Reset Your Gait, Improve Your Walking

Anyone who knows me knows I love to walk and hike. I'm doing my best to take after my mother; she's  86-years-old and still trekking and traveling. The photo at right is of my mother and me in the Himalayas in December 2011. My mother is healthier and stronger than most 50 year olds I know, with the endurance of an ox. One of the biggest secrets to her good health is her daily walking habit. A recent study about exercise shows that walking beats the competition when it comes to positive development in the hippocampus of the brain and in spatial memory.  Walking, the activity seen as a "non-activity," by many because it appears to not be vigorous enough - is one of the best full-body functional exercise regimens you could ever follow. It is also the quintessential human movement. We are built to walk.

The way in which you walk makes all the difference.

There is an efficient (and inefficient) way to walk. A balanced, natural walk involves "cross-patterning" - the shoulders and hips moving in opposition to each other. The spine rotates gently to aid the movement of the shoulders. The hips move gently up and down, forward and back as the arms swing gently in opposite to the legs. The center of the body is upright and lengthened. You are on top of your hips, not pitched forward in front of them.

If you don't sense this kind of movement, you are working too hard when you walk. You are also likely not using your feet properly to aid in the movement. Efficient walking looks like the photo above, taken in India.

If you want to be able to climb stairs with freedom and balance as long as you live it's best to go back to the basics: learn to walk the way you did as a child - freely and effortlessly.

The first step is to learn to release and relax the muscles of the center of the body so your hips, pelvis, shoulders and back can move fluidly and easily. Adaptation to accidents, injuries, long term stress, or overtraining can create chronically contracted muscles in the back, waist and abdominals.  This can result in short steps, a shuffling or a lumbering gait. Tightness in the center restricts  freedom of movement and puts excessive pressure on the hips joints.

Hanna Somatic Exercises, especially arch and flatten, the side bend, and the washrag are a great place to start to learn how to regain an efficient, balanced gait. You can also read this blog post to learn an easy exercise to improve your walking and become more aware of your walking habits.

In order to not let stress get the better of us (and our muscle patterns) we need to be aware of our daily habits and movement. One of the beautiful things about walking is that you have a chance to move your entire body in a way it was meant to move and notice what you're doing. Breathe and shake off the stress. Once you can walk smoothly and effortlessly you're ready to run. It's basic. And it will keep you moving well into old age, just like my mother.

Click here to purchase my easy-to-follow Somatic Exercise DVDs.

Recommended for pain-free, balanced walking: Pain Relief Through Movement and Pain-Free Leg and Hip Joints

Move More, Get Stronger, and Live Longer

My clients often ask me, "Now that I'm no longer in pain, what kind of exercise should I do so I don't hurt myself again?" Good question. Here's my answer: Once you've reversed your Sensory Motor Amnesia, it's imagesimportant to integrate your new awareness and control into full body movement. Exercise is fun and good for you, so have at it! It's also important to strengthen the new, more balanced posture and movement.

Do what you love to do now that you have awareness and control of your body and movement. Paying attention to your movement, and exercising and moving within your comfort range is what will help you prevent injury. Challenge yourself, yet be mindful not to go beyond what truly feels good.

On page 30 of my book, Move Without Pain, I write about walking, one of the most basic, fundamental activities in the human vocabulary. I write about how movement, rather than exercise is the key to long term health. Create a movement-filled life and you will generally find your health and fitness to be better than you  realize.

Gretchen Reynolds, author of The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longershares a similar outlook (as discussed in this May 2012 New York Times article).

She says:

I wanted people to understand... how little exercise you can do in order to get lots and lots of health benefits. Two-thirds of Americans get no exercise at all. If one of those people gets up and moves around for 20 minutes, they are going to get a huge number of health benefits, and everything beyond that 20 minutes is, to some degree, gravy.

Those who know me have heard me mention my mother, Meg Peterson, as a living example of how a movement-IMG_0058filled life has kept her strong, fit, and still hiking at 85 years old. Yes, she was blessed with good genetics, but more importantly she refused to slow down as she got older. She takes out her own trash, mows her own lawn, walks several miles daily (and incorporates hills when possible) and doesn't shy away from using the stairs instead of an elevator. And yes... she does her Hanna Somatic Exercises!

8 Ways to Be Fit and Healthy: (without "exercising")

  1. Walk instead of using the car whenever possible
  2. Do your own gardening
  3. Use the stairs instead of the elevator
  4. Ride your bicycle to work or to run errands
  5. Hand-wash your car instead of taking it to the car wash
  6. Shop locally and carry your groceries home on foot
  7. Put on music and dance while you cook
  8. Walk around your house while using the phone (instead of sitting still)

I have often had clients tell me that if they don't feel dead on their feet after a workout, that they haven't exercised hard enough. Robert Sapolsky, author of the best selling book about stress called Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, presents some interesting - and disturbing - facts about the negative affects of extreme exercise on bone mass and stress hormone levels(pg. 123). If you love to run marathons, that's great. Just be aware of the need for bringing your nervous system out of the fight or flight mode (which causes stress hormones to flood your body) afterwards. Do your Hanna Somatic Exercises to reboot the muscular system and give yourself time to recover.

If you aren't an extreme exerciser, you're in the majority.  Always be sure to bring movement of all sorts into your day and that, in addition to sensible nutrition, should stand you in good stead for a long time.

Ring Out the Aches and Pains and Ring in Good Health - Happy 2012!

A short note to all of you to say Happy New Year!

For all of you I wish the most important thing of all: good health, awareness of yourself and your purpose and a year filled with learning.

On that note, here's the simplest, best message for all of us to begin 2012.  It's a video many of you may have already seen, but it's worth seeing again. Taking time for yourself doesn't have to mean sacrifice or pain. Just a small bit of time.

Adding daily movement to your life can change your life and your health.

Taking care of ourselves isn't just for ourselves, either. It's for those we live with - our friends, family, coworkers and community.

Thomas Hanna once told his students, "there is NO ONE in the world who will care as much about your body as you."


How To Relieve That Pain in the... Glutes

Yesterday I got an email from an attorney who'd bought my DVD several months ago:

Your first DVD was great. For months, I had a recurring pain at the top of my right glute, which radiated down my leg. After figuring out which Somatic Exercises worked best to relieve the tightness and regain the ability to relax the muscle, the pain is gone and if it recurs, I know how to relieve it.

I asked him which Somatic Exercises were the ones he'd figured out worked best for him. His answer was:

  • Cross lateral arch and curl
  • Walking lessons, part 2

People are individuals, yet all humans' brains respond the same way to stress. This is the beauty of Thomas Hanna's discoveries. Every human being tightens the back or front of the body, or the side of the body when responding to stress, be it mental, emotional, or physical.

I created my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD so that people could learn to relieve pain on their own, at home. It's great to hear from those, like the customer above, who has devoted time to getting to know his body again, and refining his physical awareness (proprioception) in order to figure out where his Sensory Motor Amnesia was and how to reverse it rapidly. I believe this can occur when we FEEL our Somatic Exercises, rather than simply DO them. When you FEEL your movement, you know what works for you and what doesn't.

FEELING is different from DOING

When we DO something, our attention is often more in our head than in our body. I've seen many students "perform" the Somatic Exercises more concerned as to whether they're "doing them correctly" than to "what the movement FEELS like as they do it.  When feeling and sensing, rather than rote "doing" is the medium, you'll find the results to be superior. Feeling and sensing opens the channels of learning. Your brain starts to coordinate your muscles in such a way that the movement becomes easier and easier to do. It's much like a deer treading a path in the forest.

Here are a few pointers about the benefit of these two movements for anyone with pain in their gluteal muscles - especially in the gluteus minimus, at the "top" of the buttocks:

Cross Lateral Arch and Curl

This exercise creates more rounding through the front of the body on a diagonal plane, which helps to further lengthen the back muscles on the diagonal. Not only do you lengthen through the upper back to curl yourself up, elbow toward the opposite knee, but you also release the lower back muscles on the side of the knee that curls up toward the elbow. If the top of your buttocks (glut minimus) is tight and painful, this movement will help release the lower back and the buttock as they coordinate together.

Walking Exercises, Part 2

This movement, done after "Part 1," which I call the "knee dropping inward" movement - reminds the pelvis that it can move in a nice rocking movement, as it should when we walk. The back muscles, waist, and abdominals all lengthen to allow the leg and knee to move over the foot, as would occur in walking. Many of us learn to keep our pelvis rigid when we walk. This makes for clunky, inefficient walking, and contributes to hip pain. We don't want to walk like "America's Next Top Model," but it's important to allow the hips and pelvis to move slightly in walking. For those with buttock pain, this movement reminds the muscles of the core to lengthen and relax as they coordinate together to move the pelvis. The buttock contracts slightly in this exercise, as it coordinates the walking movement.

Learn these movements, and many more using my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.

Feeling Good Can Be Oh, So Simple!

What a great way to start my day: I checked my email and saw this enthusiastic feedback from a client I worked with only a few days ago. She could barely walk when she'd come to see me, and was sure that something was wrong with her hips. She wasn't sleeping well, and she walked stiffly with little discernible movement in the center of her body. Here's what she had to say:

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I walked into your office in pain, limping, and thinking I needed an MRI! I walked out with hips, arms, shoulders moving and feeling great - and have remained so with daily Somatics practice, including stopping frequently to do your "Standing Somatics" reaching exercise -- that gets rid of any beginning kinks! This weekend I took a long trail-clearing hike, up hill, rough terrain, picking up limbs, etc, whereas the weekend before I could barely walk up a slight incline. I went for a great horseback ride yesterday and felt great afterwards.

And it's all so simple! We just need periodic reminders so we don't slip back into old habits... like the green light "arching" posture.  I've become aware this week of how doing that even so slightly throws my hips out of kilter.

Anyway, many thanks again.  We're off tomorrow on a car trip from the farm across the Canadian Waterfront Trail with hiking/biking excursions that I'll now be able to do!"

Come to a Somatics class, make an appointment, and learn how you can get the same results that this client did.

Hanna Somatics teaches YOU to fix YOURSELF

...and reverse back pain, neck, shoulder, foot and knee pain, sciatica, fatigue and that feeling of "getting old." It is education, not therapy. It is simple, appropriate for all ages and fitness levels, and will teach you to maintain the movement and control you need to age well and stay healthy. And, as my client proved, it can save health care dollars by avoiding costly and often unnecessary diagnostics.

Using the Feet for Better Movement

I have a client who complained to me that she can get down on the floor, but she can't get up. She loves to garden, but has resigned herself to bending over at the waist, with knees bent slightly, in order to plant, dig ,or pull weeds. This, she admits, only causes back pain.

Use full body movement to get up off the floor.

Last week I taught her a simple way of getting up off the floor. She can get onto her hands and knees with no problem. It's getting from her knees to her feet that poses the challenge. I taught her to tuck her toes under (like a runner at the starting line), then rock herself back and forth, from her hands to her toes - sensing the shift in weight from her hands to her feet. Then, when she felt balanced, she pushed with her hands and rocked back onto her feet, and slowly came up to standing. She did it twice and was very excited!

Get to know your feet. They're a crucial part of the sensory motor system.

When she returned to me last week she told me that she had a lot of trouble with the exercise and wasn't sure she could do it. She also mentioned "I absolutely hate going barefoot, even at the beach. It's torture!"  Sensing the root of her problem, I immediately segued into a lesson about her feet. For 20 minutes I had her play with her toes: stretching them, pulling them, seeing how far apart she could get one from the other, slowly pointing and flexing. I told her that the feet are one of the body's most important sensory organs, and that, when constantly confined to shoes, they lose muscle control and sensation.  Loss of awareness of one's feet, and the wearing of cushioned shoes is also implicated in an increased number of falls in senior citizens. I suggested taking every opportunity she could to walk barefoot.

When you can sense your feet you will move more easily.

Finally I had her stand up. She was shocked at how she was able to sense her feet and move them easily. She exclaimed, "I can lift my toes! I can't remember the last time I did that!" She wondered if "making friends" with her feet wouldn't maybe make barefoot walking more pleasant. I assured her it would.

Then I explained that, in attempting to rock back onto her feet to get up, her feet hadn't been able to feel the ground and help her out. She'd been missing a crucial part of the movement! Without feeling in her feet she hadn't been "grounded" enough for the muscles of her feet to flex and push to help her get up. Once she regained voluntary movement in her toes and feet, then she her "getting up off the floor" exercise would be a breeze! Reeducating her feet would improve her balance and stability as well.

Take a few minutes and play with your feet.

Stand and slowly roll up onto the balls of your feet, and then come down. Pull your toes, and notice how far up the leg the sensation goes. Then take a walk. Your feet will thank you.

Being able to sense and move the muscles of the feet is another factor in relieving back, hip and knee pain. Remember that the body is connected as a whole. When we walk, if we're unaware of how our feet meet the ground, we may be pounding down in a way that actually contributes to knee and hip pain. This pounding can, in turn, work its way up to the back.

Standing Tall, The Easy Way

Last summer I spent a month in India. As someone who observes the world through the lens of movement, I couldn't help but observe the way in which people moved. I saw old women squatting to wait for the bus or while cooking their food. I saw children playing and running with abandon. I noticed how people walked miles just to get to work. However, one thing stood out: I saw no rounded shoulders and hunched backs. In Hanna Somatic Education, we call that the Red Light Reflex. In much of Western medical thought it's the "posture of senility" or "old age." This hunching posture contributes directly to shallow breathing, back pain, neck and shoulder pain and compressed, painful joints. The photo at right gave me some insight into a possible reason why rounded shoulders and stooped posture was difficult to find: these female construction workers were carrying loads on their heads. In carrying and balancing their load, the belly and waist muscles were long and extended.The ribs were open and up. In addition, the  their hips swayed gently as they took small steps or climbed stairs.

Fluid and easy makes walking easier

It's impossible to carry a load on one's head if one is stooped, or if the hips are tight and don't sway, or if one takes large, fast steps (think running for the train!). Like an earthquake-proof building gently sways during a tremor, our bodies are supposed to move freely, twisting slightly as we walk or run. This allows for coordinated, efficient movement. Moving with a rigid torso, while thought to prevent back pain, can actually contribute to back pain!

Now try this movement exploration!

Lie down on the floor and relax. Breathe deeply and sense the center or your body. Do this for about one minute. Then stand

up and take a walk around the room. Walk your normal walk, but pay attention to what it feels like to walk:

  • How are your feet hitting the floor?
  • Are your arms swinging gently?
  • Where are your eyes looking? Up? Down?
  • Do your hips sway?
  • Are your shoulders hunched or straight?

Stop and put something light on your head, like a pillow. Hold it gently on both sides with your elbows out and up. Notice your ribs. Breath into them and let them expand with the breath. Notice how the abdominal muscles lengthen, yet contract to support the spine and the center of your body. Walk slowly, letting your hips sway and rotate gently. Breathe deeply as you walk. If possible, try this exercise barefoot; this allows for more awareness of the feet as you reach for the floor with each step. Thick sneakers or shoes actually get in the way of smooth walking and awareness.

Now take the pillow off of your head, slowly bring your arms to neutral, and walk. See if it's easier to walk with your torso upright, your hips swaying, and your spine stacked on top of your hips. How's your posture? Are you more on top of your hips as you walk? Are your legs swinging? Is it easier to move your hips?

This movement exploration is like the old fashioned exercise of putting a book on your head in order to achieve good posture! My clients tell me that this exercise has helped them eliminate their back pain and remind them not to slouch. Do this for several minutes, then lie down and sense the center of your body. Breathe deeply. Notice any differences. Take this awareness into your day and see how it affects your movement. Let me know how it goes!