Movement to Clear the Mind and Reawaken the Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Movement Can Calm the Savage Beast

Several years ago I went on a 2-week trek with my older sister and my mother, who was 82-years-old at the time . There is no word in the dictionary that does justice to the experience of hiking in the Himalayas. I will just say that it was mind-expanding as well as detoxifying, mentally and physically. It was one of the most healthy and curative experiences I've ever had.

Movement + real food + clean air = good health

I had a feeling that two weeks without computers and cars would teach me something I hadn't yet learned about my body and my own habitual reactions to stress. I got more than what I'd hoped for: after two weeks of challenging daily activity the likes of which I had not yet experienced in all my years of hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I found myself without any aches or pains (which I experience after too much computer time). I felt an inner calm that I am convinced could not have occurred without the strenuous daily hiking we undertook.

The benefits of movement are well documented, and yet the combination of pure food to nourish the body, and nothing other than stunning nature to nourish the mind can create an experience, both physical and mental, that serves as a detox of the mind and body as it calms the central nervous system. As we know from Hanna Somatics, everything we experience, mentally, emotionally and physically, is muscularly responded to in our bodies. The way in which we deal with our lives is reflected in our bodies, movement and posture. When we calm the mind and nervous system by feeding it pleasant stimulus and the entire body functions optimally. Our mental patterns may also begin to change.

I'm a very seasoned hiker, yet was still challenged by the level of difficulty of our trek into the Singalila Range of Sikkim.  We hiked slowly and steadily for 4-6 hours daily.There was no room for distraction; my awareness was focused intently on my body mechanics as we negotiated rocks, tree roots, mud and scree; and my breath and determination to get to the next rest spot. It was a moment-to-moment mindful meditation in motion. At the end of each day I felt invigorated, both physically and mentally. My head was clear, my body was strong. The challenge now is how to keep that level of calmness in suburban New Jersey as I dig into my work. I have to remind myself that real food, clean air, and vigorous outdoor movement is attainable whether you travel all the way to India or stick around your own backyard.

Somatic Education is Evidence-Based Treatment for Back Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Somatic Year in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Ways to Improve Your Breathing and Health

It's that time of year when people are beginning to develop winter colds. Others are thinking ahead to preparing their taxes (only 2 months to go in the US). Both colds and psychological stress can cause you to breathe shallowly. Learning to breathe deeply - a skill many people lose over time due to an habituation to stress, not only helps those who are fighting off a cold, but those dealing with chronic conditions (asthma, sinusitis, anxiety) that tend to inhibit the ability to breathe deeply and fully. Improved breathing helps reduce anxiety, promotes oxygenation of the entire body, produces endorphins (the body's natural painkillers), enhances muscle function, helps to lower blood pressure, promotes creativity and mental focus, and increases metabolism.

Ideally here’s what happens when you to take a full, deep breath: the diaphragm comes down and creates a vacuum in the upper chest, the viscera swell out slightly to help this happen, and the rectus abdominis muscle relaxes. If the diaphragm doesn’t descend, you're breathing shallowly. Shallow breathing adversely affects your entire body – the brain, heart, and functioning of your internal organs. It has been linked to increased risk of heart disease as well.

I'm always amazed at how, when I'm stressed or mentally hijacked by a negative thought or scenario, a long, deep breath and relaxing my jaw changes everything. It highlights for me how deeply primal it is to "hunker down" when we allow emotional or mental stress (What if it doesn't work out? What will I do then?) to take over.

Try this for improved breathing

  1. Let your abdominal muscles relax. Lie on your back with your knees up and feet planted. Put your hand on your lower belly and gently inhale. Notice where your breath goes automatically without trying to change anything. Then repeat this several times as you allow the abdominal muscles to relax and soften as you inhale rather than sucking them in. Notice how the belly rises and falls. Allow the back to relax.  Repeat this 8-10 times.
  2. Bring attention to your ribs. The little muscles between them, called the intercostal muscles, act like the fabric in a bellows. If the fabric is tight, the bellows won't expand to suck the air in. The same goes for the ribs. Lie on your side, as in the photo on the right. Put your hand on your ribs and breathe deeply into your ribs 6-8 times. Let them expand like a bellows. Then lie on your back and notice the difference in sensation between both sides of your ribs.
  3. The Flower
  4. Consider your reflexive response to worry and fear. This reflex, called the Red Light Reflex (or Startle Reflex), is involuntary and instantaneous. In the photo on the right, you will see fans cringing in response to the baseball bat that is flying toward them. The Red Light Reflex causes you to tighten the belly, hunch the shoulders and withdraw inward out of real or perceived fear. It can save you from harm (as in the photo), yet, if habituated, it can inhibit breathing, lymphatic flow and drainage, neck pain and result in stooped, collapsed posture.

Over time many people lose the natural function of relaxed breathing. The first place to start on the road to fuller, deeper breathing is by learning to relax the muscles of the center of the body.