Regain Freedom of Movement (for the rest of your life!)

The desire for freedom is intrinsic to human nature and essential to human development. It is so crucial to our development that children who are not allowed to move (restricted recess, sitting still for long periods of time, etc.) can develop cognitive, emotional and psychological problems (as discussed on NPR Ed).

In our youth, we learn by trial and error to move our bodies, from the moment we first lift our head to our first success at riding a bicycle without falling off. Through repetition and habituation we create stability through movement patterns. Movement habits are formed in order to allow for efficient movement and conservation of energy.

freedom2The freedom to climb trees, run after soap bubbles, chase our friends, ride bicycles, dance, jump, yell and shout teaches us about ourselves both on a personal, social, emotional, and physical level. We learn how to problem solve, collaborate, create, and strengthen ourselves - processes that occur from the inside out often unseen by others as we grow into adulthood.This is, at its essence, how we get to know who we are.

All life is sensory motor in nature.

Babies have one way of experiencing the world: through sensory feedback. They sense discomfort and they cry; they sense safety or comfort and they relax; they sense danger or fear and they cry; they awaken from a nap and paniculate their limbs, yawn, and squirm in order to sense their bodies. 

As we get older things change. Many of us, for a variety of reasons, stop moving as freely as we once did. We adopt ways of moving that reflects societal rules or restrictions and, inevitably, the many “insults” of life: accident, illness, physical or emotional trauma, psychological fear, and family patterns. Others keep physically active (sports, playing, dancing, or walking), as well as mentally or emotionally active, seeking help when we need it to create emotional patterns that serve us. All of this learning shows up in our bodies, our health and specifically our movement.

The goal of Hanna Somatic Education is to teach you to take back physical independence and control of your own ever changing, dynamic body and life. Our bodies and our lives are never static. As human organisms we are an ever changing, dynamic, living process that can only ever be sensed individually. Life is, indeed, lived from the inside out.

Muscle pain can disappear and aging can still be active and healthy. By learning to sense what it feels like to be "you," from the inside out (physically and emotionally) you redirect your dependency on others and move toward authentic physical freedom.

A daily practice of Somatic Exercises and conscious movement that is pleasurable and fosters awareness is necessary to maintain the the self-awareness and skill it takes to maintain freedom - physical, mental and emotional freedom from patterns that don’t serve us.

Visit the Essential Somatics® store for our easy-to-follow instructional DVDs.

Check out our Clinical Somatic Education Professional training.

Movement Mornings: Do You Start Your Day With Movement?

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

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

Click here to listen and enjoy!

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

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

The More You Move The Smarter You Become

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Movement Education Can Prevent Obesity and Improve Learning

Daily movement improves overall health.

I've written before about the importance of daily, vigorous movement for everyone. One doctor cites studies in a compelling video that shows that daily movement is the best prescription doctors could possibly give to us to help us improve our overall health. You don't necessarily need to go to the gym - just find an activity you enjoy, and do it every day. "Movement education" is akin to eating habits: first and foremost we learn it at home. However, it is also the responsibility of our society to encourage movement in every aspect of life - from the creation of recreational areas, available playgrounds for underprivileged children, parks, bicycle lanes, and longer gym periods at school.

Movement enhances creativity.

I encourage my clients with desk jobs to get up at least once an hour to do simple movements that "wake up" their muscles. This keeps muscles from getting tight and "frozen." It also stimulates the brain, relaxes the nervous system and enhances creativity.

Thomas Hanna wrote about the importance of encouraging somatic awareness in our lives, especially when children go to school. In schools children are encouraged to stop paying attention to their bodies and movement when they are constantly reminded to stop fidgeting, keep their feet on the floor, etc.

In the Western world, children sit at desks, eyes facing forward. They are rewarded for sitting still and keeping quiet. They learn to ignore the sensations of their own bodies. They learn to stop moving. Even on playgrounds children are told not to run in order to prevent any injury or liability on the part of schools.

It's old news to say that children are getting heavier and moving less, creating a true public health crisis. Children who don't move become adults who don't move, and who risk developing Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), joint pain, diabetes, and musculoskeletal problems. I will leave it to Dr. Kwame Brown to further explain the detrimental effects of "movement-deprivation" on young children and adults. Suffice it to say that the more one moves, the more one's brain develops.

For anyone in the teaching profession and for those working with children in any capacity, I would highly recommend Dr. Brown's work. He will be teaching his first New Jersey Move Theory weekend seminar in Pompton Lakes, NJ.

Here's a video of Kwame teaching children, through play, the basics of movement:



Are Athletes Smarter Than the Rest of Us?

In my Somatic Education training we had to write a paper on why the study of neurophysiology was important to the practice of Hanna Somatic (Clinical Somatic) Education.The unique methods used in private clinical sessions of Somatics are based in neurophysiology: the brain controls the  muscles, and movement gives feedback to the brain, making the brain more efficient at coordinating muscles and movement and improving posture. Muscle dysfunction can only be changed through movement.

In an Exuberant Animal workshop I took a while ago, Frank Forencich gave a talk about the positive brain changes that occur through daily vigorous movement. He brought up the stereotype of the "dumb jock," and how false that stereotype is. Studies are showing that they just might have smarter brains than most of us!

Practice is the main reason that athletes' brains - and by extension their movement - function better. Athletes are constantly predicting the next move and honing their brain's ability to respond to whatever is happening.  In the article linked above, they cite a brain study of people learning to juggle. After a week of practice, the jugglers were already developing extra gray matter in some brain areas. These brain changes continued for months, the scientists found. As soon as someone starts to practice a new sport - and I would add a new movement, in general -  the brain begins to change, and the changes continue for years.

Not everyone has the time, nor the desire to become an athlete. However, the brain benefits of adding new and challenging new ways of moving are available to all, athlete, scientist, carpenter or web designer. Somatic Movement is an excellent way to challenge our brains, change our bodies, reduce our pain and keep ourselves smarter as we age.

The first step is awareness. Somatic Movement is meant to increase the brain's awareness of how it feels to be in your own body in space. The word for that is proprioception. Needing heightened and honed proprioceptive skills isn't just the domain of an elite athlete. Proprioceptive skills, sorely lacking today in many sedentary young people, is crucial to one's survival.  A lack of proprioception can cause chronic back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee and foot pain. It can cause people to lose their balance and limit their movement, causing accidents.

In young people a lack of proprioception, I dare say, can lead to decreased self-esteem, more attention deficit, and a lack of problem solving skills. If learning a new skill increases brain matter, does this have anything to do with the learning issues of today's children? This is why vigorous movement (no matter what it is) is so important for young people.

Proprioception can be improved through Somatic Movement - so you can use your brain to become better at whatever it is you love to do. I'm convinced that you can become as smart as an athlete, as long as you challenge yourself with movement.

Chronic pain and injuries can get in the way of a movement filled life. Diligent, patience and persistent practice of basic movement patterns that flex, extend, side bend, twist and rotate your body as a whole will engage your brain to stay in control of your movement, ready for whatever comes your way. Somatic Movement can be done while lying down or while seated. Once you feel you've released your tight muscles, and regained aware and control of your movement, move on to an activity that is challenging for your brain and body.

It doesn't need to be a triathalon, gymnastics, or a spinning class. Ballroom dancing, yoga, hiking, swimming and exuberant play-based fitness will challenge your brain to change your body and movement, and keep you healthy for longer than you thought possible.

Recess, Play, Goofing Off - Which Is It?

On Monday, on the front page of the New York Times was the following article about a school in Newark, New Jersey that hired a "recess coach" to get kids to play during recess: Forget Playing Around: Recess Has a New Boss. Being a fan of play, I read this article with both a tinge of sadness (that it seems that nowadays you have to teach a kid to play) and relief (finally, they're accepting how important play is for kids!). I'm impressed that this school is taking movement and recess seriously, and not allowing kids to stand around with the excuse that "I don't know how to play." I'm sure this is the direction Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign is wanting to go in. Teaching play-deprived children the rules of play can prevent behavior problems, and bolster physical, and cognitive learning. Our brains develop through movement. Without it we're in trouble.

Dr. Stuart Brown, head of the National Institute for Play, wrote a paper called Play - Evolutionary, Universal & Essential in which he describes how play shapes our central nervous system and " absolutely necessary for the development of empathy, social altruism and other social behaviors needed to handle stress."  These changes occur at the brain level. As a Somatic Educator, the absence of play in children lets me know that there will be a generation of kids growing up who are proprioceptively ignorant as well; the basic movement vocabulary of reaching, pulling, pushing, jumping, running, squatting, rolling and bending will not develop in their nervous systems and their future will, undoubtedly, include chronic muscular pain.

And although some respondents to the New York Times article were chagrined that a child should need to be taught how to play, it is a serious problem for many kids – both suburban, but predominantly urban children. Parents no longer allow their children unfettered freedom to go outdoors and wander, play, meet new friends.  I can only encourage parents and teachers to reintroduce games, like hopscotch, jump rope, tag, hide-and-seek, and kickball. It's a start anyway.

Gotta go - time to play with my little neighbor next door! Our favorite game is "...I'm gonna get you!" What's your favorite game?

Adults Just Wanna Have Fun

Let's play a game.

Close your eyes and imagine yourself as a child, outside in your backyard, a local park, or the school playground. Which games did you play? Choose your favorite one and start playing it in your imagination. Feel your heart, your breathing, how your sense of time disappears, your imagination soars. Are you with friends or alone with the grass, trees, and your imagination? What are you doing? Feel your arms, legs, feet, all moving together in play. What are you playing? Freeze tag? Monkey bars? "Manhunt" in the dark? Bring your game to a close as you lie on the ground, exhausted and exhilarated. Now open your eyes. How do you feel? What did you notice about your body? Play does a body good, doesn't it?

As a child I loved swinging on the jungle gym, jumping rope, playing kickball and dodge ball - but mainly I loved to dance. I also loved hula hoops. Remember them? When was the last time you played with one? At our "Exuberant Animal Jam" we had a mother and daughter, Ariana Shelton and Laura Marie of Hooping Harmony, who reintroduced us to "hooping," an updated version of the good ol' hula hoop:


What a workout hooping is! And yet how mesmerizing and powerful. I discovered that although it looks difficult, the undulating rhythm that comes from the center of the body (back and forth) is the simple power behind the ability to keep the hoop spinning. Forget crunches, and sit-ups - try hooping for 20 minutes (the time will absolutely fly!) - and you'll feel tall, strong and centered. Here's a photo of me "hooping" in my backyard with Laura Marie and an LED hoop:

Laura Marie and Ariana got my college age son hooping, along with several fellow "Exuberants." Yesterday after my work day was done, as the sun was setting, I went outside and hooped for a while. What fun. Just like being a kid...

Play is the Medicine Man

According to a recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 16,000 citizens, some 200 health and youth-related organizations, and the National Wildlife Federation recently petitioned US Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin to promote outdoor recreation and make it a priority during her tenure.

Two things caught my eye about this article: the fact that the Surgeon General has now usurped the role of your mother ("get outside and don't come back until dinner's ready!"), and that the National Wildlife Federation, of all organizations, would join in to petition to encourage outdoor recreation.  But then again, that makes perfect sense. For the majority of our existence on earth, where have we lived? Certainly not indoors, with a remote control in our hand.

One of the most engaging writers out there who takes on the question of humans, movement and our relationship with our environment is writer and "Chief Creative Officer" of  Exuberant Animal, Frank Forencich.  He believes that humans, like it or not, exist in cooperation with our environment and the earth. For millennia we had a sense of tribal community and adapted to a predator-rich environment. This sharpened our wits, strengthened our bodies, and honed our awareness of our surroundings. It was eat or be eaten (generally speaking). This constant vigilance and need to be increasingly more creative in securing food and survival made our brains grow and develop. The earth, in a sense, was and still is, an extension of our own bodies.

So what does this have to do with kids and outdoor activity?

Our most primal learning tool is PLAY. You don't believe me? Check out this incredible video.  Humans, like animals, learn to interact socially, pick up cues about body language and facial expression, strengthen our bodies, hone our balance and roll play - all through play.
Play makes you smarter.
Play is simple.
Play encourages laughter. (Who doesn't want that?)
Play stimulates problem solving and creativity.
Play builds strong bodies and even stronger brain synapses.
Play is cathartic.
Play keeps you young, no matter how old you are.
Play heals.
Play reminds you that you are the master of your own body.
Play takes you outdoors so you can feel the elements against your skin.
Play reminds you of your own power.
Children, when given a choice, will choose play over just about anything. It is primal and natural, and it's what they do best and how they learn.
Get outdoors, be exuberant, be an animal!

Writing Can Strengthen Your Brain

Recently, a friend of mine sent me and article about the use of occupational therapy for children without severe disabilities to help them with very basic fine motor skills. Years ago, this friend heard me lamenting the loss of penmanship in the elementary curriculum. It no longer exists in most US school systems having been deemed antiquated and unnecessary. People are hiring occupational therapists (professionals whose focus was once on severely movement impaired children with real diseases or disabilities) to teach their children how to have legible handwriting and to improve their muscle function.

My profound concern is that it does not appear that there is a big push to address the source of the problem and reintegrate playing and exploring into a child's daily life at school and at home.

The importance of play

Anthony DiCarlo, a principal quoted in the above article, is a voice of reason as he states, "...very few [kindergarten students] have had unlimited opportunities to run, jump and skip, or make mud pies and break twigs. I’m all for academic rigor... but these days I tell parents that letting their child mold clay, play in the sand or build with Play-Doh builds important school-readiness skills, too.”

Moving, playing, getting down in the mud, arts and crafts, carpentry – all of these activities  are crucial to one's brain development. And what does penmanship in particular teach you? Patience, diligence, control of your body in order to master a fine motor skill. It brings you back to your own sensory motor process and teaches mastery (at whatever level) and planning.

The importance of penmanship

In the book The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, MD, the author writes about Barbara Arrowsmith Young, awe-inspiring scientist and founder of the Arrowsmith School in Canada. She works with children with severe brain weaknesses and learning disabilities. Her expertise, which comes from decades of evolving discoveries regarding her own brain dysfunctions, has helped thousands of children through the use of what she calls "brain exercises."

She uses tracing of complex designs to stimulate weakened neurons in the pre-motor area. She has found that this improves reading, speaking and writing in children. Not only did this one particular child's reading ability improve through tracing (think learning cursive letters - it's all about tracing and repetition), but his speaking abilities improved so that he could express himself better.

If it were up to me, I would argue for keeping penmanship as a full fledged subject in elementary school because of its positive affects on the brain. Additionally, it is a valuable eye-hand coordination exercise and can be a beautiful art form. The argument that children will be using keyboards and therefore should ignore their penmanship is ridiculous at best. Step away from the keyboard; it will be here for the foreseeable future, but your fine motor skills may not be.

Get Out of the House and Play!

My son sent me this cartoon and I howled with laughter. "Go outside" happens to be my middle name. I think it says it all - at least from a frustrated parent's point of view: To be fair, it's not just kids who are on their computers and video games when they could be outside moving, playing and exploring. Plenty of adults do it. This cartoon may be funny, but the state of the American body and health is not. It's in sad shape, to put it nicely. It's well documented that an increase in activity results in a decrease in muscular pain, better posture, more awareness, more confidence and a better mood. It's one of the best de-stressors out there. Though many people know they'd like to get out and move, lose a few pounds, and take charge of their health, many don't know where to begin. Or, as one client of mine put it last week, "I just hate exercise. It bores me to death. I'd rather play, just like I did when I was a kid." She was on to something...

If you'd like to "play" instead of "exercise," you will love Exuberant Animal! Frank Forencich will teach you all about the benefits of play-based fitness and its power to positively develop one's body, brain, and relationships. Here's one of my favorite Exuberant Animal YouTube videos:

So get outside, find someone to play with and let me know how it goes!

"Let's Move!" It's a Way of Life!

One of my very favorite quotes about health comes from Frank Forencich, author of the book Play As If Your Life Depends On It:

WARNING: Before beginning a program of physical inactivity, consult your doctor. Sedentary living is abnormal and dangerous to your health.

It simply couldn't be said any better.  Physical inactivity is detrimental to one's health for several reasons:

1. It's unnatural for humans not to move. We are genetically predisposed to move. A LOT.

2. Inactivity affects the brain and its ability to learn, imbed new memories and problem solve. Humans learn through movement. You don't believe me? Look at a baby - always moving, always discovering, always learning.

3. Inactivity impairs your physical functioning, reduces muscle mass, impairs sensory motor functioning and leads to premature death, according to the World Health Organization.

I'm very excited that Michelle Obama, with her "Let's Move" campaign, has decided to make her mark as First Lady with a common sense campaign to positively affect the health of children and, by extension, their families. I especially like how she says, that it's "time to modernize the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge and increase participation in the challenge, so it’s not just about how athletic kids are – how many sit-ups and push-ups they can do – but how active they are each day."

The distinction between "exercise and fitness" and "physical activity and playing" is an important one. Most people don't generally like to "exercise." That means repetitions at the gym, sweating on the stairmaster while watching Oprah, and just counting down the minutes until you've done your allotted 30 minutes of cardio for the day.

A life filled with active play, and movement is a completely different model of "fitness." Play stimulates brain growth and social learning while toning the entire body - all in a more enjoyable way.

The inactive lifestyles of many of today's children can be attributed to more than just the availability of technology and its replacement as an after-school past-time. There can be social and cultural reasons as well.  Dr. Kwame Brown, a young, forward thinking neuroscientist, is one of the founding Board of Directors of the International Youth Conditioning Association, and the creator of MoveTheory, an organization which engages with individuals and organizations throughout the United States to create Active Play for children and adolescents. He makes some important points about why kids nowadays might choose inactivity and video games over playing outdoors. Check out Kwame's blog and see what you think.

Now that you've read this post, get outside, take a walk, run up and down a flight of stairs, turn on some music and shake your booty, find a hula hoop and get those hips moving, go play hide-and-seek in the park with your kids. That's just for starters...

Exuberant Movement, Exuberant Life

Carrie Day and I joined 28 other fitness and movement specialists for an exuberant weekend workshop of play-based fitness and learning taught by Frank Forencich, fitness expert, human biologist and creator of "Exuberant Animal," and Dr. Kwame Brown, Executive Director of the International Youth Conditioning Association. Check out the introductory video on

Frank Forencich, author of Play As If Your Life Depends On It and Exuberant Animal, made a clear case for play-based fitness, a form of "functional fitness" that is becoming quite popular. Play is the oldest form of "exercise" there is. Play has social, political, physical, cultural and cognitive aspects to it. It's profoundly important stuff. It's not jumping jacks and sit ups. If you want to know how to stay fit, just go to the playground and watch what kids do.

It was a weekend of vigorous, challenging play as we learned to appreciate play for its inherent structure and important lessons, both physical and cognitive. We participated in robust games, functional movement concepts, agility  and balancing games, FUN core conditioning moves, partner resistance training, and outdoor group training with hula hoops, medicine balls, laughter, silliness and extreme amounts of camaraderie. I have never felt so fit, strong, and happy while working out. Carrie put it well when she said, "It's so amazing to me how profound play and the connection play creates with others can affect every single aspect of life."

I noticed a connection between Hanna Somatics and Exuberant Animal: I had to take what I've learned through Somatics and put it into play, literally and figuratively. Somatics is all about proprioception, and remembering movement patterns we'd forgotten how to do. So is play. Playing dictates that you stay present and somatically aware of what you're doing with your partner or group, with the ball or the hula hoop. You can't daydream while you're balancing on one foot, or running and tossing a medicine ball back and forth. Exuberant play is on your feet, vigorous, challenging "Somatics in action!"  Enlivening, stress relieving, and energizing. They complement each other beautifully.

I couldn't help but think of how much more fun I would have had in school if gym class had been taught like this. All gym teachers, school districts, and fitness trainers could stand to benefit from what Exuberant Animal is teaching. Movement and play makes us smarter, happier, healthier, more in touch with one another and with ourselves. If you haven't read Frank's books, do so. I'm sure you'll enjoy them.