Activation Exercises For Improved Athletic Performance - Part 1 - Strength Training

A lot of athletes have asked me for a daily routine of Somatic Exercises to serve as "activation exercises." Activation exercises are a short series of exercises that will prepare you to move well.

Hanna Somatic Exercises are activation exercises as well as "deactivation exercises."

A large component of strength is full muscle control. Traditional athletic training teaches us how to "activate" (or contract) our muscles. But there is very little emphasis on learning to "deactivate" (or relax) our muscles back to their original and optimum resting length. Hanna Somatic Exercises teach you to pandiculate, which allows you to fully contract, and then de-contract your muscles for more potential for strength. Pandiculation is the safer, more effective alternative to stretching.

A word before you begin:

These movements are movement patterns - not "exercises" as such. No stretching is required - just slow, yawn-like pandiculations. Please do not "do" these movements; "create" these movements through use of the breath, as you move slowly, with conscious attention to the quality of the movement. You can't sense quality if you're moving quickly! And your ability to do ballistic movement depends on your control and quality of movement. If you want to go fast, first go slow so you know what you're doing.

The point of Somatic Exercises is to to eliminate accumulated muscle tension before you begin training and then reduce any accumulated muscle tension after your training. Accumulated tension occurs due to over-training, injuries, accidents, poor postural habits and the stresses of daily life.  Address the muscular system at the level of the brain and nervous system, and you quickly restore full muscle length and function and relearn optimal movement patterns.

Here are a few Somatic Exercises that will ready your entire body in the same way a cat or dog readies itself for action every time it gets up off the floor. We have all seen cats and dogs pandiculate when they get up from rest. They do that reflexively. If they didn't pandiculate, they would lose the ability to move as swiftly and adeptly as they do.

As you move through these Somatic Exercises treat them as the preparation for movement that they are; there's no need to go quickly, there's no need to tick repetitions off your mental clipboard. Treat them like the lengthening yawn that they are. Put your focus on the patterns that you're moving through. Stop for just a few seconds between repetitions as well as each individual movement pattern in order to allow your brain to absorb the sensory feedback you are sending it. This momentary pause will integrate new proprioceptive awareness once you stand up again and begin working out.

Please note: It is assumed that the reader has a basic understanding of Somatic Movements. The best way to use Somatic Exercises to support your workout is to learn as much as you can. Consider having a longer morning routine in which you pandiculate the extensors, flexors and trunk rotators. Then, when you get to the gym, three short, slow Somatic Exercises will suffice to sufficiently "reboot" your somatic awareness and muscle control for full recruitment of the muscles needed for your workout and full relaxation when you're finished.

Try the Somatic  Exercises in this video. They are basic human movements necessary to all sports: extension, flexion and cross lateral movement. You can apply them to any sport:

  • Arch and Flatten - extension and flexion - and a return to and awareness of neutral
  • Back Lift - extension of the spine through the posterior diagonal line
  • Cross Lateral Arch and Curl - flexion of the spine through the anterior diagonal line

Thanks to Colm McDonnell of ClinicalSomatics.ie for his collaboration on this post.

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.

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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.

Pandiculation - "Dynamic Stretching" Squared

In a  New York Times article about stretching, Gretchen Reynolds reported on the largest study ever conducted on the effectiveness of stretching. The results showed that...

Stretching makes no difference one way or the other as far as injury prevention is concerned.

The percentage of those runners assigned to do 20 second static stretches before every run, was identical to the group assigned to the "no stretching" regimen. The study was conducted over the course of three months.

Dr. Ross Tucker, a physiologist in South Africa and co-author of the Web site The Science of Sport said, “There is a very important neurological effect of stretching. There is a reflex that prevents the muscle from being stretched too much." This is  what Hanna Somatic Educators have taught their clients for years: the reflex Dr. Tucker refers to is called the "stretch reflex." It is invoked by static stretching, and induces the muscle to contract back against the stretch, in effect making it tighter than it was before. This is a reflex that protects the muscle from trauma.

Reynolds goes on to write:

Dynamic stretching, or exercises that increase your joints' range of motion via constant movement, does not seem to invoke the inhibitory reflex of static stretching, Dr. Tucker said. When "you stretch through movement, you involve the brain much more, teaching proprioception and control, as well as improving flexibility."

Pandiculation improves muscle function at the level of the central nervous system.

Hanna Somatic Educators have been teaching students for decades not to stretch to change muscle length, but rather to pandiculate. Pandiculation is a brain reflex action pattern that animals do - often up to 40 times a day. Next time your dog gets up from rest, watch what he does: he'll put his front paws out and contract his back as he relaxes his belly in a yawn-like lengthening. He may even do the same with his legs. This "wakes up" the muscular system at the level of the  brain and ensures the the brain is always in control of the muscles.

The action of pandiculation restores muscle length, function and brain level control of muscles and movement as it re-educates all movements of a muscle: concentric, isometric (when you hold the contraction for just a second) and eccentric. The brain "takes back" that part of the muscle's length and function that it had lost voluntary control of - the part that was "stuck" or full of tension. Pandiculation sends a strong signal to the sensory motor cortex, which in turn serves to "reboot" the function of the  muscles for greater sensation, motor control, balance, proprioception, and coordination.

Pandiculation of over-trained and tight muscles can prevent knee, hip, and back injuries when running.

Phil Wharton, well known author of the Wharton Stretch Book, now agrees that contracting a muscle first, then moving it through its range of motion is much more effective than simple, static stretching. Dynamic stretching, however similar to pandiculation, is not the same as pandiculation, nor is it as effective. The key to freer movement in any sport or activity is freedom of movement in the center of the body. If you don't release and re-pattern the large muscles of the center - from which all movement originates - you will experience only short term improvement. Think of an animal, first contracting its back muscles, then slowly and deliberately lengthening them only as far as is comfortable for them to go - then doing the exact same thing with the muscles of the front of the body.

You may have a favorite athletic stretch; explore a way to pandiculate it: tighten into the tight muscles first, then slowly lengthen away to the end of your comfortable range. Then completely relax. This can be done with hamstrings, quadriceps, waist muscles, triceps, biceps, you name it!

Here is a short video that shows a couple of easy pandiculations you can do prior to your run. Try them out and see what you think. To learn these and other Somatic Exercises that can teach you to reverse your pain and regain freedom of movement, click here.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8J5fDdCpF4]

Somatic Exercises Make You Happy!

I taught a Somatic Movement class the other morning. It was a cold, snowy morning and honestly, I was surprised that anyone showed up for class. You know how it is when it's cold outside -  you hunch your shoulders up, pull your scarf up around your neck and tighten your center as you walk so you don't slip. Winter can really cause the muscles to become tight. Then I remembered that there is nothing more invigorating and effective for opening yourself up from the winter cold to a relaxed state than a slow, gentle Somatic Movement class.

Everyone in the class had some kind of hip and shoulder pain. Here is what I taught this morning:

  • Arch and Flatten - first arching and flattening to neutral on the floor, then arching and flattening into the floor, moving from the Green Light Reflex into the Red Light Reflex.
  • Arch and Curl - with a gentle psoas release (thanks to Laura Gates, CHSE)
  • Side Bend
  • Propeller
  • Washrag - first with the feet about a foot apart, then with the feet wider apart ("windshield wiper legs")

By the end of the class, those who had had a twist in their pelvis had evened their pelvis out. One woman had felt scattered and anxious and after class she felt grounded and strong. Everyone's hip pain was gone, their walking was lighter and, best of all, the students had a clearer understanding of which stress patterns had contributed to their discomfort - and how they were able to reverse them.

In my teaching I have found that if people don't understand why they're being told to do a movement or exercise, they simply won't stick to it. That which makes sense to us in our own experience is that which will serve us as we continue to grow.

Why do Arch and Flatten? Because it recreates the Green Light Reflex of forward action (go, go, go!!) and the Red Light Reflex (or worry, fear, anxiety, slumping over the computer) that is invoked every day, hundreds of time. Recreate it so you can recognize it when it happens and de-create it.

Why do the Side Bend? Because it gets the brain back in control of the waist muscles - the very muscles that contract and "freeze up" when you have a sudden injury or slip or fall.

And so on...

Somatic Exercises brings you more awareness, efficiency of movement and help you "shake off" the stress of daily life.

Reflexes are merely unconditioned responses to stress. They are neutral. Problems with movement and muscle pain occur when we become habituated to and stuck in a reflex pattern - our shoulder rounded forward or one hip hitched up higher than the other. We want to be able to respond to the reflexes when we have to, but we don't want to "live" in any one of them. We want to live life at neutral.

Here is an explanation of why Somatics is great for everyone, every day. It's from Kristin Jackson, a Somatic Exercise Coach in Portland, OR. Her reasons for teaching Somatic Movement echo mine. Enjoy her video at the end; her students' experience of Hanna Somatics is common to that of hundreds of people experiencing Somatic Movement around the world.

Somatics makes everything in your life easier.

In addition to helping you move with more ease, Somatics helps you think more clearly, sleep better, even relate to people better. It all has to do with your nervous system. The constant stress of today's fast-faster-fastest world puts your sympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that stimulates fight-or-flight bodily responses) into overdrive and never lets your parasympathetic nervous system kick in so we can enjoy the pleasant things in life like relaxing, digesting and making babies.

Somatics makes you happy!

Who wouldn't want to offer something that makes a client exclaim, "I feel like I'm 10 years old again!" after her first session. Honestly, I'm tired of "selling" exercise. I can't compete with big-box gyms or Groupon or flashy trainers. That's not me. But educating people how to move well and feel amazing is a wonderful thing to share!

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How To Know If You're Out Of Balance

Daily stress teaches our muscles to contract in very specific ways. If the stress is on-going or repetitive enough we may even feel as if we're "stuck" in our stress. Over time we may find that we feel out of balance. An imbalance in the center of the body will show up as an uneven gait, twisted pelvis, slumped shoulder on one side, one-side muscle pain or quite commonly, a "hiked" hip. Overly contracted muscles pull us off balance and add excessive stress to our joints. They can contribute to arthritis, joint pain, back, iliotibial band pain, neck, shoulder and hip pain. The key is to learn to ride the waves of stress in our lives - not get stuck in them. One of the biggest benefits of Hanna Somatic Exercises is learning to find neutral in the center of the body and bring the brain back into control of the muscular system. It's one of the most important skills necessary to become stress resilient.

In this video below you'll learn an easy and quick way to determine if you're out of balance. Don't worry! If you are, you can begin to learn how to regain muscular balance and symmetry with Somatic Exercises.

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Click here to purchase Pain-Free Somatic Exercise DVDs.

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How To Get The Most Out of Somatic Exercises

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

Arch and Flatten:

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

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

Back Lift:

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

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

Side Bend:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somatic Education is Evidence-Based Treatment for Back Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somatics for Pain-Free Airline Travel

Last week I returned from a two week Somatics teaching tour in Australia. Thank you, Jo Bentley, my Australia organizer, for bringing me back to teach the Essential Somatics® Somatic Exercise Coach Training (SEC)  and being a fantastic host. Thank you as well to Mick Betteridge and Philippa Howard in Melbourne for hosting a training there. As many of you know, I travel internationally teaching Hanna Somatics. Plane travel is part and parcel of my job. In order to lessen the negative effects of sitting stationary for hours in a cramped airplane seat I came up with a few somatic movements during my flight to Australia. I arrived in Australia feeling relaxed and considerably less stiff than on previous flights.

For all you travelers out there - check this video out and let me know how it goes!

Are Your Feet Killing You? Happier, Pain-Free Feet With Somatics

The feet are an integral part of our balancing system. They are the means through which we meet the ground and negotiate the surface upon which we walk.

When we sprain an ankle or suffer a lower leg injury we lose the ability to walk in a balanced way and are more likely to re-injure the same joint. We habituate to the Trauma Reflex and may even walk with a limp. When our backs become chronically tight (Green Light Reflex) we may find ourselves walking heavily and heel-striking loudly. We may even experience shin splits when we run in this situation.

Humans are the only perfectly bipedal being on earth. When all goes well, our feet coordinatetogether beautifully with the legs, pelvis, and somatic center so we can stand up in gravity and move forward.

Many people, however, stuff their feet into hard, narrow shoes, put them into artificial and unnatural positions (such as when wearing high heels), and "support them" with orthotics and thick sneakers; both orthotics and thick "supportive" shoes only "prop up" the problems in the center of the body. They in fact, can make things worse by preventing our feet from sensing and feeling the surface they stand on and responding to the sensory feedback that would ideally help them know where they are in space. Our proprioceptive abilities diminish the more we have between our feet and the ground beneath them.

Some people are told that problems such as hammertoe, bunions, and neuromas are always heredity structural problems when, in many cases, they can develop due to functional imbalances in the center of the body.  When we stop training our feet to sense and feel we can forget how to use our feet and toes over time.

The muscles of the feet are no different from any other muscles in the body: they can learn to be flexible, responsive to movement, and highly efficient. They can also learn to stay tight and contracted, making walking unpleasant, cumbersome, clumsy and painful -  especially when barefoot. Sensory motor training can help prevent the need for orthotics as you regain the ability to walk smoothly, lightly and evenly, using both legs and feet.

Problems of the feet develop in the lower leg due to imbalances in the muscles of the center of the body.

How often have you stopped and noticed your feet and how your weight is distributed through your feet? Do you clutch your toes? If you tend to lean forward, slightly slumped in your posture, and stuck in the Red Light Reflex, you probably do. Clutching your toes keeps you from falling forward! This suggests a lack of balance in the center of the body. When you stand or walk do you tend to roll in or out on your feet? Notice this next time you walk. Notice whether you put more weight on one leg and foot than the other when you walk. Then make a note of which foot is more sore or painful (or has a bunion).

Feet 2
Feet 2

The more you move your feet the better your balance and gait will be.

In my book, Move Without Pain, I recommend getting reacquainted with your feet by playing with them. Did you ever wonder why babies play with their feet? They are a vast resource of information that provides critically important information for the brain. Once we stand up to gravity that information can help us with our proprioception and balance.

Check out this fun video tutorial taught by Laura Gates, CHSE. She will show you some easy, pleasant self-care pandiculations you can do for more flexible, "intelligent" and happy feet. These movements will remind the muscles of the feet (and lower legs) to stay relaxed and ready for action. Remember, the first step to happy feet is learning to regain sensation and control of  the tight muscles of the back, waist and abdominals so you can stand easily in a balanced, neutral position. Then play with the movements on this video and enjoy your smooth, easy walk.

 

Why Is One Leg Shorter Than The Other? The Trauma Reflex!

Here are three frequent questions my clients ask me:

Why do I have one leg shorter than the other?

Why do I have hip pain, knee or foot pain but only on one side?

I'm told that my pelvis is rotated because I have a weak core. Is that true?

The answer:

Leg length discrepancy, one side hip, knee, and foot pain, sciatica, tilted posture, piriformis syndrome, and a rotated pelvic are all the result of an habituated Trauma Reflex. No, the core is not necessarily "weak." It is likely so strong and tight - within the pattern of the Trauma Reflex - that the center of the body cannot fully relax, rotate and side bend evenly on both sides.

When you respond to any physical trauma, a sudden blow to the body, a slip, fall or crutchesaccident of any kind, the brain instantly, involuntarily, and often violently, contracts the muscles of the waist (the oblique muscles), the trunk rotators (lattisimus dorsii, abdominals, adductors and abductors of the legs) and the muscles that allow the pelvis to swing freely (quadratus lumborum and iliopsoas) in an attempt to avoid injury or to prevent further pain after the accident has occurred. If you've ever prevented what could have been a terrible fall you know the wrenching pain that comes with the sudden twisting movement that helps you regain  your balance.

If the accident is severe or violent - a car accident or a sudden slip on the ice, for example - the brain Trauma reflex - frontteaches these muscles to stay tight and contracted. If you injure yourself on one side of your body and need to protect that injured limb until it is healed (as occurs when using crutches), you can inadvertently learn to walk with a limp once the injury is healed. A one-sided job, like sitting at a computer and using the mouse all day with one hand can create a strong imbalance on one side of the body.

When muscles stay tight the brain loses the ability to fully contract and release the muscle. The ability to fully release the muscle is what gives the muscle power. This state of elevated muscle tonus and tension that won't relax is called Sensory Motor Amnesia. In the case of an habituated Trauma Reflex your brain integrates and organizes this learned and involuntary full-body imbalance into a "neutral" and "balanced" that, as those of you have ever suffered an accident or injury, can sense is out of balance, tilted, rotated and uncomfortable. Not to mention inefficient.

How do you learn to regain symmetry and balance in the center of your body? Muscles that have learned to stay tight and contracted due to stress must learn to relax, release, and move freely again. It's muscle reeducation. Many people can benefit from one-on-one clinical sessions with a qualified Somatic Educator skilled in the methods of Thomas Hanna. However, many people can also easily learn to do this on their own, at home.

The video below can help you learn to lengthen both sides of the waist evenly so you can regain your internal awareness ("somatic" awareness) and proprioception for improved balance and a smoother gait. This easy awareness exercise is best done after you learn to relax and release the waist muscles by doing arch and flatten, the side bend and the washrag.

To learn more Hanna Somatic Exercises and learn to relieve muscle pain and improve mobility, and somatic awareness, you can purchase my Pain-Free series of DVDs. Enjoy the video and enjoy standing tall!

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Video Tips: Eliminate Foot Pain, Plantar Fasciitis, and Heel Pain

Plantar fasciitis begins in the center of your body and works its way out to the periphery.

In this post I described the Clinical Somatic approach to plantar fasciitis.  It's not simply a condition of the feet, but a lack of control in the muscles of the lower leg as well. Let's recap the steps to eliminating plantarfasciitis (and other general pain in your feet):

  • Determine whether or not you have imbalances in the large muscles of your core: the back, waist, abdominal muscles. (Scroll down on this blog post for an awareness exercise that will help you.) Remember: accidents, injuries and stress can cause Sensory Motor Amnesia, which alters your sensory awareness of how you stand, walk, and move.
  • Begin learning how to relieve muscle pain and regain your sense of self-awareness. Restoring muscle control in the center of the body allows the periphery - the feet, knees and lower legs, to move more easily.
  • Here are some basic movements that will begin to teach you to release the muscles of the core for more ease of movement. A hiked hip or twisted pelvis can result in a leg length discrepancy, an altered gait and lower leg muscles that work too hard. The most common pattern of muscular contraction with plantar fasciitis involves tight gluteal muscles, a tight lower back on the same side as the painful foot, and tight lower leg muscles. In this post are links to several movements that will to slowly reverse some of the painful muscular tightness that adversely affects one's gait and contributes to plantar fasciitis.
  • Wear thinner footwear (or go barefoot, if possible). Lems Shoes and SoftStarShoes are terrific and comfortable shoes. Read this article about shoes, in which orthopedist Philip Lewin describes how there is a sensory foot/body, foot/brain connection vital to body stability, equilibrium, and gait.
  • Learn to stand straight  in a relaxed, tall posture.
  • Lastly, try the movements on this video to directly release the muscles of the lower leg. The best way to approach muscle pain is to release muscle imbalance in the center of the body first and then release the muscles of the lower leg for easy, smooth movement.  If you attempt to fix your pain by addressing just one area of the body it often doesn't work for the long term - just like attempting to spot reduce those thighs (or buttocks or belly).

Stretching does not eliminate pain. Pandiculation is more effective and safer than stretching.

The technique I demonstrate in this video is called pandiculation. It is not stretching! Stretching is passive and can cause muscles to become tighter. Pandiculation is active and teaches muscles to move more efficiently. It resets the brain's sensation and control of muscles and movement and is the most rapid and effective way to reverse chronic pain. Stretching is passive and does not reeducate muscles that have learned to stay tight due to overuse, stress reflexes or accidents. If you want more efficient muscles that can be recruited rapidly, learn to pandiculate.

 

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

Labral Tears - Surgery or Not?

Releasing painful muscles is the first step in hip pain relief.

In my last post I wrote about chronic hip pain, what is counterproductive for it, and what works from my perspective as a Hanna Somatic Educator,

  • Strengthening painful hip muscles can cause further pain or injury.
  • Learning to relax the muscles of the hip joint and the compensatory full body pattern of contraction in which the muscles are stuck can provide long lasting pain relief, relaxed hip joints, and balanced movement.
  • Understanding Sensory Motor Amnesia and the Trauma Reflex, the root cause of chronic hip pain, will help you understand how to intelligently regain pain-free movement of the hip.

Exercises such as the "clam shell" or "butterfly," and lateral leg lifts only serve to tighten the hip muscles even more, making it more difficult to move the hip. Often they create more pain, not less. Sitting with the soles of the feet together and pushing the knees out to stretch out the inner thighs can cause tight adductors to contract back against the force of the stretch. Even psoas stretches performed in isolation, can induce the stretch reflex, causing muscles to tighten back against the stretch. This further reduces the amount of control your brain has over your muscles.

Muscles that the brain cannot fully contract nor fully release are muscles that cause pain.

  • Address the pattern of contraction, not the individual muscles.
  • Pandiculation is the most effective way of regaining muscle function, improving movement and resetting muscle length. When you contract a muscle first, then lengthen and relax it you address muscle function at the level of the nervous system.

I hope some of you tried a few of the Hanna Somatic Exercises I included in my last post. Here is a wonderful variation of one of my favorite Somatic exercises: the Steeple Twist. This variation, made by Charlie Murdach (a Hanna Somatic Educator and Feldenkrais practitioner) shows how differentiating movements with the hips creates improved overall movement. Remember to go slowly and only as far as is comfortable. "Micro-movements" are perfectly fine!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGuBU-1M0xM&feature=relmfu]

All these movements are a good beginning to learning to relax the muscles involved in the "trauma reflex."

Improved body awareness and muscle control is crucial when you have structural damage.

If you know that you are injured, but your doctor tells you it's nothing to worry about, then it's critically important to focus your attention on how your brain and muscles are compensating to deal with the injury (Sensory Motor Amnesia), and how that is changing the way in which you move. Unconscious and habituated functional problems left unchecked can, over the years, result in structural damage.

Do you have to be A-Rod to get a good doctor?

About a year ago I finally convinced my doctor to give me an X-ray on my hip. I had intermittent hip pain that I knew intuitively wasn't merely a functional issue.  The X-ray showed a tumor on my hip and an MRI confirmed a tumor, the result of two labral tears. My surgeon, a well known sports medicine doctor here in New Jersey, took time to show me my results: labral tears, osteoarthritis, and a tumor. He told me that, "there's just not enough science out there about labral tears to go ahead and do the surgery."

Unrepaired labral tears could create the need for a hip replacement in years to come.

Before my appointment was over, I asked my doctor if he thought that not repairing the tear in my hip soon would set me up for a full hip replacement in the future, due to compensation over time. His reply: "Yes, that just might be the case."

As I said in my first post about hip pain, it didn't take Alex Rodriguez's doctors long to figure out that if the Yankees were going to get their star player back on the field, earning his millions and hitting home runs, labral tear surgery was a must. ASAP. Why was there no absence of scientific data there?

So where does this leave the rest of us?

Recovery from labral tear surgery is no walk in the park, especially if you have no addressed the Trauma Reflex that got you there in the first place; it can't be solved by surgery. Surgery helps to repair the structural damage (which is wonderful), but it doesn't address the Sensory Motor Amnesia that alters movement in the first place.

The winning combination: Surgery + skilled physical therapy + Hanna Somatic Education = focus on regaining full functioning of the body as an integrated whole

While the jury's not out about what route I will have the option to take, improving my own sensory motor system and paying attention to my daily movement habits is critical to create long-lasting pain relief.

 

Piriformis Syndrome Part 2 - Releasing the Iliopsoas Muscle Video

Here's what WebMD has to say about piriformis syndrome:

Piriformis syndrome usually starts with pain, tingling, or numbness in the buttocks. Pain can be severe and extend down the length of the sciatic nerve (called sciatica). The pain is due to the piriformis muscle compressing the sciatic nerve, such as while sitting on a car seat or running. Pain may also be triggered while climbing stairs, applying firm pressure directly over the piriformis muscle, or sitting for long periods of time.

From a Hanna Somatic Education point of view, piriformis syndrome is just another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

Piriformis syndrome is caused by habituation of the Trauma Reflex, a full-body reflex pattern that is evoked in response to an accident, injury, surgery, or one-sided repetitive movement. The muscles of the waist and trunk rotators (the obliques, lats, abdominals, iliopsoas muscle, adductors, and abductors) become chronically contracted on one side of the body, causing the pelvis to hike and/or rotate slightly. This pattern of muscular imbalance causes the piriformis muscle to involuntarily over-contract in an effort to maintain balance. Piriformis syndrome is in the same category as neck and shoulder problems, plantar fasciitis, chronic back pain, TMJ, sciatica, or joint stiffness. It's a functional muscle problem in need of a functional solution: sensory motor retraining of the brain to muscle connection in order to teach the frozen, contracted muscles involved in the pattern of piriformis syndrome to relax and release. The end result is relaxed and coordinated muscles, restored muscle function, a greater sense of body awareness, and no more pain.

Try these simple self-assessment tools to become aware of how piriformis syndrome is being created in your body:

  • Stand in the mirror and take a look at yourself. Are your shoulders level?
  • Close your eyes and sense the weight into each leg. Is it the same on both side?
  • Put your hands at the waistline, right on the top of the pelvis. Are your hips level?
  • Lay on your back and lift your legs up to 90 degrees above your hips. Look at your ankle bones. Do they meet, or is one ankle bone higher than the other?

If you notice imbalances in your posture, then you know that your movement habits are causing your pelvis to twist or tilt and your back and buttock muscles to work harder on one side than the other. Hanna Somatics can teach you to change that.

A daily routine of Hanna Somatic Exercises to prepare your body for movement is the first step to reversing the pain of piriformis syndrome.

A Somatic movement practice reinforces more optimal movement patterns. You will learn to move more efficiently when your muscles are fully under the control of your brain. There are times when it's necessary to tweak these exercises, or target the offending muscles a bit more directly.

Remember that it's never just one muscle causing the problem when you find yourself out of balance or moving inefficiently. In the video below you will engage muscles that would normally coordinate together with the piriformis.  Have a look and try them out for yourself. Let me know how it goes.

Visit the Essential Somatics® store for easy-to-follow instructional DVDs. Learning the basic movements of Somatics goes a long way toward educating you and your muscles to get rid of chronic back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee, foot or joint pain - and keep yourself moving pain-free for the rest of your life.

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

... the Back Lift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somatic Squats

Properly executed squats are one of the most useful movements you could do on a daily basis. Having the ability to squat down to the ground uses all the muscles of the core in a coordinated movement that is a catch-all exercise of strengthening. Despite the emphasis on core strengthening anddeep-squat the finer points of how to squat properly I've seen a tendency in many athletes toward habituating the Green Light Reflex. This means that the muscles of the back of the body (the "posterior chain") - become tight and stay tight. If the back of the body is tight, the front of the body, and especially the hip flexors, co-contract. It's a full body pattern response to stress.

There is a need for a different kind of squat, done as more of a somatic release - after a training session of vigorous athletic squats. The "laundry squat," also known as a "frog squat" is a simple squat that, when done fluidly and effortlessly, allows for coordination and communication between all of the sinawsouqjoints, from the neck and mid-back all the way down to the knees, ankles, and rounded pelvis. There should be an easy, coordinated "distribution of labor" that feels utterly natural and effortless to do.

Most Westerners don't squat in our daily lives, so if you don't want to lose the ability to bend the knees, hips and ankles to get up and down, there's no time like the present to begin bringing this quintessentially human movement back into your life.

Try this "Somatic Squat" for improved flexibility when squatting.

The "laundry squat" is simple: you sink straight down to the ground, the tailbone drops, the backCave - India 2 lengthens, the pelvis gently rounds under a bit and the weight  settles on the heels and the mid-foot. The upper body is slightly forward. It's the preferred squat of millions of people in Asia and Africa. And of me, when I'm in a cave in India (at right).

I understand that many people are afraid to squat; perhaps they've had knee surgery, hip problems, an accident or injury. Any kind of injury, as you already know if you've been following this blog, has the potential to create Sensory Motor Amnesia in the brain/muscle connection. This means that you lose an accurate sense of how you move your body and where it is in space. Perhaps squatting is scary because you've lost the connection between the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back.

Whatever your fear, I invite you to begin to explore this important and basic human movement. View the short video below for a fun exploration that can begin to create more awareness and freedom through the shoulders, back, and hips. By exploring and differentiating the twisting of the shoulders and hips, and gently increasing movement in the ribcage, you might find that the front movement of squatting becomes a little easier. This exploration is also useful for anyone with scoliosis whose ribcage feels more compressed on one side. I enjoyed making the video - and yes, it helped me squat more smoothly and effortlessly.

This "laundry squat" exploration is taken from the book Mindful Spontaneity by Ruthy Alon. Enjoy it and let me know how it works for you.

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Pain Relief from Piriformis Syndrome: A Somatic Approach

It's never just one muscle that causes your muscle pain.

It doesn't matter if you have sciatica, piriformis syndrome, plantar fasciitis or even a herniated disc. You aren't a jumble of separate body parts randomly put together; you're a living, breathing, constantly changing system, controlled by the brain and coordinated to move as a whole, efficient, coordinated system. That's the way your sensory motor system sees it. I know it often can feel like, "if I can only relax my X muscle, then my life would be grand." It would be nice if that were the case, but it's not.

Yes, you can have a piriformis muscle that feels like the culprit, but it's important to ask yourself: Why is my piriformis muscle only hurting on one side of my body?

Muscle pain is the result of a FULL BODY PATTERN of contraction.

Once you learn to regain control of the painful muscle and its synergists, then you can regain efficient, effortless movement as well as pain relief for that pesky piriformis.

In the case of piriformis syndrome the unconscious part of the brain (the part responsible for habits/learned movement/reflexes) is contracting the piriformis constantly because the pelvis is out of balance — twisted and rotated in most cases. This is called a Trauma Reflex.

Most people don't consider the connection between the command center (our brain) and what our muscles are doing. Our muscles do not have a mind of their own – they respond only to the brain. In order to release all muscles involved in the pattern of the Trauma Reflex and regain balance in the center of the body, you must learn:

  • Which movement pattern got you into the problem in the first place

  • How to prevent your pain from coming back (Somatic Exercises!)

  • How to be more aware of your body as you move on a daily basis

  • How to create more efficient and coordinated movement

This functional muscle problem needs a functional solution: sensory motor retraining of the brain-to-muscle connection in order to teach the frozen, contracted muscles involved in the pattern of piriformis syndrome to relax and release. The end result is relaxed and coordinated muscles, restored muscle function, a greater sense of body awareness, and no more pain.