Swimming as a Useful Somatic Activity

I recently received this email from a client while I was on vacation:

I thought I'd pass along an interesting experience I've been having. I remember you telling me that after the Exuberant Animal day-long play session you had, you said that despite the fact that you expected to have soreness, you didn't. You said it was probably because all your muscles worked together in a natural, coordinated way. I've recently discovered that swimming has the same effect for me.  I've  begun swimming regularly and it dawned on me one day that after 20 - 30  minutes of that exercise I feel no soreness at all.  How odd!  For me at least, swimming, combined with Hanna Somatics is a terrific combination.

How funny that I would receive this email while I was away in New Hampshire, hiking in the White Mountains, and swimming in the chilly waters of Lake Winnipesaukee.

Swimming gives you the opportunity to use all the muscles of your body in smooth, balanced coordination.

Without pressure on your joints, your muscles get a strong workout as they push and pull against the weight of the water. The crawl stroke is a perfectly coordinated movement; the back and waist muscles shorten and lengthen in coordination, as you twist and turn. The lengthening and reaching can help improve your ability to stand tall with both sides of the trunk long and even. Swimming can be done year round, too, which makes it a wonderful daily activity.

If you have ever suffered a trauma - be it a broken ankle, knee surgery, or slip and fall - you may already notice that one side of your waist and trunk is tighter than the other. You may feel "tilted" to one side, or you may have a leg length discrepancy. You may want to consider swimming as a "somatic activity" that can help to retrain the muscles that learned to stay contracted due to your trauma.  If you have sciatica, scoliosis or hip pain on one side, swimming can help you to figure out where you're tight and where you're not. Don't worry! This awareness is simply giving you information about where your brain has lost voluntary control of movement that used to be natural, efficient and effortless. The first step to regaining fuller, freer movement is through awareness.

A good way to determine whether you may have a trauma reflex getting in the way of smooth, efficient movement is by doing the crawl stroke. If you find that it's easier to reach forward with one arm more than the other, try the Side Bend and Washrag Somatic Exercises. Then return to the pool or lake and see if your stroke has evened out. All the muscles involved in the Trauma Reflex (the trunk rotators) can learn to release, relax, and coordinate efficiently through the retraining that swimming offers.

How a Clinical Somatic Approach Can Help Scoliosis

In my last blog post I discussed the important factor in "idiopathic" scoliosis: the environment. The environment here refers to what kind of stressors occur in your life to cause you to develop scoliosis. Let's go back to the basics for a second:

  1. Your brain controls your muscles.
  2. Your muscles attach to your bones.
  3. Your muscles move bones. Bones never move where muscles don't pull them (except in the case of a disease process, like polio).
  4. Your brain responds to stress in the environment by tightening muscle groups in specific patterns.

Accidents and injuries at a young age can set scoliosis in motion.

I have worked with many clients who have had scoliosis in the family. At the same time, I've worked with even more scoliosis clients who are the only ones in their family to have ever developed this condition. They all share one thing in common: a traumatic accident/slip/fall before or during adolescence. (Many women in particular who have developed mild scoliosis later in life have suffered a traumatic fall or accident, or spent decades raising multiple children and making a "perch" for their child by hiking up one side of their pelvis.)

When you have an accident, your brain instantly contracts the muscles of the waist and trunk rotators in order to help you avoid further pain or injury. This Trauma Reflex, when habituated, can create an adaptive muscular pattern of consistent with scoliosis. The curve can be mild or severe. Many teenagers undergo  surgery to put Harrington rods in their spines, while others decide to use exercise and stretching techniques instead.

Hanna Somatic Education (HSE) is a safe, easy method for addressing scoliosis and relieving the back pain associated with this condition. HSE uses the technique of assisted (or "hands-on") pandiculation to teach clients to release muscles that are stuck in the feedback loop of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). It is a recalibration of the voluntary sensory and motor centers of the brain. Remember that when one has SMA, the brain forgets how to sense, feel, and move muscles. Pandiculation heightens the client's internal awareness of those muscles and teaches them to release.  Sensory motor function is restored, and structural imbalances slowly begin to reverse themselves.

In a clinical session of Hanna Somatics, assisted pandiculation helps to release the muscle groups involved in that person's particular pattern of scoliosis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEFORE: Rita's weight is pitched to the right. The right side of her waist is compressed, and, if you look closely, you can even see the outline of her scoliotic curve on the right and contracted gluteal muscles on the left. She is literally being "pulled down" and twisted to the right.

AFTER: Rita's scoliotic curve is not as distinct. She is lifted up slightly out of her right side and her weight is shifted more toward the center.

When I showed Rita these photos she exclaimed, "I actually have a waist!" She felt taller and lighter when she walked.

What exactly did we do to affect this kind of change? We pandiculated the muscles of the trauma reflex, then pandiculated the muscles of the right shoulder. I taught her the Back Lift, an exercise that brings the brain back into control of the back muscles. She also learned three more exercises for the waist muscles.

While it is clear that Rita and I have a lot more work to do to get her to "untwist" her ribcage, even out her pelvis, and improve her symmetry, she made excellent improvement in one session. Daily practice of the Somatic Exercises to reinforce her progress, and about 5-6 more clinical sessions and she will be moving with less pain and more freedom. The kind of change she was able to affect is a small example of how effective assisted pandiculation and the techniques of Hanna Somatics can help those with scoliosis help themselves. The younger the client, the more rapid the progress. 

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.

Relieving the Pain of Scoliosis and Pregnancy

"Anne" called me, having heard that I teach people to rid themselves of chronic pain. "No one will touch me, and I'm wondering if you can help me." She explained that she was seven months pregnant with her second child, had scoliosis and was suffering from severe pain in her left hip, groin and ribs. When I asked her why no one would work with her, she said that everyone said they didn't know what was wrong, and it might be dangerous. Instinctively she knew that tight muscles were causing pain. She was correct.

One look at Anne told me that years of compensation due to accidents and injuries was at the root of her muscle pain. I knew that if I could teach her to feel her waist muscles  again and begin to move her hips, she'd feel much better. Anne's left side was much tighter than her right side, (as in the photo on the right) and her left hip was drawn upward. Her right ribs twisted back and downward, and her weight was pitched more onto her right foot.

She showed a typical Trauma Reflex: a muscular holding pattern that occurs in response to an accident or injury. This is also the pattern of holding that creates scoliosis: a trauma at an early age (she broke her leg and was in a cast for months at age 9) can cause you to have to compensate until the injury heals. This leaves the waist muscles tighter on one side than the other and causes the ribcage to twist in compensation. The muscles, which attach to the spine, then pull the spine out of alignment during the growth spurt that occurs during adolescence.

After three sessions of learning to relax the muscles on the left side of her body - the waist, shoulder and rib muscles - including the muscles of her legs -  she stood up, able to breathe deeply for the first time in months. Under her shirt, her back looked similar to the photo on the right. The hips were hiked up and the ribcage twisted.

The nagging pain in her groin was greatly diminished. Methodically contracting, releasing and relaxing muscles to make them longer than before was easy. Anne and I worked together over the course of two months, reprogramming her movement and muscle control.  She wanted to make sure that when the new baby arrived she could deal with lifting, holding, and nursing.

Anne is doing really well; her baby is now two years old, and the pain she arrived in my office with is gone. She continues to do her Somatic Exercises whenever she gets a chance.

Full Body Movements Can Relax Painful Muscles

The body moves as one intelligent, whole system. When muscle pain occurs, the system itself simply needs improvement.

Most people find Hanna Somatics (also known as Clinical Somatics) because they have an issue that their doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and energy healers can't seem to fully address. A muscle, or a part of the body hurts (that is not related to a pathology), and most practitioners focus on that one area in order to try and "fix" it.

Eliminating muscle pain is an educational process.

Hanna Somatic Educators teach people to remember how to move the way they once did. That, simply put, is an educational process. Rather than focusing on one specific area of pain or one muscle group that needs to learn to relax and release, we address full body movement patterns. This, I've found, is a missing link for everyone who walks through my office door. The body should move as an integrated whole, beautifully coordinated – not as a series of separate parts.

Sometimes our clients teach us as much as we teach them. Last week I worked with "Sharon," an older client with scoliosis, stenosis, and sciatica. She realized that her muscles are stuck in a pattern of non-movement and that retraining her brain (the command center of the muscles) to remember how to move her muscles is reversing her pain. Now she not only walks longer distances without pain, but her tilted posture has improved so that standing "straight" is less of a strain.

Break bad movement habits out of gravity and new movement is easier to integrate while in gravity.

However, she's uncomfortable working on my table. Hanna Somatic Educators normally work with a client on the table first, because the brain will re-engage old patterns of muscular holding while in gravity. But with Sharon we threw out the rule book and did something new. I got her on her feet and said, "let's move."

She stood slightly away from the wall and "reached up to the top shelf" to begin to re-pattern the movement of the hips - one hip up, the other down, as the waist lengthened on one side and shortened on the other side. We played a few slowly paced Exuberant Animal resistance games of reaching across to your partner's hands (like "Patty Cake"), to lengthen the trunk rotator muscles on one side.

Sharon's AHA! moment came when I reminded her to allow her hips, legs and knees to move along with the movement. She'd forgotten that the whole body moves as one. She was like a child learning a new dance step. What fun! Between each movement game she walked up and down the hallway to integrate the new awareness she had created. No pain at all. She was overjoyed.

Here's a short video of some similar movements to what I did with Sharon. It's from a recent Exuberant Animal weekend. Enjoy!

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