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!

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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 Technology Causes Neck Pain

Recently I read this article in the Royal Gazette about one woman's saga of neck pain. Her struggle to reconcile with the fact that her iPad caused her recurring neck pain is a common functional adaptation to our increasingly technological world. Most of my clients sit for up tcradleo 12 hours a day hunched at the computer. They say that their job is taking a toll on their health and their ability to move freely.

Trying to sit up straight and view my computer screen is killing my body. I feel as if I'm getting "old" before my time.

Their doctors tell them that they have degenerative disks, yet neck pain is merely the symptom, not the cause of the problem. The root cause is the habituation of a well known, yet ignored involuntary stress reflex common to all humans and vertebrate animals: the Startle Reflex (or Red Light Reflex). This reflex is invoked in response to fear, anxiety and worry, the need to protect oneself, or repetitive slumping over a computer, smartphone or iPad.

The "posture of senility" and fear is the posture of the computer generation.

Migraines-in-teenagersWhat does the Red Light Reflex look like? Hunched and slumped shoulders, face thrust forward, chest collapsed, tight belly, rounded upper back. This posture used to be consider "elderly" posture, yet age has nothing to do with slumped, hunched shoulders; this is a functional adaptation to one's technology as well as one's emotional stress. Habituation of this reflex can lead to headaches, TMJ, neck and shoulder pain, shallow breathing and fatigue. The solution is to restore awareness of one's posture and movement, and learn to release and relax the muscles involved so you can return to a neutral, pain-free posture.

A picture is worth a thousand words and the photo at right says it all. This young boy looks a lot like teenagers I see walking around, ignoring each other, immersed in their smartphones.  This posture has become the "new normal" for many. Even small children are boy with computerbecoming experts at slumping.

As you read this post, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are sitting like this little boy, mesmerized by the computer screen? Is the back of your neck tight?
  • Is your stomach tight?
  • Are you breathing deeply?
  • How do the tops of your shoulders feel? If you straighten your neck to a comfortable, neutral position can you see your computer screen?

Hanna Somatic Exercises can help reverse neck pain and improve breathing.

Migraines, eye strain, shallow breathing, thoracic outlet syndrome, TMJ and mid/upper back pain are conditions that can develop due to excessive technology use and habituation of a slumped, Red Light Reflex posture. The muscles involved in this reflex (and posture) are always at the ready: to check the phone with the neck tilted forward or crane the neck to see the computer screen. Somatic Exercises and pandiculation help you hit the reset button in your brain (the command center of your muscles) so you can relieve your pain, regain your movement and get your life back.

Try these Somatic Exercises

Remember - movement is medicine. The brain teaches you to adapt to your environment - for better or for worse. Today's western industrialized society is more and more sedentary and people take fewer and fewer breaks to stand up, shake their hips, roll their shoulders, stretch out their arms or jump up and down.

Remind your muscles that they don't have to stay tight and frozen; get up and move! Circle your arms, do the Twist, jump up and down, take some long, deep breaths and slowly roll your shoulders. And then go for a walk. Preferably without your phone.

Click here to purchase my easy-to-follow instructional DVDs.

The Link Between Neck Pain and Computer Work

The photo at right is a classic example of today's typical "computer slouch."

Look at the angle of the neck, the slump of the chest, and the rounded shoulders. If you sit like that long enough, you will develop neck, shoulder, and back pain. You might even find it difficult to take a full breath. This is called the Startle Reflex. Thomas Hanna called it the Red Light Reflex.

It is rare to meet someone nowadays who doesn't spend significant amounts of time on the computer.

Even senior citizens are now reconnecting with old friends, not to mention staying in touch with grandchildren, via Facebook and email. Children are beginning to use computers on a daily basis, both in school and at home - often in place of outdoor play. Hundreds of millions of people work at computer terminals, often for hours at a stretch without getting up.

Any repeated movement or posture becomes a habit.

If you have to sit for hours, with elbows bent, wrists immobile and fingers typing rapidly, the brain will teach the muscles to be ready to sit and type again, in just the same manner, the next day. The wrists will be tight, the biceps tighter than usual to hold the arms steady and the neck will hold your head right where it needs to be in order to look at your computer screen. Eventually this learned posture can lead to muscular pain, TMJ, carpal tunnel syndrome, back, neck, and shoulder problems. This state of chronically contracted muscles is called Sensory Motor Amnesia. No amount of strengthening and stretching can get rid of this. You must learn how to sense and move your muscles again in order to regain freedom of movement and reverse this posture.

Children have the same potential as adults to become stuck in an habituated, slumped posture - one that tightens the chest, restricts breathing, overuses the back, neck, and shoulder muscles, and can eventually lead to postural dysfunction and muscular pain. They are learning, at an increasingly young age, to slump and tighten the front of their body as they play video games or use their iPads. Encouraging children to spend time outdoors moving - running, riding bicycles, jumping, climbing trees, playing - will go a long way in keeping a child aware of his body and healthier in the long run.

Here are a few helpful Somatic Exercises you can do at your desk every hour. They will teach you to release, relax, and lengthen your muscles - and eliminate neck and shoulder pain - while increasing body awareness.

The Flower - This movement teaches the muscles of the front of the body to release and lengthen so you can stand up to a relaxed and balanced neutral again. This will also help you breath more deeply and fully.

Here are some neck pandiculations that help me when I have to spend time at the computer:

Turn your head to the right at a 45 degree angle.

Slowly tighten your left shoulder up toward the ear, as you slowly tighten your neck back toward the left shoulder blade.

You'll feel a contraction at the top of the shoulder and on the left side of the neck.

Slowly lengthen out of the contraction, and allow the neck to lengthen as the chin points to the right chest. The shoulder relaxes back to neutral.

Repeat 3 times, then do the same sequence on the other side.

Remember to move slowly for greater awareness in retraining your muscles to relax.

You are teasing out the muscle tightness, not by stretching, but by pandiculating - tightening first, then lengthening, much like a yawn. This movement should help you become more aware of the habit of hunching the shoulders. Once you're aware of a habit, it's more easily reversible.

How to Regain Your Form: Horseback Riding, Falls, and the Trauma Reflex

I got bucked off of a horse and landed hard enough on my right hip to warrant a trip to the ER. Luckily, nothing was wrong in the x-rays. Fast forward a few years and I started to notice pain in my hip flexors when riding. I would get off of the horse and feel stiff - more on the right than the left. Years went by and my pain included both hips, and back pain. When I sit for a long period of time, I stand up like a 90 year old woman. When I read through your website, I find myself feeling like someone can finally describe my pain!

"Laura" came to me for Hanna Somatics because she realized that her back and hip pain was probably due to Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) - the condition of chronically contracted muscles that results from muscular adaptation to stress (accidents, injuries, repetitive movement). She wanted to learn to relax her back and hip joint muscles, which had become taut and painful from years of compensating from her original riding accident as well as from long hours in the car and at the computer.

A fall off a horse evokes the trauma reflex and contributes to hip, neck, and shoulder pain.

Laura had developed a typical, habituated Trauma Reflex pattern of compensation: one side of her waist muscles and trunk rotators was tighter than the other side. This occurred due to her sudden fall off her horse many years earlier. Her brain - the command center of the muscles - had forgotten how to control her muscles and no matter what she did to try and relax them, nothing gave her long-term relief. This is a common response to an accident.

In order to ride she had developed compensatory patterns that enabled her to stay on the horse, even though one hip couldn't move as well as the other. Her brain had expertly compensated by over-tightening her hip flexors as she rode, sat at her computer, or drove her car.

Laura also had slightly slumped and tight shoulders - indicative of the Red Light Reflex pattern. She said she had been kicked by a horse and knocked flat on her back on the ground. She was stuck in a dark vise of muscular contraction, as occurs with whiplash. Fluid movement of the spine was almost impossible.

When the back muscles are too tight, one's riding form is stiff. The back doesn't relax and coordinate with the muscles of the front of the body. The brain recruits muscles it doesn't need to help you stay balanced on your horse. The horse no doubt senses your tension and you ride as if you had the emergency brake on. Neither horse nor rider is happy.

The only long-term solution is to retrain the muscles of the back, waist, and front of the body to relax and lengthen again. This will restore proper balance, symmetry and muscular coordination.

Here are some conditions that are the result of an habituated trauma reflex:

  • Sciatica
  • Restricted and painful hip joint
  • Leg length discrepancy
  • Loss of balance due to uneven weight distribution/tilted posture
  • Piriformis syndrome
  • Uneven gait, with more pressure into one hip/knee/foot
  • Knee pain
  • Plantar fasciitis

Laura, my equestrian client, learned to use the technique of pandiculation to relax and lengthen her back, waist, and hip muscles. This eliminated her pain because her brain learned to voluntarily release and relax the muscles that had been tightly and painfully contracted. She now practices the gentle, easy Somatic Movements I taught her to do at home; these movements reinforce the brain's ability to self-correct should stress threaten to take over.

Despite her car commute and long hours at the computer, Laura is moving well and back in control of her body. No more visits to the chiropractor, physical therapist or doctor for her pain! Horseback riding is also still very much a part of her life - but now it's easier to do.

To learn to relieve muscle pain easily and rapidly on your own, check out the Essential Somatics® store.

 

Why is My Muscle Pain Coming Back?

How many of you do your Somatic Exercises and learn to eliminate your primary muscle pain complaint, only to have it begin to creep back up on you several months later? It would be great if we could "fix" ourselves permanently - do our Somatic Exercise practice daily and never again develop back pain, hip pain or neck pain.brain-side However, the nervous system doesn't work that way. We are not a machine that can be recalibrated once every five years.

We are an internally experienced, constantly changing system that adjusts and adapts to every piece of information and feedback in our environment. These often unconscious events occur on a second-by-second, minute-by-minute, and day-by-day basis - some of them we're aware of,  and others we're not.  What we can do today may be slightly different from what we can do tomorrow depending upon what is happening in our lives. This is why, when we teach Somatic Exercises (which are pandiculations of common movement patterns and stress reflexes), we ask the question, "does the cat or dog ever stop pandiculating?" No. Every time they get up from rest they lengthen their limbs and shake off the tension.

Hanna Somatics teaches us to be aware of and to unlearn our movement habits (hunching over a computer at work), and our mental and emotional habits. Movement habits make sense, but why our mental and emotional habits? Put simply: what's going on in your head is mirrored in your body, whether you realize it or not. The Red Light Reflex is a symptom of stress and worry (tight belly, shallow breathing), which can lead to back , shoulder, and hip pain if ignored.

Stress responses can cause muscle pain to return if you are not careful.

During periods of stress your deepest reflexive responses to stress will be the first thing to return in full force. It is the "path of least resistance" for your brain - a familiar habit. You may begin to slump and stop breathing deeply (Red Light), or tighten your back as if ready to run (Green Light), or tilt slightly to one side (Trauma). Often the reflex simply occurs in response to your stress. For example, you learn to eliminate muscle pain that developed due to compensation from an accident. You go about your life, yet you slip down the stairs and now your hip is hurting as it did before. This is not uncommon. What you choose to do about it is what matters.

For some people, given the knowledge and awareness they have from their daily Hanna Somatics practice, X lat arch and curlthey can bounce back quickly and say, "oh yeah, I know what to do and what to be aware of." For others it's as if they have to start from scratch again. They forget that the answer lies within their own brain.

When I am particularly stressed I tend to slump to the right or tighten my right hip when I walk. When I encounter these stressful periods I need to do my Somatic Exercises more than ever, and find ways to include some standing "reach to the top shelf," "diagonal reaches," (all from my book) or any other "movement snacks" into my day.

Remembering to do your somatic movement daily is as important as brushing your teeth, eating healthy food or getting enough sleep. When stress increases, so does muscle tension. Constant elevated muscle tension means that your muscles aren't getting enough oxygen or blood. Tight muscles are tired, painful muscles. This is your canary in the mineshaft.

Stress won't go away; it is a part of life. What matters is whether you know yourself well enough that you can sense your own reflexive responses to stress (mental, emotional, physical or otherwise) and whether you take the time necessary to regain voluntary control over yourself, your muscles and by extension, your life.

To purchase Martha's book or series of instructional DVDs, click here.

To learn more about Martha's upcoming schedule of trainings and workshops, click here.

3 Ways to Improve Your Breathing and Health

It's that time of year when people are beginning to develop winter colds. Others are thinking ahead to preparing their taxes (only 2 months to go in the US). Both colds and psychological stress can cause you to breathe shallowly. Learning to breathe deeply - a skill many people lose over time due to an habituation to stress, not only helps those who are fighting off a cold, but those dealing with chronic conditions (asthma, sinusitis, anxiety) that tend to inhibit the ability to breathe deeply and fully. Improved breathing helps reduce anxiety, promotes oxygenation of the entire body, produces endorphins (the body's natural painkillers), enhances muscle function, helps to lower blood pressure, promotes creativity and mental focus, and increases metabolism.

Ideally here’s what happens when you to take a full, deep breath: the diaphragm comes down and creates a vacuum in the upper chest, the viscera swell out slightly to help this happen, and the rectus abdominis muscle relaxes. If the diaphragm doesn’t descend, you're breathing shallowly. Shallow breathing adversely affects your entire body – the brain, heart, and functioning of your internal organs. It has been linked to increased risk of heart disease as well.

I'm always amazed at how, when I'm stressed or mentally hijacked by a negative thought or scenario, a long, deep breath and relaxing my jaw changes everything. It highlights for me how deeply primal it is to "hunker down" when we allow emotional or mental stress (What if it doesn't work out? What will I do then?) to take over.

Try this for improved breathing

  1. Let your abdominal muscles relax. Lie on your back with your knees up and feet planted. Put your hand on your lower belly and gently inhale. Notice where your breath goes automatically without trying to change anything. Then repeat this several times as you allow the abdominal muscles to relax and soften as you inhale rather than sucking them in. Notice how the belly rises and falls. Allow the back to relax.  Repeat this 8-10 times.
  2. Bring attention to your ribs. The little muscles between them, called the intercostal muscles, act like the fabric in a bellows. If the fabric is tight, the bellows won't expand to suck the air in. The same goes for the ribs. Lie on your side, as in the photo on the right. Put your hand on your ribs and breathe deeply into your ribs 6-8 times. Let them expand like a bellows. Then lie on your back and notice the difference in sensation between both sides of your ribs.
  3. The Flower
  4. Consider your reflexive response to worry and fear. This reflex, called the Red Light Reflex (or Startle Reflex), is involuntary and instantaneous. In the photo on the right, you will see fans cringing in response to the baseball bat that is flying toward them. The Red Light Reflex causes you to tighten the belly, hunch the shoulders and withdraw inward out of real or perceived fear. It can save you from harm (as in the photo), yet, if habituated, it can inhibit breathing, lymphatic flow and drainage, neck pain and result in stooped, collapsed posture.

Over time many people lose the natural function of relaxed breathing. The first place to start on the road to fuller, deeper breathing is by learning to relax the muscles of the center of the body.

 

 

Reverse the Muscular Pain Caused By Computer Work

Back when I was creating my Pain-Free series of instructional DVDs, I spent an enormous amount of time preparing, collapsed over my laptop editing articles, approving designs, writing the script for the DVDs. My daily Somatics practice went by the wayside as I plowed ahead with work, only paying attention to my looming deadline (yes, even Somatic Educators can fall into the trap of stress-induced unawareness). One morning 2 weeks ago, however, I woke up and was convinced that I had some kind of virus, or stomach problem.  I'd had trouble sleeping for several nights, and when I awoke, my jaw was painful, the right side of my abdominals were rock hard, it was difficult to take a deep breath and my right hip joint was painful. Sounds scary, huh?

Computers can pull you in to hours of mental and muscular tension. Take a look in the mirror and you'll probably see what looks like an old man (or woman) slumped and drawn inward, head forward and chest collapsed.

Well, I'm no different from anyone who walks through my office door wondering "how did I get this way?" when telling me about their aches and pains. One doesn't get this way without losing sensory awareness of what they're doing to create the problem.  Muscles tighten because our brain - the control center of our muscles - teaches them to get stuck. I'm not immune to being sucked into the laptop for hours on end, completely absorbed in an important task. I'm definitely not immune to getting wound up over important projects, which creates mental and muscular tension. Research has shown that there's not one thought that goes through our brains that's not responded to muscularly in the body.

Using Somatic Exercises to unfreeze those tense muscles is like hitting refresh on your computer.

I lay down on the floor and went slowly through a half hour of somatic movements focused on the large muscles of the core that had become so tight and tense that deep breathing was restricted. I moved through subtle, slow movements to relax my back, waist, ribcage, and hips.  Afterwards my breathing was deeper, my hip pain had subsided, and my jaw was relaxed. Then I lay still, and noticed the difference between my muscles before I lay down, and after I'd finished my Somatics routine. I let my brain soak up the sensations in my muscles.

What had I learned? That sitting like the photo of me on the right - neck craned forward, chest collapsed down, ribcage pulled down by tight abdominal muscles (which restricts full breathing) -  is what millions of people do every single day around the world.  They sit hunched and slouched forward, absorbed in their daily work. As they do that they're oblivious to the messages their brain is sending their muscles - one of contracting to keep their muscles ready to do it all over again the next day.

This kind of posture - the Startle Reflex or Red Light Reflex - can cause shoulder, neck, and back pain, in addition to anxiety (shallow breathing doesn't allow oxygen to get to the brain). Relax the tight core muscles that pull you inward, and you can stand up straight, breathe deeply, and sleep soundly.

My Somatics colleague, Noreen Owens, author of the Somatics book Where Comfort Hides, emailed me during this hectic work period and reminded me that "when you're writing you need to do even more somatic movements every day because your stress level is higher." How right she was. This is a lesson I'm not soon to forget.

Come join a Somatics class or workshop and learn to regain somatic awareness and control of yourself, your reflexive and habitual responses to your stress, and how your daily movement habits contribute to how you feel. It's an easy, gentle, and safe alternative to many other treatment for muscle pain.

How Somatics Can Help Rowers Relieve Muscle Pain

Rowing is one of the oldest sports in the modern Olympic games. It is still popular today in high school and collegiate sports (more commonly known as crew), and as a workout routine at the gym. There are two different kinds of rowing:

  • Sweep rowing, in which the rower has one oar, held with both hands, and rows on one side of the boat
  • Sculling, in which the rower has an oar in each hand.

Sculling is the form of rowing most of us are familiar with. It's the rowing used at gyms on rowing machines. When you add the element of competition - or the goal of getting a workout through vigorous repetition, there are several things to watch out for in order to prevent injury or muscle strain.

Most rowing injuries are caused by poor technique or overuse. Overuse can cause Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The repetitive action of rowing can cause low back pain, knee problems, shoulder pain (rotator cuff), arm and wrist pain, sciatica, rib stress fractures, and chronically tight quadratus luborum (QL - "hip hiker") muscles.

Rowing is a wonderful full body sport, using the muscles of the back, lats, quadriceps, abdominals, biceps, triceps, rhomboids, trapezius and gluteal muscles. As the legs extend and push forward, the abdominals, arms, lats, rhomboids, and shoulders contract to pull the oars to the chest. Those who work out with rowing machines will likely not row with the same speed, force, and duration as collegiate rowers. However, since the muscles involved in both "gym rowing" and competitive crew are the same, proper technique and rhythm is critical no matter what your goal if you want to prevent an overuse injury.

This video explains proper rowing technique for "gym rowers" using the same technique used in competitive crew.

There is a lack of full extension through the front and back of the body in rowing.

As in cycling, the body contracts forward into a Red Light Reflex, but with full extension of the legs and trunk, due to being in a seated position. Here's an excellent slow motion video that demonstrates proper sculling. While smooth and powerful, notice how the muscles of the front and back of the body never fully lengthen. The chest muscles never fully expand, and the oblique muscles of the waist are slightly contracted; this causes the intercostal muscles between the ribs to become tight and the ribs to pull down toward the hips.

Low back pain, tight shoulders, and tight hips are common in rowing.

It's pretty clear that the repetitive pulling of the oar forward will, over time, cause the rhomboid and trapezius muscles to stay tight. If one rows with an arched back, or a twist in the pelvis, as with "sweep rowing," strain is put on not only the shoulders, but the low back and hips as well.

In the photo at right, notice the torque of the trunk to the left in the first rower. Here's a video that shows the same torque that occurs if you're "sweep rowing." The muscles of the waist and trunk rotators repetitively contract in the "catch" phase of the stroke. Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) in the QL's (quadratus lumborum) and a slightly hiked left hip would not be a surprising outcome for this rower after  an extended period of training.  This is a classic trauma reflex - habituated SMA may be useful for crew perhaps, but potentially painful and disruptive for daily movement and a smooth walking gait.

Sensory Motor Amnesia can develop due to repetitive movement, even if the movement is done properly. In order to prevent SMA, try incorporating Somatic Exercises into your daily workout routine.

Somatic Rowing warm-up:

Somatic Rowing cool-down:

For pain in the arms and wrists, refer to this video and blog post.

Contact Martha for information about how Hanna Somatics can help your collegiate or professional sports team prevent overuse injury and recover faster from workouts.

Many thanks to Kanwei Li, a former collegiate rower, for his photo and input.

How Somatics Can Help Cyclists Relieve Muscle Pain

Cycling is a versatile activity - one that can be done casually as a form of transportation, a weekend hobby, or one that can be done competitively. Cycling, whether for competition or for pleasure, has the potential for serious injury, sensory motor amnesia and a host of painful muscular conditions. The most frequent problems facing cyclists are accidents, knee problems, iliotibial band pain, low back pain and hamstring strains.

In cycling there is a high risk of trauma.

When you lose your balance on a bike, the consequences can be long-lasting. A bike crash instantly invokes the Trauma Reflex – the somatic reflex of contraction, and retraction of the trunk rotators of your body in response to a sudden loss of balance and the need to avoid further injury. The waist muscles contract unevenly on one side of the body, and the result is a slight twisting and side bending of the torso.  A cyclist who experiences Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) in the form of a Trauma Reflex will develop a pelvic imbalance, altered gait (or cadence on the bike), hip joint tightness, uneven weight distribution, and compromised balance.

Cyclists round forward in a hunched posture for long periods of time.

The rounded posture of cyclists is a pattern of muscular habituation that is useful for efficiency, power, and speed. However, this rounded posture of cycling is  a classic Red Light Reflex - the front of the body is contracted, the shoulders are tight and rounded forward and the back is lengthened, yet tight.

There's a "co-contraction" between the front and back of the body - an agreement of sorts - that makes this useful form of Sensory Motor Amnesia great for cycling, but inconvenient and potentially painful for everyday life. The constant co-contraction of the abdominals and lower back can cause chronic lower back pain.

There is limited hip movement in cycling as leg movement comes from the hip joints.

In cycling, the muscles of the quadriceps (thighs) are recruited and developed more than the gluteal muscles. Because of the repetitive and powerful churning of the legs, there is little movement of the hips in cycling. As I wrote in my post on running, limited hip movement contributes to iliotibial band syndrome, back pain, hip joint pain and hamstring strains. SMA can occur in the hamstrings due to habituation; the legs are never fully lengthened, so the hamstrings learn to stay contracted in order to coordinate with the quadriceps. The knees bend, but the leg never fully extends. Both the quadriceps and hamstrings maintain a specific muscle length in order to "get the job done" well.

Shoulder hunching can become a habit if you're not careful.

Cyclists using bikes with upright handlebars are in a less stressful position because of the placement of the handlebars. Though they don't hunch over as much as using a standard road bike, there is still a tendency to hunch the shoulders slightly when reaching for the handlebars.
Lengthening the spine to keep the back muscles long as you hinge at the hips to sit up will ease back pain. Here is a good demonstration that illustrates how to elongate your spine as you ride on a bike with upright handlebars.

Try these Somatic Exercises as a warm-up before you ride:

Try these Somatic Exercises to cool down afterward:

Contact Martha to find out how Hanna Somatics can complement and strengthen your current athletic training program.

How To Stand Up Straight

In my last post I talked about the "Myth of Aging," as Thomas Hanna called the belief that humans inevitably become decrepit as they age. Here's one of the most common postures that people associate with old age: IMG_3852

This is typically considered "bad posture." Some people say that they've always stood this way.

Thomas Hanna called this the Red Light Reflex. Psychologists know this as the Startle Response. It is a reflexive response to fear, worry, anxiety... and now more than ever, habituating to hours slumped over a computer. If I were to suddenly frighten or surprise you, you would quickly and instantaneously tighten your abdominals, hunch your shoulders, round forward, and pull inward. This occurs in order to protect you from a real or perceived threat. Breathing stops as you wait for the danger to pass. If the belly is tight (in response to fear), it makes it impossible to fully, freely breathe. This affects all aspects of your physiology, from digestion, mood, energy level, the oxygenation of your heart and full coordination of walking.

If you are "collapsed" inward this way, your inner thighs tighten, causing you to pronate and fall inward. You might even experience knee pain. Orthotics might help you in the short term, but the problem lies more in the center of your body and the lack of balance in the inner and outer thigh muscles. But remember, that which is learned can be reversed or avoided altogether.

The trouble is this: this kind of reflexive posture has little to do with old age. Last week I observed a group of teenager girls gathering to chat. I was stunned by the number of them with rounded shoulders, depressed chests and necks jutted forward, just like in the photo above. They couldn't have been older than fifteen or so, but every one of them displayed the "posture of senility."

Aging has its stresses, yet this kind of posture can be avoided if, as mentioned in Wednesday's post, we pay attention to our movement, and bodies and spend time every day lengthening our muscles to remind them to stay long and relaxed.

 

Pain Relief and Improved Breathing

I recently read an article about how slow yoga-like breathing has been shown to reduce pain. It shows children learning the techniques taught in yoga: slow, aware "belly breaths" that help to create a balance between the sympathetic (fight or flight response to stress) and parasympathetic nervous systems. This makes a ton of sense to me. I'm only a beginner in yoga, but I thoroughly enjoy the start of each class, in which we sit quietly and focus our awareness solely on our breath, or Prana. It's a moment of quiet, stillness and slowing down. Have you ever observed a baby breathing? As they inhale, the belly swells with each inhalation. A baby who breaths from the upper chest is one in distress. Most babies, thankfully, haven't yet learned to not relax. They haven't yet been told to hold in their stomach so they don't have a pot belly, or so they "support the back." They just do what comes naturally.

Ideally here's what happens when you to take a full, deep breath: the diaphragm comes down and creates a vacuum in the upper chest, the viscera swell out slightly to help this happen, and the rectus abdominis muscle relaxes. If the diaphragm doesn’t descend, and the belly doesn't swell, it means that you're breathing shallowly. This in turn, affects your entire physiology - the brain, the heart, and the workings of your internal organs. This can adversely affects mood, energy, and all metabolic processes.

I have a lot of clients who have simply forgotten how to breathe properly. The real problem lies in their lack of awareness that they're not breathing as fully as they could or should. They come to me with back, neck, or shoulder pain and are unaware of the fact that their overly contracted abdominal muscles - often the result of their Red Light Reflex posture - is the source of their pain. Their abdominal muscles are so tight they are incapable of voluntarily relaxing them. It's as if they're waiting for the other shoe to drop, always on alert.  This Red Light Reflex causes one to tighten the belly, contract the shoulders, and collapse inward. It occurs in response to bad news, fear or anxiety and is a primal response that can save you from danger. You just don't want to get stuck in it!

When habituated, this posture leads to shallow breathing, which has been linked to higher rates of heart disease. Learning to gain control of the abdominal muscles, lengthen and relax "the core" of the body goes a long way toward relaxed, free and easy breathing and improved overall health.

Remember the phrase "the breath of life," and whenever you are able, remember to stop and inhale. Enjoy it.

To learn Somatic Movements that can help improve breathing, relax painful back muscles and increase flexibility, check out my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD!

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.

How's Your Workspace?

Lucky me! My colleague, Carrie Day, and I mentored a Somatics teacher-in-training today. Carrie demonstrated a session using me as "the client." We were reviewing the proper teaching of the clinical lesson that deals with the Red Light Reflex, which looks like this: Carrie took me through the lesson and taught me to relax and release the muscles that, when tighten and habituated, can cause us to slump forward, with rounded shoulders, a tight belly and neck jutted forward. We focused on the pattern that is created when we slump - tightening into the pattern and lengthening out of it. After the session I stood up and walked around. Both Carrie and the student said, "you look completely different! You look more relaxed!"  Indeed, I felt amazing. I might teach Somatics to others, but being a human being means that I live in the same world that the rest of us live in... I had been spending far too much time on the computer and driving in my car. I guess I was overdue for a "Somatic check-up."

Last week I worked with three separate clients, all with the identical problem: searing back and neck pain. They'd tried many different methods to try and alleviate their pain, all with different levels of effectiveness, but none with long-lasting success.

Every one of them was, to a certain extent, stuck in the Red Light Reflex. The problem went back to two things: long hours at the computer, and long hours at a computer terminal that wasn't properly set up. One had the keyboard too high (which encouraged her to hunch her shoulders up to be comfortable) and the others had it too low (which resulted in tight lats and an arched lower back in an attempt to keep their hands down by their keyboards all day). Their bodies were in a perpetual state of exaggeration, either overly "straight" or overly slumped forward. Both were able to rapidly gain awareness of what they were doing to create their muscular pain and are feeling quite happy about it. Now their challenge is to change their workspace to accommodate healthy biomechanics.

Standing Tall, The Easy Way

Last summer I spent a month in India. As someone who observes the world through the lens of movement, I couldn't help but observe the way in which people moved. I saw old women squatting to wait for the bus or while cooking their food. I saw children playing and running with abandon. I noticed how people walked miles just to get to work. However, one thing stood out: I saw no rounded shoulders and hunched backs. In Hanna Somatic Education, we call that the Red Light Reflex. In much of Western medical thought it's the "posture of senility" or "old age." This hunching posture contributes directly to shallow breathing, back pain, neck and shoulder pain and compressed, painful joints. The photo at right gave me some insight into a possible reason why rounded shoulders and stooped posture was difficult to find: these female construction workers were carrying loads on their heads. In carrying and balancing their load, the belly and waist muscles were long and extended.The ribs were open and up. In addition, the  their hips swayed gently as they took small steps or climbed stairs.

Fluid and easy makes walking easier

It's impossible to carry a load on one's head if one is stooped, or if the hips are tight and don't sway, or if one takes large, fast steps (think running for the train!). Like an earthquake-proof building gently sways during a tremor, our bodies are supposed to move freely, twisting slightly as we walk or run. This allows for coordinated, efficient movement. Moving with a rigid torso, while thought to prevent back pain, can actually contribute to back pain!

Now try this movement exploration!

Lie down on the floor and relax. Breathe deeply and sense the center or your body. Do this for about one minute. Then stand

up and take a walk around the room. Walk your normal walk, but pay attention to what it feels like to walk:

  • How are your feet hitting the floor?
  • Are your arms swinging gently?
  • Where are your eyes looking? Up? Down?
  • Do your hips sway?
  • Are your shoulders hunched or straight?

Stop and put something light on your head, like a pillow. Hold it gently on both sides with your elbows out and up. Notice your ribs. Breath into them and let them expand with the breath. Notice how the abdominal muscles lengthen, yet contract to support the spine and the center of your body. Walk slowly, letting your hips sway and rotate gently. Breathe deeply as you walk. If possible, try this exercise barefoot; this allows for more awareness of the feet as you reach for the floor with each step. Thick sneakers or shoes actually get in the way of smooth walking and awareness.

Now take the pillow off of your head, slowly bring your arms to neutral, and walk. See if it's easier to walk with your torso upright, your hips swaying, and your spine stacked on top of your hips. How's your posture? Are you more on top of your hips as you walk? Are your legs swinging? Is it easier to move your hips?

This movement exploration is like the old fashioned exercise of putting a book on your head in order to achieve good posture! My clients tell me that this exercise has helped them eliminate their back pain and remind them not to slouch. Do this for several minutes, then lie down and sense the center of your body. Breathe deeply. Notice any differences. Take this awareness into your day and see how it affects your movement. Let me know how it goes!