Breathe Smarter, Not Harder

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

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

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

Pandiculate your breathing

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

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

Do this on both sides.

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

How Your Response to Stress Contributes to Pain

The Three Somatic Reflexes

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

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

How do you respond to stress?

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

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

More than just a physical experience...

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

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

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

4 Ways to Understand Yourself and Take Back Control

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

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

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

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

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

What happened next took me by surprise:

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

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

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

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

Most muscle pain problems are functional in nature, not structural

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

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

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

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

Click here to purchase Martha's Pain Relief videos.

Why We Have Low Back Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try this somatic exercise for relief of your back pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somatic Exercises and pandiculation prepares you to move well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Participants will learn:

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

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

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

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

Somatics and ALS: What Is Freedom, Really?

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

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

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

Back Pain After Gardening?

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

 

11160009_870839839648700_6727914488985578643_nThe author, pandiculating in her garden.

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

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

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

The science of stretching versus pandiculation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Daily Somatics Hip Pain Relief Routine

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

My daily pain relief tips for hip pain

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

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

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

A varied routine, with movements such as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Three Myths About Hip Pain

Myth #1 - Your hip pain is due to arthritis

Sometimes hip pain is due to severe arthritis, very often it's not.

When you go to a doctor with hip pain their job is to give you a diagnosis because this is what most people want. Unless you are given an X-ray, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have arthritis, the doctor has no way of knowing whether your pain is due to arthritis. I was once told that, due to my age, I had arthritis. The doctor, despite not bothering to take an X-ray, insisted he was right when, in fact, he wasn't. Arthritis is often a "garbage pail diagnosis" - in reality, your hip pain is often caused by tight muscles that are in a state of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

And sometimes you can have arthritis but be moving well with no pain.

Myth #2 - Your hips are weak

It's time to retire this myth in particular. Those coming to me with hip pain have very little movement in the center of their bodies. Their hips don't sway, and their gait isn't smooth and fluid. The problem is not weakness, but tightness.

When muscles learn to stay tight (due to stress reflexes), they lose their full function. They can no longer contract and release fully as a healthy muscle should. Muscles in a state of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) have lost their physiological ability to release.  They are far from weak; they are, in fact, so strong that they cannot relax!

Doctors frequently pescribe physical therapy due to "weak muscles." Strengthening muscles that are in a state of SMA only makes them worse, as I discuss in this post about Tiger Woods' back injury.

Myth #3 - Surgery is the only option for hip pain

The medical profession looks at tight hip joints and sees a structural problem. Somatic Educators look at tight hip joints and see a functional problem. Doctors don't look at movement and patterns; they focus on separate body parts in an effort to "fix" them. Somatic Educators look for what's not moving when someone walks, and teaches them to improve sensory motor control of the muscles in order  to create more release in the center. This can create space and more movement in the joints. Most one-sided hip pain is due to an habituated Trauma Reflex; this reflex also causes an imbalance in the somatic center, altering one's gait and ability to maintain proper balance.

Long term muscle function can result in structural damage, however. Labral tears, osteoarthritis can result from decades of muscle dysfunction. Wouldn't it be a good idea to learn to take back control of your muscle function and coordination, your balance and your ability to sense and move yourself before jumping into surgery?

In this video I share a wonderful variation of the Side Bend, one of the most important and helpful Somatic Exercises you could ever do for hip joint pain. Try it and see how it feels.

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Click here for my Pain-Free Legs and Hips DVD, which has plenty of helpful Somatic Exercises to help you release, relax and control the muscles that move your legs and hips.

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 Clinical Somatics Can Bring Tiger Woods Back Into Competition

Tiger Woods is taking a leave of absence from golf. Even he seems confused about what the real problem is. Does he need to keep changing his swing? Improve his attitude with sports psychology? Get stronger? Tiger has tried just about everything, from the best back surgeons to his trusted physical therapists and coaches, yet nothing has worked for the long term. His story is, unfortunately, all too common. He is hitting his head against the medical wall because his trusted practitioners and trainers are trying to "fix" him from the outside in, when the problem all along has been happening on the inside - within his own sensory motor system.

Tiger Woods has Sensory Motor Amnesia.

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The reason none of his treatments are working for the long term is because Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) can only be eliminated by learning, through movement, how to release and relax his muscles at the level of the nervous system. He is unaware of how he has adapted physically to the accidents, injuries, and repetitive movements and stresses of his life. These have all taught his muscles to stay contracted and never fully release. These adaptations of muscular holding, all happening within the brain, have changed the way he moves and his once powerful and accurate golf swing has gone by the wayside. He can, however, get it back.

The brain teaches muscles how to move; that's how elite athletes learn to move so efficiently. Tiger's brain has taught him to contract his waist and trunk rotators in response to the constant twisting inherent in golf as well as in response to the accidents and surgeries he has experienced. This habitual pattern is called the Trauma Reflex.

Tiger can very easily get back on top in golf once he learns how to eliminate his Sensory Motor Amnesia and regain an accurate sense of himself - from the inside out. He has not only lost control of his muscular system; he's lost control of what it feels like to be Tiger Woods. Restoring muscle function and reducing excess muscle tonus is a learning process that will not come through traditional strengthening/stretching, PT or surgery.

Sensory Motor Amnesia can only be eliminated by changing the way the brain senses and controls the muscles

His doctors and trainers don't know what to do with him because SMA doesn't show up on MRI's, X-rays or blood tests. Surgery only exacerbates SMA because it creates even more muscular compensation and adaptation in the brain/muscle sensory motor connection. It doesn't address the root of the problem: his muscles are sub-cortically (involuntarily/unconsciously) contracted all the time and his brain cannot recruit his muscles accurately, nor relax them fully.

Mo Skelton, a physical therapist at McCurtain Memorial Hospital, recommends the following advice:

Woods must now take time to listen to his body, get off the course and fully restore his strength and mobility. Rest is not what he needs most. He needs strength. Woods must focus on strengthening his erector spinae muscles, his abdominals and obliques as secondary stabilizers, and his posterior chain for function. 

This is the the same recycled myth about muscle pain that fitness trainers have been teaching for decades: when you lose your form or experience back pain it's because you're weak. This couldn't be further from the truth. In actuality, muscle pain develops because the muscles are so strong they cannot, physiologically, relax nor recruit properly. Strengthening only makes things worse.

What Tiger Woods needs is not more muscles, a bigger squat or stronger obliques. He needs to learn to relax the muscles of his back and waist.

And I would add that yes, he needs to take time off and devote himself to learning to reverse his Sensory Motor Amnesia and regain skilled cortical control of his sensory motor system. It won't take long for him to be back on top. 

Tiger needs to learn how to pandiculate with Somatic Exercises, rather than stretch and strengthen and spend time working with a skilled Clinical Somatic Educator in a clinical setting. He needs to de-habituate the stress reflexes he is stuck in so he can regain balance in the center of his body and move freely again. I would love to see Tiger back on top of his game and back in control of his life. With Clinical Somatics he will find that not only does his life go better, but his golf game comes right back where it used to be - and possibly even stronger than before.

Here is a sample of a good place for him to start:

How To Reverse Hip Pain

Here is an old blog post, recycled and updated with free videos. It has stood the test of time.

Strengthening hip muscles doesn't always relieve hip joint pain.

In this post about hip pain and labral tears I questioned the commonly held belief that strengthening the muscles of the hip will somehow relieve general hip joint pain when you've had an injury (like a labral tear).  Here's a recap:

  1. Labral tears are generally the result of athletic injury or wear and tear over the years due to accidents. Labral tears cause instability in the hip.

  2. Instability in a joint causes muscles to contract to try and create stability.

  3. This kind of reflexive contraction to save yourself from further pain or injury or to compensate because because of an injury changes the way in which you would normally move.

  4. The muscles involved in this "Trauma Reflex" pattern must be trained to relax first before beginning any course of strengthening or exercise. Otherwise you will more deeply entrench a pattern of muscular dysfunction.

I recently read a blog written by a young woman who has struggled with hip pain (and also has a labral hip tear) for 4 years.  One extensive post had to do with her experience of dealing with hip pain. She strongly advocated hip exercises, and included links to videos of yoga stretches and repetitive Jane Fonda-esque exercises, all under the heading, "Hip Exercises Will Hurt."

Maybe they will.

And if you have a hip injury that hasn't been addressed, hip exercises will hurt your chances of ever feeling really good again.

To  her credit, the writer admitted that she still has hip pain despite the exercises and noticed that one leg seems "shorter" than the other - yet her own doctor's advice was to strengthen her hip muscles and to "not expect much more mobility than she already had." Despite her good intentions and obvious search for pain relief, from a Somatic Education perspective there is better advice out there than what her doctors gave her or what she is giving her readers.

Try these Somatic Exercises for hip pain relief.

When hip joints are tight, it's because the muscles that attach into the joints have learned to stay tight. They need to be retrained, slowly and intelligently - not forcefully - to release, lengthen and move freely again.

Here are a few easy movements you can do at home to begin to release hip muscles that, when habitually contracted, contribute to chronic pain. Then I'd like to caution you against certain commonly prescribed exercises that can sometimes make hip pain worse.

Instead of stretching the muscles as you go through these movements, you will pandiculate them - contracting the muscle first, then slowly lengthening it to a full relaxation (as if you were imitating a cat or dog getting up from rest). Pandiculation is the key to resetting muscle length and sensory awareness and motor control without forceful pr painful stretching.

Arch and flatten: This movement relaxes the back muscles. Tight back muscles contribute to tight hip joints.

Arch and curl: This movement helps to relax the abdominal muscles, while the washrag allows for easier full body twisting. It relaxes the back, waist, belly and hips.

Side Bend: This movement directly addresses the "Trauma Reflex" muscles of trunk rotation that, when habitually contracted, are probably the biggest contributor to hip pain. This movement will teach you to relax, release and lengthen the waist muscles so that both sides of your waist are the same length and have the same ability to bend from side to side.

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Lay on your right side, as shown in the photo below. Have the knees folded on top of each other at right angles to the body. Rest your left arm on the floor so that your head can rest on it. Get comfortable.

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Let's first explore the lower part of this exercise: put your top hand at your waist and, keeping the knees together, slowly lift the top foot as shown at right. Notice how the hip slides up toward the ribs as you lift the foot. Allow the hip to move as the foot lifts. The waist muscles are drawing the hip up as the foot lifts. Repeat that movement 3 times slowly. Completely release the hip and foot back to neutral.

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Now let's explore the upper part of the exercise: reach the left hand over top of the head and grab your right ear. Inhale and on the exhale, very slowly lift the head into the air. Let the waist muscles and ribs contract to bring your head up. Sense the contraction in the waist as your ribs squeeze down toward your hip. Slowly release down to neutral. Repeat this 3 time slowly.

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Now, let's put both movements together for a full pandiculation of the waist muscles. Inhale, expanding the ribs, and on the exhale lift the head, and the top foot at the same time. The ribs squeeze down as the hip slides up toward the ribs. You're making an accordion with the waist muscles!Let the movement of the waist and hip raise the foot. Notice the contraction in the groin as well. Only go as far as is comfortable and don't force any movement! You are retraining the muscles, and reminding them that they can move.

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On the inhale, slowly lower the foot and the head down at the same time. You're lengthening and relaxing the waist muscles as the hip rolls down to neutral and the ribs relax.  up the right hip to touch the right armpit. Lengthen the entire side of your body as you come down to neutral and completely relax as shown in the photo on the lower right. You're beginning to gain length in the waist muscles! Repeat this movement 6 times slowly.

Roll onto your back and take a minute to notice the difference in sensation between your left side and your right side. Let your brain soak up the sensory feedback. Now roll onto the other side and repeat the side bend 6 times slowly.

Finish this series of movements with theWashrag.

Remeber to do all of these movements SLOWLY, GENTLY, and WITH AWARENESS.

Take a moment after doing these movements to notice the sensations of your body. Lie quietly on your back. This allows your brain time to absorb the sensory feedback you have given it. This new sensory awareness results in improved motor skill and flexibility.

In my next post, I'll discuss my own answers to the following questions about labral tears:

  1. Should they be repaired?

  2. How do you deal with the discomfort of a tear if your doctor says, "let's just wait and see."

  3. Are you setting yourself up to create serious structural damage to the hip joint by not repairing the structural weakness?

I welcome all feedback about the advice given in this blogpost. Do the above movements for a couple of days and let me know how it goes. If you need help, advice or guidance, please contact me!

To learn these movements at home for rapid, long-term muscle pain relief, you can purchase my new, easy-to-follow instructional DVD.

What Hanna Somatics Has To Teach The Fitness Industry

Here is a guest blog post from Chris Carlsen, a fitness trainer in Astoria, NY. This is his story of how he has come to combine Somatic Exercises and fitness training for a winning workout: Several years ago I read an article on “Somatic Exercises.”  To quote Thomas Hanna, "Somatic education is the use of sensory-motor learning to gain greater voluntary control of ones physiological process." To learn “somatically” means that the learning occurs within the individual. It is an internalized process. This mirrored my philosophy based on my training in kettlebells, movement assessments and human performance. I wanted to know more.

I found Laura Gates, a Certified Hanna Somatic Educator, based in New York City.  What I learned was unbelievable: practically every movement we did was related to an exercise or assessment.  “Part 2” of Hanna’s back lift 6Walking Exercises is the same "pushing of the knee away" that we do when we roll in the initiation of the Turkish Get-up. The “Flower” relates to the squat pattern (feeling the femurs move in the hip socket). The Back Lift retrains the connection of one hip and the opposite shoulder (T-Spine rotation).

Each educator may have different ways to explain movement, yet there is no denying that we are all helping to restore the same movement patterns. The power of Somatic Exercises comes from exploration of movement on the floor, as we did when we were babies. We are reeducating sensory motor movement without the stress of gravity or body-weight. This creates awareness and reverse Sensory Motor Amnesia. And, as with fitness, breathing guided every somatic movement.

Hanna Somatics has brought my personal training full circle; it is the line that connects all the dots. Enhancing my understanding of the mind, brain, body feedback loop and the central nervous system has improved every aspect of my training. My students' consciousness of their movement and posture has become more consistent and the Somatic Exercises have become great references for lifting cues. As for me personally, my lifts feel slower in my head but still strong and powerful in execution. Somatics will be something I incorporate for the rest of my life.

When Laura told me about the Essential Somatics® Somatic Exercise Coaching Training I could not pass up the opportunity to learn more and educate my trainers. The training was awesome. Martha Peterson and Laura are not only great teachers, but also passionate about helping others. My fellow trainers could feel the change in how their bodies felt immediately and could not deny its effectiveness.

How does Somatics fit into fitness?

Ground Exercise, Body Weight and Breathing

Weight is a stressor. Sometimes we need to take the stress of body-weight and gravity out of the equation to get the Training-img2nervous system to simmer down and absorb motor learning (movement patterns).  This is accomplished by somatic and corrective exercises on the ground. These types of ground exercises build a foundation for future loading; as we master them we can make these patterns stronger by progressing them to half kneeling and then standing. In this way we can determine if the pattern breaks.  Once we repeatedly stick form then we must add stress. It is like building a cushion.

Do athletes need to start here? More than anyone! To paraphrase Gray Cook, " We adopt poor movement as result of pain. Part of survival system allows movement around problems we cannot move through. When the pain is gone sometimes the poor movement pattern remains.”

As we go through life, stresses and injuries force us to reroute the "movement maps" we developed as babies.

Athletes are great compensators. They will find a way to get the movement done.  They are also very explosive; at times so much so that they cannot accurately feel their body’s sensations and be aware of their movement. Slowing things down to make changes and build back their speed with better control is what is required! Athletes also become asymmetrical because of repeated patterns. These asymmetries result from the three stress reflexes that Thomas Hanna writes about: the Red Light, Green Light and Trauma Reflexes. Getting rid of these reflexes and regaining symmetry is what reduces injury risk.

I have a weekly class I call "Recovery." In this 90 minute class we do Somatic Exercises, followed by dynamic mobility work and locomotion drills ( walking, skipping, carioca, shuffling).  The group's control and efficiency of mobility work has greatly increased after Somatic Exercises. Locomotion to me is “Somatics on your feet.” Locomotion drills set a foundation to progress students to more uncontrolled environments such as agility and speed drills. This allows students to pick up on their movements, and for me to pick up movement hiccups.  You can surely bet if there is movement inefficiency with no load, there will also be inefficiency with weights.

Brilliant generals are said to possess “coup d’oeil”, which in French means power of the glance. It is the ability to make sense of the battlefield.  Hanna Somatics enhances the power of my glance.

Chris Carlsen is the owner of Iron Lion Performance and Director of Fitness at the Matrix Fitness Club in Astoria, New York. He participated in the Somatic Exercise Coach Training in 2014.

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.

How To Counteract The Dangers of Too Much Sitting

Thankfully, more is being written about the dangers of sitting. And this YouTube video says it all. I questioned the usefulness of chairs a while ago after learning more about functional evolutionary movement. Doctors and scientists are beginning to observe - and accept - what Somatic Educators have known for years: humans are meant to move, in many different ways and planes of gravity - they are not meant to sit for long periods of time without moving. Movement helps to embed learning, enhances creativity and, most importantly, keeps the respiratory, circulation, lymphatic and  muscular systems moving efficiently. It also reinforces basic movement patterns that we all need to maintain in order to keep ourselves moving freely for the rest of our lives.

Dr. James Levine, is quoted in the Business Week article as saying,

"What fascinates me is that humans evolved over 1.5 million years entirely on the ability to walk and move. And literally 150 years ago, 90% of human endeavor was still agricultural. In a tiny speck of time we've become chair-sentenced."

Most people sit one of two different ways - slumped in their chair or pitched forward. 32Sit as I am in the photo at right - slumped - and notice in your own body how:

  • the muscles of the front of the body contract as you hunch. Your breathing is shallow (because your chest is collapsed)
  • the back muscles are tight in co-contraction
  • the neck muscles, both front and back, tighten as your head moves forward (and/or down) to look at your computer screen

Sit pitched slightly forward and notice now:

  • IMG_6834the muscles of your hip joints tighten at the creases in your groin
  • your lower back contracts (feel them with your own fingers)
  • your neck muscles tighten
  • now, keeping that position, look at your computer!

This is what millions of people do every day... all day!

People who sit for long periods generally complain of low back pain, neck and shoulder pain, TMJ and hip joint pain. This, unfortunately, makes sense, because sitting is a repetitive task that teaches the muscles (that only learn through repetition) to stay contracted. Sitting contributes to Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), the condition of chronically contracted muscles that, due to habituation and compensation to stress, have learned to stay involuntarily and constantly contracted. If your muscles are full of tension, ready for the next day of sitting, nothing will relax those muscles unless you get the brain back in control of the muscles.

Try these Somatic Exercises at your desk to reduce and release muscle tension

Below are a few simple and safe movements that will remind your muscles that they don't have to stay "frozen" all day long. These movements are from my easy to follow Pain-Free At Work DVD. Instead of stretching as you do these movements, you are pandiculating - gently tightening into the tight , tense muscles (this takes the muscles off cruise control) and then actively and slowly lengthen the muscles into their full range. This awakens the brain to sense the muscles again so it can lengthen them into their full range. It is what cats and dogs do upon waking and before they move into action. Don't forget to breathe easily.

ARCH AND CURL

Screen shot 2013-09-23 at 4.19.01 PMScreen shot 2013-09-23 at 4.19.23 PMArch and curl your back as you sit. Go slowly and gently, inhaling as you arch, and exhaling as you round.

Both of these movements can be done standing. Try them, play with them and see how they feel.

 

WASHRAG

Screen shot 2013-09-23 at 4.14.58 PMRoll your shoulders forward and back, allowing the shoulder blades to slide along the back. Do this as if you were yawning.

Same with this one: try it while standing.

 

STANDING REACH

Screen shot 2013-09-23 at 4.14.33 PMStand next to your desk and reach up, as if reaching to the top shelf for something. Repeat this slowly on the other side.

 

 

 

 

Walk to work if you can. Stand at the counter and work at your laptop (as I'm doing this very moment). Change your position and notice the difference between your hips and back when you stand versus when you sit. Use every opportunity you can to not sit, but to bring movement into your life. And when you do feel the need to sit, go back to my blog post about chairs and read it. Consider sitting on the ground and making your chair the exception instead of the rule.

Click here to purchase my Pain-Free DVD series. Click here for my book, Move Without Pain.

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!

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How To Know If You're Out Of Balance

Daily stress teaches our muscles to contract in very specific ways. If the stress is on-going or repetitive enough we may even feel as if we're "stuck" in our stress. Over time we may find that we feel out of balance. An imbalance in the center of the body will show up as an uneven gait, twisted pelvis, slumped shoulder on one side, one-side muscle pain or quite commonly, a "hiked" hip. Overly contracted muscles pull us off balance and add excessive stress to our joints. They can contribute to arthritis, joint pain, back, iliotibial band pain, neck, shoulder and hip pain. The key is to learn to ride the waves of stress in our lives - not get stuck in them. One of the biggest benefits of Hanna Somatic Exercises is learning to find neutral in the center of the body and bring the brain back into control of the muscular system. It's one of the most important skills necessary to become stress resilient.

In this video below you'll learn an easy and quick way to determine if you're out of balance. Don't worry! If you are, you can begin to learn how to regain muscular balance and symmetry with Somatic Exercises.

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Click here to purchase Pain-Free Somatic Exercise DVDs.

Click here to purchase Martha's book.

Click here to find out about clinical sessions, Skype sessions and phone consultations.

How To Get The Most Out of Somatic Exercises

Here is a short video with helpful tips about three exercises which most people need some guidance on. I sent this video link out to everyone who purchased my "Pain Relief Through Movement" DVD. I'm making it available to everyone who's learned Somatic Exercises - even if you haven't purchased the Pain Relief Through Movement DVD. Here are some highlights. Read them, then watch the video!

Arch and Flatten:

When you do this exercise, you should feel your back muscles gently contracting and arching as the pelvis rolls forward. You should sense equal effort on both sides of the spine, and then, as you slowly and gently release back to neutral on the mat, you should sense both sides of the back "landing" together.

If you're slightly tighter on one side of your body than the other, you will probably sense more weight or pressure into one hip as you "inhale and arch, and tip the tailbone down in the direction of your feet."  You will feel that you're tilting into one hip. This may cause your lower back to feel sore. It may even cause an uncomfortable pinch. The aim is to sense the gentle arching and flattening right down through the center of your tailbone. The recalibration I demonstrate will help you find "neutral" in your pelvis as you pandiculate the muscles of the back.

Back Lift:

If you are tighter on one side of your waist than the other, maybe from a previous injury or accident, you probably have a Trauma Reflex in the center of your body; you'll feel as if you're off center or heavier on one side of your pelvis than the other as you lie on your front, ready to do the back lift. When you lift the leg you may feel as if you're "tipping" into one side of your pelvis and it will be more difficult to lift the leg.

Gently "anchoring" the pelvis of the non-working leg as you lift elbow, cheek, head and hand, will help you more fully regain balanced control of your back muscles.

Side Bend:

Many people tend to do the side bend and slightly arch their lower backs, twisting slightly into a typical pattern of the Trauma Reflex. This will cause a slight pinch in the low back. If you have sciatica, it will not feel good, as it is only re-creating the pattern that caused the problem in the first place.

Do the side bend as if you're up against a flat wall. Better yet, do the movement against a wall if possible! This will help you make sure that when you contract your waist muscles as you lift your top foot and your head ("making an accordion out of your waist muscles"). You'll be more able to sense the waist muscles contracting and lengthening instead of using the muscles of the lower back to help out.

Here is the video. (In case you're asked for a password, it's DVDthankyou1):

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Let me know how it goes and whether or not these tips were helpful to you.

For those of you would like to learn how to skillfully teach the Somatic Exercises to others, my Somatic Exercise Coach Training (Levels One and Two) is for you. This popular training has been taught in the UK, Canada, Germany, Canada and Australia and people are learning to relieve their muscle pain and move more freely the world over thanks to the skills of Essential Somatics® Somatic Exercise Coaches.

Martha is available for phone consultations, workshops, private clinical sessions. Click here for more information.

Learn to relieve back, neck, shoulder, hip, and joint pain easily, safely, and intelligently using methods taught nowhere else!

Somatic Education is Evidence-Based Treatment for Back Pain

Scientists at the Sahlgrenska Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden have research to support the use of Somatic Education - movement reeducation that relaxes tight, painful muscles - as an evidence-based modality for treatment of back pain. Somatic Education has been around since the early 20th century and has helped people learn to improve their posture, relax tight muscles and move in more efficiently and easily.  The method the Salgrenska Intitute studied was the Feldenkrais Method, the same method that Thomas Hanna, Ph.D., creator of Hanna Somatic Education, practiced for decades before developing his own method called Hanna Somatic Education. Swedish physiotherapist Christina Schön-Ohlsson states,

"Inefficient movement patterns gradually become habituated even though the original injury or strain is no longer present."

How right she is!  Clients frequently tell me, "I just don't feel the way I once did." They feel as if something "happened to them" to cause them to lose their flexibility, movement and self-control. The good news is that they can learn to regain their independence; all it takes is a process of education and a little patience.

In Hanna Somatics clients learn to become aware of the muscles that have habitually and tightened (as Schon-Ohlsson said) in response to the original injury - and then to release them at the brain level.

All human beings respond to stress with specific, visible patterns of muscular contraction.

Thomas Hanna was the first Somatic Educator to codify three specific stress reflexes - reflexes that all humans respond to in response to stress. By addressing these reflex patterns (of the back, the front of the body and the sides of the body), people can learn - very quickly - to reverse their muscle pain and restore awareness and control of their movement.

Chronic low back pain develops as a learned response to stress. It can be unlearned.

Muscles are controlled by the brain and central nervous system. The brain gets sensory feedback from the muscles, then commands them to move.  It is a simple feedback loop of sensing and moving. When stress occurs repeatedly, we can learn to habituate, adjust and adapt to our stress, as  mentioned by the Swedish scientists. This causes our muscles to stay tight and frozen; our brain literally forgets how to sense and move our muscles. This is called Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). The reason that medical science has no solution to habituated muscular tension is because SMA is not a medical condition. It is a sensory motor condition that can only be reversed through movement.

If you'd like to experience sensory motor learning, explore the movements shown on my website.  Move slowly and gently, with eyes closed (to tune out visual distractions). Make them pleasant and be mindful not to work too hard; these are not exercises as you know them from the gym. When you're done, relax completely and notice the difference in sensation in your body.

Thankfully there is a slow acceptance of "sensory motor learning," also known as "neuromuscular movement re-education" in the medical community. In my Somatic Exercise Coach Training I have taught osteopaths, chiropractors, and physiotherapists how to teach basic Somatic Exercises in order to help their patients become more self-aware and self-correcting in their movement.

I look forward to the day when Somatic Education is the first line of defense against back, neck, shoulder, hip, and joint pain. If you are in pain and have not gotten the relief you know you can get, come take a class, or workshop, schedule a private session, or contact me. I am happy to help get you on the path to a pain-free life!