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.**

Essential Somatics and the World of Dance

A guest post by Gena Rho-Smith, CCSE

 

Photo by Michael Zittel from Pexels

The restrictions of movement and patterns of habit many young dancers feel are all part of the human condition - the same condition those of us with chronic aches and pains all face: overly contracted back muscles in a "green light reflex," or a "trauma reflex" that hikes one hip up causing more effort and work to find balance. Dancers just happen to have a bigger stake in the game, a more pressing reason to find a way out and to regain muscle function. Their livelihood might depend on it.

I teach Somatic Movement for Contemporary dance to the BFA students of Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.  It’s a lovely treat to work and teach a group of students who share a common language and understanding with each other, and with me. I know the rigors of training they face every day; I lived it many years ago as a professional modern dancer with the Trisha Brown Company.  These dancers are hungry for more learning, and ready to be guided into their own somatic awareness. They arrive open to new learning.

Eyes closed, moving slowly, sensing and feeling come fairly easily to them. I watch as they regain muscle function they had no idea was temporarily lost. They drop into their weight and awareness of what touches the floor. The experience brings a small grin to their faces. When questions and confusion float up to their consciousness, I see a wrinkle of the brow. The questions are forming. I guide them to notice what they feel and to state it…sometimes out loud. Others agree and confirm the same awareness. 

These young dancers spend much of their day “doing,” so the permission to ease off and  focus on exploration and awareness is a welcome change in their training. Once they come to their feet, they notice feeling different on their legs. Standing grounded in their own sense of neutral, equally weighted. The back pain and leg strain they walked in with is a shadow of past awareness. They think the dramatic changes they feel are magic. It's not magic; it's "somatic." I remind them of the concepts and tenants of Thomas Hanna’s work, the neuroscience and all that is possible for them going forward whether as professional dancers, future dancer teachers or all of the above.

Many of my students already teach others. They have a unique perspective as students of Dance and Somatic Movement. We discuss the responsibility they have to themselves and their students to sift through the conflicting information about muscle function, efficiency of movement and full body function. A somatic perspective is a profound awareness of one's own physical experience and is with this awareness and knowledge of our selves that we experience the world of Dance, life and art.

Gena Rho-Smith of Emergesomatics is a certified Clinical Somatic Educator in the tradition of Thomas Hanna.  She owns a small studio, The Somatics Loft, in Maplewood, NJ. Her practice is in both Maplewood and NYC where she see clients privately and teaches Somatic Movement, yoga, workshops and classes. She is a co-adjunct professor at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. 

Gena has been practicing and teaching yoga since 1998.  Prior to her yoga practice, she had a career as a modern dancer, performing and teaching internationally as a member of the Trisha Brown Company.  She has an MFA in Dance from NYU TISCH School of the Arts.

 

Movement Snacks with Karyn Clark

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Karyn Clark, CCSE, graduated from the Essential Somatics® Clinical Somatic Education Professional training program in 2015. She teaches outdoor education and is a qualified personal trainer specializing in creating retreats that combine outdoor activities with Essential Somatic Movement. She believes that to get outside and move with strength, endurance, and fun Somatic Movements is the best way to activate your body to move with skill.

Karyn’s recent blogpost has some wonderful tips for combining “movement snacks” with a healthy “meal” of Somatic Movement to keep you ready and able to engage in whatever activity you love.

 

Who doesn’t like a snack? A little treat mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Something nice to keep you going until lunch or to enjoy with a cup of tea in the afternoon. Maybe it allows you to just take a moment out of your busy day or to nourish your body to keep you going. A snack isn’t something you have instead of your lunch or dinner. Snacks aren’t something you just continue having mindlessly all day long; they’re a special little treat that makes you smile. So what about a movement snack?
 

Essential Somatics is thrilled to have Karyn as a co-teacher in the new Somatics for Athletics course taking place in York, UK November 11! Learn more and register here.

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.

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.

Why Do I Have Neck Pain?

Why can't I turn my neck without pain? Why is it hard to turn around to look behind me?

How do I relieve my neck pain so I can easily twist and turn?

Learning to turn to look behind you is a learned movement skill. It involves all the muscles of the body that allow the hips, abdominals, neck and shoulders to aid in the movement of the head and neck. Owls can turn their heads almost 360º without involving the center of their bodies.

As hunters gatherers we evolved to differentiate the movement of the eyes from the head from the neck and trunk in order to be aware of our surroundings. In today's modern society we no longer need to be able to do this. We don't hunt for our food, nor do we need to be on the lookout for predators who would like to have us for dinner. We do, however, spend most of our time facing forward as we stare at computer screens, TVs, iPads or drive in traffic. This creates tight muscles not only in the neck and shoulders, but more importantly in the center of the body. Here's a perfect example of how modern technology is actively encouraging us to develop Sensory Motor Amnesia, that condition of chronically contracted muscles that can no longer let go, nor function fully:

IMG_5855

I decided not to get one of these back-up cameras in my car so that I would not lose my awareness and forget how to turn around while reversing. While these devices can be handy, it's best to maintain the quintessential skill of all humans: the ability to twist and turn, like this:

IMG_5856

If you don't turn to look around behind you you will lose that skill altogether.

As Thomas Hanna said, "A stiff neck is a stiff body." Neck and shoulder pain result more from tight back, waist and abdominal muscles in the center of the body than from an actual problem with the neck itself. The brain and nervous system, the control center of the muscles, has forgotten how to coordinate the natural movement of twisting, which is at the core of smooth walking and running.

Learn how to release tight, painful necks and shoulders with the Essential Somatics® Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD

 

Movement to Clear the Mind and Reawaken the Body

This New Yorker article reflects my experience exactly. Recently I took a long hike in, Snowdonia, North Wales. This part of the IMG_5277world is a completely new landscape for me. The weather, windy and rainy, was weather I avoid at all costs when hiking. This time, however, I embarked on a hike up Mt. Snowdon, the tallest mountain in Wales, and decided to not let the weather get in my way. My experience was unlike any hike I'd taken in years: new smells, shifting clouds and light patterns, and terrain that challenged my brain and balance. The best part of the hike is that I took it with a dear friend.

According to Dr. John Ratey in his book, Spark, I had just experienced one of the most useful and effective activities one could ever have for the brain -  the winning combination of:

  • vigorous physical exercise
  • done outdoors in nature
  • with another person, preferably a good friend

Not only does movement, outside in nature, with another person, strengthen our physical body, but it changes our brains and can be a defense against ADHD, depression, Alzheimer's and other issues.

There is nothing that clears my mind and helps me attune to my movement and mental state the way hiking and walking does. There's no time for mental chatter; the movement and sensory appreciation of the surroundings takes precedence. What is it about moving - in nature - that changes the way one feels? Is it just the physical exertion? The beautiful surroundings? The smells? The sounds of nature, so unfamiliar to those of us living in the suburbs or inner city? Or was it all of the above, a sensory and motor experience that can only be had when one puts one foot in front of the other and leaves the city and concrete behind? For some it's not only the movement, but IMG_3267the way in which it is done.

My daughter, her friend and I were hiking last year in New Hampshire. My daughter tends to have problems finding shoes that fit comfortably. Blisters are an intimate friend. A third of the way up the mountain my daughter said, "oh man, these boots are giving me blisters!!" I replied, "you can go back, but I'm continuing on up. Or you can take off those boots and finish the hike barefoot. That might be fun!" And she did; she continued up and climbed all the way back down. When we reached the bottom she remarked that hiking barefoot over rocks, gravel and dirt had given her a completely different appreciation of her feet, her legs, her hips and her gait. In fact, she said, her whole body felt different!

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, writes that exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development as well as for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. From my own personal experience I couldn't agree more.

Movement Mornings: Do You Start Your Day With Movement?

I am always inspired when I meet people whose curiosity about movement takes them into exploration outside the box. One such person is the ever-curious Panayiotis Karabetis of Movement Mornings. I was a recent guest on his podcast  and we had a blast recording it. Here are some highlights from our discussion:IMG_4689

  • Pandiculation vs. Stretching
  • How to move “somatically”
  • Martha's 3 should's in life
  • Moshe Feldenkrais and Thomas Hanna
  • A brief history and explanation of Hanna Somatics
  • Sensory Motor Amnesia
  • Making room for play in your life is important
  • Falling apart as we get older is a choice
  • Pain-free moving starts with walking

Click here to listen and enjoy!

Here's what Panayiotis has to say about Movement Mornings and its dedication to sharing the good news about movement:

As movers, we're motivated by a unique force that makes our fidgety goals impossible to ignore and that's what Movement Mornings sets out to explore. Each month, we dive into the morning routine of influential people in the movement community to share new insights and inspire us to get better at what we love doing most: moving!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somatic Exercises and pandiculation prepares you to move well.

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

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

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

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

My Daily Somatics Hip Pain Relief Routine

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

My daily pain relief tips for hip pain

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

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

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

A varied routine, with movements such as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The More You Move The Smarter You Become

In his book, The Body of Life, Thomas Hanna wrote,
...all learning is sensory motor learning.

The ability to hear, read, and even form ideas in one's head involves movement. When we think we are activating muscles, or, at the very least, motor neurons to aid in our learning process. It is automatic and unavoidable. When we solve a math problem in our heads many of us move our fingers unconsciously. Some people, as they read, will silently mouth the words they are reading.

Neurobiologist Roger Sperry, 1981 Nobel Prize winner for brain research, said: "Ninety percent of the stimulation and nutrition to the brain is generated by the movement of the spine." According to Hanna, he also concluded that "the sole product of brain function is muscular coordination."

A recent study in Finland confirmed what Thomas Hanna and other somatic education pioneers have contended for decades: there is a link between motor (movement) function and brain function. They found that children whose motor skills were lacking were more likely to have learning difficulties. What does this mean, then, for children who play less, use more technology, and spend more time being passively entertained?

climbing a tree From my perspective this means that more movement,  as well as movement exploration. can only have a positive affect on children's test scores, ability to focus and to learn.

If we spent as much time nurturing our children's movement intelligence as much as we do their test scores, we might find other benefits as well: improved social skills, spatial awareness, self-esteem, problem solving - and the ability to truly sense our bodies and how they respond to stress.

Becoming physically masterful and aware is the gift that keeps on giving. Somatic awareness and physical autonomy is the birthright of all human beings. We are meant to move forward, grow and learn.

For an interesting perspective on children, movement and neuroscience go to Dr. Kwame Brown's Move Theory. He is a tireless advocate (as well as a neurophysiologist) for creating solutions to childhood inactivity.

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.

Train for More Than the Gym - with Somatics!

Earlier this year I was interviewed on En*theos by one of the innovators of the functional fitness movement, Frank Forencich. In his most recent book, Beautiful Practice, he writes:

We are stuck in the middle of a mismatch. Our ancient bodies, wired by evolution for survival in a wild, natural habitat, are struggling to live in radically different  modern world. Challenges are everywhere: overwork, sedentary living, toxic foods, social chaos and habitat destruction surround us. This is what I call “The Primate’s Predicament.”

And now we’re suffering. Our bodies are suffering with lifestyle diseases, our minds are stressed, our spirits are confused. And our primitive, habitual responses just aren’t working.What we need is a practice, not just to alleviate our suffering, but to live the beautiful adventure we call life.

Movement is probably the most important element in the adventure of Life. Human beings learn through movement; it is in our nature as self-learners of the highest order. We have adapted over time because of the ability of our cortex to do one thing: LEARN. The question is, what is important to learn and adapt to and what is potentially harmful? How many people realize that learning how to relax and recover is a critically important aspect of good health? Stress resilience is a skill.

Humans adapt or die

I consider Hanna Somatic Exercises a critical part of one's daily practice. Our birthright as human beings is to move easily and effortlessly, yet it takes practice and skill. Learning to prepare yourself to move with intention and voluntary control can spell the difference between "successful" aging and the traditional idea of aging: inevitable decrepitude, pain, a cane and a slow demise.

What we are missing is the understanding that every part of the human body is interconnected. We are not "a knee," "a hip," "my tight psoas," or "that painful IT band." We are a system that moves in patterns, as an integrated whole. If one part of the system is out of balance, it causes an imbalance throughout the entire system. This system we call our "body" is efficient in the best of times, and completely out of control in the worst of times when, as we adapt to stress, we forget what it feels like to move and sense as we did when we were children. Somatic Exercises recreate the basic movements of bending, reaching, twisting, side bending and extending - the non-negotiable basics of all movement that came so easily to all of us long ago. They remind our brain who is in control!

Tomorrow in Astoria, NY I will lead a Somatic Exercise Coach Training for a group of fitness trainers at the Matrix Fitness Center. It will be the first such training of personal fitness trainers whose goal it is to learn more about how Somatic awareness, the first step to any movement practice, can positively shift the course of one's training regime, whether the goal is to lift weights, play tennis, do yoga, dance, train for a marathon, or simply walk without pain.

A somatic perspective is long overdue in the fitness arena. Many people don't feel as if they've gotten anything out of their workout if they aren't hurting; somehow, they say, they "just don't feel anything." The belief in "no pain, no gain" is the quick road to misery and a short-lived athletic career. There is a more intelligent way to approach movement - one that the trainers tomorrow will begin to experience: Less is more and slow is fast when it comes to learning how to move well.

The Key to a Healthy Life: Never Stop Moving

According to a report in the Lancet from October 2009, half the children born since 2000 can expect to live to be 100.  When I read that I thought, "That's not possible! Most of the kids I see today - at least where I live - are chauffeured around by their parents and never go outside to play. You can't stay healthy if you don't move." In a New York Times Health article, Jane Brody states that, "there is no virtue in simply living long; the goal should be to live long and well." She discusses how diet, proper nutrition, and supplements are important to long-term health. The second ingredient to aging well is - you guessed it: movement. Vigorous, aerobic movement. There are so many possibilities for incorporating movement into your life - and as many excuses not to (I'm too busy, I'm too tired when I come home from work, I don't like exercise, it's boring...)

I grew up in an era when physical activity was a given. I walked to school, walked to my friends' houses, hiked in the summer, and took dance lessons during the school year. Everyone I knew walked, played outside, hula hooped, rode a bicycle, or skateboarded. Movement has always been my friend, rather than something I have to check off my list every day to make sure it gets done. I'm fortunate that way; no one has to convince me that movement is good for me. It was always part of life... not an after thought to it.

Without movement I get agitated, distracted, and tired. How many of you notice the connection between the amount of time you spend moving, and your inability to focus, your agitation level, or physical discomfort? Not exercising per se, but moving. Having a movement-filled life just may bring back the joy of movement for some people.

Outdoors, with a friend, in nature = good brain health

Here's another movement benefit that may get you off the couch: great ideas often come from movement. Einstein said that not a day went by when he wouldn't walk in the woods around Princeton with a companion; he felt that his best ideas came from this kind of movement. And indeed, according to studies highlighted in the book Spark by Dr. John Ratey, the combination of movement, companionship and nature result in the highest level of release of an important protein called BDNF (Ratey calls it "Miracle-Gro for your brain").

I'm also very fortunate to have a mother who has never taken the time in her IMG_0058busy life to "slow down, and take it easy." She's 86 and still hiking; in the photo at the right you can see us together on our trek in Nepal. The common myth about aging is that we inevitably become decrepit as we get older; most people succumb to, yet it never registered with my mother. She's always moving: hiking on the weekends, taking long morning walks up and down the hills of our town, and climbing mountains in the Himalayas, Africa, Australia and beyond.  She is just what Jane Brody's talking about: she is in perfect health, has rarely taken prescription drugs, and has a wit as sharp as a katana.

I aspire to be like her as I age. There is so much information and support for those of us who want to stay healthy for as long as we walk this earth.  Life is short, so take control where you can, starting with your health.

A Somatic Year in Review

P10205992013 has been an extraordinary year of growth, expansion, and learning for many of us in the field of Somatic Education. Never before have I met so many inspiring and eager people from all backgrounds wanting to learn how to get back to the basics of movement in order to live healthier, more functional lives. Those I have met have wanted simple, sensible answers to the questions: how can I move more easily and how do I get rid of chronic muscle pain? I have had the good fortune to train students in Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, Norway, and the United States in the clinical methods of Hanna Somatics and proper teaching of Somatic Exercises. The work of Thomas Hanna is spreading across the world and I, for one, couldn't be happier. It only means that around the world people are learning to regain body awareness and control as they eliminate chronic pain and take back control of their lives.

One of the things we teach in Hanna Somatics is that what we think of as the inevitable decrepitude of aging is instead a loss of voluntary muscular control, which develops due to stress adaptation. When we learn to take back control of our bodies, muscles and movement it positively affects our  health, and by extension, our very quality of life. Hanna Somatics teaches one to regain freedom - of body, mind, movement and life.

I will leave you with an edited (and abbreviated) quote from Thomas Hanna from his groundbreaking book, Somatics: Reawakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and HealthIt sums up a New Year's message that I hope you will return to throughout 2014:

To say that aging is an adventure is the same as saying that life is an adventure. Indeed, each individual life is the greatest adventure... The human race is changing. At the present moment, this change is accelerating, and is charged with the thrill of danger and promise.

We must make our way through this great time of change, expecting that it will be good, and intending that it will be good. We must make our future the way we want it to be. This is what human freedom is for. And, in the process, we may discover that the myth of aging has been replaced by another, brighter myth. If it is true that, in the deepest reaches of the human heart, we all live according to myths, we may find that, from the ashes of the old myth, a new myth of aging is arising: that life is a continuous process of growth and expansion.

And may 2014 be just that for all of you. Thank you to all who have made this past year one of growth, expansion and giving to others through the work of Thomas Hanna. I have been helped by many and I thank you all for your support.

Sedentary Living is a Dangerous State of Being

Frank Forencich is the author of Change Your Body, Change The World and other books about human movement, health, and physical happiness. He is a pioneer in the field of  functional training and health education and one of my favorite teachers. The "standing Somatics" movements in my book, Move Without Pain, were inspired by some of the fun and functional play-based movements I learned at his seminars.

Frank wrote a wonderful endorsement for my book. In addition, he sent a note to my publisher:

I would like to see you put this warning on an opening page: "Before beginning a program of physical inactivity, see your physician. This warning would make the essential point that inactivity is the abnormal state. Movement is biologically and medically normal. Sedentary 'living' is the dangerous exception that requires professional oversight. Until health publishers make this point clear, readers will continue to live in fear of physical movement. We need to step up." 

Good point.  And yes, I did add his warning in my book!

Normally, people are advised to consult their doctors before undertaking an exercise routine. However, movement is not the expertise of doctors. While they understand that inactivity causes myriad health problems, they don't know how to help those patients who begin to lose their freedom of movement.

Most of the people I work with have run the gamut of doctors, surgery, drugs, physical therapy, massage, dry needling, and core strengthening. By the time I see them they have diagnosed themselves - correctly - with Sensory Motor Amnesia.  They are aware that they have forgotten how to move freely and how to control their movement, but they don't understand how it happened.

So how does one begin to restore freedom of movement? And more importantly, how does one let go of the fear of movement?

Simple facts about the brain and muscle connection can unlock the "mystery" of chronic pain and limited movement.

Let's clear up a few misconceptions about how limited muscle pain and limited movement develop:

  1. Limited movement doesn't happen to you; it develops from the inside out. This is due to stress responses such as accidents, injuries, surgeries, and ongoing repetitive stress.
  2. Most muscle pain problems are not the result of weak or faulty structure; they are the result of a loss of proper muscle control at the brain level.
  3. Your brain responses to everything that happens to you by contracting muscles in full-body patterns and habits. In order to regain movement, you need to retrain your brain to retrain your muscles so they can release, relax, and move freely again. Only you can change what's happening in your own body!

For those who are embarking on a program of fitness training or exercise I would suggest that you go back to the basics first: add Hanna Somatic Exercises to your routine. Test yourself and see if you have voluntary control over the major muscles of your core: the back, waist, and 1-At the Top of Table Mountain, in the Mt. Baker region, Washington State IMG_6587abdominal muscles. This is the safest and simplest method to restore somatic awareness and muscles control. No forceful stretching or painful procedures involved. Somatic awareness and mastery of "the basics" is what will enable you to climb the stairs un-aided at 90-years-old, carry your own groceries, run, or play with your kids.

When you get back in touch with your muscles you will regain control, become aware of even the smallest movements, and improve your coordination, balance, and proprioception through daily Somatic exercises. These exercises remind your brain how to control your muscles without the interference of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The more we move, the more choices we have. We can look at a situation and assess how we'd like our bodies to respond: jump, break a fall, climb, squat, walk, run, tiptoe, hike, dance, lift, throw, carry. Movement mastery means freedom to be creative in our movement and chosen activities, age notwithstanding.

Back Pain, X-rays, and Muscle Tension

A client recently sent me an interesting blog post about X-rays, chiropractors, and back pain.

Chiropractors and doctors consider back pain to be a structural  problem, when in fact most back pain is functional in nature.

Most doctors no longer learn the art of palpation, which familiarizes the practitioner with the function and tonus rate of the muscles, nor do they apply an understanding of the brain/muscle connection and how muscles become tight and stay tight/frozen. They tend to medicalize back pain. I agree with the writer that X-rays are a significant intervention that should be used only when a break or tear is suspected. When muscles become "frozen" and stop functioning properly, the best way to regain proper muscle function and improve proprioception is through movement reeducation such as Hanna Somatic Education.The muscles, which have learned to stay tight due to stress responses, need to be "woken up" at the brain level, so they can learn to relax.

So if you have tight muscles, muscle pain or dysfunction that is not part of a disease process, and wonder whether or not you need an X-ray to diagnose the problem, first try to move - bending, reaching, gently twisting. Notice how it feels - how you can and cannot move. This will begin to shed light on your problem and increase your own sense of body awareness. If you can move easily in one direction, but not the other, you probably have some "amnesic," tight muscles which, with some methodical and easy retraining, can learn to relax and function again as they are meant to. This will relieve your pain and save you money in the long run.

To learn the methods and movements that will teach you to reverse chronic muscle pain, increase awareness, control and flexibility of muscles, click here to buy my new, easy-to-follow instructional DVD.

Move More, Get Stronger, and Live Longer

My clients often ask me, "Now that I'm no longer in pain, what kind of exercise should I do so I don't hurt myself again?" Good question. Here's my answer: Once you've reversed your Sensory Motor Amnesia, it's imagesimportant to integrate your new awareness and control into full body movement. Exercise is fun and good for you, so have at it! It's also important to strengthen the new, more balanced posture and movement.

Do what you love to do now that you have awareness and control of your body and movement. Paying attention to your movement, and exercising and moving within your comfort range is what will help you prevent injury. Challenge yourself, yet be mindful not to go beyond what truly feels good.

On page 30 of my book, Move Without Pain, I write about walking, one of the most basic, fundamental activities in the human vocabulary. I write about how movement, rather than exercise is the key to long term health. Create a movement-filled life and you will generally find your health and fitness to be better than you  realize.

Gretchen Reynolds, author of The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longershares a similar outlook (as discussed in this May 2012 New York Times article).

She says:

I wanted people to understand... how little exercise you can do in order to get lots and lots of health benefits. Two-thirds of Americans get no exercise at all. If one of those people gets up and moves around for 20 minutes, they are going to get a huge number of health benefits, and everything beyond that 20 minutes is, to some degree, gravy.

Those who know me have heard me mention my mother, Meg Peterson, as a living example of how a movement-IMG_0058filled life has kept her strong, fit, and still hiking at 85 years old. Yes, she was blessed with good genetics, but more importantly she refused to slow down as she got older. She takes out her own trash, mows her own lawn, walks several miles daily (and incorporates hills when possible) and doesn't shy away from using the stairs instead of an elevator. And yes... she does her Hanna Somatic Exercises!

8 Ways to Be Fit and Healthy: (without "exercising")

  1. Walk instead of using the car whenever possible
  2. Do your own gardening
  3. Use the stairs instead of the elevator
  4. Ride your bicycle to work or to run errands
  5. Hand-wash your car instead of taking it to the car wash
  6. Shop locally and carry your groceries home on foot
  7. Put on music and dance while you cook
  8. Walk around your house while using the phone (instead of sitting still)

I have often had clients tell me that if they don't feel dead on their feet after a workout, that they haven't exercised hard enough. Robert Sapolsky, author of the best selling book about stress called Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, presents some interesting - and disturbing - facts about the negative affects of extreme exercise on bone mass and stress hormone levels(pg. 123). If you love to run marathons, that's great. Just be aware of the need for bringing your nervous system out of the fight or flight mode (which causes stress hormones to flood your body) afterwards. Do your Hanna Somatic Exercises to reboot the muscular system and give yourself time to recover.

If you aren't an extreme exerciser, you're in the majority.  Always be sure to bring movement of all sorts into your day and that, in addition to sensible nutrition, should stand you in good stead for a long time.

Somatic Squats

Properly executed squats are one of the most useful movements you could do on a daily basis. Having the ability to squat down to the ground uses all the muscles of the core in a coordinated movement that is a catch-all exercise of strengthening. Despite the emphasis on core strengthening anddeep-squat the finer points of how to squat properly I've seen a tendency in many athletes toward habituating the Green Light Reflex. This means that the muscles of the back of the body (the "posterior chain") - become tight and stay tight. If the back of the body is tight, the front of the body, and especially the hip flexors, co-contract. It's a full body pattern response to stress.

There is a need for a different kind of squat, done as more of a somatic release - after a training session of vigorous athletic squats. The "laundry squat," also known as a "frog squat" is a simple squat that, when done fluidly and effortlessly, allows for coordination and communication between all of the sinawsouqjoints, from the neck and mid-back all the way down to the knees, ankles, and rounded pelvis. There should be an easy, coordinated "distribution of labor" that feels utterly natural and effortless to do.

Most Westerners don't squat in our daily lives, so if you don't want to lose the ability to bend the knees, hips and ankles to get up and down, there's no time like the present to begin bringing this quintessentially human movement back into your life.

Try this "Somatic Squat" for improved flexibility when squatting.

The "laundry squat" is simple: you sink straight down to the ground, the tailbone drops, the backCave - India 2 lengthens, the pelvis gently rounds under a bit and the weight  settles on the heels and the mid-foot. The upper body is slightly forward. It's the preferred squat of millions of people in Asia and Africa. And of me, when I'm in a cave in India (at right).

I understand that many people are afraid to squat; perhaps they've had knee surgery, hip problems, an accident or injury. Any kind of injury, as you already know if you've been following this blog, has the potential to create Sensory Motor Amnesia in the brain/muscle connection. This means that you lose an accurate sense of how you move your body and where it is in space. Perhaps squatting is scary because you've lost the connection between the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back.

Whatever your fear, I invite you to begin to explore this important and basic human movement. View the short video below for a fun exploration that can begin to create more awareness and freedom through the shoulders, back, and hips. By exploring and differentiating the twisting of the shoulders and hips, and gently increasing movement in the ribcage, you might find that the front movement of squatting becomes a little easier. This exploration is also useful for anyone with scoliosis whose ribcage feels more compressed on one side. I enjoyed making the video - and yes, it helped me squat more smoothly and effortlessly.

This "laundry squat" exploration is taken from the book Mindful Spontaneity by Ruthy Alon. Enjoy it and let me know how it works for you.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUaRC67zj2I&w=560&h=315]