Somatics in Calgary, AB

Debra Denison can stand and move for 30 minutes at a time after two years of intense chronic pain left her on crutches. Sue French is back to running after barely being able to walk for months due to severe back and hip pain.

Jude Ewan can finally move and control her arm after suffering a stroke that left her entire right side nearly paralyzed six years ago.

All three believe they have reclaimed their bodies and their lives because of simple exercises called Hanna Somatics.

I attended a Hanna Somatics training in Calgary this past summer. For the first time ever there were medical professionals in this training who understood that while manual bodywork has much to offer for those in pain, there was "something missing" in their perspective and their treatment plans. There was also Debra (mentioned above) who, for two years, had not been able to stand for morknob-hille than a few minutes at a time. She had rediscovered herself through Hanna Somatic Exercises and slow, gentle movement exploration. Yoga teachers and massage therapists also attended in a quest to deepen and "tweak" their perspective on their bodies, their own movement, and this concept they'd heard so much about: Sensory Motor Amnesia.

What came out of this training is an exceptionally well written article about Hanna Somatics and how its methods can transform the course of one's well-being as well as add "missing link" information to the medical perspective on chronic muscle pain, aging, repetitive stress and injury recovery.




How Clinical Somatics Can Bring Tiger Woods Back Into Competition

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

Tiger Woods has Sensory Motor Amnesia.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Know If You're Out Of Balance

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

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


Click here to purchase Pain-Free Somatic Exercise DVDs.

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Long Lasting Pain Relief for Knee Pain

I used to have "bad knees." I was a dancer for 15 years, had several knee surgeries, and found myself unable to kneel for long periods of time and challenged if I had to sit cross-legged on the floor by the time I was 40. Those days are gone. My knees are no longer "bad." In fact, they're strong, and pain-free, with no arthritis or stiffness.

How did I change my "bad knees" to "good knees?" I discovered Hanna Somatics.

In this post on a well-respected website about age and health, you'll see an incomplete perspective on how to get long-lasting relief for knee pain. I say "incomplete," because from my clinical experience, most people suffering knee pain don't look like the nice, neat, symmetrical "people" in the illustrations. (Don't get me wrong; knee exercises are great for those under the care of a physical therapist who need to regain muscle tone and strength due to knee surgery.)

Most people suffering from knee pain are not standing tall, and balanced.

They are either slightly tilted to one side, twisted in their torso (which causes the pelvis to shift out of alignment) or slumped and rounded forward; this is known as the Trauma Reflex. Most people suffering from knee pain are also very tight in the center of their bodies, and completely unaware of both their posture and their gait. Some people with knee pain limp and don't even know it! This kind of chronic muscle tightness that affects posture and movement is called Sensory Motor Amnesia - the brain has simply forgotten how to relax certain muscles, causing your movement to change for the worse.

Myth: Painful knees mean you have weak knees.

Doing strengthening exercises for knees can be helpful, but doesn't get to the root of the problem. Painful knees do not necessarily mean weak knees!

Painful knees often have more to do with tight, contracted muscles in the thighs (quadriceps and hamstrings) and in the center of the body than with any structural problem in the knees themselves. Unless you've had an accident that resulted in  structural damage to your knees, strengthening the muscles that attach into the knee joint without also releasing accumulated muscle tension in the center of the body won't give you long-lasting relief.

Once you learn to relax the tight muscles of the back, waist and abdominals and regain a real sense of balanced alignment and an even gait, then doing certain strengthening exercises can be beneficial not only for the knees, but also for your overall health.

One of the fastest way to relieve knee pain is to regain a balanced gait.

Several things occur when your gait is uneven:

  • One leg works harder than the other when you walk. This creates unequal pressure in the knee joint, which can, over time, create structural damage not only in the knee joint, but also in the hip joint.
  • The thigh muscles (quadriceps) tighten strongly - often stronger than necessary - to stabilize the knee as you walk unevenly.
  • The hamstrings tighten in response to what the thigh muscles are doing. The thigh and hamstrings muscles are supposed to work together in coordination, but when one set of muscles is contracted excessively and continuously, the other set of muscles contracts accordingly, making it difficult to release either set of muscles. It's as if you're stuck in a vice.

On my DVD, Pain Relief Through Movement, I instruct you in how to do the "walking lessons" (shown in the photo on the right), Somatic Exercises that teach you to release and relax the muscles of the back, waist and abdominals for easier movement in the pelvis, hips, legs and knees. These exercises come at the end of the DVD, because once you've learned to regain control of, and release the back, waist, abdominal and hip muscles you're ready to learn to walk freely again. Learning to coordinate the muscles of walking begins with the back muscles, not with the knees.

Why Is One Leg Shorter Than The Other? The Trauma Reflex!

Here are three frequent questions my clients ask me:

Why do I have one leg shorter than the other?

Why do I have hip pain, knee or foot pain but only on one side?

I'm told that my pelvis is rotated because I have a weak core. Is that true?

The answer:

Leg length discrepancy, one side hip, knee, and foot pain, sciatica, tilted posture, piriformis syndrome, and a rotated pelvic are all the result of an habituated Trauma Reflex. No, the core is not necessarily "weak." It is likely so strong and tight - within the pattern of the Trauma Reflex - that the center of the body cannot fully relax, rotate and side bend evenly on both sides.

When you respond to any physical trauma, a sudden blow to the body, a slip, fall or crutchesaccident of any kind, the brain instantly, involuntarily, and often violently, contracts the muscles of the waist (the oblique muscles), the trunk rotators (lattisimus dorsii, abdominals, adductors and abductors of the legs) and the muscles that allow the pelvis to swing freely (quadratus lumborum and iliopsoas) in an attempt to avoid injury or to prevent further pain after the accident has occurred. If you've ever prevented what could have been a terrible fall you know the wrenching pain that comes with the sudden twisting movement that helps you regain  your balance.

If the accident is severe or violent - a car accident or a sudden slip on the ice, for example - the brain Trauma reflex - frontteaches these muscles to stay tight and contracted. If you injure yourself on one side of your body and need to protect that injured limb until it is healed (as occurs when using crutches), you can inadvertently learn to walk with a limp once the injury is healed. A one-sided job, like sitting at a computer and using the mouse all day with one hand can create a strong imbalance on one side of the body.

When muscles stay tight the brain loses the ability to fully contract and release the muscle. The ability to fully release the muscle is what gives the muscle power. This state of elevated muscle tonus and tension that won't relax is called Sensory Motor Amnesia. In the case of an habituated Trauma Reflex your brain integrates and organizes this learned and involuntary full-body imbalance into a "neutral" and "balanced" that, as those of you have ever suffered an accident or injury, can sense is out of balance, tilted, rotated and uncomfortable. Not to mention inefficient.

How do you learn to regain symmetry and balance in the center of your body? Muscles that have learned to stay tight and contracted due to stress must learn to relax, release, and move freely again. It's muscle reeducation. Many people can benefit from one-on-one clinical sessions with a qualified Somatic Educator skilled in the methods of Thomas Hanna. However, many people can also easily learn to do this on their own, at home.

The video below can help you learn to lengthen both sides of the waist evenly so you can regain your internal awareness ("somatic" awareness) and proprioception for improved balance and a smoother gait. This easy awareness exercise is best done after you learn to relax and release the waist muscles by doing arch and flatten, the side bend and the washrag.

To learn more Hanna Somatic Exercises and learn to relieve muscle pain and improve mobility, and somatic awareness, you can purchase my Pain-Free series of DVDs. Enjoy the video and enjoy standing tall!


Pain Relief for Sciatica and Knee Pain

Recently I read an article about a new medical technique that addresses sciatic pain. The woman in the article - a hairdresser - was overjoyed that, through surgery, she was able to get relief from her sciatica. I'm happy to know that some people can be helped through medical intervention, but the problem still remained: there was no guarantee that her pain wouldn't return; as is common with many medical approaches to functional problems such as sciatica, the patient never really found out how she had created her sciatica. Without addressing the root cause of her pain - a chronically tight buttock muscle - her pain will most likely return. Sciatica pain occurs when the sciatic nerve, which runs through the buttock and down the leg, is compressed by the buttock muscle or tight back muscles on one side. Doctors will inject medication to either deaden the nerve or relieve the compression, rather than treat what is causing the pain to begin with. If you become aware of your pattern of movement that is causing your muscles to become contracted, then you can change your movement and get rid of the pain.

So if your sciatic nerve is being pinched by a tight buttock muscle (the piriformis) what is causing the muscle to contract? Sciatica is a full body pattern of muscle dysfunction that develops in response to habituation of the Trauma Reflex,  which causes one to walk with a painful, uneven gait. This can also cause knee pain.

Whatever we do consistently becomes a habit at the level of our brain and nervous system.

If we stand with a baby on our hip, our waist muscles learn to stay tight on one side to make a perch for the baby. If we have injured ourselves and use crutches to get around, one side of the waist becomes tight to protect the injured limb. These are examples of adaptation to stress that cause our muscles to accumulate more and more muscle tension.

The only way a muscle contracts is if the brain, the command center of the muscles, sends it a signal to contract.

If the message to contract is constant, then the muscle learns to stay tight, even when you're sleeping. Add to that tight back muscles, and you have a textbook recipe for sciatica: tight back muscles and one side of the waist/hips that are tighter than the other side.

Sciatic pain can be reversed through Somatic sciatica exercises and sensory motor retraining.

If you have sciatica, take a moment to notice how you move. Is one hip higher than the other? Are your back muscles contracted constantly? Do you walk with an uneven gait? Is one knee painful when you walk? Do you stand with more weight on one leg than the other? Would you like to learn to regain balance and control in the center of your body so the hips, back and waist muscles can relax and take pressure off that sciatic nerve?

If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, click here for a few Hanna Somatic Exercises; they are perfect for improving awareness of one's movement, and restoring full brain control of the muscles that cause sciatica. Hanna Somatic Education can teach you to rid yourself of sciatic pain for the long term and help you regain control of your body... without surgery.


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.


Swimming as a Useful Somatic Activity

I recently received this email from a client while I was on vacation:

I thought I'd pass along an interesting experience I've been having. I remember you telling me that after the Exuberant Animal day-long play session you had, you said that despite the fact that you expected to have soreness, you didn't. You said it was probably because all your muscles worked together in a natural, coordinated way. I've recently discovered that swimming has the same effect for me.  I've  begun swimming regularly and it dawned on me one day that after 20 - 30  minutes of that exercise I feel no soreness at all.  How odd!  For me at least, swimming, combined with Hanna Somatics is a terrific combination.

How funny that I would receive this email while I was away in New Hampshire, hiking in the White Mountains, and swimming in the chilly waters of Lake Winnipesaukee.

Swimming gives you the opportunity to use all the muscles of your body in smooth, balanced coordination.

Without pressure on your joints, your muscles get a strong workout as they push and pull against the weight of the water. The crawl stroke is a perfectly coordinated movement; the back and waist muscles shorten and lengthen in coordination, as you twist and turn. The lengthening and reaching can help improve your ability to stand tall with both sides of the trunk long and even. Swimming can be done year round, too, which makes it a wonderful daily activity.

If you have ever suffered a trauma - be it a broken ankle, knee surgery, or slip and fall - you may already notice that one side of your waist and trunk is tighter than the other. You may feel "tilted" to one side, or you may have a leg length discrepancy. You may want to consider swimming as a "somatic activity" that can help to retrain the muscles that learned to stay contracted due to your trauma.  If you have sciatica, scoliosis or hip pain on one side, swimming can help you to figure out where you're tight and where you're not. Don't worry! This awareness is simply giving you information about where your brain has lost voluntary control of movement that used to be natural, efficient and effortless. The first step to regaining fuller, freer movement is through awareness.

A good way to determine whether you may have a trauma reflex getting in the way of smooth, efficient movement is by doing the crawl stroke. If you find that it's easier to reach forward with one arm more than the other, try the Side Bend and Washrag Somatic Exercises. Then return to the pool or lake and see if your stroke has evened out. All the muscles involved in the Trauma Reflex (the trunk rotators) can learn to release, relax, and coordinate efficiently through the retraining that swimming offers.

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 Somatics Can Help Runners

Running is one of the most convenient activities available for those who want to move vigorously.  University of Utah biologist David Carrier hypothesized that our ability to run long distances evolved in humans for the simple reason that the ability to pursue predators for long distances (endurance hunting) meant a steady food supply. We were born to run, but for some people, running is a painful and laborious activity.

As with any sport – and especially one that can be taken to an extreme – runners suffer from injuries and Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). The most frequent running injuries are knee pain, iliotibial band syndrome,  plantar fasciitis and hip pain.

Running when injured creates more injury.

Many runners will often continue to run, even when they are nursing an old injury. Some of the runners I've worked with say that they figured they could just "run it out" thereby fixing the problem. Unfortunately this causes more harm than good. Here's why:

  • When you're injured, your muscles reflexively adapt and learn to move differently. This is called compensation.
  • Long-term compensation develops into Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).
  • Running while compensating for an injury doesn't doesn't change what your muscles are doing; it only creates more compensation.
  • You must first eliminate the compensatory pattern (the SMA) before you can regain your original running form.

Runners often run on uneven, paved roads.

A majority of runners in cities and suburbs run on uneven asphalt roads. The road is slightly graded to allow for water runoff, so rather than using the legs and hips equally, they run with a slight tilt in the hips, with  more weight on one leg than the other. This causes the waist muscles on the higher side of the graded road to contract tighter than the other side. It's slight, but when this kind of sensory motor amnesia develops it alters the gait and contributes to iliotibial band pain and knee pain. The angle of the road also put the foot an an awkward angle to the ankle.

Runners often have limited hip movement.

When hip and pelvis movement is limited, you will be more likely to have iliotibial band syndrome, back pain, hip joint pain, and hamstring strains. A pelvis that doesn't rotate gently doesn't allow the body to move gracefully and efficiently. If the body is stiff and the hips and pelvis are rigid, the swinging action of the legs while running (or walking) will come solely from the hip joint - what I like to call "running with your legs instead of your whole body." This can create overuse injuries of the hips and hamstrings. Here's a ChiRunning article that goes more into depth about pelvic rotation.

Orthotics and "supportive" running shoes reduces the foot's ability to move.

The feet are one of the most important sensory organs of the body. When we encase our feet in  shoes we risk losing sensory awareness and motor control of the muscles of the foot and lower leg that help us stabilize ourselves for upright movement. There is more of a tendency to "heel strike" when wearing thicker running shoes. This is both jarring for the spine and inefficient for forward motion.

Orthotics, thought to fix foot problems, interfere in the ability of the feet to absorb impact properly and adjust to changes in terrain (as in trail running). Thankfully there's a trend toward more minimalistic and "barefoot" running shoes, which allows both the foot and lower leg muscles to move naturally.

Here are 5 somatic exercises for an easy "warm up" before running:

  1. Back lift - for control of the back muscles
  2. Cross lateral arch and curl - for control of the abdominal muscles
  3. Side bend - to equalize waist muscle function
  4. Steeple twist - for gentle twisting of the shoulders, spine and hips
  5. Walking exercises - for proper mechanics of walking and pelvis rotation

After your run, try these:

  1. Reach to the Top Shelf - for full body lengthening
  2. Hamstring pandiculations - if you need it (from Pain-Free Athletes)
  3. Standing calf release - if you need it (from Pain-Free Athletes)

Visit the Essential Somatics® store to purchase the Pain-Free Athletes DVD and more!

Many thanks to Jim Hansen, a runner and Somatics enthusiast whose shared running experience helped me write this post. Check out his blog, Recover Your Stride.

Pain Relief DVDs for the Whole Body

I have gotten some wonderful feedback from people about my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.  Here's what people are saying:

This DVD is great! So clear and concise!

  • I'm very pleased with the DVD... It's a class act all the way through. Even my wife was impressed with it on our initial passthrough viewing, and was inspired to get down on the floor several times when something looked especially intriguing.

I just watched your DVD and wanted to tell you how impressed I am with it. It's wonderful!

  • Excellent work on the DVD!  I've run through the complete program twice... and have incorporated the 10/15 minute variations prior to training along with playing around with some movements post-workout.  The DVD/audio has really helped with synchronizing breaths with movements.

I got the DVD... have been through the exercises a couple times.  I can feel a pretty significant difference in the looseness of my hips and back before and after the exercises.

My Pain-Free DVDs will be coming out in the Fall!

On June 20th and 21st I collaborated once again with Coastline Pictures on a series of instructional DVDs that will cover how to release muscle pain for more targeted areas:

The movements you will learn will help you to reverse conditions such as plantar fasciitis, hip joint pain, TMJ, sciatica, knee pain, piriformis syndrome and shallow breathing. You will also learn wonderful, safe "no-stretch stretches" for the hamstrings, calves and psoas muscles.  These DVDs will also be high quality and easy to follow - packed with new movements you can do anytime, anywhere for easy pain relief and improved awareness.You will continue to improve your posture, while educating your brain and muscles to improve balance, coordination and efficiency of your muscles and movement.  These will be a wonderful addition to your Somatics library!

I've received several emails from health professionals who wish to introduce Somatic Movements to their patients. These additional DVDs - just like the first one -  have been created with the understanding that anyone can learn Somatics. The concepts, methods and movements of Hanna Somatic Education are communicated with enough clarity to enable anyone to learn how to reverse their own pain.

To purchase my "basics" DVD, Pain Relief Through Movement, visit the Essential Somatics® store.

Movement That Is Important Should Be Practiced Every Day

My clients are often shocked at how quickly they are able to regain their mobility and reverse their pain using the methods and movement of Hanna Somatics.

They've tried massage, physical therapy, Rolfing, trigger point therapy, chiropractic, injections, surgery, stretching, yoga, and much more, in an effort to eliminate their back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee and foot pain. Many of my clients are, quite frankly, a little skeptical of how quickly they're able to reverse years of chronic pain.

I tell them honestly that the simplest, yet hardest, part of staying pain-free and in control of their body begins when they walk out the door: that's when you have to start paying attention to your daily movement habits.

Taking only a few minutes a day of Somatic Movement practice can make all the difference in their overall health, injury prevention and rehabilitation - especially for those who have suffered injuries throughout their lives. Some people ask me, "so how long do I have to continue doing my Somatics? The rest of my life?!"

You brush your teeth every day, don't you?

If you want to move well for the rest of your life, just take 5, 10, or 15 minutes every day to refresh your muscular system so that your muscles never forget how to move. Reversing your pain and then thinking that you never have to bother with your movement again is like an athlete who gets to the Olympics and thinks he can stop training! Becoming an expert in your own movement will improve your overall health, as well as save you healthcare dollars.

What do you want to be able to do for the rest of your life?

There is an essay in Strength Coach, Dan John's book, Never Let Go, in which he describes the coaching method of Olympic gold medalist and wrestling coach, Dan Gable. The method is quite simple:

                          If it's important, do it everyday. If it's not important, don't do it at all.

This method is sheer brilliance. When it comes to normal, functional, everyday movement (all sports training aside) there are some basics that are non-negotiable. Check out these movements and the Somatic Exercises that address them:

  • Flexing (rounding forward)Arch & Curl
  • Extending (arching backard)Back Lift
  • Side bendingSide Bend, Reach to the Top Shelf
  • TwistingSteeple Twist, Washrag
  • Cross lateral movement - Cross Lateral Arch & Curl, Back Lift, Walking Exercises, Steeple twist
  • Squatting - all of the above

Here's a list of daily tasks that require the above listed movements:

  • Reaching up high to grab something
  • Picking up your own laundry basket and walking up the stairs with it
  • Getting out of your car
  • Twisting around over your shoulder to look as you back out of the driveway
  • Crossing our legs at the knee to tie our shoes
  • Stooping to pick something up, saving yourself when you trip
  • Getting up from a chair
  • Sitting/squatting on the floor to play with your child
  • Walking on uneven surfaces

A daily Somatic Movement practice keeps your brain in control of your muscles, prevents Sensory Motor Amnesia in the case of repetitive tasks and injury, and can be applied to any movement activity you're engaged in: dance, weight lifting, running, swimming, high jumping, frisbee, snowboarding, hiking, rock climbing. A daily practice also helps to prevent over-training injuries and help you recover from old injuries.

Locate a space at home where you can do your movements. Even if you have a favorite evening TV program, budget 5 minutes of Somatics before your program begins.

What's your schedule? Do you have the time, but just not know when to fit it in? There are options on my instructional DVD for shorter routines. Persistence, patience and consistency is the key.

Lengthening Hamstrings for Knee Pain Relief

"I've been going to physical therapy for a month and my knee still won't straighten."

This is what "Sam" said when he came to my Releasing Legs and Hip Joints Workshop this past weekend. He'd had back pain and chronic left knee pain for years, and his doctors told him that a full knee replacement was his only option. He's had several knee surgeries from playing squash and completed months of physical therapy - his therapists pushing down on his knee passively in a futile attempt to straighten his painful knee.  But the knee remained slightly bent, and he continued to limp slightly on an unstable knee.

During the workshop Sam discovered that although his LEFT knee hurt and couldn't straighten, he could easily move his left hip and back. It was his RIGHT hip and waist muscles that were "frozen" and could barely move. This undoubtedly had something to do with his knee pain. Tightness on one side of the body is indicative of the Trauma Reflex, causes an imbalance in the large muscle groups in the center of the body, creating an imbalance in the pelvis and changing one's gait. This adversely affects the hips, knees and feet.

Straightening a bent knee requires relaxed hamstrings. 

Sam's back felt great after the workshop, but his knee still wouldn't bend. I told him that when the hamstrings bend the knee (flexion), the quadriceps (thigh muscles) should relax and lengthen to allow the movement to occur (extension). When the quadriceps contract to straighten the leg and knee, the hamstrings must relax and lengthen to aid in the movement. This is how muscles work together in a synergistic manner.

If the hamstrings are habitually contracted, and won't relax, the knee can't move through its full range to straighten completely. Those tight muscles, which attach into the joint, create pressure and restriction in the joint, thus causing pain. The solution?

PANDICULATE the hamstrings to their full length for easier movement of the knee joint.

Pandiculation: A deliberate contraction of a muscle tighter than the muscle's present contraction rate "wakes up" the nervous system, gives maximum sensory feedback to the brain, and allows the brain to give new motor output, thus re-setting the muscle's length.

I had Sam lie face down on my table, and do the following:

  1. He bent his left knee to 90 degrees, and I put my hand at his heel. I asked him to pull his heel back to his buttocks, and into my hand. Interestingly, he couldn't seem to contract the hamstrings! This was a sign of Sensory Motor Amnesia, which means that his muscles weren't fully under his brain's control. They were "asleep," "amnesic," not moving.  I gently tapped the muscles, and asked him to do it again. This time he was able to feel the muscles, and contract them more deliberately, thus overriding the contraction that his hamstrings were already stuck in.
  2. Sam then slowly lengthened, then completely relaxed his hamstrings. We repeated this series of movements several times. Then I had him contract his quadriceps muscles firmly, pushing down into my table so he could feel how the hamstrings relaxed when his thigh tightened. He was beginning to get the hamstrings and quadriceps to begin coordinating properly again.

This entire process took 10 minutes.

He stood up and was able to straighten his knee. He was ecstatic. I reminded him that now that he'd "woken up" his leg muscles, and begun the process of reversing his knee pain, now it the  time to begin a daily practice of Somatic Exercises to continue his progress. If Sam continues doing the brief, easy Somatic movements he's learned, he should see most, if not all, functionality returning to his knee - without pain, in about two weeks - the average time it takes for the brain to fully integrate new habits into the muscles and joints.

Take a look at the video below. The first movement is what I did with Sam.


Quick Relief For Painful Knees

An old friend stopped in for a brief visit over the summer. He was planning an extended trip overseas and was very concerned. His left knee caused him severe pain, especially when walking or kneeling, and he wanted desperately to be able to enjoy walking while on his trip. He asked me, “Could you please look at his knee? The doctors have all said that I need a knee replacement.” Father Peter is a 82-year-old retired Episcopal priest, still active as an assistant rector in his church in Maryland. He had spent the past several years caring for his ill wife who had just recently passed. He had lifted her, wheeled her around, and sat for days by her bedside. Now, after the death of his wife, he had trouble walking. What he found most troubling, however, was the fact that he couldn’t kneel properly in church. Peter's posture was good - erect and balanced. So where was the problem?

I explained to him that certain muscles involved in sitting, walking and moving his legs were probably tighter than they should be. When muscles are involuntarily tight due to having been overused they don't function well. We needed to restore his muscles to a healthy functioning.

Tight thigh muscles and an immobile kneecap will cause pain.

tendons-of-the-knee-478x500Due to the brevity of our impromptu “session,” I had Peter sit as I palpated his quadriceps muscles.  His right leg was softer, the muscles more pliant. His left leg was hard as a rock. I gently moved his right patella up and down, side to side. There was only slight resistance. His left patella, however, wouldn't move. It refused to budge no matter the direction I moved it.

I explained to Peter how the patellar tendon, which is an extension of the quadriceps tendon, passes over the kneecap and attaches into the tibia. If the quadriceps are too tight (or suffer from Sensory Motor Amnesia), the tendons put pressure on the kneecap, and make it impossible to move. This can cause pain when sitting, kneeling, or walking upstairs – all the activities that bothered him.

Tight muscles require pandiculation to relax and release.

In Hanna Somatic Education our clients learn to pandiculate tight muscles. This resets the muscles length at the level of the central nervous system. Keeping this in mind, I taught Peter to pandiculate the right quadriceps muscles: he extended his leg fully to voluntarily tighten his quadriceps muscles. I told him to watch how the thigh muscle "drew the kneecap up," as if it were sliding on a track. He then slowly relaxed his thigh muscles and watched the kneecap slide back into place. Then he completely relaxed his thigh.

When we did this same movement for the left leg/knee, it was more difficult. At first he simply couldn't move the thigh muscles. He contracted every muscle he could think of except his quadriceps! His brain had simply lost sensation and voluntary control of those muscles, which caused them to "freeze up" and stay tight. After several slow, patient attempts in which he really had to concentrate and focus his attention on the feelings in his muscles, he was finally able to firmly and voluntarily contract the thigh muscles. He watched in amazement as his kneecap slid upward, and then downward, as he slowly and voluntarily relaxed the muscles. We repeated this movement several times (with his foot turned inward, then outward) until the kneecap wiggled easily.

Father Peter stood up, walked around the room, and to his utter amazement pronounced himself pain free. I gave him some gentle, easy Somatic Movements and concepts to do at home that would help him reinforce his progress.  Just yesterday - a month later - I  received this email from him:

Prior to our Somatics session I was hobbling and limping to ease the pain.  Now I go for my evening walks marching like a soldier !!!
To learn the methods and movements of Hanna Somatics for rapid relief of muscle pain purchase my instructional DVD here.

Happy, Healthy Knees the Easy Way

As a dancer I began to suffer knee pain after an accident in rehearsal in which I severely strained my quadriceps (thigh) muscles on my right leg. We were five days away from opening night, and I was a featured dancer. I was whisked off to physiotherapy (this was Holland, 1978), and underwent treatment that enabled me to compensate enough to open the show. Several months later, however, my knee began to hurt. I was told that I had torn my medial meniscus. I had it surgically repaired, and went back to dancing. My left knee mysteriously began to hurt about a year later, despite the fact that I never had an accident on that side in my life. Then my right knee began to ache again. I underwent an experimental surgery to repair ligaments that the doctors said were too loose. At the time, I was only 22 years old and in peak physical condition. The surgeries still didn't help, and I continued having sore knees on and off for the next two decades. It became difficult for me to sit on my knees or to sit cross-legged.

My knees stopped hurting when I discovered Hanna Somatic Education.

But how did Somatics help when traditional medical practices didn't?

Hanna Somatics taught me what my client, "Lisa" learned last week: the problem with my knees was less a knee issue  than it was a problem with tight muscles in the center of my body. Lisa came to me with posture that showed a Trauma Reflex: a side-bending and twisted posture that resulted in leg muscles that no longer coordinated properly. Her waist, hip, and leg muscles had learned to stay tight. Her body was out of balance, and her knees were feeling the strain.  Note the muscles of the leg in the photo on the right. See where they insert at the knee on both sides? Notice the muscle tendon that goes over the knee and attached underneath. Imagine what could happen to your knee if you were bent to the side and you had more pressure on one leg than the other.

If the muscles of the leg are overly tight, they will pull on the knee and can cause pain.

The muscles of the leg had become tight, pulling on their insertion at the knee, which resulted in pain. Lisa's knee pain disappeared once she learned to self-correct, relax the muscles of her waist, stand balanced on both feet, and move her pelvis when she walked.  We methodically pandiculated the muscles of her thigh, and reset the muscles to a comfortable, relaxed length. This caused pain from the hip to the outside of the knee, and pain from her groin to the inside of the knee to disappear.

How Sensory Motor Amnesia Can Ruin Your Career

The Myth of Aging... and Injury

As a child, all I wanted to do with my life was dance.

At the age of 20 I left college and became a professional jazz dancer, but after only five years, and much anguish, I threw in the towel realizing that I had lost my form and could no longer dance the way I once did. My knees hurt all the time. Every time I thought I felt better, a new and different injury or pain would crop up.

I segued into modeling, teaching, and then massage therapy. In my mid-40s I  began to suffer from chronic hip pain that caused me to have to jettison one activity after another: kickboxing, step aerobics, running. I began to believe that which I'd been told by fellow dancers and doctors alike: "you're getting older, and after all those dance injuries, Martha, you probably have arthritis and will need knee replacements." I bought that idea hook, line and sinker. So I tried massage, Rolfing, chiropractic, acupuncture, stretching, physical therapy and yoga. Nothing helped my pain for the long term.

And then I was introduced to Hanna Somatic Education - and the concept of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).

How Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) builds up over time

SMA is the state of habitually contracted muscles that have literally lost their physiological ability to release and relax. Gentle, easy Somatic Exercises helped me regain awareness of those "amnesic" muscles which had had to compensate time and again for one injury after another. I hadn't even noticed it happening! Within a very short period of time my hip and knee pain that had been plaguing me for decades went away. I could kneel for the first time in years!

Looking back on my accident history helped clarify the issue:

  • In college I'd torn the ligaments in my left ankle falling down the stairs. I hobbled around on crutches for over a month, compensating on my right side for my left sided injury.
  • I suffered an overuse injury to my right thigh three years later during a rehearsal the week before opening night. The show went on and I danced, compensating beautifully, and no one noticed how severely injured I was.
  • Then my knee issues began: First a surgery for a torn right meniscus and, a year later, two surgeries to shorten the ligaments on both sides of my knees, because my doctors insisted that I was "too flexible" and that that was the cause of my pain. Months on crutches once again.
  • 10 years later I had foot surgery for a painful bunion on my left foot (another month on crutches)
  • Another exploratory knee surgery, and a hamstring pull incurred while running

These are all examples of the Trauma Reflex which occurs reflexively in response to the need to avoid further injury or to nurture an injured limb.

A case of SMA, which started back in my teens, had set in motion a series of subsequent injuries born of muscular compensation. My brain could no longer coordinate my muscles to perform intricate movement patterns of dance - the result of years of sensory motor training.  Adaptive, accumulated muscle tension had caused my body to lose its balance, resulting in muscular asymmetry, tight, painful joints and unequal weight-bearing. Rather than notice imbalances in my posture or movement, the doctors saw the problem from a mechanical perspective: they surgically "fixed" what they understood to be the problem without ever questioning the origin of the problem. The surgeries didn't help in the long-run. My problem was functional in nature, not structural. One doctor I know phrased the issue beautifully:

"Hanna Somatics offers a scientifically sound method for the diagnosis and treatment of a whole range of complaints that frequently present as medical problems, such as fibromyalgia, pain syndromes and fatigue, but have their real origin in learned, often readily corrected postural errors."

–Bill Hanson, MD, Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School

Hanna Somatic Education taught me to move freely again. It gave me back my life and the ability to choose how I want to move. For those who have suffered accidents, injuries, surgeries or repetitive motion injuries, the muscle pain and stiffness you feel is reversible once you teach the brain to sense and move your muscles again. It just might give you back your livelihood!

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.