Why Do I Have Shoulder Pain?

"Richard" was a tall, young athletic man who worked long hours as a computer consultant. He suffered a rotator cuff injury years ago in a car accident. This left him with chronic shoulder pain even after months of physical therapy, massage, and medical treatment. He said that he had never felt the same since and, despite the fact that he was only 38 years old, he was beginning to think that he was just "getting old." His daily computer usage only made his already painful right shoulder tighter than ever. He was close to developing a "frozen shoulder." The truth was that his shoulder wasn't frozen - the center of his body was.

The shoulder joint isn't just the joint itself; the muscles that move and stabilize the shoulder and coordinate synergistically to move what we think of as "the shoulder" originate in the center of the body. Tight chest muscles pull the shoulders forward and tight upper shoulder muscles (trapezius) hunch the shoulders up. Tight muscles of the side body will pull the shoulder joint downward.  When you learn to release and relax the center of the body, movement in the periphery – the shoulder in this case – will improve dramatically.

Richard was motivated to figure out how to reverse his shoulder pain and regain control of his muscles for two reasons: he had been physically active before his injury, and he had a six-month-old baby he wanted to hold without experiencing pain.

Accidents can cause accumulated muscle tension throughout the entire body.

I wasn't surprised that Richard's right side was so tight; he'd had several car accidents. He had also fractured his left leg in a sports accident without realizing it and had continued to play, compensating strongly with his right side. His right side had been accumulating muscle tension for a long time before his shoulder injury became apparent. His brain had done an efficient work-around; because the brain could no longer sense or control the muscles he should be using, it had recruited other muscles to do the job. Now everything was tight! 

If muscles can learn to stay tight, they can also learn to relax.

In our first session, I taught Richard to relax the deep muscles of the back of his body (the Green Light muscles), including the muscles of the shoulder: the upper trapezius, rhomboids, and lower trapezius. I taught him to pandiculate these muscles, so that his brain could take back voluntary control of muscles that had been involuntarily contracted. He learned to soften the muscles so that they were ready for action again.

After his session, Richard was amazed at how much better his shoulder felt and how much more movement he now had after doing such simple movements. I sent him home with four basic movements to do daily to reinforce the new and improved range of motion that he had achieved.

Release the center of the body for quick relief of shoulder pain.

I saw Richard for one more session in which he learned to release and relax the muscles of twisting and bending. These muscles, known as the "core," are merely the muscles of the center of the body that allows us to flex, extend, side bend, and rotate our spine. If they are involuntarily contracted, they restrict movement of our periphery – from the shoulder and neck down to the pelvis, legs, and feet.

Richard also learned to release the tight latissimus dors muscle on his right side. The latissimus is the broadest muscle of the body and while it attaches up into the front of the shoulder, it extends all the way into the center of the body and attaches to the pelvis. By the end of his session, his pain was completely gone. The changes he had made himself, using his brain to retrain his muscles, were impressive and inspiring. He left my office with a huge smile on his face saying, "this work makes so much sense." He vowed to continue his daily Hanna Somatic Exercises. I look forward to not seeing Richard again for any more sessions; he now has the self-awareness and skills to take care of himself. 

To learn how to relieve neck and shoulder pain on your own, you can purchase my instructional Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD.

Top Three Myths About Hip Pain

Myth #1 - Your hip pain is due to arthritis

Sometimes hip pain is due to severe arthritis, very often it's not.

When you go to a doctor with hip pain their job is to give you a diagnosis because this is what most people want. Unless you are given an X-ray, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have arthritis, the doctor has no way of knowing whether your pain is due to arthritis. I was once told that, due to my age, I had arthritis. The doctor, despite not bothering to take an X-ray, insisted he was right when, in fact, he wasn't. Arthritis is often a "garbage pail diagnosis" - in reality, your hip pain is often caused by tight muscles that are in a state of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

And sometimes you can have arthritis but be moving well with no pain.

Myth #2 - Your hips are weak

It's time to retire this myth in particular. Those coming to me with hip pain have very little movement in the center of their bodies. Their hips don't sway, and their gait isn't smooth and fluid. The problem is not weakness, but tightness.

When muscles learn to stay tight (due to stress reflexes), they lose their full function. They can no longer contract and release fully as a healthy muscle should. Muscles in a state of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) have lost their physiological ability to release.  They are far from weak; they are, in fact, so strong that they cannot relax!

Doctors frequently pescribe physical therapy due to "weak muscles." Strengthening muscles that are in a state of SMA only makes them worse, as I discuss in this post about Tiger Woods' back injury.

Myth #3 - Surgery is the only option for hip pain

The medical profession looks at tight hip joints and sees a structural problem. Somatic Educators look at tight hip joints and see a functional problem. Doctors don't look at movement and patterns; they focus on separate body parts in an effort to "fix" them. Somatic Educators look for what's not moving when someone walks, and teaches them to improve sensory motor control of the muscles in order  to create more release in the center. This can create space and more movement in the joints. Most one-sided hip pain is due to an habituated Trauma Reflex; this reflex also causes an imbalance in the somatic center, altering one's gait and ability to maintain proper balance.

Long term muscle function can result in structural damage, however. Labral tears, osteoarthritis can result from decades of muscle dysfunction. Wouldn't it be a good idea to learn to take back control of your muscle function and coordination, your balance and your ability to sense and move yourself before jumping into surgery?

In this video I share a wonderful variation of the Side Bend, one of the most important and helpful Somatic Exercises you could ever do for hip joint pain. Try it and see how it feels.


Click here for my Pain-Free Legs and Hips DVD, which has plenty of helpful Somatic Exercises to help you release, relax and control the muscles that move your legs and hips.

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 Clinical Somatics Can Bring Tiger Woods Back Into Competition

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

Tiger Woods has Sensory Motor Amnesia.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Somatic Exercises Can Teach You To Get Rid of "Degenerative Disc Disease"

I recently read an article about Mike Crawshaw, a young British singer, who stated that his "spine is crumbling" and to avoid any potential harm through surgery, he chose to exercise. One doctor is quoted as saying, ‘The right kind of exercise can be helpful. You can strengthen the back muscles that support everything. This helps deal with the spasms in the affected muscles that cause pain. It’s possible to help with these problems without surgery.’ Crawshaw made the best decision for himself by finding a way to strengthen his back muscles. The doctor's statement, however, isn't completely correct; strengthening back muscles "to support everything" will not help deal with muscle spasms in the areas that cause pain. If back muscles are stuck in a state of heightened tension that pulls the discs closer together, you are more likely to "strengthen your pain" than to relieve it.

First here is a perspective on degenerative discs from a Somatic Education perspective. Then we will discuss strengthening the back in order to "support" the allegedly weak spine:

Is a "degenerative disc" caused by a disease process or is it a case of poor muscle function, which results in compressed, herniated and otherwise weakened discs?  The label "degenerative disc disease" sounds like a pathology that supposedly develops with age. Yes, arthritic changes can emerge due to age, poor diet, lack of sufficient water, lack of movement and overuse injuries; all of these can contribute to disc problems.  Most "degenerative discs" that I have seen in my practice are another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia, which can be eliminated when one learns to regain control of one's muscular system, improve nervous system function of the muscles, and restore muscle length.

Muscles put pressure on discs. Release the tight muscles and the discs have more room to move.

In an X-ray, discs that are squeezed tightly together look as if they're X-rayabout to crumble, causing the spine to buckle like an unstable building. Look at the X-ray on the right. Notice how one disc (the black arrow) has a lot of space, while the other (white arrow) is squeezed together. It doesn't look good, does it? The spaces between the discs are uneven and the spine is being pulled into an uneven "archer's bow," which gives the appearance of excess pressure on the lower vertebra (white arrow).

But what exactly pulls the spine into this shape? The muscles, of course.


And why would the muscles pull on the spine like this? They are stuck in what Thomas Hanna called the "Green Light Reflex," a reflex that contracts the muscles to prepare them for action. This reflex, like all reflexes is simply an unconditioned response to stress. The problem occurs when it becomes conditioned and habituated; the brain can literally forget how to relax the muscles. Here's the thing: you can't see muscles on an X-ray; all you can see is the result of the bones being pulled by the muscles.

Never strengthen something you can't feel.

Degenerative disc disease is a functional problem of the sensory motor system, not dissimilar to many other musculoskeletal problems that are deemed structural by the medical world. Once you lose awareness of your movement and how the way in which you respond and adapt to stress (mentally, emotionally and physically) you, too, may develop problems with your discs. There is a solution that doesn't involve surgery: Clinical Somatic Education and Hanna Somatic Exercises.

We all need to be strong, so awareness of what you can and cannot feel and control in your body is the first step to strengthening. The second step is to regain full muscle function and length. Once this is achieved, your brain now works with a muscle that is not being restricted by Sensory Motor Amnesia. Think of it this way: moving with Sensory Motor Amnesia is like trying to drive with the emergency brake on. Once Sensory Motor Amnesia is eliminated, create an enjoyable strengthening routine and be sure to include Somatic Exercises as a warm-up and cool-down to maintain optimum muscle function.

Long Lasting Pain Relief for Knee Pain

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Painful knees mean you have weak knees.

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

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

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

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

Several things occur when your gait is uneven:

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

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

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.

Eliminate Heel Pain and Plantar Fasciitis with Hanna Somatic Exercises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Top Four Myths About Back Pain

Myth #1: Back pain comes with old age.

Back pain is not age related. I've worked with nine-year-olds, teenagers, and senior citizens who all suffered from back pain. It's not one's age that makes the difference, but the extent to which one habituates to stress over time. We all respond to daily stress in our lives with very specific muscular reflex patterns.  If triggered consistently enough, these reflexes become habituated, "unconscious," and involuntary. This condition is called Sensory Motor Amnesia, and it is one of the biggest sources of chronic back pain. Back pain is easily reversible, however, with simple retraining of the brain's control of the muscles, such as is done with Clinical Hanna Somatic Education.

Myth #2: If there's nothing wrong on the diagnostics, "it's all in your head."

There is a popular belief that back pain is emotionally based, so when diagnostics are clear, the pain is determined to be all in your head. Dr. John Sarno's book, Mind Over Back Pain, is one such example of that belief. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way. While it is true that emotional and mental stress can create muscular tension (because the brain responds to stress, therefore the muscles respond to stress), it does not mean that wishful thinking and relaxation therapy will always work. When a stressful event (emotional stress, accidents, injuries, surgeries, or daily repetitive tasks) occurs, the brain reacts and contracts the muscles. This is how Sensory Motor Amnesia is established in your muscles. Once this occurs, you must change the state of your muscles for the long term through pandiculation and Somatic Exercises (the brain level), not only through relaxation therapy (the mind level).

Myth #3: Abdominal strengthening cures back pain.

This is one of the most popular and misguided beliefs about back pain. Having a conditioned core that supports your entire structure is a good thing, however, abdominal strengthening does not cure back pain. In fact, repetitious sit-ups and leg lifts can actually make your back tighter, thus deepening your pain. I've worked with plenty of athletes, dancers, yoga teachers, even Pilates teachers, who have strong abdominals and back pain. Back pain is more rapidly cured through sensory motor training, which retrains your brain to regain both sensation and control of your muscles and movement. Through this process you develop awareness of how the way in which you move (or don't move) affects your body. When you learn to move more efficiently and effortlessly, back pain will be a thing of the past.

Myth #4: Back pain means that your back muscles are weak.

Actually, the truth is that most of the time the back muscles are usually too strong and tight that they can no longer be properly engaged. Feel your back muscles with your hand. If they're hard and tense, there's nothing weak about them. Strengthening back muscles when they are involuntarily contracted can often make the problem worse. Chronically contracted muscles also do not get proper oxygen and blood flow, which, in turn, creates pain. Learn to voluntarily relax, release and control your back muscles through pandiculation and your pain will go away.

To learn how to release and relax the muscles that contribute to chronic back pain, check out my DVD, Pain Relief Through Movement.

Kinesio Tape: Does It Really Work?

In a previous blog post, Muscle Pain: Is It Really A Medical Condition, I wrote about why the study of Somatic Education should be a part of medical school curriculum. I'd like to take the discussion further. In the 2012 Olympics many saw an interesting addition to the uniforms of athletes: colorful stripes of tape on the shoulders, backs, and legs. This Kinesio Tape was the "therapy" of choice on the part of the supporting medical staff caring for the Olympic athletes. The goal was to ease muscle pain and improve muscle function.

Kinesio Tape is elasticized tape that is thought to relief muscle pain and improve muscle function. Statistical evidence supporting the use of Kinesio Tape is insignificant, yet more and more professional athletes are using it. Power Balance bracelets were all the rage not too long ago, so perhaps this is a similar trend. This tells me that people aren't basing their choices on science, but rather on celebrity popularity.

Kinesio Tape is not a long-term solution to muscle pain or muscle dysfunction.

Better movement doesn't come from applying Kinesio Tape to one's body any more than a better tennis swing will come from wearing the same tennis outfit as Serena Williams. Reeducating movement patterns will improve movement.

Here's why Kinesio Tape doesn't work and how you can get muscle pain relief and improved muscle function/athletic performance:

Kinesio Tape acts as slight sensory feedback to the muscles in order to give them a different sensation, yet that is not a strong enough level of feedback to reset the cortex for more optimum muscle function.

The sensory motor system of the brain controls all voluntary movement of muscles. When muscles are excessively tight, painful, or not functioning as well as desired, it is because they have learned to stay contracted at the level of the central nervous system; improvement in the sensory motor cortex is the best option for long-term improvement. A muscle that holds excess tension is a muscle that cannot fully release, nor contract. Muscles that are fully relaxed and low in tonus are more efficiently recruited for ballistic movement - the kind of action that is basic and necessary to all sports.

Pandiculation, a hard-wired brain reflex, is the most efficient method for restoring full muscle function and sensation. By contracting muscles and then slowly releasing them the brain is able to retrieve both sensation and full movement potential.

Nothing that anybody does to you can change what your brain and muscles are doing.

This means that instead of putting something on your body in a vain attempt to change the pain, you must teach your muscles to do something new and different from within to reset the cortex of your brain. Some clients have described their experience of pandiculation as one of a "software update" of the brain, so the muscles can move more efficiently and freely.

Hanna Somatic Exercises and clinical hands-on methods address Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), which is the root cause of most chronic muscle function pain. SMA occurs due to adaptation to stress - which includes athletic training and over-training, as well as accidents, injuries, surgeries, or repetitive stress. A short routine of Somatic Exercises or a series of hands-on clinical sessions can teach those who have "tried everything"  for pain relief - including Kinesio Tape - to eliminate pain for the long term. Back pain, sciatica, SI joint dysfunction, chronic neck, shoulder, and hip pain, and chronic headaches are all conditions easily eliminated with Hanna Somatic (Clinical Somatic) Education.

This method is the best kept secret in the field of healthcare, pain management, and athletic performance. Athletic trainers, physical therapists, massage therapists and body workers can be at the forefront of athletic training and rehabilitation using the clinical techniques and movements of Hanna Somatics.  It's simple, scientific, easy, fun, and comfortable. And it will change your life and maybe even save your athletic career.

If you're interested in a participating in a professional certification training in Clinical Somatic Education, or becoming a Somatic Exercise Coach, contact Essential Somatics for information.

Muscle Pain: Is It Really A Medical Condition?

Today's healthcare system is swamped with people experiencing chronic muscular pain. Upwards of $86 billion is spent on low back pain alone. When people visit a doctor for back pain they are looking for answers:

  • How did this happen?
  • What's wrong with my back?
  • Can you fix it and make it go away?

The statistics surrounding the costs of back pain are frightening. There is a good faith attempt to help people with low back pain, yet there is no useful education in medical schools that can applied to educate those with chronic muscle pain and give them information that makes sense.

Sensory Motor Amnesia causes chronic muscle pain.

The reason that doctors are seeing little improvement in health is because they're asking the wrong questions and trying to use MRIs, X-rays, and blood tests to diagnose something that is unmeasurable with those tools. Most chronic muscle pain is the result of  Sensory Motor Amnesia and muscular dysfunction, not an inherent structural breakdown in the body. Examples of Sensory motor amnesia are:

  • low back pain
  • sciatica
  • TMJ
  • neck/shoulder pain
  • poor posture
  • shallow breathing
  • leg length discrepancy
  • sacroilial dysfunction
  • hip joint pain
  • inflexibility
  • uneven gait
  • plantar fasciitis

Muscular dysfunction is a subjective experience that cannot be measured by medical diagnostics.

Medical diagnostics only see the end result of sensory motor amnesia, such as herniated discs, nerve impingement, or joint compression, all of which are caused by involuntarily contracted muscles pulling on bones. Because the muscles are controlled by the central nervous system, they must be taught how to release, relax and coordinate properly so that the body can return to a pain-free state. We adapt to stress by tightening our muscles in specific ways; we can learn to release them fully, regain balance, strength and freedom of movement. It's a task we must do ourselves. No one can "fix" us.

You can learn to reverse your pain with simple Somatic Exercises and a dose of self-awareness.

What is required is not "treatment," (which acts upon the body), but Somatic Education (which works from within). Below is an email I received from a woman who read my book, Move Without Pain, and purchased my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD. She is a shining example of how one can apply the tools of Somatic Education to reverse years of chronic pain:

I started having back pain while attending nursing school in 2002 at only 20 years old. Having complete trust in modern medicine, I went to my primary medical doctor. Through standard medical protocol, I endured years of multiple MRI's, steroid injections, physical therapy sessions, chiropractors, and finally 2 separate surgeries removing disc bulges. Ten years later, still in pain, the only thing anybody could diagnose me with was pelvic muscle dysfunction.

I decided to try Hanna Somatic exercises. After each session, I felt relaxed and had better posture, but still had some sciatic pain. I knew, from reading [Martha's] book, that it was vital for me to become aware of how I was moving throughout the rest of my day - and especially of my posture and different habits I had acquired over time.

I began to notice a link between my habits and my sciatica. Activities such as sexual activity, standing on one leg to shave the other in the shower, and standing throughout the day with one hip sticking out, (like the posture of a mother holding a baby on her hip) would cause more sciatica. It would make a muscle in my hip and buttock cramp, fatigue and subsequently cause inflammation and pain. Just becoming self-aware of how I stood throughout the day made all the difference!

As I look back on all the doctors I have seen, I realize that the best diagnostic tool was myself. Practicing Hanna Somatics and becoming more self-aware in the other 23 hours of my day has brought my pain level down to almost nothing now. I am confident as I continue on this path I will be able to completely recover, become strong again and live pain-free.

If you're interested in learning to reversing your own muscle pain and seeing similar results, check out the following:

Alternately, if you're a doctor or medical professional, please check out our Somatics Guide for Physicians.

We've Got It Backwards About Arthritis Pain

I just received a wonderful newsletter from a Hanna Somatics colleague in New Hampshire, Noreen Owen, announcing a new Somatic Movement series beginning July 18.  The title of this blog post and the message, is taken from her newsletter. It addresses a common complaint people come to Hanna Somatic Educators with: loss of muscle function and freedom of movement due to arthritis.

Lack of proper muscle function is a major cause of arthritis.

There are many contributing factors to arthritis and there are many types of arthritis. (In this post I'm referring to the diagnosis many people are given when they have joint pain without swelling that causes them to feel tight and inflexible.)

Stiffness and joint pain is commonly diagnosed as arthritis, whether or not X-rays show deterioration in the bones. It is possible to have arthritis and have no pain, and it is possible to have joint pain and no arthritis. It is possible to have suffered many sports injuries over time and come away with no arthritis in the affected joint. Medication, physical therapy and "learning to live with it" are common prescriptions for arthritis.

Loss of muscle function causes stiffness and joint pain

Many people are told that arthritis causes their joint pain and stiffness. It is actually the loss of muscle function which causes stiffness and joint pain. There is a much more self-empowering option than medication or physical therapy and it produces long-term benefits: Hanna Somatics.

Your brain controls your muscles and movement. When muscles learn to stay tight and contracted due to stress (compensation due to a surgery or accident, over training in sports, emotional stress or repetitive movements), they literally lose their ability to relax voluntarily.Chronically contracted muscles put pressure on joints, making it difficult to move them freely. Learn how to restore voluntary muscle function and proper posture and those achy joints will have space to move properly.

Movement is the best prescription you could get for arthritis

I once thought I had arthritis in my knees. I had constantly achy knees and couldn't kneel for any length of time. I was only 44.  My hip hurt and it would "catch" every once in a while, making it hard to walk smoothly. After "trying everything" I discovered Hanna Somatics and learned that what was ailing me wasn't arthritis, but Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) - the condition of chronically tight and "frozen" muscles that had learned to stay tight due to stress.

I learned, without painful stretching or force, how to do simple movements that taught my brain to regain control and flexibility of the muscles in my body that were causing my pain. In less than one month of daily Somatic Exercise practice my hip pain was gone and I was able to go back to taking long walks and hikes, and aerobics classes.

Learning simple Somatic Exercises can teach you how to release and relax the muscles that inhibit your mobility and keep you from moving the way you once did. Somatic Exercises are slow and easy. In fact, the less effort you use, the more you will achieve. You will experience relief of stress and anxiety as you improve breathing, sleep, digestion, elimination, and energy level. And... your arthritis may no longer be an issue!

As we get older many of us pull back on our movement in deference to our daily obligations - kids, house, work, driving - and we forget to move. We also no longer live in a world in which our ability to move spells the difference between life and death. Our survival is now measured in the number of hours you can sit behind a computer, not the hours spent tilling fields, carrying wood or water, and having a strong body.

The anti-arthritis recipe

Here are a few simple ideas for maintaining a healthy body, arthritis or not:

  • Somatic Exercises for restored muscle function
  • More movement of every type for a strong body
  • A balanced, sensible diet for optimum health
  • Quiet, peaceful downtime for mental and emotional health

Contact Martha to learn how you can regain your mobility easily and effortlessly with Somatics. Visit the Essential Somatics® store for DVDs to help you with your Somatics Exercises in the comfort of your own home.

Scoliosis - The Ultimate Trauma Reflex

In one of my recent Essential Somatics® workshops in London, a student told me about a friend with scoliosis. “The poor girl has been dealing with back problems for a long time. The doctor told her that her scoliosis was genetic and there's nothing he can do for her,” he said.

So is scoliosis genetic?

In 2007, the first possible genetic link to scoliosis was discovered. The defect in the CHD7 gene has been tied to idiopathic scoliosis (which means there is no known cause), so how much does this discovery actually help? I've worked with many people with scoliosis and have long wondered if there's a genetic propensity in families toward scoliosis. The article states:

Although scientists have known for years that scoliosis runs in families, its pattern of inheritance has remained unclear. That’s because the condition is likely caused by several different genes that work in concert with one another — and the environment — to cause scoliosis.

The key words for me here are "and the environment." From a Somatic Education perspective, the way we reflexively react and adapt to stress is what can determine whether or not one develops scoliosis.

I enquired more about my student's friend and learned that she fell down an entire flight of concrete stairs and landed on her coccyx when she was younger. He told me, "She's never been the same since."

Scoliosis and the Trauma Reflex

Thomas Hanna theorized that scoliosis developed due to an habituation to what he termed the Trauma Reflex. This reflex occurs instantly in response to a sudden accident or injury (slipping on a patch of ice, falling down the stairs, etc.) and the need to avoid pain or injury. It can also develop gradually (limping, using crutches, wearing a medical boot after an injury/surgery, etc.) as you compensate until your injury is fully healed.

The trauma reflex involves all the trunk rotators of the core (latissimi dorsi, obliques, abdominals, abductors, adductors) - muscles that twist, rotate, and bend to the side in order to retract from the site of the injury or accident. It is a useful and completely involuntary reflex that, once conditioned and habituated, teaches the waist muscles that attach into the pelvis to stay tighter on one side than the other. The pelvis will twist, and the hips will become slightly tilted and out of balance. What develops in response to this imbalance is a compensatory tightening in the shoulders and ribcage. The fall my student’s friend suffered is indeed a serious accident and a perfect example of just the kind of trauma that could lead to scoliosis.

Somatic Exercises can help release the tight muscles that contribute to scoliosis.

I have worked with many clients who have scoliosis in the family and even more who are the only ones in their family ever to suffer from this condition. Every one of them shares one thing in common: a traumatic accident/slip/fall before or during adolescence.

While scoliosis is complicated to address, and best addressed through private clinical sessions, there are specific Somatic Exercises that can begin to release the muscles that are the most complicit in the pattern of scoliosis:

  1. Back lift
  2. Cross lateral arch and curl
  3. Side bend
  4. Washrag
  5. Steeple twist
  6. Walking exercises - part 1 & 2
  7. Shoulder and hip circles (from Pain-Free Leg and Hip Joints)

The first 6 exercises in the above list are from my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.

Here's a tip for more efficient learning:

When doing the Steeple Twist, focus on lengthening the waist muscles, releasing the sides of the waist, expanding the ribcage, and allowing the pelvis to rock – be aware of any arching in your back and do not over-arch. In doing the "steeple hands" part of the exercise, the focus is on gently expanding and twisting the ribcage and shoulders as you lengthen from deep in the latissimus muscles. If you don't know this exercise and you have scoliosis, it's time to start learning the basics of Somatic Exercises!

Martha teaches specialty workshops, conducts private clinical sessions, and presents to trainers, and medical professionals wishing to learn more about how Hanna Somatic Education can help their clients and patients to get long term pain relief safely, sensibly and easily.

Do You Really Need an MRI?

Many clients come to me with chronic back pain (or neck, shoulder, hip and knee pain) having already scheduled a visit to their orthopedist for X-rays and MRIs. Most of them haven't had a recent accident or injury – it's just that they don't know what else to do when it comes to their muscle pain. Many return after having had X-rays and MRIs; predictably, these diagnostics didn't show anything and yielded no answers. Many articles have been published about the burgeoning costs of unnecessary diagnostics. One of the most disturbing statements in Overtreatment in Action was:

"According to Bloomberg, companies like WellPoint and Magellan Health Services believe that expensive and unnecessary CT and MRI scans cost them roughly $30 billion a year."

Another article questioned whether or not the availability of MRI machines can be tied to a rise in unnecessary back surgeries. It says:

There is no clear data to prove that lower back surgery is the best option for patients' well being, particularly compounded with the risks of hospital-acquired infections or surgical complications.

MRIs, X-rays, and CT scans have their place in medical science to aid in diagnosing a potential disease or pathology, or a bone fracture/break. Yet most cases of tight, painful muscles have little to do with a genuine medical condition and everything to do with the way in which we physically adapt to the stresses of our lives. Doctors typically look for structural problems when the root cause of most muscle pain is functional in nature. Unfortunately current medical school education does not focus on functional movement nor the sensory motor system that moves our muscles and bones. What these expensive, specialized machines are incapable of diagnosing is exactly that: muscle function and muscle movement.

Sensory Motor Amnesia cannot be measured by an MRI or an X-ray, nor can it be fixed with surgery or drugs.

Most chronic muscle pain develops over time due to one's habitual, muscular responses and adaptations to stress: sudden accidents, injuries, emotional stress, and repetitive tasks. It is something one is doing or a way one is thinking and reacting to life that causes a gradual accumulation of muscle tension to the point of chronic muscle pain.

When faced with a certain stress, the brain - the command center of the muscles - teaches muscles to stay tight and involuntarily contracted. This state of habitually tight, "frozen" muscles is called Sensory Motor Amnesia(SMA). SMA contributes to back, neck and shoulder, hip, knee and foot pain, and inefficient movement; tight muscles cannot contract and relax properly. Trying to move well with SMA is like trying to drive a car with the emergency brake on.

No wonder so many back surgeries don’t “cure” back pain — in some cases it even exacerbates it. Most back pain is functional, not structural. Change the way you sense and move your body and your pain will go away.

How do you know if you have Sensory Motor Amnesia?

Do you feel as if your movement is not as efficient as it used to be? Think about your lifestyle and history of accidents or repetitive tasks.

  • Do you spend a lot of time sitting? If so, how do you sit?
  • Have you ever taken a fall or had an accident (car, sports, lifting)  in which you had to compensate until you felt better?
  • Do you drive a lot? If yes, how do you sit in your car?
  • Do you arch your back excessively? Slump forward?
  • Do you stand with equal weight on both feet?
  • Do you hold children on your hip? If yes, for how many years have you done that?

Try this: move slowly and gently - bend, twist, shift from one leg to the other. Notice what you can and cannot do. Maybe you can move easily tothe left, but not to the right. This will begin to shed light on your problem.

If you think your problem is due to what you do all day, how you move and how you have learned to compensate with your muscles, your healthcare dollars are better spent  going to a class, workshop, or private clinical session of Hanna Somatics than seeking technological answers for a problem that can only be "fixed" by you.


Debunking the Myth of Stretching... Again

Outside Magazine recently ran an article called The 10 Biggest Fitness Myths. In this blog post I'll add my perspective on the one they consider to be the #1 fitness myth: the usefulness of stretching.

Myth #1: Stretching prevents injuries and improves performance.

The brain controls muscles and movement. Any movement we perform on a daily basis establishes habits at the level of the central nervous system.

There are good movement habits (pole vaulting, riding a bicycle, writing) and there are bad ones (learning to hold the back tightly due to repetitive athletic training, or limping on one side due to an injury).

When we work out and perform repetitive tasks, our muscles accumulate muscle tension. They learn to stay tight and become involuntarily contracted. This is called Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The only way to reverse chronic muscle tension is for the brain to take back voluntary control of the muscles and movement.

When you passively stretch a muscle that has learned to stay contracted (or has become involuntarily contracted due to repetitive tasks or an injury), you are pulling it into a length you want it to have. You are acting upon the muscle. If you pull that muscle farther than it can go you will invoke the Stretch Reflex, a spinal cord reflex that contracts the muscle back against the stretch to prevent against muscle fiber damage. This can make the muscles tighter than they were before.

SOLUTION: PANDICULATION = “no-stretch stretching"

Pandiculation is the best way to reset muscle length, and sensory motor control of the muscle.

A pandiculation is an action pattern that involves contracting a muscle first, then lengthening it slowly past the point that it was contracted before. This slow, deliberate action actually resets muscle length at the level of the central nervous system and allows the brain to take back voluntary control of muscles that were once involuntarily contracted. A pandiculation releases tight, "frozen" muscles that cause pain and allows them to function optimally again. The end result is enhanced muscle function, improved sensory motor awareness, and muscles that coordinate efficiently and properly.

It's easy to pandiculate: simply contract into the tight muscle, then slowly lengthen all the way. Then completely relax.

Pandiculation prepares your muscles for use in sports, or to wake up for the day, or even when you get chronic pain or a cramp. Pandiculation simply prepares your muscles for use.

In the Outside Magazine article they finish their piece on stretching with the following conclusion:

The jury is still out on the best pre-workout alternative, but dynamic stretching, which incorporates a range of body movements rather than muscle isolation, doesn’t stress tissues to the point of activating the nervous system’s protective instincts.

They then suggest four movements that could work as "dynamic stretches" to "warm up" the body:

1. 20 Jumping jacks 2. 1 minute of skipping, forward and backward 3. 1 minute of high-leg marches, kicking each leg in front like a tin soldier 4. 10 reps of "Kick your own butt:" hop on one leg, kicking the other leg backward, touching your buttocks

While these are interesting and useful movements, they are not "dynamic stretches"! They are movement patterns that don't reset muscle length or brain control of otherwise tight muscles.

Somatic "stretches" for improved muscle function

Try these Somatic Exercises (which actually are "dynamic stretches"). They will retrain your brain to take back control of the muscles, leaving them more relaxed and efficient. And yes - they will improve your athletic performance:

  1. Arch & flatten to lengthen back muscles (1 minute)
  2. Arch & curl to further lengthen back muscles and coordinate the abdominals with the back (1 minute)
  3. Washrag to lengthen waist muscles, abductors, and back muscles (1 minute)
  4. Hamstring pandiculation to lengthen the hamstrings in coordination with the back muscles – it takes the place of the painful stretch seen in the photo of Drew Bledsoe above (1 minute)
  5. Reach to the Top Shelf to lengthen the latissimus and trunk rotators, and coordinate hip movement (1 minute)

View these exercises here. "Reach to the Top Shelf" (seen in the photo above) and "Arch & Curl" can be learned by watching my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.

3 Myths About Perfect Posture

There are varying opinions about what "perfect" posture is, and many people who come to me explain their muscle pain, saying that they've always had terrible posture. Posture isn't something you're born with - it's something that develops in response to your movement habits and responses to stress. Here are a few myths about "good" posture:

Myth #1 - As long as your neck is straight, and your spine is aligned, you won't have back pain.

Many dancers with beautiful, long necks and straight spines have terrible back pain! A long neck and straight spine can be caused by strongly contracted back muscles and postural conditioning that says "pull your chin in, pull your shoulders back, and all will be well." What happens with this posture is that the straight neck is met with an opposite arch in the lower back - an arch that is often exaggerated and causes back pain.

Myth #2 - As long as your posture is "correct," your movement will be effortless and efficient.

No doubt about it - aligned posture results in more efficient movement. However, if the aligned posture is one that you've put ON your body, as opposed to one that you've DEVELOPED from within your own sensory awareness and movement, you just might be using muscles less efficiently. Some standing postures, like "tadasana" (mountain pose) in yoga, are great for doing yoga poses, but very fussy and inefficient for all around daily movement.

Here's a good example and one I use all the time when teaching my clients how to walk:

Nearly half of the construction workers in India are women; they balance rocks and other heavy things on their heads. They don't take posture lessons to learn how to do this. They learn by doing - meaning they have to figure out what to do in the center of their bodies that will allow them to carry weight on their head (the periphery). They let their pelvis move when they walk, they take smaller steps, and they keep their torsos long and lifted out of their hips. Their posture develops from their daily functional movement.







Myth #3 - There is one, "perfect" posture that fits everyone.

The one thing I found while researching the "perfect" posture is how many different opinions there are about what it means to "stand up straight" or stand in "alignment." One posture expert says that we should allow our pelvis to be anteverted:

"Proper posture is standing with your tailbone back and ribcage forward, shoulders slightly behind the body. Your pelvis is tipped forward and sacrum angled back. The lower border of your rib cage is flush with the abdominal contour."

Another fitness expert teaches people with back pain to drop the tailbone, tuck in the lower abdominal muscles and relax the shoulders to neutral.

The most common advice for back pain sufferers in regards to posture is to tuck the pelvis forward (retroverting) in order to lengthen the back muscles and take the load off the muscles. What this actually does, while momentarily relieving muscle pain, is to cause the front of the body to contract and round forward. This is not a good strategy for efficient, pain-free movement.

How do I find "perfect" posture?

Here's a simple exercise to help you figure it out:

  • Stand in your normal posture, whatever that is for you. Notice where your discomfort is - in the lower back, hamstrings, neck, shoulders or hips. Walk around the room for a minute, paying attention to the way in which your feet meet the floor (do you heel strike? Roll out? Roll in?).
  • Stop and put something light on your head, like a pillow, as in the photo.
  • Hold it gently on both sides with your elbows out and up. Notice how your ribs have to lift in order to allow your hands to reach up to the pillow. Breath into your ribs and let them expand gently. Notice how the abdominal muscles lengthen, yet contract to support the spine and the center of your body.
  • Walk slowly, letting your hips sway gently. Imagine that your pillow is a load that must not fall off your head. Breathe deeply as you walk.
  • Now take the pillow off of your head, bring your arms to neutral, and just stand. Relax your buttocks and breathe easily.

How centered does your posture feel now? Do you feel "straighter?" Taller? Is it easier to stand up and feel supported in the center of your body? This movement exploration is like the old fashioned exercise of putting a book on your head in order to achieve good posture!

Visit EssentialSomatics.com for more tips and information about Hanna Somatic Education. Learn to relieve muscle pain easily, rapidly and effectively with my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.

How To Stretch Without Straining

Traditional stretching routines involve forceful pulling or pushing of muscles.

Traditional stretching routines focus on individual muscles rather than on any pattern or group of muscles. This approach to readying muscles for action can cause muscles to become tighter than they were when you started. What works better than traditional, passive stretching? Pandiculation.

A pandiculation is a conscious, deliberate contraction of a muscle, or muscle group, followed by a slow, controlled lengthening of that muscle - followed by complete relaxation. This intentional sensory feedback wakes up the brain (the command center of the muscular system) so that the brain can reset the muscle length and relax the muscle past its previous point of contraction.

You can pandiculate any traditional stretch and make it a "Somatic Stretch." By this I mean an intentional, mindful contraction of the muscles, followed by a slow lengthening of the muscles. When you pay attention to your movement instead of forcing a tight muscle to relax, you will begin the process of reeducating your muscles.

  • You begin to feel which muscles are involved in the movement (back, quadriceps, hamstrings and quadriceps, etc.)
  • You become more conscious of how far you can comfortably lengthen a muscle
  • You begin to feel how much better your muscle control is
  • You begin to learn which muscles, when working together can be involved in your "stretch" in order to more effectively reset muscle length.
  • You begin to learn how to reverse chronic muscle pain (back, neck, shoulders, hips, feet, etc.)

You can pandiculate any traditional "stretch" for greater effectiveness.

Here's a short video example of how to "stretch without stretching." It is of a traditional stretch that worked better when turned into a pandiculation. The young athlete in the video participated in his team's stretching routine. While he had good overall flexibility, his back and hamstrings were tight. This made static stretching a particularly unpleasant experience for him. He enjoyed the following exercise, however:

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Send me your most troublesome traditional stretches (the ones you keep doing because you're told that they're good for you), and I'll be happy to make a short video showing how you can make them into a pandiculation.

Learn how to stretch without stretching for improved awareness, muscle control and injury prevention - and how to move without pain to get the most out of the activities you love to do!

To learn these methods at home for long term pain relief and increased mobility, visit the Essential Somatics® store.

Hanna Somatics Is Simple, Sensible Science

In my last post I wrote about Dead Butt Syndrome (DBS), a new condition thatdoctors are diagnosing runners with. DBS is another name for Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). It develops due to a Trauma Reflex. The compensatory muscle dysfunction that results from a Trauma Reflex shows up as an inability to control the gluteals.

As someone who works daily with people in pain, I am concerned about the need for more investigation on scientifically-based methods that yield quantitative results for runners - and others - who suffer from "mysterious" muscle pain that falls under a variety of names: Dead Butt Syndrome, sciatica, plantar fasciitis, piriformis syndrome, low back back, joint pain, and frozen shoulder to name a few.  I'm not saying that there aren't skilled, caring physical therapists and doctors out there helping people with the above mentioned conditions. There are; I know some of them. Too few, however, understand that many of these conditions aren't medical in nature, but are functional; if one improves sensory motor function, the structure/posture will improve. One of the best methods for saving people healthcare dollars in the long run is  to improve muscle function and full body awareness.

Please note: If any of the above named conditions isn't relieved at the level of the sensory motor system a true, structural, medical problem could develop. Long term functional problems can yield real structural damage. Walk around out of balance for 30 years with a pelvis that is slightly twisted, and you risk creating structural wear and tear in one hip socket or knee that can only be fixed though surgery.

It's somewhat shocking when professional athletes sign on to wearing titanium bracelets that promise to improve athletic performance. Or that a company such as Power Balance, the maker of a bracelet that would improve muscle balance, would market something that has no basis in science. Power Balance has had to retract their assertion that their bracelets improve the wearer's balance, yet these kinds of quick fix "gizmos" are still a draw for thousands of people.

The power of placebos has been well documented, and placebos definitely have their place.

But clients often come to me after having spent hundreds, and often thousands of dollars on treatments that haven't worked. Most of these treatments are not what I would call snake oil. Many, however, like painkillers, yield short term, temporary benefits. These clients are frustrated, intelligent people who know they aren't getting the answers they're entitled to.

Long term change occurs best when muscles are reeducated, as is done in elite sports training. Gadgets and manipulation can never take the place of brain to muscle sensory motor retraining.

Don't get me wrong; I've been a massage therapist for 23 years and know full well that relaxing, passive bodywork therapies can help to relieve one's stress level. However, to get to the root of one's muscular dysfunction you must engage the brain and the body through movement reeducation. If muscles have learned to stay tight, then they must learn to relax. This is a process of education that gives the student back his physical freedom.


How To Relax Muscles For Rapid Pain Relief

There are so many options for teaching muscles to relax. How do I know which one to choose? I've been a massage therapist for 24 years. I still occasionally give  massages, though my practice is primarily Hanna Somatics.  Recently one of my massage clients told me,  "I'm finally able to sit cross-legged. After 10 sessions of _____ my legs are actually beginning to relax." Beginning to relax... after 10 sessions?! Now, I'm not going to tell you which method she's doing, because I really don't like to disparage any one approach.  However, when it comes to chronic pain or postural imbalances, Hanna Somatics is just about the most effective method available. Our expertise is in teaching you to recognize and reverse your Sensory Motor Amnesia (the root cause of most chronic muscle pain), and it works from the inside-out.

Myth: pain-relief takes time

I use to be a frequent visitor to my favorite Rolfer. I once believed that relaxing muscles and "fixing" chronic pain required a lot of time and that someone had to act upon my muscles from the outside to get them to relax. Most Rolfers ask for a 10-session commitment. They are taught that slowly, but surely, muscles will relax and structure will realign once fascia is relaxed around the muscles. Many massage therapists believe that weekly massages for long periods of time can get rid of muscle spasms. Even more physical therapists and doctors will say that back pain requires visits three times a week for sometimes up to 4 months! Fortunately, from a Somatic Education point of view, I know this to be false. My clinical experience tells me otherwise.

When you understand how muscles are controlled by the brain and the nervous system and how muscles can learn to stay habitually contracted it changes the game plan. When muscles become "frozen" in Sensory Motor Amnesia, the brain literally forgets how to relax the muscles. The muscles must be retrained from within. Machines, weights, kneading, and injections will not change the state of an involuntarily tight muscle.

Long-term pain relief starts now

Through active participation and the technique of pandiculation, muscles can change their contracted state in minutes. Through daily practice your muscles can stay balanced and coordinated for the long term. Forget 10 sessions - how about only 4 or 5 - and sometimes even less. When you experience the rapid change in sensory motor control and self-awareness that you can achieve in one or two clinical sessions of Hanna Somatics, it can change your life and your perspective.

My client who has gone to 10 sessions of _____ could have achieved the same results in 3 sessions of Somatics. She could also relax her contracted shoulders which are out of balance.  Once she did that she could go to _____ and get strong and conditioned more effectively.

Want to keep doing the things you love? Try Somatics.

Once muscles have been reset at the brain level, and your body and movement are balanced and symmetrical, then you can go off and enjoy all the myriad disciplines out there that are fun to do. You'll enjoy your massage more thoroughly, you'll get more out of your weight training, yoga, Pilates, running, or whatever else you love to do.

The commitment to keeping yourself feeling good is yours. I wrote a blog post about how good health is a long-term commitment. It doesn't take long to learn to relax muscles and rid yourself of pain. It takes a lifetime of awareness and joyful movement, however, to keep yourself feeling good. And that, my friends, is free.