The Best Somatic Exercise for Low Back Pain and Neck Pain

A stiff neck is a stiff body.

I've written about neck pain before, and how it is never solely a problem of the neck muscles. The brain and nervous system control our bodies as a system. While it may feel as if there is one muscle - or area of the body - causing the pain, that is rarely ever the case. So it is with "neck pain" and "back pain."

Both neck pain and low back pain are the result of tight muscles in the center of the body. "The neck" is only the top portion of the spine and it moves in conjunction with the rest of the body - the muscles on the top of the shoulders (levator scalpulae, scalenes, and upper trapezius) as well as the strong and deep muscles of the back.

In a case of whiplash from, for example, a car accident, the muscles of the back of the body, which insert from the pelvis up into the occiput of the skull, reflexively and violently contract. This can cause Sensory Motor Amnesia, in which the muscles remain "frozen," unable to release fully. These frozen muscles can contribute to migraines, TMJ, tension headaches, shoulder pain and back pain. Because nothing in the body moves or functions in isolation it's important to release the full pattern of tight muscles in order to reverse your muscle pain and restore full muscle function.

Try this gentle, easy Somatic Exercise for neck pain and back pain relief:

This movement - the Back Lift - is effective for anyone suffering from neck problems - or for office workers, technical people, engineers, teachers who stand all day or anyone who sits, stands, walks, runs or drives:

Lie on your stomach, head turned to one side. The palm is on the floor with the elbow directly in line with the shoulder.  Place your opposite cheek and the fingertips of the hand together. Make sure you're comfortable, with enough room for your shoulder to relax.

Slowly lift just the elbow several inches off the floor. Notice the contraction in the upper, middle and lower parts of the shoulder. Repeat 3 times, lowering the elbow slowly. Notice the quality of movement. Is it bumpy? Shaky? If so, slow down and smooth it out.

Slowly lift your head and notice how far down the left side of your back you can you feel the contraction. This is what a baby does at 5 months; it's a deliberate contraction of the back of the body in order to begin the eventual process of crawling, then walking. It's called the "Landau Response." Repeat two times slowly. Completely relax.

Keeping the hand and the cheek together, inhale and float the elbow, cheek, head and hand up several inches. The right arm relaxes on the floor. Notice the strong contraction down the left side of your back. This movement comes from the back of the body, not just from the top of the shoulder. Your neck muscles shouldn't be doing all the work! Did you notice something happening on the right side of your body? Your right leg wants to lift! This is an involuntary contraction. Repeat slowly two times. Completely relax between each repetition.

Lift the opposite leg slowly. Notice how the upper body contracts slightly to help counterbalance the upper body. This is what we do when we walk. Repeat two times, completely relaxing between each repetition.

Now let's put it all together: slowly lift elbow, cheek, head, hand and the opposite leg - as if you want to look over the left shoulder. Only come up as far as is comfortable. It's the back that is working to lift you. Now slowly come back down. The slow lengthening is when your brain has the most potential to change what the muscles are doing. During this phase the brain can restore the full length of the muscle. Completely  relax and melt into the floor.

Repeat this 3-4 times slowly, lifting only as far as is comfortable. Notice how the front of your body lengthens to allow you to contract the back of the body! The neck is coordinating along with the back and shoulders in an efficient, easy and natural movement.  The only goal of this movement is to teach your brain to restore awareness and motor control of your back muscles - so you can tighten them when you need them, and relax them when they're no longer needed for action.

IMPORTANT: After doing this Somatic Exercise, follow with Arch and Flatten. Then take a minute to relax completely. Let your brain soak up the sensory feedback. You are changing your nervous system by doing this movement; this is how your brain begins to make changes in your muscles.

For more helpful Somatic Exercises, visit the Essential Somatics® store to check out our instructional DVDs.

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:

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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:

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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

 

How To Improve Posture & Reverse Your Back Pain

There are "posture experts" everywhere that teach you to how to stand: bones in alignment, body parts stacked just so. Many yoga teachers stress alignment more than they do somatic awareness and proprioception. Because most people have Sensory Motor Amnesia and don't know it, it's even more important to understand how our brains control our muscular system as a whole and how stress reflexes create a distorted internal sense of how our body is connected, how our joints move and what it feels like to stand squarely on our feet. One of the worst pieces of advice people are given is to "stand up straight!" One of the least helpful opinions about "why" people have poor posture and back pain is "the back muscles are weak." I am a former professional dancer and many of my teachers had intractable back pain (and retired early) while having extremely strong back muscles.

When I ask people to stand up - and sit up - to what they think is "straight," they typically arch their lower back in an effort to pull the shoulders back and open the chest. I see this in yoga class as well. This posture - a strongly arched lower back and tight shoulders - is called the Green Light Reflex (or Landau Response) and it is a major cause of chronic low back pain.

Life is dynamic - so are you without back pain

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A healthy body is one that can adapt and adjust to whatever feedback comes in through the environment, yet can find its way back to balance and relaxation. Yes, life is dynamic, as is efficient, functional posture. Just like the ladies in the photo at right, balancing life and balancing books requires the ability to find center naturally as you move.

Many people work really hard to "get the right posture" not realizing that they're actually tightening and bracing certain muscles in an effort to attain it. Again, this contributes to back pain as well as neck pain, shoulder pain and hip pain. What would it feel like if you learned to let go of muscles that are unconsciously tight and tense in order to find your "perfect posture?"

Achieving good posture is about learning to relax muscles that aren't crucial to holding you up, while allowing the muscles that need to work to coordinate together in perfect balance and ease.

Somatic Exercises Make Freedom of Movement Possible

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

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

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

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

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

Profile before lesson 1

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

After 2 lesson & 3 wks of practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Thomas Hanna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does freedom look and feel like to you?

Top 3 Myths About Neck Pain

I've work with a lot of people with neck pain, some so severe that they had to go on disability. In the past  Tiger Woods dropped out of a golf tournament due to neck pain - a bulging disc. He said, "I can deal with the pain, but once it locked up I couldn't go back or come through..." While adamant that his neck pain had nothing whatsoever to do with his car accident, as I wrote in this post, Tiger has a bad case of Sensory Motor Amnesia. Here are three myths about neck pain to consider:

Myth #1: Neck pain is caused by the neck muscles

Thomas Hanna once said, "a stiff neck is a stiff body." Muscle tightness in the neck is only a part of a larger IMG_3845muscular pattern of contraction closer to the center of the body. The vertebrae that comprise what we think of as "the neck" are only 7 vertebrae of 24 that comprise the spinal column. There are several layers of strong paravertebral muscles on both sides of the spine that extend from the tailbone all the way up into the base of the skull. If the muscles on the back of the body - from neck to pelvis - are tight, the neck will be affected. This kind of "Green Light Reflex" posture creates pain in the back of the neck and into the base of the skull.

If the front of the body is hunched and slumped, the neck will be affected as well; this "Red Light Reflex" posture draws the head forward, which causes the muscles that move the neck and balance the head to contract strongly to maintain balance.

Simply addressing the neck muscles will not solve the problem - for the long term. The body moves as a system, not a jumble of individual parts. Relaxing the back and front of the body can result in a more relaxed and pain-free neck.

Myth #2: Neck problems come with old age

The older we get, the more opportunities our muscles have had to learn to stay tight, "frozen," and contracted. This is how Sensory Motor Amnesia develops. It occurs due to accidents, injuries, surgeries, repetitive use, and emotional stress.  If that state of habitually contracted muscles progresses over the years, it will appear that the neck problem is a result of age, when in fact, it is the result of muscular dysfunction left unchecked. There is no substantive evidence to prove that age itself has anything to do with neck problems. There is, however, substantive evidence that a lack of movement can result in tighter muscles and restricted movement. This can happen at any age, especially in today's technological world.

Myth #3: Neck problems mean the neck muscles are weak and need strengthening

I addressed this issue of painful muscles being "weak muscles," in an old post about the Top Four Myths About Back Pain. Painful, tight muscles are rarely weak; in fact, they are usually so tight that they can neither release fully, nor move efficiently. Tightly contracted muscles which lack proper blood and oxygen are painful, sore and, because they cannot fully release, feel weak. What is needed is to restore fully muscle function, so the muscles can do the two things they are meant to do: fully contract and fully release. A muscle that cannot fully relax is holding unnecessary tension. Learn to relax and control the neck, back, shoulders, and hips and move the entire body efficiently and your neck pain will probably disappear forever.

Try this easy movement in order to relax and release not only the back muscles, but the neck muscles as well. Notice the connection between the neck and the lower back:

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To learn to reverse chronic muscle pain with gentle, easy Somatic Movements for the back, neck, shoulders, and hips, click here for my Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD.

How To Improve Posture and Gain Body Confidence

There is a widely held belief perpetuated by Yoga teachers and many medical practitioners that when people are stooped or slumped it is because their backs are weak. I hear this from my clients repeatedly:

I need to strengthen my back; I can't hold myself up because my back muscles are weak.

Not always true.

The root cause of the problem is that the front of your body has learned to so stay so tight you can no longer IMG_3852voluntary relax it and stand up straight. This is a learned response to the stress. It is called the Red Light Reflex. Yes, long hours of sitting contributes to the problem and can habituate this reflex. The antidote to this learned posture is not to draw the shoulders back like a soldier at attention. That action is an exaggeration of what we think of as "standing up straight." It, too, is a reflex called the Landau Response, or Green Light Reflex.

When people are stuck in this kind of posture there is a basic absence of somatic awareness and sensory motor control over the muscles. You may know that you're slumped and be upset about it, but you don't know how to change it. Pulling on and strengthening the antagonist muscles (in this case, the back muscles) only creates an equal and opposing contraction through the back of the body.

The solution is process of education: your brain, the command center of your muscles, must teach the muscles of the front of the body to release, relax, and lengthen. Then, and only then, you will be able to begin to coordinate the back of the body with the front of the body in order to stand up to a neutral straight and maintain that posture voluntarily.

This yoga video is typical of the misinformation given to those who want to learn how to stand tall and why one would have trouble standing tall, shoulders at neutral. The teacher is asking the viewer to do something that the brain actually doesn't want you to do: tighten the shoulders, lift the head, but relax the buttocks. The buttock naturally coordinate with the back and shoulders. The brain, which organizes you as a system, contracts all the muscles on the back of the body when the head is lifted and shoulders contract.

Neutral and balanced posture is confident posture.

Here are a few excellent Somatic Exercises that will teach you relax and release the front and back of your body so you can stand taller and more confident. Do them slowly, gently and with awareness to the movement.

The Flower will begin to teach you how to release the muscles of the front of the body that, when chronically contracted in response to stress, round you forward. The more you do this movement, the more your brain will be able to self-correct your posture should you begin to slump again.

The Back Lift, from my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD, is the most profoundly effective Somatic Exercise IMG_3540for getting your brain back in control of the muscles of the back of the body - relaxing and releasing them so the front and the back can coordinate together. For a video about the Back Lift click here.

The Washrag brings the back, front and sides of the body together as a connected whole. It helps to open the front in a safe, natural way.

Somatic Exercises teach you to regain awareness of the way in which you move, how you adapt to stress and what it feels like to regain control of your body and movement. They are the best way to improve posture and find the easiest, most efficient way to move. Rather than doing mindless repetitions of strengthening, you will learn to sense and move voluntarily. Strength is important, but never strengthen something you can't feel.

How To Get The Most Out of Somatic Exercises

Here is a short video with helpful tips about three exercises which most people need some guidance on. I sent this video link out to everyone who purchased my "Pain Relief Through Movement" DVD. I'm making it available to everyone who's learned Somatic Exercises - even if you haven't purchased the Pain Relief Through Movement DVD. Here are some highlights. Read them, then watch the video!

Arch and Flatten:

When you do this exercise, you should feel your back muscles gently contracting and arching as the pelvis rolls forward. You should sense equal effort on both sides of the spine, and then, as you slowly and gently release back to neutral on the mat, you should sense both sides of the back "landing" together.

If you're slightly tighter on one side of your body than the other, you will probably sense more weight or pressure into one hip as you "inhale and arch, and tip the tailbone down in the direction of your feet."  You will feel that you're tilting into one hip. This may cause your lower back to feel sore. It may even cause an uncomfortable pinch. The aim is to sense the gentle arching and flattening right down through the center of your tailbone. The recalibration I demonstrate will help you find "neutral" in your pelvis as you pandiculate the muscles of the back.

Back Lift:

If you are tighter on one side of your waist than the other, maybe from a previous injury or accident, you probably have a Trauma Reflex in the center of your body; you'll feel as if you're off center or heavier on one side of your pelvis than the other as you lie on your front, ready to do the back lift. When you lift the leg you may feel as if you're "tipping" into one side of your pelvis and it will be more difficult to lift the leg.

Gently "anchoring" the pelvis of the non-working leg as you lift elbow, cheek, head and hand, will help you more fully regain balanced control of your back muscles.

Side Bend:

Many people tend to do the side bend and slightly arch their lower backs, twisting slightly into a typical pattern of the Trauma Reflex. This will cause a slight pinch in the low back. If you have sciatica, it will not feel good, as it is only re-creating the pattern that caused the problem in the first place.

Do the side bend as if you're up against a flat wall. Better yet, do the movement against a wall if possible! This will help you make sure that when you contract your waist muscles as you lift your top foot and your head ("making an accordion out of your waist muscles"). You'll be more able to sense the waist muscles contracting and lengthening instead of using the muscles of the lower back to help out.

Here is the video. (In case you're asked for a password, it's DVDthankyou1):

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Let me know how it goes and whether or not these tips were helpful to you.

For those of you would like to learn how to skillfully teach the Somatic Exercises to others, my Somatic Exercise Coach Training (Levels One and Two) is for you. This popular training has been taught in the UK, Canada, Germany, Canada and Australia and people are learning to relieve their muscle pain and move more freely the world over thanks to the skills of Essential Somatics® Somatic Exercise Coaches.

Martha is available for phone consultations, workshops, private clinical sessions. Click here for more information.

Learn to relieve back, neck, shoulder, hip, and joint pain easily, safely, and intelligently using methods taught nowhere else!

Somatic Education is Evidence-Based Treatment for Back Pain

Scientists at the Sahlgrenska Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden have research to support the use of Somatic Education - movement reeducation that relaxes tight, painful muscles - as an evidence-based modality for treatment of back pain. Somatic Education has been around since the early 20th century and has helped people learn to improve their posture, relax tight muscles and move in more efficiently and easily.  The method the Salgrenska Intitute studied was the Feldenkrais Method, the same method that Thomas Hanna, Ph.D., creator of Hanna Somatic Education, practiced for decades before developing his own method called Hanna Somatic Education. Swedish physiotherapist Christina Schön-Ohlsson states,

"Inefficient movement patterns gradually become habituated even though the original injury or strain is no longer present."

How right she is!  Clients frequently tell me, "I just don't feel the way I once did." They feel as if something "happened to them" to cause them to lose their flexibility, movement and self-control. The good news is that they can learn to regain their independence; all it takes is a process of education and a little patience.

In Hanna Somatics clients learn to become aware of the muscles that have habitually and tightened (as Schon-Ohlsson said) in response to the original injury - and then to release them at the brain level.

All human beings respond to stress with specific, visible patterns of muscular contraction.

Thomas Hanna was the first Somatic Educator to codify three specific stress reflexes - reflexes that all humans respond to in response to stress. By addressing these reflex patterns (of the back, the front of the body and the sides of the body), people can learn - very quickly - to reverse their muscle pain and restore awareness and control of their movement.

Chronic low back pain develops as a learned response to stress. It can be unlearned.

Muscles are controlled by the brain and central nervous system. The brain gets sensory feedback from the muscles, then commands them to move.  It is a simple feedback loop of sensing and moving. When stress occurs repeatedly, we can learn to habituate, adjust and adapt to our stress, as  mentioned by the Swedish scientists. This causes our muscles to stay tight and frozen; our brain literally forgets how to sense and move our muscles. This is called Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). The reason that medical science has no solution to habituated muscular tension is because SMA is not a medical condition. It is a sensory motor condition that can only be reversed through movement.

If you'd like to experience sensory motor learning, explore the movements shown on my website.  Move slowly and gently, with eyes closed (to tune out visual distractions). Make them pleasant and be mindful not to work too hard; these are not exercises as you know them from the gym. When you're done, relax completely and notice the difference in sensation in your body.

Thankfully there is a slow acceptance of "sensory motor learning," also known as "neuromuscular movement re-education" in the medical community. In my Somatic Exercise Coach Training I have taught osteopaths, chiropractors, and physiotherapists how to teach basic Somatic Exercises in order to help their patients become more self-aware and self-correcting in their movement.

I look forward to the day when Somatic Education is the first line of defense against back, neck, shoulder, hip, and joint pain. If you are in pain and have not gotten the relief you know you can get, come take a class, or workshop, schedule a private session, or contact me. I am happy to help get you on the path to a pain-free life!

How To Relieve Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, Neck, Shoulder and Hip Pain

There is always a full body pattern of muscle tension that causes functional muscle pain.

In my last post I wrote about hip pain and how the posture of leaning and slumping into one's dominant side to reach for and use the computer mouse, can create hip pain. I often call this "computer-itis." This action also contributes to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) and can also create shoulder and neck pain as one hunches, draws the shoulder forward, collapses through the ribcage and waist and concentrates on the work (and computer screen) at hand.

When we move, it is never just one muscle that lifts our arm, brings our leg forward, or bends our back.  Beneath our conscious awareness there is a perfectly balanced process of sensing and moving between agonist, antagonist and synergist muscles that allows us to coordinate each movement. If one muscle group contracts, its antagonist lengthens to allow the movement to happen. This is how we move through gravity efficiently and, we hope, with the least possible effort or pain. We are a system, controlled by the brain, not a jumble of separately moving parts. If there is tension in one part of the system, everything else in the system changes to accommodate and compensate.

If we change the way we move due to overuse, repetitive action, injury, or accidents we can develop the condition of Sensory Motor Amnesia (tight, "frozen" muscles that the brain has forgotten how to release). This means that your brain invariably contracts and recruits not just the muscles needed to complete the action, but also other groups of muscles that compensate to help us move. This dance between muscles stops working and both agonist and antagonist muscles become tightly contracted, as if we are stuck in a vise.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is a perfect example of Sensory Motor Amnesia. It can develop due to an habituated red light reflex, excessive computer work and habitual hunching of the shoulders. The scalene muscles become overly contracted and compress the thoracic outlet, causing tingling down into the fingers. Tight upper trapezius muscles, rounded, hunched shoulders contribute to the problem. Address the full body pattern of tightness through the center of the body and nerve conduction will improve.

Try these corrective Somatic Exercises for relief of shoulder pain, hip pain, and Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

Here is a simple protocol for releasing, relaxing and retraining the muscles that become painfully tight from excessive computer work. This is useful for office workers, graphic artists, film or music editors, data input workers, and those whose work is simply repetitive.

Arch and flatten - allow the neck to move along with the movement.

Flower - allow the abdominals to soften and relax as you lengthen the front and open the chest.

Side bend - allow the waist muscles to contract and slowly lengthen.

Side Bend variation: In the video below is a Somatic Exercise that helps to release and relax the muscles involved in Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS). TOS causes tingling into the fingers and symptoms similar to angina in some people. The problem lies in the fact that the muscles of the neck - specifically the scalenes, as well as the upper chest are tightly contracted. This puts pressure on the thoracic outlet, the space between your neck and upper chest where many blood vessels and nerves are found. I have used the Somatic Exercise below to get rid of TOS in my own body.

This is a full body pandiculation of exactly the muscles that "collapse" and tighten when you slump, jut your head forward to look at your computer screen and reach for your mouse:

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

Washrag - to open up the front of the body and connect the center of the body to the shoulders and hips.

Other wonderful Somatic Exercises that can help to battle "computer-itis" are the steeple twist, flower, neck and neck variations (from Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders).

Martha is available for corporate presentations on pain relief and workplace injury prevention. Save healthcare dollars and prevent worker injuries from repetitive muscle strain and overuse. For more information, email Martha.

How Technology Causes Neck Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

As you read this post, ask yourself these questions:

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

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

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

Try these Somatic Exercises

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

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

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

The Link Between Neck Pain and Computer Work

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

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

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

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

Any repeated movement or posture becomes a habit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Important Somatic Exercise for Back Pain Is....

... the Back Lift

It is also the Somatic Exercise that many people do incorrectly.

Instead of sensing, feeling, and contracting their back muscles, then slowly releasing them, they recruit other muscles to do the movement. Many people have trouble with this exercise, because they have Sensory Motor Amnesia in their backs, necks, and shoulders. Because this exercise is one of the most powerful somatic exercises you could ever learn to eliminate back, neck, and shoulder pain, it's important to do it correctly.

Technically speaking, Somatic Exercises are merely sensory motor movement patterns that recreate the stress reflexes that occur involuntarily in every human being. They are also explorations of simple movement: the legs moving in or out, the shoulders rolling, the head lifting.

They are perfectly natural for the human body, and by moving in a slow, gentle way we are able to become aware of where we can and cannot control our muscles and our movement. That being said, there is an optimum way to do Somatic Exercises in order to get the most benefit and to retrain the brain to be able to release spastic muscles, and improve sensory awareness and muscle function.

In my book, Move Without Pain, I write that the back lift "addresses all the IMG_3540muscles in  the back of the body that contract in response to activity and ongoing stress." This is the Green Light Reflex (also called the Landau Response). Whenever you are called into action - the phone rings, you're in a hurry to go somewhere, you need to do something - all the muscles on the back of the body contract. It's a joyful, useful reflex.

In the back lift you recreate the green light reflex, so you can decreate it (and recognize it) when it happens so that you don't get stuck in it. This action of contracting, then slowly lengthening into relaxation, is called pandiculation. It resets muscle function, length and tonus in one easy movement. This is what you've seen your cat or dog do when they get up from rest.

Many of us no longer take the time to relax our muscles after activity, so these muscles learn to stay contracted - even when we're asleep. Doing the back lift brings your brain back into sensory and motor control of the muscles. Once you can begin to feel the muscles and how they tighten, then you can release them.

Below is a video with a tip for how to get the most out of the back lift. In my 3-day Somatic Exercise Coach training I teach movement, medical and fitness/athletic professionals how to skillfully teach the Somatic Exercises to their clients so they can move better and do more of whatever activity the practitioner is teaching them. I coach them to be able to see how Sensory Motor Amnesia presents itself within each of the Somatic Exercises. The video below shows one of the ways people unnecessary muscles in order to do this exercise.

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Click here for more information about how to train to skillfully teach Somatic Exercises using the fundamentals of Hanna Somatic Education.

To buy any of the Essential Somatics® instructional DVDs, click here.

Reverse the Muscular Pain Caused By Computer Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seated Somatic Exercises for the Office Worker

About 90% of my Somatics clients sit all day long at their work. Many who don't have desk jobs sit more than they need to merely out of habit. Long-term sitting is a fact of life for a majority of the population and it has become a public health hazard. Nowadays many people are catching on to the fact that there is an alternative to long hours spent seated at the desk. One of my blog readers works at a standing treadmill desk and finds it very useful for preventing back and hip pain.

Personally, I'm an advocate of seated Somatic Exercises for about 5 minutes every hour, then getting up and moving any which way you possibly can, whenever possible.

When people sit for long periods of time - especially under stressful conditions, they forget how to do basic, necessary human movements that should be a part of our daily life. Sitting facing a computer demands that we look straight ahead - no twisting, bending, reaching, or squatting necessary. Emotional stress adds another level of stress to our muscles. Our brains - the command center of our muscles - teach our muscles to accumulate tension based upon the task at hand. We become used to slumping, sitting over-arched in our backs, or twisted or collapsed in our torso as we reach for our computer mouse to that we no longer are able to distinguish proper, healthy posture and biomechanics from potentially harmful holding patterns.

Diane came to me several years ago with excruciating headaches, and chronic neck and shoulder pain that required her to go on disability. She had a high stress job working 10-hour days in the financial sector; it was both stimulating, and demanding. She explained that she would sit down at her computer in the morning, open up her emails, and often not look up or move from her desk for hours at a time.

Diane had seen chiropractors, medical doctors, physical therapists, and had cortisone shots; nothing helped her find the answer to her muscle pain.

I saw her four times over the course of six weeks for private clinical Somatics sessions. We use assisted pandiculations and gentle somatic exercises to teach her to eliminate accumulated muscle tension in her back, waist muscles, hips, legs and abdominals. She began to feel her body differently as the pain diminished over time. She went back to work with a renewed awareness of her body, the ability to move her neck, shoulders, and back without pain, an understanding of how to sit properly, and tools to help her self-correct should she find herself falling back into the same unhelpful patterns.

Sitting correctly relieves back, neck, and shoulder pain.

The single most valuable piece of experiential learning for Diane - which she learned in the very first session - was the "seated awareness exercise" from my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.

Diane wasn't aware of her habit of over-arching her back; she thought that she was sitting up "straight," when in fact, she was contracting her back muscles tightly every time she sat down to work. Her upper body was pitched over her thighs, her shoulders were in front of her hips, and her spine was arched in a bow, rather than stacked on top of her sit-bones. When she learned to release her back muscles and sit up on top of her sit-bones, the tension released all the way up to her neck and shoulders.

Check out Pain-Free at Work for Somatic Exercises you can do at your desk for renewed energy, reduced muscle tension and improved movement.

Standing Up is Better For Your Health

Sitting and the damage done to most of us through hours of sitting at desks, computers and in cars, is a healthcare problem.

It's tough on the hip joints, lousy on posture and breathing, and contributes to back, hip, knee, neck and shoulder pain. Many people don't even realize that they're probably not breathing correctly, or as fully as you could in order to be healthy.

I saw a video clip of an interview between Donald Rumsfeld and Piers Morgan in which Morgan expresses his chagrin at how "odd" it is that Rumsfeld doesn't sit at his desk - but stands instead. Rumsfeld responds,

"Why do you act like that's odd? Sitting is weird!"

Bravo. Now I'm not sure whether Morgan was putting on an act or not, but he added to his "this proves that Donald Rumsfeld is definitely "weird" list, Rumsfeld's daily ritual of exercise:

"At 78 years old?! Why do you still work out?"

Rumsfeld's attitude is excellent: sit infrequently and move as much as you can. Now, putting politics aside, I have to say that with his attitude about health, Rumsfeld should probably have gone into the health profession. Age has nothing to do with whether or not one should stop moving.

In developing countries like India and Africa, not moving isn't an option. Adults move because there is work to be done, not because they want a work out, as does Rumsfeld. Chances are many of these people are stronger and more physically resilient than your average American.

Sitting in  a chair at right angles for long periods of time can create tight hip joints, rigid back muscles and neck, shoulder and back spasms. When we sit at work, rarely are we relaxed. I know I'm not. I tend to stand at my kitchen counter when I do online sessions with clients.

If you are someone who is always rushing around, which causes the back muscles to contract strongly (the Green Light Reflex or Landau Response), you'll pitch yourself forward and over-arch the lower back when seated. This will cause the hip flexors to contract to keep you upright. They stay tight until given the signal to relax. When you get up you'll stand up from your chair slowly because the front of your hips will still be contracting.

If you tend to slouched while seated (Red Light Reflex), you will collapse in the middle of your body as the abdominals contract tightly. This will cause your breathing to be shallow rather than relaxed. This rounded posture, which rounds the pelvis under, and causes what is now called "head forward posture," is a sure-fire recipe for back and neck pain.

Why sitting is no good for you

  • decreased circulation
  • decreased creativity due to lack of movement
  • tighter hips, due to habituation to sitting with an over-arched lower back or slumping
  • shallower breathing

Why standing is better

  • increased ability to move the entire body as much as you want
  • increased ability to imbed learning and memory (movement causes the brain to release BDNF)
  • improved posture and proprioception (body awareness)
  • improved breathing due
  • increased circulation
  • improved muscle tone due

Try it out if your workplace is amenable to such an experiment. Notice your own patterns of posture and movement. Relax your belly when you breath and notice how much better that feels. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed and that you can easily shift your weight from side to side.

Some of the basic Somatic Exercises can even be done standing (Arch & Curl, Reach to the Top Shelf, the arm movements of the Washrag). Or you can create your own - if you do, please share them with me so I can share them with my readers.

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.