slide11-1Emotions create muscular tension in the body, as the brain responds to any and all feedback in the environment, whether mental, emotional, physical, or even imagined! Political ads, repeated over and over again can cause tension in your muscles that, after a while, your brain can no longer voluntarily control.  Just as a baseball player practices swinging a bat repeatedly; it commits an efficient, effective swing to muscle memory, just as our emotional reactions to overplayed political ads create habituated muscular tension. It can become embodied stress that we feel at a loss to control or change.

First comes awareness, then comes change.

For example, if your response to a political ad caused you to feel fear, worry or a sense of instability ("That's it! I'm moving to Canada!"), the muscles of the front of your body contracted strongly. This is called the Red Light Reflex - a primal response to fear which causes us to withdraw inward. It contributes to most chronic neck and shoulder pain, shallow breathing and fatigue.

If your response to those ads is anger, panic or agitation, you may feel the muscles in the back of your body getting tight, as if to flee, take action - "Do something for Pete's sake! The country is falling apart!" This is the Green Light Reflex - the root cause of most chronic back pain.

If your back, shoulders, neck, etc. hurt more than usual in the last month, it is probably due to some  very effective political marketing strategy. Beware - the holiday shopping season is upon us already and is no different in its affect on the body!

The stress of political campaigns will never go away - especially if you read newspapers and watch television. The good news is that humans have an innate ability to self-teach and choose their actions based upon trial and error and new information. Our enormous and impressive brain can learn whatever we put our focus on. We can also unlearn that which is not working to our advantage.

When you understand that change is effected first through awareness (How do you respond to your life stresses? What does it feel like to live in your body?) and then through action (what can I do to make a difference in how I feel?), you will be on the road to taking back control of your muscles, aches and pains and quality of life.

Click here to purchase the Pain-Free Somatics DVDs.

Click here to take a Somatic Movement class.

Click here for free self-care Somatic Movement videos.

Thank you to Tricia Engelking, RYT, SEC for her inspiration in writing this post.

All images taken from clotureclub.com

How Somatic Exercises Can Teach You To Get Rid of "Degenerative Disc Disease"

I recently read an article about Mike Crawshaw, a young British singer, who stated that his "spine is crumbling" and to avoid any potential harm through surgery, he chose to exercise. One doctor is quoted as saying, ‘The right kind of exercise can be helpful. You can strengthen the back muscles that support everything. This helps deal with the spasms in the affected muscles that cause pain. It’s possible to help with these problems without surgery.’ Crawshaw made the best decision for himself by finding a way to strengthen his back muscles. The doctor's statement, however, isn't completely correct; strengthening back muscles "to support everything" will not help deal with muscle spasms in the areas that cause pain. If back muscles are stuck in a state of heightened tension that pulls the discs closer together, you are more likely to "strengthen your pain" than to relieve it.

First here is a perspective on degenerative discs from a Somatic Education perspective. Then we will discuss strengthening the back in order to "support" the allegedly weak spine:

Is a "degenerative disc" caused by a disease process or is it a case of poor muscle function, which results in compressed, herniated and otherwise weakened discs?  The label "degenerative disc disease" sounds like a pathology that supposedly develops with age. Yes, arthritic changes can emerge due to age, poor diet, lack of sufficient water, lack of movement and overuse injuries; all of these can contribute to disc problems.  Most "degenerative discs" that I have seen in my practice are another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia, which can be eliminated when one learns to regain control of one's muscular system, improve nervous system function of the muscles, and restore muscle length.

Muscles put pressure on discs. Release the tight muscles and the discs have more room to move.

In an X-ray, discs that are squeezed tightly together look as if they're X-rayabout to crumble, causing the spine to buckle like an unstable building. Look at the X-ray on the right. Notice how one disc (the black arrow) has a lot of space, while the other (white arrow) is squeezed together. It doesn't look good, does it? The spaces between the discs are uneven and the spine is being pulled into an uneven "archer's bow," which gives the appearance of excess pressure on the lower vertebra (white arrow).

But what exactly pulls the spine into this shape? The muscles, of course.


And why would the muscles pull on the spine like this? They are stuck in what Thomas Hanna called the "Green Light Reflex," a reflex that contracts the muscles to prepare them for action. This reflex, like all reflexes is simply an unconditioned response to stress. The problem occurs when it becomes conditioned and habituated; the brain can literally forget how to relax the muscles. Here's the thing: you can't see muscles on an X-ray; all you can see is the result of the bones being pulled by the muscles.

Never strengthen something you can't feel.

Degenerative disc disease is a functional problem of the sensory motor system, not dissimilar to many other musculoskeletal problems that are deemed structural by the medical world. Once you lose awareness of your movement and how the way in which you respond and adapt to stress (mentally, emotionally and physically) you, too, may develop problems with your discs. There is a solution that doesn't involve surgery: Clinical Somatic Education and Hanna Somatic Exercises.

We all need to be strong, so awareness of what you can and cannot feel and control in your body is the first step to strengthening. The second step is to regain full muscle function and length. Once this is achieved, your brain now works with a muscle that is not being restricted by Sensory Motor Amnesia. Think of it this way: moving with Sensory Motor Amnesia is like trying to drive with the emergency brake on. Once Sensory Motor Amnesia is eliminated, create an enjoyable strengthening routine and be sure to include Somatic Exercises as a warm-up and cool-down to maintain optimum muscle function.

Heal Herniated Discs with Hanna Somatics

I've gone to an acupuncturist, pain medicine doctor, sports medicine doctor, massage therapist, physical therapist - and they all told me, "you'll never get rid of this. It will never go away."

This is what my client, Joanne (not her real name) told me before her first clinical Somatics session. She had a herniated disc, severe back pain and sacroiliac joint pain. She had a feeling that "life's impacts," as she called them, had more of an effect on her than anything else. I agreed with her. I explained some basics about muscles and bones in order to demystify what up until then had been an elusive problem for her:

  • Muscles attach to bones and muscles move bones.
  • The brain and nervous system senses and moves your muscles.
  • The brain reflexively responds and adapts over time to stresses in the environment by tightening muscles in specific, full body patterns.
  • If these stress responses are on-going or severe enough (i.e. an accident), the brain and muscles learn to stay chronically contracted as if the stress were still occurring, even as if has stopped.
  • Because muscles learn to be really good at contracting and holding the body tightly, they must learn to relax and release. This can only be achieved through improving one's ability to sense and control one's muscles and movement.

Herniated discs are the structural result of poor muscle function.

With the exception of a traumatic accident, discs herniate because the muscles attach to them are so strongly contracted - and unable to relax - that they push the disc material out.  sciatica An X-ray can show a protrusion in your spine - but the question doctors fails to ask is, "What is happening in the muscles, that is putting excess pressure on the spine and discs?

Herniated discs are one of the most common muscle pain conditions I see in my clinical practice; they are yet another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia. More specifically, herniated discs are the result of habituation to two Somatic Stress Reflexes:

Trauma Reflex: The brain's response to an accident, injury, surgery or one-sided functional task (such as holding a baby on one hip). The muscles of the waist and trunk rotators contract on one side in order to avoid pain.  There is always a slight side bending or twist apparent in people with a trauma reflex. The waist muscles (the internal and external obliques, the quadratus lumborum, which "hikes" the pelvis on one side) cause an uneven pull on the lumbar spine (or on the cervical spine in the case of a cervical herniation). This, in affect, herniates the disc.

Green Light Reflex: This reflex contracts all the muscles of the back of the body, from sacrum to occiput, is a "call to action" response, invoked hundreds of times a day in our busy industrialized society. It is the cause of most chronic back pain. The muscles of the back contract strongly, yet feel weak and fatigued.

Over the course of five clinical Somatics sessions Joanne learned to release, relax and regain control overthe muscles of her waist, back and pelvis, all of which had become rigid and contracted over the years. She learned to pandiculate rather than stretch her muscles, restoring full muscle function and length to her weary muscles. When she learned to release her back muscles her shooting pain began to disappear. Once her waist and trunk rotators began to soften she enjoyed moving her hips and pelvis without fear of pain when she walked. "My husband won't know what's walking in the door!" she laughed after one session.

Here are three of the most important exercises that Joanne did to help her relax her back and waist muscles - Arch and Flatten, to release tight back muscles, the Side Bend and the Washrag.

Joanne now understood that her loss of body awareness and muscle control - the very thing that had contributed to her muscle pain - had developed over time due to stress. The next step for her is to continue to improve her ability to self-sense and self-correct through her practice of Hanna Somatic Exercises. Life is movement, and the learning is hers to explore for the rest of her life. She will only get better and better.

Her doctors were wrong and she knew it all along. Her pain has gone away.

New Year's Resolution #1: Get Rid of Back Pain

How many of you have back pain and found that last year you spent hundreds of dollars and countless hours attempting to get rid of it? You may have tried stretching, chiropractic, dry needling, foam rollers, surgery, or even drugs, but none of these methods have helped you for the long term.

Hanna Somatics teaches a long-term, scientifically based solution to back pain.

Education is one of the best ways to demystify almost any problem.  The more you know, the more you can help yourself. When it comes to eliminating chronic back pain there is some simple, profoundly sensible scientific information that is missing in most medical and therapeutic approaches to this problem: how the brain senses and controls the muscles.

The brain-to-muscle connection acts like a simple feedback loop, much like the underlying system of a computer: sensory (feeling) information goes into the brain and motor (movement) messages go out to the muscles.  You sense, you move, you sense, you move.

When it comes to back pain specifically, there is a specific Green light reflexbrain reflex, called the Green Light Reflex (or Landau Response) that is at the root of most chronic back pain. This reflex is invoked whenever there is a "call to action" to get something done: the alarm clock goes off, we're late for work, we need to stand all day, we're rushing here and there. When the Green Light Reflex occurs, all of the muscles of the back of the body, from the base of the skull down to the tailbone contract tightly to move us forward into action. In its extreme, the Green Light Reflex looks like the photo at right.

The Green Light Reflex is a positive response to stress. However, we don't want to get stuck in this (or any) reflex pattern. We need to learn to relax the muscles of the back when they are no longer needed for an action.

Whatever we do consistently becomes a habit at the brain level. If we constantly contract our backs in response to stress, yet neglect to remind those muscles to relax and release when they're no longer needed, the muscles will learn to stay tight and contracted. Tight muscles are inefficient, fatigued, and painful muscles that are constantly switched on.

The easy solution to back pain is to learn to release the tight muscles of the back.

No doctor, massage therapist, or physical therapist can release your back muscles for you; you must do it for yourself.

Arch and Flatten is one of the most basic, safe and simple movements you could ever do to begin to regain control of your back muscles, relieve muscle pain and take back control of your body.

Hanna Somatic Exercises are a simple, inexpensive way to begin to learn to regain control of your back muscles so you can get rid of your pain - for the long term. I am convinced that if doctors, physical therapists ad massage therapists were to teach Hanna Somatic Exercises to those with back pain, they would help save millions of healthcare dollars.

Check out the Essential Somatics® Store for my book and DVDs.

Interested in more? You can attend a workshop or Somatics training.

The Most Important Somatic Exercise for Back Pain Is....

... the Back Lift

It is also the Somatic Exercise that many people do incorrectly.

Instead of sensing, feeling, and contracting their back muscles, then slowly releasing them, they recruit other muscles to do the movement. Many people have trouble with this exercise, because they have Sensory Motor Amnesia in their backs, necks, and shoulders. Because this exercise is one of the most powerful somatic exercises you could ever learn to eliminate back, neck, and shoulder pain, it's important to do it correctly.

Technically speaking, Somatic Exercises are merely sensory motor movement patterns that recreate the stress reflexes that occur involuntarily in every human being. They are also explorations of simple movement: the legs moving in or out, the shoulders rolling, the head lifting.

They are perfectly natural for the human body, and by moving in a slow, gentle way we are able to become aware of where we can and cannot control our muscles and our movement. That being said, there is an optimum way to do Somatic Exercises in order to get the most benefit and to retrain the brain to be able to release spastic muscles, and improve sensory awareness and muscle function.

In my book, Move Without Pain, I write that the back lift "addresses all the IMG_3540muscles in  the back of the body that contract in response to activity and ongoing stress." This is the Green Light Reflex (also called the Landau Response). Whenever you are called into action - the phone rings, you're in a hurry to go somewhere, you need to do something - all the muscles on the back of the body contract. It's a joyful, useful reflex.

In the back lift you recreate the green light reflex, so you can decreate it (and recognize it) when it happens so that you don't get stuck in it. This action of contracting, then slowly lengthening into relaxation, is called pandiculation. It resets muscle function, length and tonus in one easy movement. This is what you've seen your cat or dog do when they get up from rest.

Many of us no longer take the time to relax our muscles after activity, so these muscles learn to stay contracted - even when we're asleep. Doing the back lift brings your brain back into sensory and motor control of the muscles. Once you can begin to feel the muscles and how they tighten, then you can release them.

Below is a video with a tip for how to get the most out of the back lift. In my 3-day Somatic Exercise Coach training I teach movement, medical and fitness/athletic professionals how to skillfully teach the Somatic Exercises to their clients so they can move better and do more of whatever activity the practitioner is teaching them. I coach them to be able to see how Sensory Motor Amnesia presents itself within each of the Somatic Exercises. The video below shows one of the ways people unnecessary muscles in order to do this exercise.

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Click here for more information about how to train to skillfully teach Somatic Exercises using the fundamentals of Hanna Somatic Education.

To buy any of the Essential Somatics® instructional DVDs, click here.

Somatic Squats

Properly executed squats are one of the most useful movements you could do on a daily basis. Having the ability to squat down to the ground uses all the muscles of the core in a coordinated movement that is a catch-all exercise of strengthening. Despite the emphasis on core strengthening anddeep-squat the finer points of how to squat properly I've seen a tendency in many athletes toward habituating the Green Light Reflex. This means that the muscles of the back of the body (the "posterior chain") - become tight and stay tight. If the back of the body is tight, the front of the body, and especially the hip flexors, co-contract. It's a full body pattern response to stress.

There is a need for a different kind of squat, done as more of a somatic release - after a training session of vigorous athletic squats. The "laundry squat," also known as a "frog squat" is a simple squat that, when done fluidly and effortlessly, allows for coordination and communication between all of the sinawsouqjoints, from the neck and mid-back all the way down to the knees, ankles, and rounded pelvis. There should be an easy, coordinated "distribution of labor" that feels utterly natural and effortless to do.

Most Westerners don't squat in our daily lives, so if you don't want to lose the ability to bend the knees, hips and ankles to get up and down, there's no time like the present to begin bringing this quintessentially human movement back into your life.

Try this "Somatic Squat" for improved flexibility when squatting.

The "laundry squat" is simple: you sink straight down to the ground, the tailbone drops, the backCave - India 2 lengthens, the pelvis gently rounds under a bit and the weight  settles on the heels and the mid-foot. The upper body is slightly forward. It's the preferred squat of millions of people in Asia and Africa. And of me, when I'm in a cave in India (at right).

I understand that many people are afraid to squat; perhaps they've had knee surgery, hip problems, an accident or injury. Any kind of injury, as you already know if you've been following this blog, has the potential to create Sensory Motor Amnesia in the brain/muscle connection. This means that you lose an accurate sense of how you move your body and where it is in space. Perhaps squatting is scary because you've lost the connection between the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back.

Whatever your fear, I invite you to begin to explore this important and basic human movement. View the short video below for a fun exploration that can begin to create more awareness and freedom through the shoulders, back, and hips. By exploring and differentiating the twisting of the shoulders and hips, and gently increasing movement in the ribcage, you might find that the front movement of squatting becomes a little easier. This exploration is also useful for anyone with scoliosis whose ribcage feels more compressed on one side. I enjoyed making the video - and yes, it helped me squat more smoothly and effortlessly.

This "laundry squat" exploration is taken from the book Mindful Spontaneity by Ruthy Alon. Enjoy it and let me know how it works for you.

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Try These Somatic Exercises to Prevent Back Surgery

25 years ago Thomas Hanna, PhD, wrote in his book, Somatics, that 85% of adults suffer from back pain. That statistic hasn't changed, (8 out of 10 people in the United States suffers at one time or the other with back pain), and little has been done to educate doctors or patients about the root cause of most back pain: the brain and the way in which it senses and controls the back muscles. I was inspired to write this blog post because of a familiar advertisement in my Sunday New York Times for a back pain center in New York City that does less invasive back surgery: safest procedure, NO cutting, NO bleeding, NO drilling, NO scarring! The missing piece to this advertisement is "no sensible information about why your muscles are causing you pain!"

From my clinical experience many back surgeries could be prevented with some basic understanding of why back muscles become tight and painful and how to release and relax them. Back pain is not as mysterious as we are led to believe.

Surgery can be life saving, yet one study that looked at recovery rates for certain back pain surgeries concluded that "intensive rehabilitation" is, over time, more effective than surgery.

Somatic Education is the least invasive solution to back pain available.

Most chronic back pain develops over time as an habituated response to stress. The Landau Response (also referred to as the Green Light Reflex in Hanna Somatic Education) is a brain stem reflex that is triggered whenever  we are called upon to get something done - answer the phone, write emails, rush around, pay attention... hurry up!

Our back muscles, from the base of the skull down to the sacrum/tailbone contract, spurring us into action. These muscles also contract to allow us to run, jump, walk, and engage in vigorous, fun activities. If, however, these muscles are never taught to relax and release on a daily basis, they can end up constantly "switched on" and tight, painful, and sore.

This Green Light Reflex (also known as the Landau Response) is first triggered at the age of about five months, when a baby discovers his back muscles. All of the muscles on the back of the body contract - the neck muscles, rhomboids between the shoulder blades, upper trapezius, gluteals - to pick the head up. From that moment onward, for the rest of that person's life, those back muscles will reflexively contract whenever there is a need to respond to a task.

There is nothing wrong with this reflex; it merely prepares us for an action. However, in today's world, this reflex is triggered so continuously that, for many people, it gradually begins to habituate. Our brain literally teaches our back muscles to stay contracted and "frozen" in a constant state of  readiness (the photo at right shows a typical green light reflex posture).

If left unchecked, constantly contracted back muscles can lead to structural problems - herniated discs, bulging discs, and sacroiliac pain.

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. In fact, we know that the areas where there is greater stress… namely urban industrial societies, we have the highest incidence of lower back pain.

–Thomas Hanna, PhD

This particular pattern of Sensory Motor Amnesia is reversible with a daily routine of Somatic Exercises. Somatic Exercises teach you to reeducate your muscles through slow, gentle, safe movement. You begin to regain voluntary control of muscles that have learned (due to stress adaptation) to stay tight and painful. You can learn the most important Somatic Exercises you will ever need to reverse and eliminate chronic back pain on my DVD, Pain Relief Through Movement.

Try these Somatic Exercises for back pain relief:

Lumbar Supports Don't Prevent Back Pain

Many clients who come to me with back pain ask about lumbar supports; do they have the right one? Should they use it or not? Science Daily cites studies reporting that lumbar supports don't actually help those with back pain. I agree. And here's why...

Back pain is a result of chronically contracted back muscles.

Your back doesn't need "support" to "fix" your pain; it needs those chronically contracted muscles to be addressed! Every time we are called to action (the phone rings, our children call us for help, running to catch the train, checking our email, standing at our job) our back muscles contract to enable us to move forward and "get the job done." This is called the Landau Response. Thomas Hanna called it the Green Light Reflex.

The Landau Response is a primitive brain stem reflex hardwired into our nervous system that instantly contracts our back muscles in walking, running, reaching, bending, etc. However, when that reflex is triggered hundreds of times a day it can become habituated and cause the back to arch like a bow while the shoulders tighten back and the neck straightens. It can contribute to sciatica, hip, shoulder, neck and joint pain. It's a useful reflex, but we don't want to get stuck in it. When muscles tighten even when we are at rest, this is called Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). The photo at left shows what an habituated Green Light Reflex looks like.

When we use a lumbar support, our lower back is actually back-support-pillow-for-chair1being encouraged to STAY arched, as in the photo on the right. Perhaps this is why the studies cited in the Science Daily article found that lumbar supports didn't actually relieve people's back pain.

Back pain comes from contracted muscles, therefore it is important to learn to RELAX those muscles through gentle Somatic Movements. Then you can learn to sit balanced and straight, rather than with a supported curve. Try this easy seated movement in order to improve your sitting. You can save yourself some money (and pain) by not having to buy that lumbar support.

Eliminate Back Pain and Reclaim Your Life

This is the first of a series of several stories about people who have come to me in pain, and, through learning to relax their chronically tight muscles, have told me that they literally feel as if "they have their life back."


This photo shows a slim, athletic body that looks to have almost perfect posture. Look closer, though, and see how her back is arched in a C-shape. Tight muscles have arched her back and over time created stiff, painful back muscles all along the back of her body.

"I just feel old," Sarah told me when she came to my office for a consultation. "I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s my age, but I don't think so. I used to be able to run, take yoga class, and work out, but now everything just hurts. I even used to ski and now I can’t even do that! I mean, I’m only 46, but I feel like I’m 80."

Her doctor told her that she might have arthritis due to her age, but that there’s nothing wrong with her. He suggested she slow down and rest, and that "might feel better with time." Sarah was thin, healthy and very athletic, but with chronic back pain. She was not only tired, but scareGreen light reflexd. She couldn't imagine her life without movement and exercise.

Green Light

After the very first session in which she learned how to relax the large muscles of her back, she said "she knew there was hope." She learned that nothing was wrong with her; she had simply gotten stuck and created bad habits of sitting and standing which were causing her back pain. She had habituated to what Thomas Hanna called the Green Light Reflex.

This full body reflex instantly contracts the muscles of the back of the body any time there is a demand put on us and there is a need to get something done. It is a positive response to stress and allows us to run, walk, stand, or carry things. However, you don't want to  get stuck in this reflex pattern.

Movement that helps

At the end of her first session, I taught her the sitting exercise; she learned that the way in which she sat caused her back muscles to constantly contract. She was shocked to realize that for  years she had been sitting with an overly arched lower back while all the time thinking that she was sitting up "straight."

"I've been teaching my children to sit the same way. I'm very particular about their posture, and I always tell them to stand up straight. I can now see that I'm teaching them the wrong way to sit," she confessed.

Sarah learned several easy, gentle Somatic Exercises, which, when done every day, helped her to remember what it feels like to both release and control her muscles. She told me, "I didn't even know that I wasn't relaxed until I started doing these exercises." We did three more sessions, but I haven't seen her in a while. However, I do hear from her personal trainer that she's back to working out and feeling excellent!

To purchase my Pain-Free Somatic Exercise DVDs, visit the Essential Somatics® store.

Stressful Life, Stressful Posture

In my last post I wrote about "David," who came into his first Somatics class with back pain, tight shoulders and rigid posture. Here's what he looked like. It's what Thomas Hanna called the Green Light Reflex also known referred to as the Landau Response. Green Light Reflex FRONTThis reflex is a major contributor to chronic back pain and is prevalent in urban industrial societies. This reflex is a "call to action" response to the need to get things done: standing all day as a teacher, sitting at a desk writing emails, driving, traveling, handling myriad tasks that must be done right away!  The back muscles tighten to get us ready to move. There’s nothing wrong with that reflex - you just don't want to get stuck in it. If you live in a society where this reflex is constantly evoked, you will begin to habituate to it. This is where, in my clinical experience, most cases of chronic back pain originate.

The muscles involved in this reflex are the deep muscles of the back that extend from the base of the skull down to the sacrum, the neck and shoulder muscles, buttocks, hamstrings and calf muscles.

What David realized was that he'd gotten stuck and "frozen" in a posture of contracted back muscles, pinned back shoulders and rigid neck. He had forgotten how to sit without tightening his back. Through Somatic Movement classes he learned gentle, easy movement patterns that taught him to regain both sensation, and control of this back muscles. The payoff was that he also learned how to voluntarily relax his back muscles so he would never have to get stuck like that again!

But he also understands that anything you do consistently becomes a habit. This is why he not only takes the time to do 15 minutes of Somatic Movement every day, but also comes to class in order to reinforce and strengthen awareness, control and coordination of his entire body. This is why his back pain is gone and he can travel, sit at his computer, and deal with a stressful job without allowing his stress to take control over him. He's taken control over his stress!

Top 3 Myths About Poor Posture

I've heard several very common misconceptions people have about their posture.

Thankfully due to advances in Hanna Somatic Education and neuroscience, more people are accepting the fact that they have the ability to change their posture through diligent awareness and practice. At one time I accepted the idea that I simply had "bad knees," (after all, I'd had 4 knee surgeries!), and one day I would need a knee replacement. On top of that I believed I probably had arthritis, which accounted for my inability to kneel for any period of time. After studying Hanna Somatic Education and regaining a new awareness of my movement, I realized I was wrong on all counts: I'm arthritis-free  and more happy kneeling now than sitting in a chair!

Myth #1: Poor posture is hereditary.

Sometimes it seems that way. Mother and daughter have identical posture. The son walks exactly like his dad. But the latest scientific research on "mirror neurons" in the brain, suggests otherwise. Mirror neurons are key neurons in our brains that fire when we watch others perform actions. In working with children I often see an imitation of their parents' posture. We are their first teachers, after all. One young woman I worked with had straight, tall posture until she hit about fourteen years old. Then, under school stress, she began to imitate her mother, slumping forward in a slouched posture. She is now aware of her tendency to slump when stressed (a symptom of the Red Light Reflex), and is able to voluntarily self correct.

Myth #2: Poor posture is the result of weak muscles.

Posture is a learned, habituated way of holding yourself in response to life's stresses. Even in cases of scoliosis, there is an adaptation to a one sided trauma that creates a side bending/twisting. We learn to hold ourselves according to has happened to us and/or what we do every day. That being the case, when our posture is one of imbalance (i.e. muscles too tight, shoulders slumped forward, side-leaning), proper coordination of muscles is thrown off. The end result is unequal control of agonist and antagonist muscles. What is required here is full body, functional re-education of those muscles so that coordination is regained and balanced posture is more easily maintained.

Myth #3: Your posture has "always been that way."

Again, with rare exceptions, posture doesn't happen to you. Our posture is a look into how we adapt to our surroundings. Our posture is a snapshot of our accumulated tension and, in many cases, our attitudes toward life. We are creatures of adaptation, physically and emotionally. If we sit at a desk all day, we will adapt in order to be able to do that all day. Maybe we'll over-arch our lower backs into the Green Light Reflex of forward action. If we are worriers, we will probably tend to hunch our shoulders and slump and get stuck in a Red Light Reflex. This can cause painful neck and shoulder problems. If we have suffered a traumatic accident, we might tend to lean more to one side than the other. This posture can cause sciatica, hip pain, plantar fasciitis and knee pain. It's called the Trauma Reflex. Posture is an on-going, fluid process of being.