Improve Your Movement Within Minutes

Over the last month I’ve had the good fortune to not only be teaching others, but to also take weekly Somatic Movement classes. I’ve noticed that after participating in a class there is a marked improvement in what I can physically do in addition to how I feel from within. Considering my travel schedule throughout the year, I am grateful for a Somatic Movement practice that leaves me more proprioceptively intelligent as well as more capable of controlling my body and physical resources.

Somatic Movement provides a number of benefits:

  • Releasing accumulated muscle tension

  • Improving breathing (which improves oxygen uptake)

  • Increased alertness and sense of renewal

  • Heightened awareness of one’s body

One of the biggest benefits of a daily Somatic Movement practice is that it provides you with the tools to improve your ability to do even the simplest actions and to move more efficiently.

Somatic Movements address muscle tension at the level of your nervous system. You learn to improve your physical functioning, coordination, self-control, and balance through improved sensory motor awareness.  

Thomas Hanna once lectured about the unique experience of those practicing Somatic Education and Movement. He said that Somatic Education is much more than absorbing new information in the traditional sense; you are asking yourself to become aware of yourself for the purpose of being able to become masterful at controlling yourself from within, thus changing and improving your physical state. Yet how do we know if we’ve learned something well?

Move Well with These 4 Somatic Movements

Let's set a goal. Say you want to improve your reach

Find a wall in your home and, keeping feet flat on the floor, reach up with one arm and place a piece of colored tape or a post-it on the wall. Repeat with your other arm. Now lie down on a comfortable spot on the floor and do the following movements:

  1. Arch and flatten 8-10 times slowly, sensing both the front and back of your body and taking a breath in between each repetition. Sense neutral as you move through your arch and into your flatten.

  2. Side bend 4 times on each side, relaxing between each repetition

  3. Washrag slowly and luxuriously for one minute, coordinating the lazy twisting of your shoulders with the movement of your pelvis and legs

  4. Human X (with feet planted on the floor) slowly, like a yawn, for a few minutes.

As you practice, bring awareness to the release through your waist as you gently expand your ribcage on the inhale. Can you allow one side of your body to lengthen as the other side shortens as you move through the Side Bend and Human X? Would the Human X be more pleasurable if you allowed your hips and pelvis to gently swing in response to the reaching of your arms?

After completing your practice, slowly find your way to standing. Stand still for a minute and notice how you feel. Notice your thoughts and your breath. Can you send breath into your ribcage and waist?  Go to the wall and, with two new pieces of tape, reach up to place one piece on the wall, and then the other.

Did you improve your reach on one side or the other? Maybe both?

If you found that you improved your ability to reach by restoring coordination and softening the waist, back, and belly muscles, consider other activities you would like to improve. Which movements could you combine to help improve your golf swing, your ability to hike on uneven ground, or your yoga poses? Or even something as simple as getting up from the floor with ease? Try it out and let me know how it goes!

**Thanks to Carrie Day for this “Reach to the Top Shelf” mini-class.**

Trauma, Somatics, and Being Fully Alive

“Trauma is lived out in the theatre of your body. You are at war with your body and your body is at war with you. How do you find safety in your body?”
— Bessel van der Kolk, MD

In August, I attended Body, Brain and Trauma, a 5-day intensive course at Hollyhock Lifelong Learning Center with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Boston, MA. He has spent decades of research on PTSD and childhood trauma and is the author of The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of TraumaThis book is required reading for those in the Essential Somatics Clinical Somatic Education professional training and I wanted to learn more from the author himself.

Here is some of what I learned as well as my thoughts on why Hanna Somatics is a powerful complement to other therapies to help guide one to live and move more fully in the present. 

  1. Trauma changes our brains and our lives. Trauma is a tragically common event, especially for children. Trauma changes our brain and our ability to feel ourself. We become out of sync with ourselves. When we are out of sync with ourselves we become out of sync with those around us – with our communities, with the rhythm of our environment, with even our most basic needs such as nutrition, sleep, and personal hygiene. While trauma keeps us from being fully alive in the present, it isn’t about the past; it’s the residue of the past that is still within us that still controls how we behave, what we feel, and what we think. We are in a constant, unconscious state of reaction to past events.
  2. The very parts of the brain that define “who we are” (what van der Kolk called the “Mohawk of Awareness") go offline when we are traumatized. The ability to observe yourself from within (self-sense), self-regulate, understand the difference between past, present and future, and the ability to focus and filter out unnecessary information occurs in these areas. Thankfully, there are activities that can bring these areas of the brain back online.
  3. Trauma can be helped through movement. Movement, both slow and vigorous (play, conversation, writing, theater games, drumming, martial arts, dancing with others, art, singing with others, etc.) can help us attune to others and sync up in a fun, safe way with those around you. Echoing Thomas Hanna, van der Kolk told us that emotions are about movement and that the brain is an organ whose function is one of muscular coordination. Information and talking is important, yet movement and connection to our place in the world is critical to allowing who we want to be to reemerge. Movement programs that teach self-regulation and somatic awareness are crucial for children as well as adults.
  4. The environment at Hollyhock was conducive to taking these steps to rewiring the brain from trauma: beach walks, bicycling, singing, kayaking, gentle yoga, nature walks, and delicious, healthy food shared with others created a sense of community. I had just finished teaching a Myth of Aging retreat to a group of students who had come to learn to sense themselves, calm their nervous systems and brains, and create more physical freedom. How perfect to go from a movement experience to a course that explained more deeply how events of the past can prevent us from feeling fully alive.

Clinical (Hanna) Somatics is a safe way to reclaim a sense of agency. In addition to supportive therapies like EMDR, pscyhotherapy, art therapy, or music, it can go a long way towards rewiring the traumatized brain and moving one towards awareness, choice, and embodiment.

Bring the Mohawk of Awareness back online: Thomas Hanna observed that to improve our overall functioning (and subsequently our ability to control ourselves, our thinking, and our choices) we must first go within, to our “sensing selves” – that same sensing self that taught us how to know ourselves when we were children. The brain learns through repetition and feedback. The more you sense and move with curiosity and awareness the more able you are to retrain your brain to become more self-sensing, self-regulating and self-actualizing. "Who you are" and who you can be changes.

Bring movement and emotions into sync: The Green Light, Red Light, and Trauma stress reflexes are hard-wired in our primitive brains. These physical responses to stress are also emotional: joy, freedom, avoidance, escape, protection, fear, and anxiety. Only by recreating these reflexes can we become aware of them when they happen involuntarily. This can help put emotional and bodily sensations into perspective.

Curiosity and Imagination are first steps to change: A traumatized brain is not fully in the present. The timing function of the brain does not adjust to the belief of “this too shall pass.” Curiosity and imagination wakes up the timing functions of your brain so you can sense – just for today – how you can release tension and experience yourself more fully. Hanna Somatic Movement is sensory motor training. What you sense you can change.

Restore the ability to self-regulate to become more present: Pandiculation, the action pattern taught in Hanna Somatics, resets the resting level of tension in our central nervous system and muscles. It sends new feedback to the brain so that you can connect what you are moving to how you feel. Animals in the wild pandiculate up to 40 times a day in order to stay present in their bodies and in control of their movement! Safety from within begins with your ability to sense yourself and connect what you feel to what is actually happening in the present.

Humans are intensely social creatures with a need to give to others, play, contribute, and grow. Inside each one of us is the innate ability to move beyond our past and into a future of our own making. There is hope, support, and methods that really work to help us on that road.  I encourage those of you for whom this information has been helpful to seek out the help you need in order to bring yourself back into the rhythm of life.

Read more about the Trauma Center here.

Listen to Bessel van der Kolk here.

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.

Somatics Takeaway for August

IMG_8055 I have just returned from a three-week trip to Australia. After experiencing the rainy, chilly winter there, it's great to return to the long, lazy days of summer. It's traditional vacation time and to me vacation has always been one of activity: mountain climbing and swimming. This year the next three weeks will involve a different kind of vacation for me. My daily life is one of travel and movement and different time zones.

So this year August will be a month of no travel, plenty of rest, walking, and doing something most of us don't give enough attention to: integrating.

Integration is like digestion; it allows the brain to process and absorb the feedback of your everyday movements (or your Somatics practice). At the end of your day, allow yourself to come to a full stop, let everything go, and allow your brain to absorb all the sensory feedback from your day. Do the same in your Somatics practice. Without this information, you are unable to hone the awareness needed to determine if your actions are benefitting or detracting from your overall health, movement skill, emotional well-being, and goals.

For those of you who say, "I just can't relax," remember to stop and rest after your somatic movement, or at the end of your day; this is a practice in learning to relax. It truly is an art these days. When you let go completely, your brain and nervous system begin to know what true relaxation is. (And what a wealth of information it brings to your awareness!)

So, remember to pause after each movement (or each day) in order to let your brain and body truly release and reset.

Rushing from one thing to the next leads to burnout and prevents us from sensing our bodies, how we relate to them and how our actions affects them. We don't want to be surprised by a body that seems to suddenly work against us. We all need time to integrate. Take the time; it's worth the rest of your life.

 

Happy New Year of Awareness

HAPPY 2016!

Each new year brings a time of reflection - a time to look back on the past year - the good, the not-so-good - and assess how far you've come in your life, your goals, your work, and your health. When we're honest with ourselves in our assessment we may notice habits or behaviors that no longer serve us. We resolve to lose weight, exercise more, and eat healthier.  We reach out for resources and support in order to make those changes.  When we sit down to reflect on our future goals, hopes or aspirations for the New Year, we sit quietly. We remember. We take time to pay attention, mull things over and plan.

Awareness is key in developing new habits.

Without awareness of ourselves, our habits and how they shape our lives and goals we just may go on struggling to create change year after year with no success; we need to realize that true, long lasting change comes from a new perspective. Some habits are beneficial while others are simply conditioned into us by circumstances or upbringing, unconsciously becoming "who" we think we are.

Without the element of awareness New Year's resolutions have as much significance as a grocery list. Add to that a commitment to a daily practice of new habits or ways of being or thinking, and you have a profound and successful recipe for self-knowledge, growth and transformation.

Muhammed Ali once said,

The man who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.

And Thomas Hanna said:

If you're not getting smarter as you get older, you're doing something wrong.

No matter your age or limitation, nothing changes or improves without awareness, and practice. Our goal here at Essential Somatics® is to teach to those with chronic muscle pain or limited movement to create long-term pain relief by cultivating awareness of their bodies and movement, and by discovering their innate ability to change how they reflexively respond to the stresses of life. The way in which we move and sense ourselves physically is a reflection of our thoughts, feelings and how we have adapted to the accumulated stresses of our lives. When you have pain you change who you are - your ability to make good decisions, your goals, your dreams and your desires. The good news is that within each one of us is the innate capacity to change, grow and learn a new way of being.

We're here to guide those who want to regain awareness and control of their bodies and their movement goals, with awareness, opportunities for practice, and sincere and patient encouragement.

Please join us for weekly classes, workshops, and private clinical sessions for those of you striving to live a movement-filled, pain-free life. 

May this year bring growth, creativity, health and peace to you and everyone you know.

Correct Your Common Posture Problems in 3 Steps

Today, I read a New York Times article about how posture affects one's emotional state, physical health, and self-esteem. The solution that is offered is simply to do strengthening exercises for the back, core, and buttocks. In reality, the answer is not that simple (if it were, back pain and bad posture would be non-existent). What this article fails to address is the root cause of most poor posture. Hanna Somatics provides this missing link information. I recently wrote this blog post about posture and how Hanna Somatics teaches you to improve your posture - or better said, "efficient balance in the center,"  and relieve your back pain for the long-term.

Step 1: Be aware of your habits

The first thing you need to do is to become aware of your current postural, movement, and emotional habits. Do you use a computer, hold a bag or purse on one shoulder or sit for hours at a time? Are you frequently stressed or fearful? Just take note.

Step 2: Learn how your habits create Sensory Motor Amnesia

Your brain controls your muscles, movement, emotional responses, and the way you habituate to the stresses of your life. Sensory Motor Amnesia presents as full-body patterns of muscular tightness. Whatever you do consistently becomes a habit -  your brain's new "normal" - and you lose conscious awareness. This is when slumped posture and back pain arise. This also affects your emotional and psychological state, and self-esteem.

Step 3: Find your optimum posture

This doesn't mean simply standing straight or sitting with your feet planted on the floor. You need to restore your ability to sense and fully control your muscles to contract and relax by first retraining your brain - the control center of your body - through pandiculation and Hanna Somatic Exercises. This is a process of education, the same as learning to ride a bicycle or play the piano. You will learn body and emotional awareness, and learn to release tense muscles, which will help you to create physical comfort from the inside out.

4 Common "Bad" Postures (and their causes):

  • 32Hunched shoulders and tucked pelvis - slumping in seat, frequent computer use, emotional response to worry and fear
  • "Text neck"/Forward neck - tilting head downward to use handheld device or nurse/feed an infant, straining to see computer screen
  • Uneven weight on feet - compensation due to an accident, injury or surgery, holding baby on one hip, one-sided repetitive tasks
  • IMG_1402Forward hip tilt/Arched lower back - common in Type A personalities and active individuals, emotional response to high-stress situations

Try a few Somatic Exercises to help release tight back muscles and improve posture.

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

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

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

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

All life is sensory motor in nature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out our Clinical Somatic Education Professional training.

Good Health Doesn't Just Happen

One of my colleagues recently wrote me an uplifting email. I thought I'd share it with you.

I had a doctor's appointment last week, complete with blood work (which I have done every 6 months). My lab stats were even better than they were last time - and last time my doctor said they were "perfect!" So despite my perfect stats, the stats just keep on getting better and better.  I had another doctor appointment yesterday, and told her about the stats from my last visit. She looked them up and she commented that "good health like that doesn't just happen."I feel I am living proof of the unlimited potential to improve all aspects of our health - not just relief of aches and pains - as we continue to strengthen sensory motor awareness.  I'm wondering who out there who has a daily practice of Hanna Somatic is experiencing the same benefits?

Improving one's sensory motor awareness - the sense of what it feels like to be "you" as you live and respond in your life - has myriad benefits: reduction of muscular pain, improved brain to muscle control, improved joint stability and strength, and increased neural pathways in the brain due to movement differentiation and pandiculation. A body that is under the voluntary control of one's brain is a body whose autonomic nervous system is also more likely to function optimally.

As a Hanna Somatic Educator and trainer my goal is to teach people to move through life pain-free, with choice, mastery and joy. It can be done.

Somatic Exercises Make Freedom of Movement Possible

Hanna Somatic Exercises are powerful in their ability to change what your brain can sense in your body and how it can move your muscles. What your brain cannot feel it cannot, physiologically, move nor control. Over time, due to stress adaptation, we can become tighter and more rigid - in our movement, our bodies and our minds.

Somatic Exercises can change how we live our lives, how we believe that our minds and bodies interrelate, how powerful we think we are in controlling our lives, and how responsible we should be in taking care of our total being.

- Thomas Hanna, PhD, author of the book, Somatics

I recently taught three online video classes over three weeks to a client who suffered from chronic neck, shoulder, hip joint, low back pain and sense of being twisted in the center. She had read my book and was sure that her muscle pain was a case of Sensory Motor Amnesia rather than a chronic, unchangeable condition. I taught her seven basic Somatic Exercises and two "Standing Somatics" movements.

During our initial assessment I took several photos of her. When we assess we look for patterns of imbalance - the back overly arched, one side of the waist more hitched up than the other, shoulders slumped forward and chest collapsed. The photo below was taken before we started the first lesson. Note the line of her back and spine; it was being held tightly (by the brain) in an  exaggerated curve, like an archer's bow. This Green Light Reflex posture made it look as if she had a protruding belly. Her neck was thrust forward and the weight of her body was on the front of her feet. No wonder she had neck and shoulder pain! To her this was her "normal, neutral" posture.

Profile before lesson 1

Below is the photo taken before her third lesson. She had been doing Somatic Exercises on her own at home, for only three weeks! Notice how much less arched her back; her "protruding belly" had disappeared. Her weight was more evenly distributed over her feet and she had slowly, but surely found a new, more efficient and comfortable neutral. Her uncomfortable twist had gone away as well. She even looked happier! Her biggest "aha! moment" had been when she noticed how she arched her back and thrust her face forward as she sat at her computer. That moment of noticing caused her to stop, self-correct and adjust and take back voluntary control of her movement and posture. The process of learning to be self-aware, self-monitoring and self-correcting is a life long process.

After 2 lesson & 3 wks of practice

So which exercises did she learn? We started where everyone should start: the beginning:

  • Arch and Flatten
  • Flower
  • Arch and Curl
  • Back Lift
  • Cross Lateral Arch and Curl
  • Side Bend (for that sense of being twisted and out of balance)
  • Washrag (gentle spinal twisting that lengthens the waist as you twist the whole spine)
  • Walking Exercises, Part 1 and 2 (which integrates the movement of the back, waist and front into the pattern of walking)
  • Reach To The Top Shelf
  • Standing Arch and Curl

She learned to sense the movements by doing them slowly, with awareness, rather than doing them like rote exercises from the gym. The more she focused on the sensation of the movement and the slow controlled release of pandiculation, the more change and improvement she was able to make.

When we consciously and patiently turn our awareness within, to our internal sensations, we can learn to release often mysterious and long term muscle pain. The best time to start learning to move freely is right now.  Freedom of movement can enrich and improve not just your body, but you as a person.

Learn to skillfully teach Hanna Somatic Exercises in the Hanna Somatic Exercise Coach Training Level One. Join the many movement professionals who have discovered the benefits of incorporating Hanna Somatic Exercises into their primary teaching.

The Mystery of "Muscle Knots" Solved: Sensory Motor Amnesia

There is some confusion as to what "muscle knots" are and where they come from. This article from the New York Times posits: "How do they happen and how can they be prevented? Are they harmful and should they be treated?" Allow me to answer these questions in the simplest way possible:

"Muscle knots" are not mysterious; they are areas of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA)

Sensory Motor Amnesia is habituated muscle tension that develops when we become habituated to stress and/or certain ways of moving. These areas of accumulated, learned muscular tension are stuck at the level of the central nervous system and cannot, physiologically, release and relax.

If you've ever had back, neck or shoulder pain and gone to a massage therapist to work the knots out of your back, only to have the knots return, it seems that there is little that can be done. Not so. The reason these knots seem to stick around despite the best massage therapist's effort, and why they don't show up on scans and MRIs is because what is happening in the muscle is a neurological event in the brain - a functional problem of the sensory motor system. SMA is not a medical problem that can be diagnosed through conventional medical methods. It is a functional  problem of the sensory motor system that can be easily "unlearned" through Hanna Somatic Education.brain-side

Muscle knots can be prevented first and foremost by understanding how SMA develops in your brain due to repetitive stress responses and/or repetitive, habituated movement habits. Muscles have two functions: contract and relax. When muscles can no longer fully relax this is an indication that you have accumulated muscle tension that you are no longer fully aware of. The only way to fully release these "knots" is to make sure that the brain is fully in control of the muscles.

Muscles knots are only harmful when they get in the way of free, efficient movement.

Movement is medicine, movement is life, and painful muscle tension can cause you to move less efficiently and, for most people, minimize the amount of movement you do. In order to live a healthy, free life we need to be able to move strongly, vigorously, and with endurance for as long as we live. If you're not planning on moving a lot then muscle knots won't hurt you. The lack of movement will, however.

Treatment of tight muscles doesn't work. Reeducation of tight muscles does.

If you want to untie a knot, you must look at the cord carefully then gently undo the tangle. Yanking on the cord will only make the knot tighter.

- Thomas Hanna

Muscle knots can't really be "treated" successfully - for the long term.  Treatment is what bodyworkers and doctors do when they attempt to fix tight muscles (or postural imbalances) from the outside; there are therapists who can help provide short term relief, yet muscle tension Pandiculation demonstrated (1)develops from the inside out (Sensory Motor Amnesia) and, since humans are self-regulating, self-sensing beings, not cars or bicycles that need fixing, their muscles must be educated so they can contract and release fully in order to get rid of muscle knots.

Through active involvement of the brain - rather than through manual manipulation - people can more easily and safely learn to  eliminate muscle knots, restore full muscle function in all planes of gravity and prevent them from coming back by doing three simple things:

  • Become aware of your daily movement habits and reflexive responses to stress. Repetitive contraction of muscles without full relaxation creates muscle knots.
  • Learn to pandiculate instead of stretch. Animals pandiculate up to 40 times a day!
  • If you have chronic muscle tension, learn how to eliminate your patterns of Sensory Motor Amnesia with a daily routine of Somatic Exercises**

Muscle knots are not an inevitable part of life; they are a symptom of stress adaptation.

**You can also learn to eliminate your patterns of SMA through a series of hands-on clinical Somatics sessions with a skilled and certified practitioner.

Freedom and Habits: Can They Exist at the Same Time?

How easily we allow our old habits and set patterns to dominate us! Even though they bring us suffering, we accept them with almost fatalistic resignation, for we are so used to giving in to them. We may idealize freedom, but when it comes to our habits, we are completely enslaved. Still, reflection can slowly bring us wisdom. We may, of course, fall back into fixed repetitive patterns again and again, but slowly we can emerge from them and change.

While this quote comes from Rigpa, a Buddhist website, it is the same philosophy underpinning Hanna Somatics. From a Hanna Somatics perspective it means that set patterns and habits, while useful in many ways, can dominate our posture and movement if we are unaware of them and unable to control them.  The fixed habits of walking that develop through trial and error as toddlers are critically important. They allow us the freedom to move forward in life. Yet, when other habits take over and become fixed patterns, like slumping at the computer, gritting our teeth when we're angry, tightening our bellies when we're anxious, contracting our back muscles as we rush through our busy lives - we gradually lose our sense of well-being and our freedom. Unconscious habits can change who we are.  getty-cartwheel

Habitual responses to stress become muscular habits at the level of our brain and nervous system. Once we develop a habit we are helpless to change it until we spend thoughtful time becoming aware of:

  • What the habit feels like (back pain, hip pain, sciatica, neck pain).
  • How it shows up in our bodies (slumped shoulders, face forward, leg length discrepancy).
  • How it is limiting us ("I used to dance and now it just hurts my hip... I can only walk a few blocks and then my back gives out...").

Many people feel defeated: "Well, I'm not getting any younger." "It's all down hill from here..." or "I probably ache because of my age." Many accept their unfortunate limitations with fatalistic resignation. They feel trapped and frustrated by muscle pain and few sensible solutions as they seek a solution to their pain "out there" - massage therapy, bodywork, physical therapy, the latest trends and remedies to relax muscles. They don't realize that in most cases the answer lies within their own brain and sensory motor system, and how an awareness of what they're doing repeatedly, (whether emotional, physical or psychological) can be the piece of the puzzle that they're missing.

This is the message of Hanna Somatics: freedom comes through awareness of one's ability to sense and control oneself from the inside out as they move through life. It is a patient and persistent practice of awareness - of what it feels like to be you, how your old habits have created habits of pain and limitation, the meaning you have given to what has happened to you over the years, and how you can change limitation to freedom - on your own, from the inside out. We need habits in our lives; they create a necessary element of stability - in movement. It's whether these habits serve us or not that is the question.

What does freedom look and feel like to you?

Getting Back to Basics in 2015

2014 was a brilliant year for Hanna Somatics. Thank you to all those around the world - from Australia to Calgary, the UK, Norway, Germany, and the US - who supported me in my teaching and trainings. Thankfully, the word "somatic" is no longer foreign to most people's ears. New, more somatic, and exploratory movement disciplines are becoming more popular. Yoga teachers, Pilates teachers, personal trainers, massage therapists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths are teaching Somatic Exercises as a complement to their primary practice.

The people I taught around the world this past year are thirsting for a somatic approach to pain relief and mindful, life long movement. They understand that the body, which for many is the source of unhappiness, can be our own powerful "canary in the mineshaft" that signals an imbalance - in all areas of our lives. One of the safest gateways to "re-membering" who you are, what you want and what is basic to your quality of life is through your own somatic experience: your body.

Many turn away from the slow, mindful somatic exercises as "too boring" or "too slow." I understand that. Yet when it comes to learning to master movement, slow is the new fast.

We run marathons, but we cannot breathe into our bellies or swing our hips. We cannot move slowly, but we strive to do 100 sit-ups as fast as we can. We have back pain, but rush around taking care of others with no time for ourselves. We don't see that our emotions and lifestyle have a profound impact on our muscle tension and level of happiness. There's a disconnect here that, over time, will translate into a "what happened to me?!" experience that just may be your wake up call.

Enter "the basics."

I love Dan John's blog post, Going From Point A To Point B. His advice may be geared towards strength training, yet it is a life lesson that, to my ears, is purely somatic: if you want to get to Point B (the Olympics, Super Bowl, weight loss) you need to know where Point A is. Once you know where Point A is you can map out a direct line to your goal. Point A, from my perspective as a Somatic Educator is what it feels like to be in your body - right now, today. But there's more...

The Basics

A free and easy walk. If your goal is to run a marathon, but your pelvis is rigiIMG_7079d, your legs don't swing easily and you "clunk" when you walk... you need to learn to walk freely. The is the quintessential human movement. We want to be able to walk - unaided - well into old age.

Pandiculate often! If you still stretch, learn to pandiculate. Cats and dogs pandiculate up to 40 times a day. Pandiculation restores full muscle function and length. Just slowly lengthen out your limbs, as if you were just waking up from a nap.

The ability to hike your hips up and down (like a slow salsa). If you don't know where your waist muscles are and can't isolate them one at a time, it's time to learn. Hips and a pelvis that move up, down, forward and back contribute to fluid walking.

The ability to move your shoulders in opposition to your hips (think shoulder shimmies). Do your shoulders move in gentle opposition to your hips when you walk or do you walk like a refrigerator, solid as a block with no movement in the center, swaying back and forth? If yes, then this is why you might be losing your balance. If your shoulders are stiff, your hips will be stiff. They're connected. That's basic.

The ability to twist through the torso. If you walk stiffly (see above) and can't remember IMG_1769the last time you twisted your upper body in opposition to your lower body, it's time to regain that skill. Your spine needs to be able to twist to help you walk freely.

Sadly, many people have completely lost connection with a sense of what it feels like to be in their bodies. For them Point A is taking the time to learn to sense yourself. Take all the time you need because what you cannot sense you cannot control. This applies to your body, your life, your choices and your dreams. Change comes first through awareness, then patient, persistent and fun practice.

All these basic movement skills can be learned through Somatic Exercises.

Click here for Pain-Free and Move Without Pain DVDs.

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Click here to find a practitioner who can help you learn to move well in 2015.

How Movement Can Calm the Savage Beast

Several years ago I went on a 2-week trek with my older sister and my mother, who was 82-years-old at the time . There is no word in the dictionary that does justice to the experience of hiking in the Himalayas. I will just say that it was mind-expanding as well as detoxifying, mentally and physically. It was one of the most healthy and curative experiences I've ever had.

Movement + real food + clean air = good health

I had a feeling that two weeks without computers and cars would teach me something I hadn't yet learned about my body and my own habitual reactions to stress. I got more than what I'd hoped for: after two weeks of challenging daily activity the likes of which I had not yet experienced in all my years of hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I found myself without any aches or pains (which I experience after too much computer time). I felt an inner calm that I am convinced could not have occurred without the strenuous daily hiking we undertook.

The benefits of movement are well documented, and yet the combination of pure food to nourish the body, and nothing other than stunning nature to nourish the mind can create an experience, both physical and mental, that serves as a detox of the mind and body as it calms the central nervous system. As we know from Hanna Somatics, everything we experience, mentally, emotionally and physically, is muscularly responded to in our bodies. The way in which we deal with our lives is reflected in our bodies, movement and posture. When we calm the mind and nervous system by feeding it pleasant stimulus and the entire body functions optimally. Our mental patterns may also begin to change.

I'm a very seasoned hiker, yet was still challenged by the level of difficulty of our trek into the Singalila Range of Sikkim.  We hiked slowly and steadily for 4-6 hours daily.There was no room for distraction; my awareness was focused intently on my body mechanics as we negotiated rocks, tree roots, mud and scree; and my breath and determination to get to the next rest spot. It was a moment-to-moment mindful meditation in motion. At the end of each day I felt invigorated, both physically and mentally. My head was clear, my body was strong. The challenge now is how to keep that level of calmness in suburban New Jersey as I dig into my work. I have to remind myself that real food, clean air, and vigorous outdoor movement is attainable whether you travel all the way to India or stick around your own backyard.

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

Relieve Hip Pain Easily and Quickly

Everyone these days seems to have hip pain - and it's usually one-sided. To demystify this right from the start, most chronic, one-sided hip pain is due to habituation of a very common reflex: the Trauma Reflex. This is a reflex that is invoked involuntarily in response to accidents, injuries, surgeries, or falls. It can also become habituated due to using a computer mouse, holding a baby on one's hip, or holding a heavy bag on one shoulder. The muscles of one side of the waist and trunk become tighter than the other side. This changes the way you walk and can lead to plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, and sciatica.

You must change the sensory motor nervous system in order to relieve muscle pain.

Think about it: if you could relax the muscles you would, right? But you can't. This is because you have learned so well to adapt and adjust to the stresses of your life (physical, mental, emotional, and occupational) that you don't even notice your movement or posture until pain sets in. The key to long-term pain relief is to learn to "reboot" your brain and nervous system so your muscles learn to fully relax. You are the only one who can do this; in Hanna Somatics we teach you how.

The first step is know what to look for. I like to ask clients to pay attention to specific things as they walk: Do both arms swing gently? Does one hip move more than the other? Do you land more heavily on one foot or the other? Do you notice a difference from one side to the other? Invariably even clients who say, "I've never paid attention to how I walk," will tell me that they notice one side moving while the other side feels stiff.

"Dorothy" came to me with pain in one hip, and discomfort IMG_1865when walking. She was very active, and loved to garden.  Notice in the photo at right how the right hip is higher up than the left hip. Notice the hem of her shirt; it curves up and to the right. Her right arm and hip are touching. Notice the difference on the left side; her back is more relaxed and there is space between her arm and hip. Her right shoulder slumps down while her left shoulder is level. This is a typical Trauma Reflex posture.

It wasn't surprising that Dorothy had discomfort when she walked. She was literally out of balance, with one foot and leg moving differently from the other, like a car with a flat tire. This kind of muscular imbalance creates hip pain on one side of the body; if it is not addressed it can also contribute to structural damage.

Dorothy didn't notice these imbalances until I pointed them out. She initially said that she felt IMG_1866balanced and even! Why? Because this "out of balance" posture had become an unconscious - therefore, uncontrollable - habit. In order to release the muscles around the hip joints and pelvis and relieve her hip pain, she needed to learn to regain conscious awareness and voluntary control of the muscles of side bending and twisting - the very ones that were hitching her pelvis up and tightening around her hip joint.

After only one session, she was able to relax her right hip so that it was even and level with her left hip. Notice the difference in the level of her hips in the photo to the right. The hem of her shirt is even as are her shoulders.

After a hands-on clinical Somatics session that addressed the muscles of the Trauma Reflex, I asked her to walk down the hall one more time. She noticed that her gait was smooth and effortless, and her hip pain was greatly relieved. I sent Dorothy home with several easy Somatic Exercises (arch and flatten, the side bend, and the washrag) - to do at home to reinforce the improvement she had made. I saw her her a few more times to help her release the muscles of the back and front of her body, and she reports that she continues to feel looser and more comfortable both in her hips and in her walk. It's amazing what a little awareness and movement can do!

Shoulder Pain Relief Made Easy

Unconscious movement habits can cause muscle pain.

Yesterday I spoke to "Emily," a well-known yoga teacher.  She was confused and frustrated about her shoulder. "I can't get down to the floor without pain in my left shoulder. I must have an injury, because it hurts all down the left arm." I asked her to show me what it is that she couldn't do.  She moved gracefully through the "sun salutation," and when she got to the part of the movement in which she lowered herself down to the ground, as in the photo at right, I watched as she easily engaged her right shoulder, but "guarded" her left shoulder.

Awareness of the problem is the first step to reversing it.

I asked her to stand up, bring her arms out like a "T." Her posture showed her left shoulder hunched upward, while the right shoulder was relaxed.  She couldn't feel the difference and had sensed both shoulders as being the same. I asked her if she had strained her left shoulder at any point and she admitted that she had a bad habit of hunching her left shoulder up as if cradling a phone to her left ear. I told her that this was an example of Sensory Motor Amnesia  - chronically tight muscles that the brain had "forgotten" how to release, relax and move properly.

Pandiculation relaxes tight muscles safely and effectively: tighten first, lengthen, then relax.

With her arms at her sides, I told her to slowly, but firmly draw her left shoulder UP to her ear, making the top of that shoulder even tighter than it was before. "Notice how the shoulder blade slides up along the back when you pull that shoulder upward. Let that happen," I said. I coached her to notice and allow the shoulder blade to slide along the back as she lowered her shoulder to neutral.

When we don't notice our movement, we often don't allow muscles to move. We can improve the function of our muscles purely by noticing our movement. By doing that voluntary movement - tightening the shoulder up to her ear, then slowly relaxing it down to neutral - she regained control of her left shoulder. The pain disappeared! This voluntary contracting, lengthening, then relaxing of the muscle - pandiculation - is what resets the muscle length at the brain level. It is safer than stretching, simple, and reverses pain  rapidly and effectively.

Emily then performed her sun salutation one more time. When she got to the movement that had been bothering her shoulder, she exclaimed, "it doesn't hurt! I feel balanced again!" What a difference 5 minutes of awareness can make

Try this easy Somatic Exercise at home for shoulder pain relief:

Focusing on one shoulder at a time, slowly draw the shoulder up to your ear, then slowly relax it back to neutral. Repeat this 3 times. Notice the movement. Is it jumpy? Jerky? Shaky? If yes, then go back and do it again until the movement is smooth, even and controlled. Close your eyes and take a minute to sense the difference between the shoulder you just pandiculated and the other shoulder. Now repeat on the other side. If you like, you can finish by drawing both shoulders up to your ears (as if you were protecting yourself from the cold), then relaxing them down slowly to neutral. Again, make sure the movement is smooth and controlled. When it is, you've taken back conscious, voluntary control of those muscles.

Click here to purchase Martha's easy-to-follow Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD.

Have Fun With Your Somatics!

Today was a big day for my second year clinical Somatic Education students. It was a day of public clinic in which they worked with members of the public, some of whom had previous experience with Hanna Somatics and other who were new to it. Each client had specific aches and pains: back pain, shoulder and hip pain, Achilles tendon pain. My students taught clinical lessons as my assistant teacher, Laura Gates and I observed and critiqued them.

The most important part of a clinical Somatics lesson is the self-care homework: the Somatic Exercises.

These simple movement patterns help reinforce the often dramatic changes people are able to make in their muscles and movement during the session. They literally wake up the brain’s awareness of what it feels like to be in one’s body, and how to control the muscles and movement. In addition, they enhance immune function, improve breathing, mental focus, reduce muscle tension IMG_5252and stress and improve proprioception and sensory motor function.

One of my students, Ales Ernst from Slovenia, was working with a client who told him that the Somatic Exercise she had the most trouble with was the Back Lift (an excellent movement that releases and relaxes tight back muscles). He asked her to show him how she did this movement at home. He notice that she was rushing through the exercise as if she were at the gym: fast, at maximum strength and without fully relaxing. Here’s what he advised her that made all the difference in her experience and awareness:

Imagine that someone were watching you do this movement, and they didn’t know what you were doing. You would want them to be thinking, “Wow, I think I want to do that as well. It looks really pleasant and enjoyable.” It’s like watching a young child play; you may not know what game they’re playing or what’s going on in their head; you just know they’re having fun. It shows in their body and movement. If you approach your Somatic Exercises in this manner you cannot hurt yourself or overexert yourself. See if you can make the movement as pleasant as possible. You’ll only learn more about yourself, and the more you learn about yourself the better your life can be.

After several slow repetitions of the back lift, done with this in mind, she laughed and said, "I feel so relaxed! I think this will become my favorite Somatic Exercise!"

Ales' simple explanation gets to the heart of how to do Somatic exercises. We understand all the good reason as to why to do Somatic exercises, yet as Ales pointed out to his client, they way in which we do them - our intention - makes all the difference. If we do our Somatic exercises as if they were an unpleasant obligation our brain will get an entirely different message than if we do them because we enjoy them.

Stress research has proven that when people feel forced to do something their stress response goes way up. When people do something they enjoy (what they want to do) their stress response is low. The more pleasurable something is, the more we want to do it and the more you get out of it.

Somatic exercises are a gesture of kindness you make towards yourself.

It’s a time to slow down, be mindful, explore, play and, in a sense, return to yourself. Engage with your Somatics practice - whether you do Somatics on the floor or explore fun movements while seated or standing - with an eye towards making it as pleasant as possible.

You just might find yourself doing more of what you want to do in your life instead of only doing what you think you should be doing. The process is yours.

Self-Awareness, Here-ness, and There-ness

I remember the first time my daughter cried from joy. It was a profound moment of self-awareness.

last-unicornShe was seven years old. She was watching The Last Unicorn - a animated movie about a unicorn who learns that she will soon be the last of her kind and tries to defeat the king who is destroying them all.

(Spoiler alert!) She thought the unicorn was going to die at the end of the film, but it didn't. My daughter was so relieved and happy that she cried. She sat on the couch saying, "Oh Mommy, oh Mommy, I'm crying, I'm crying!" She was perplexed by this new expression of joy and relief that came through her tears. It was a spontaneous burst of emotion that came out of her experience of what Thomas Hanna called "Here-ness" - the first person, somatic experience that only she could have.

Thomas Hanna made the distinction between "Here-ness" (first person awareness) and  "There-ness," (third person awareness) some 30 years ago. The third person is an objective view of something from the outside looking in.  It's the perspective with which doctors view you as they look at your body. "You" are the charts, graphs, blood test results, or images on an MRI or X-ray. This is helpful when it comes to diagnosing a disease, yet it fails when seeking to understand why someone would have muscle pain, poor posture and other functional problems.

Most of us are encouraged to think about ourselves as a "body," as if the body were separate from us, as an "it." This thing called a body should be able to be fixed and shaped as well as look a certain way.

Here's the catch: no one knows what it feels like to be you, no matter their credentials. If you look at someone in the objective sense, only they can sense or experience what is going on inside of them; you will be unable to appreciate what they are experiencing from their perspective. This is what is called the "somatic perspective." We may live in a body, yet what happens in the body occurs from the inside out. Learning occurs from the inside out. Experience and wisdom is honed through one's first person awareness (one's "Here-ness") as we learn, grow and change through life. This is the awareness that Hanna Somatic Educators teach their clients to reclaim.

It is through awareness and sensory motor learning that chronic pain, postural dysfunction and lack of control over one's body can change for the long term.  Self-acceptance, appreciation of one's body and one's Self, and, for many, more happiness flow from there.

As children we discovered how to walk through exploration, trial and error. We incorporated that learning into our internal process; we gained confidence. This  process of sensory motor learning and internal monitoring, so immediate for children, is slowly "bleached away," as Hanna put it, by society and its emphasis on third person objective thinking. The real stuff  - the stuff of growth, strength, inspiration and real change, lies beneath - in our inner life.

Tapping into the "Here-ness" and letting it inform you can be strange, uncomfortable, and transformative, especially in a society that values youth, external looks and outside experts. You may find that things begin to change - that maybe even you begin to change. You may become stronger, more in control, more trusting and accepting of yourself.

When this occurs our experiences becomes richer and fuller. It is like returning to those moments of wonder as a child, when your joy overflows as you discover that the unicorn will indeed live on forever. These moments can inform us, improve our awareness of habits that no longer serve us or ways in which we run from ourselves.  Try it - you'll be amazed. And you may find yourself crying with joy when you least expect it.

The Last Unicorn is property of Rankin/Bass Production.

Reset Your Gait, Improve Your Walking

Anyone who knows me knows I love to walk and hike. I'm doing my best to take after my mother; she's  86-years-old and still trekking and traveling. The photo at right is of my mother and me in the Himalayas in December 2011. My mother is healthier and stronger than most 50 year olds I know, with the endurance of an ox. One of the biggest secrets to her good health is her daily walking habit. A recent study about exercise shows that walking beats the competition when it comes to positive development in the hippocampus of the brain and in spatial memory.  Walking, the activity seen as a "non-activity," by many because it appears to not be vigorous enough - is one of the best full-body functional exercise regimens you could ever follow. It is also the quintessential human movement. We are built to walk.

The way in which you walk makes all the difference.

There is an efficient (and inefficient) way to walk. A balanced, natural walk involves "cross-patterning" - the shoulders and hips moving in opposition to each other. The spine rotates gently to aid the movement of the shoulders. The hips move gently up and down, forward and back as the arms swing gently in opposite to the legs. The center of the body is upright and lengthened. You are on top of your hips, not pitched forward in front of them.

If you don't sense this kind of movement, you are working too hard when you walk. You are also likely not using your feet properly to aid in the movement. Efficient walking looks like the photo above, taken in India.

If you want to be able to climb stairs with freedom and balance as long as you live it's best to go back to the basics: learn to walk the way you did as a child - freely and effortlessly.

The first step is to learn to release and relax the muscles of the center of the body so your hips, pelvis, shoulders and back can move fluidly and easily. Adaptation to accidents, injuries, long term stress, or overtraining can create chronically contracted muscles in the back, waist and abdominals.  This can result in short steps, a shuffling or a lumbering gait. Tightness in the center restricts  freedom of movement and puts excessive pressure on the hips joints.

Hanna Somatic Exercises, especially arch and flatten, the side bend, and the washrag are a great place to start to learn how to regain an efficient, balanced gait. You can also read this blog post to learn an easy exercise to improve your walking and become more aware of your walking habits.

In order to not let stress get the better of us (and our muscle patterns) we need to be aware of our daily habits and movement. One of the beautiful things about walking is that you have a chance to move your entire body in a way it was meant to move and notice what you're doing. Breathe and shake off the stress. Once you can walk smoothly and effortlessly you're ready to run. It's basic. And it will keep you moving well into old age, just like my mother.

Click here to purchase my easy-to-follow Somatic Exercise DVDs.

Recommended for pain-free, balanced walking: Pain Relief Through Movement and Pain-Free Leg and Hip Joints

Somatics Isn't Just About Movement; It's About Life

How would you feel if you arrived at your office in the early morning and this was your view out of your window? IMG_1950

Every morning last week as I went to work I was treated to this magnificent visual "good morning." My reaction was to stop, smile, sense the wind on my face, and feel grateful to be feasting my eyes on such beauty. It made a difference in the way I felt throughout the day.

The above photo was taken in Stavanger, Norway where I was teaching a clinical training module in Somatic Education at the studio of my Norwegian clinical student, Sol Brandt-Eilertsen. Imagine being treated to such a calming scene each morning.

IMG_1906The studio is also home to a swan who sits happily in a puddle in the driveway all day long. He's there when we arrived and there when we left in the evening. This swan is just part of the scenery - nothing extraordinary to the locals. For the other students and me, however, the swan, the boats, the wind-whipped sea, and the cloudy, unpredictable skies had a positive emotional affect on us. It was a sensory experience that made us want to reach our arms into the air and breathe deeply.

In addition to the swan and gorgeous coastal scenery I noticed (over the course of the week) how little my right hip (the one with the two labral tears) bothered me. I credit my hiatus from long hours writing at my computer and answering emails to this added extra pain relief and improved movement. When I travel I spend very little time on the computer. This is a good thing for my body. I sleep better and feel calmer. So it goes with Somatics.

A Soma is a body as experienced from within.

Everything we experience in our lives is first a sensory (feeling) experience, which is followed by a motor (movement) response in your brain. Whether it is a newborn baby that makes you to smile broadly or a fight with your spouse that leaves you physically exhausted, it all begins with sensation and awareness. Some responses to one's environment are reflexive and predictable, common to all human beings when they respond to the stresses of life.  Thomas Hanna codified these postural reflex patterns and called them the Red Light, Green Light, and Trauma Reflexes.

To be "somatic" doesn't just refer to the way in which you move. It refers to everything you do in life. You see, like it or not, everything you do is responded to by the sensory motor system with a muscular response in the body. Since you are the only one who can sense what it feels like to be "you," you are the only one who can choose how you want to feel. And this can impact all aspects of your life.

If your back hurts constantly, when was the last time you stood up to take a break from your computer? If your neck bothers you, do you hunch over your phone as you text? Are you aware of how your thought patterns, attitudes, movement habits, and emotional responses to life contribute to your muscular pain or limited movement? What brings you joy and calm? Do you bring those things into your life or push them off for another day?

An easy and gentle way to bring more somatic awareness into your body and life is through a practice of Hanna Somatic Exercises. These exercises help change the way you sense, feel, move and control your body.  This awareness and control invariably filters into other aspects of your life.

One of my clinical students has a student in her weekly Somatic Exercise class who reported that not only is sheIMG_1769 feeling pain-free and more flexible after incorporating a daily Somatics practice into her life, but she is feeling happier about herself - freer and more able to express herself. This woman's sentiment is what keeps me traveling around the world teaching people how to teach Hanna Somatics.

Somatics teaches freedom by way of somatic awareness, and you can't get much better than that.

To buy Martha's Essential Somatics® instructional DVDs, click here.