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?

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.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/srE5f0-N5tE]

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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!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mb5Ip0H6jTk&feature=youtu.be]

Eliminate Heel Pain and Plantar Fasciitis with Hanna Somatic Exercises

Plantar fasciitis and heel pain affects approximately 2 million people a year in the United States. People stretch, ice, foam roll, get acupuncture, and wear night splints and orthotics. This article from PubMed Health is reflective of the medical practice's current view on plantar fasciitis, pain in the connective tissue of the bottom of the foot. The medical field believes that the only way to treat it is to address only the problem area of pain, rather than taking into consideration one's daily movement habits as a potential contributing factor to this condition.

Plantar fasciitis is the result of overly contracted muscles of the lower leg, and  an imbalance in the somatic center.

As a Clinical Somatic Educator, I teach people to eliminate chronic muscle pain by restoring their brain's control of muscles and movement. From my clinical  experience, most heel and foot pain, including plantar fasciitis, is the result of  improper weight bearing, which originates in the muscles of the center of the body, adversely affecting one's gait. It's another classic example of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The most common pattern of muscular dysfunction responsible for plantar fasciitis is an habituated  Trauma Reflex pattern in the center of the body. This occurs due to compensation from an accident or injury, or repetitive one-sided work (like holding a baby on one's hip - also a contributor to sciatica). It looks like my client in the photo at right.

Notice how this client's right hip is higher than the left, and his weight is mostly on his left foot. His pelvis is slightly rotated, causing unequal leg length discrepancy. The back muscles on the left side of his body are tighter than on the right. This full body pattern causes the muscles of the lower leg (which help to move the foot) to adapt to receiving unbalanced weight.

The most effective method to long-term relief from plantar fasciitis is Hanna Somatic Education.

  • Become aware of the imbalance in the center of your body so you can learn to release this pattern and regain symmetry and balance in those muscles.
  • Learn to release the overly contracted muscles of the lower leg and feet. Muscles that do not function properly can only improve their function through movement. This is why passive therapies (trigger point, massage, stretching, etc.) for leg and foot pain do not work in the long term.
  • Become aware of your gait. Do you heel strike? Do you scuff your feet? Are your hips stiff when you walk? Movement in the center of your body affects the movement at the periphery of your body; a tight center will make your feet will suffer when you walk.
  • Reverse a gait imbalance to help prevent plantar fasciitis from returning.

Once the back, waist muscles and hips are relaxed and balanced, (and your gait is smooth and even), plantarfascitis, foot, heel, and lower leg disappear rapidly.

A client came to me with severe plantar fasciitis. I saw her for one clinical Somatics session. She learned to release and rebalance the muscles of her back and waist and become more aware of her walk. She also learned five easy, somatic movements to do every day to reinforce her progress. She sent me this email several weeks later:

I'm doing very well, was VERY diligent about doing the exercises and felt terrific in doing so, the results were great. I've fallen off the wagon a bit since returning from vacation but am working towards starting up again on a regular basis. The plantar fasciitis is nearly gone, I have very few symptoms now and can give credit to the exercises, walking and sitting differently, and going without shoes as often as possible... Seeing the wonderful results has encourage me to move ahead with an additional session!

Learning to restore somatic awareness and brain control of your muscles is the first step to eliminating not only plantar fasciitis, but other painful conditions, such as sciatica, back, neck, shoulder pain, TMD/TMJ, frozen shoulder, hip and knee pain and tension headaches. Visit the Essential Somatics® store here.

 

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.

Why Am I Limping, and Is It Cause For Concern?

Many clients have posture that is "out of balance"; their hips and pelvis are not level, their leg length is uneven, their gait is not smooth. Some clients have said, "Just the other day someone asked me why I was limping, and I never even noticed I limped... all I know is that my back is killing me!" They're not concerned about their limp, because their limp feels "normal." This feeling of "out of balance" feeling "balanced" is an example of Sensory Motor Amnesia, in which the brain literally forgets how to sense, move and control muscles efficiently. We compensate, habituate and adapt to what happens to us in life (accidents/injuries are common) so our muscles no longer move freely the way they once did. When you lose awareness of the way in which you move - something that only you can experience - there is cause for concern.

Most of my clients with back, hip or piriformis pain often accompanied by a limp were treated unsuccessfully by physical therapy, bodywork of all kinds, drugs, and cortisone shots. What was missing in their treatment was the simple understanding of how a limp develops as a compensatory, full body pattern, which muscles are involved in the need to limp, and how to reverse the pattern and move freely again. Back, hip joint, knee pain, sciatica and piriformis syndrome pain are common conditions easily reversed with Hanna Somatics.

Limping means the center of your body is out of balance.

When we walk we are meant to walk with a smooth, even gait. Our pelvis is perfectly designed for upright, bipedal locomotion. The more we allow the pelvis to move as we walk, the more efficient and effortless our movement will be and the less joint stress and pain we will have. Below is a great video of balanced, strong walking and upright posture - a necessity for African women carrying items on their heads.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=cThEt5KmdV4&NR=1]

This kind of natural movement is "the norm" until something occurs to change that.

When we have an accident - a slip on the ice, a fall on our coccyx, or a bone break - the involuntary part of our brain immediately contracts certain muscles of the trunk to protect that area. This is called the Trauma Reflex. We learn to compensate until the injury is healed. The latissimus, obliques, adductors, abductors and abdominal muscles all contract instantly, in a pattern, as we twist and rotate in an attempt to regain our balance or protect our injured limb - as in the photo at right.

This kind of functional problem of one side of the waist and trunk tighter than the other can, over time, create true structural damage, like hip joint pain, labral tears, osteoarthritis, and hip joint impingement.

The Trauma Reflex causes us to limp, putting more weight into one side of the body.

When you get stuck in this particular stress reflex, pain isn't far behind. You begin to walk like a car with one flat tire, galumphing from side to side. The easiest way to reverse a limp is to get the brain back in control of the muscles. Those who have had an accident or injury would be wise to seek the clinical help of a skilled guidance of a Certified Hanna (Clinical) Somatic Educator for a series of clinical sessions in order to restore full muscle function and movement.

Somatic Exercises for limping

For those who own my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD, the following exercises focus on the waist muscles/trunk rotators, and are excellent for helping to restore a free and balanced gait:

  • Side bend - releases and lengthens the waist muscles for equal movement of the pelvis.
  • Washrag - brings in gentle twisting of the pelvis, and shoulders, as the waist lengthens
  • Human X* - the quintessential movement of "crawling," which lengthens both sides of the body
  • Steeple twist* - increases the ability to twist and lengthen the center of the body - back, abdominals, waist
  • Walking exercises, part 1 & 2* - freeing the pelvis and reintegrating a healthy pattern of walking.
  • Hip lift and reach - from my Pain-Free Leg and Hip Joints DVD

* found on the Pain Relief Through Movement DVD

Essential Somatics Workshop Is a Big Success in India

I just finished up two days of Essential Somatics "Pain Relief Through Movement" workshops here in Chennai, India. In addition to the two workshops offered, I've been working with private clients in order to help them to reverse the muscle pain that they hadn't been able to get rid of up until now: back pain, sciatica, neck, shoulder, hip and knee pain. The classes were packed, and all were amazed at the differences not only in their movement, but also in the decrease in their pain level.

Here's a group photo from Leapwellness Studio in Chennai:

Essential Somatics workshop attendees in Chennai, INdia

Several participants were overjoyed to learn that the problems they were told they had were functional problems reversible through Somatic Education. They learned that many functional muscular problems develop due to our movement habits, and to repeated response to stress reflexes, like accidents, injuries, surgeries and repetitive stress.

One woman was told that she had one leg longer than the other and she'd have to learn to live with it. This, she was told, was why she had sciatic pain. She couldn't walk for more than 25 minutes before her pain set in. She not only attended the workshops, but came to see me for a private, clinical session. At the end of the first workshop (Releasing Legs and Hip Joints), and her session, her legs were the same length and she was walking with a smooth swing in her hips. No pain, equal leg length.What had she learned? That raising children and holding them on her hip had caused her to become tighter on one side of her waist than the other. She'd set herself up for the pattern that creates sciatica: tight back muscles and one side of the waist muscles tighter than the other.

Another participant arrived with terrible neck pain; his physiotherapist had "worked out the knots," but the pain was still there. After the Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders Workshop, he left the studio pain-free, with Somatic Exercises and techniques that gave him the tools to stay pain-free, and to "fix" himself should the pain return.

Yet another participant – one of India's top professional golfers – had lost her balance after recovering from a severe virus. She learned that even serious illness can cause our muscles to contract and compensate, which can lead to muscle pain and loss of coordination and balance. The end result for her, after two workshops and one private session was a renewed sense of balance and an easy, more efficient gait.

Interested in an Essential Somatics workshop in your area? Get in touch!

Workshops are easy to set up and your clients with muscle pain will thank you for the new information they can learn that will help them continue doing what they love to do!

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.