How Hanna Somatics Helps Me Move Well Despite Labral Hip Tears

It’s time for an update. Several years ago I wrote several blog posts about hip pain, labral tear surgery, and how to help alleviate hip pain - not as a quick fix, but for the long term. Since then I’ve had countless emails from readers asking advice about hip pain and labral tears: which exercises are best for it, can Hanna  Somatics really help and advice on whether to have labral tear surgery or not.hips

So where do I stand now that I’ve had labral tears for several years, a very active schedule and haven’t had surgery?

I’m moving really well. I feel strong, I am still quite flexible and I know how to honor my limits to keep myself out of pain. You see, I am a poor candidate for surgery (I also have osteoarthritis in my hips from years of dance training and injuries), so there has only ever been only one clear choice for me: to incorporate the exercises, concepts and principles of Hanna Somatics into my daily life. This includes awareness of my emotional responses to stress, my postural habits, and my daily movement habits.

That means that I have had to walk the talk and be the example of what Hanna Somatics has to offer those in pain: the ability to become self-aware, self-monitoring, and self-correcting in their movement and muscular control. I know which activities help me and which ones don't and I know that if I "push on through" because I want to be competitive, and I ignore how my body is feeling, I will be sore for a few days afterwards.

I was diagnosed with labral tears after recovering from a skiing accident, which resulted in an ACL tear. As a Somatic Educator, I knew that my tears were the cumulative result of years of Sensory Motor Amnesia as well as minor, but very important, imbalances in the center of my body. For some people labral tears occur suddenly due to an accident or over time due to overuse; baseball players, martial artists and dancers are athletes who frequently suffer from labral tears, all due to repetitive movements.

The Trauma Reflex contributes to labral hip tears

If you have a labral hip tear, you've probably had an accident, injury, surgery, or performed repetitive IMG_3857actions - all of which evokes a sudden and powerful reflex called the Trauma Reflex. The brain, the command center of the muscles, loses its ability to contract and lengthen the muscles of the waist and trunk voluntarily and equally. You find yourself slightly tilted to one side, the pelvis twisted and leg length  a bit  uneven. Your gait changes and smooth walking or running becomes a thing of the past.

Here is what I have advised my readers:

If you have a labral tear and decide to have surgery, the surgery won't fix the muscular imbalance that you undoubtedly have in the center of your body. Only you and your brain can do that through sensory motor retraining. Then, once the tear is fixed, it's important to restore full muscle function, balance and coordination through Clinical Somatics sessions and daily Hanna Somatic Exercises. If you don't, you just may experience continued tightness in that hip, or aches and pains in other areas of the body due to compensation.

If your goal is to avoid a hip replacement (or put it off indefinitely) then the smartest thing you could do is to get the muscles which attach into and move the hip socket to release and relax. This is what I have done. Reduce excess muscle tension and free up your movement. This will take the pressure off the injured area and help you regain freedom of movement.

No matter what you decide, improved somatic awareness and control is what will change the course of your recovery from one of pain and limited movement to one of greater movement and self-control.

So what does my daily practice look like? There are so many Somatic Exercises to learn and choose from, yet some are what I call the “non-negotiables.” All this in my next blog 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.

How Clinical Somatics Can Bring Tiger Woods Back Into Competition

Tiger Woods is taking a leave of absence from golf. Even he seems confused about what the real problem is. Does he need to keep changing his swing? Improve his attitude with sports psychology? Get stronger? Tiger has tried just about everything, from the best back surgeons to his trusted physical therapists and coaches, yet nothing has worked for the long term. His story is, unfortunately, all too common. He is hitting his head against the medical wall because his trusted practitioners and trainers are trying to "fix" him from the outside in, when the problem all along has been happening on the inside - within his own sensory motor system.

Tiger Woods has Sensory Motor Amnesia.

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The reason none of his treatments are working for the long term is because Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) can only be eliminated by learning, through movement, how to release and relax his muscles at the level of the nervous system. He is unaware of how he has adapted physically to the accidents, injuries, and repetitive movements and stresses of his life. These have all taught his muscles to stay contracted and never fully release. These adaptations of muscular holding, all happening within the brain, have changed the way he moves and his once powerful and accurate golf swing has gone by the wayside. He can, however, get it back.

The brain teaches muscles how to move; that's how elite athletes learn to move so efficiently. Tiger's brain has taught him to contract his waist and trunk rotators in response to the constant twisting inherent in golf as well as in response to the accidents and surgeries he has experienced. This habitual pattern is called the Trauma Reflex.

Tiger can very easily get back on top in golf once he learns how to eliminate his Sensory Motor Amnesia and regain an accurate sense of himself - from the inside out. He has not only lost control of his muscular system; he's lost control of what it feels like to be Tiger Woods. Restoring muscle function and reducing excess muscle tonus is a learning process that will not come through traditional strengthening/stretching, PT or surgery.

Sensory Motor Amnesia can only be eliminated by changing the way the brain senses and controls the muscles

His doctors and trainers don't know what to do with him because SMA doesn't show up on MRI's, X-rays or blood tests. Surgery only exacerbates SMA because it creates even more muscular compensation and adaptation in the brain/muscle sensory motor connection. It doesn't address the root of the problem: his muscles are sub-cortically (involuntarily/unconsciously) contracted all the time and his brain cannot recruit his muscles accurately, nor relax them fully.

Mo Skelton, a physical therapist at McCurtain Memorial Hospital, recommends the following advice:

Woods must now take time to listen to his body, get off the course and fully restore his strength and mobility. Rest is not what he needs most. He needs strength. Woods must focus on strengthening his erector spinae muscles, his abdominals and obliques as secondary stabilizers, and his posterior chain for function. 

This is the the same recycled myth about muscle pain that fitness trainers have been teaching for decades: when you lose your form or experience back pain it's because you're weak. This couldn't be further from the truth. In actuality, muscle pain develops because the muscles are so strong they cannot, physiologically, relax nor recruit properly. Strengthening only makes things worse.

What Tiger Woods needs is not more muscles, a bigger squat or stronger obliques. He needs to learn to relax the muscles of his back and waist.

And I would add that yes, he needs to take time off and devote himself to learning to reverse his Sensory Motor Amnesia and regain skilled cortical control of his sensory motor system. It won't take long for him to be back on top. 

Tiger needs to learn how to pandiculate with Somatic Exercises, rather than stretch and strengthen and spend time working with a skilled Clinical Somatic Educator in a clinical setting. He needs to de-habituate the stress reflexes he is stuck in so he can regain balance in the center of his body and move freely again. I would love to see Tiger back on top of his game and back in control of his life. With Clinical Somatics he will find that not only does his life go better, but his golf game comes right back where it used to be - and possibly even stronger than before.

Here is a sample of a good place for him to start:

The More You Move The Smarter You Become

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Improve Posture and Gain Body Confidence

There is a widely held belief perpetuated by Yoga teachers and many medical practitioners that when people are stooped or slumped it is because their backs are weak. I hear this from my clients repeatedly:

I need to strengthen my back; I can't hold myself up because my back muscles are weak.

Not always true.

The root cause of the problem is that the front of your body has learned to so stay so tight you can no longer IMG_3852voluntary relax it and stand up straight. This is a learned response to the stress. It is called the Red Light Reflex. Yes, long hours of sitting contributes to the problem and can habituate this reflex. The antidote to this learned posture is not to draw the shoulders back like a soldier at attention. That action is an exaggeration of what we think of as "standing up straight." It, too, is a reflex called the Landau Response, or Green Light Reflex.

When people are stuck in this kind of posture there is a basic absence of somatic awareness and sensory motor control over the muscles. You may know that you're slumped and be upset about it, but you don't know how to change it. Pulling on and strengthening the antagonist muscles (in this case, the back muscles) only creates an equal and opposing contraction through the back of the body.

The solution is process of education: your brain, the command center of your muscles, must teach the muscles of the front of the body to release, relax, and lengthen. Then, and only then, you will be able to begin to coordinate the back of the body with the front of the body in order to stand up to a neutral straight and maintain that posture voluntarily.

This yoga video is typical of the misinformation given to those who want to learn how to stand tall and why one would have trouble standing tall, shoulders at neutral. The teacher is asking the viewer to do something that the brain actually doesn't want you to do: tighten the shoulders, lift the head, but relax the buttocks. The buttock naturally coordinate with the back and shoulders. The brain, which organizes you as a system, contracts all the muscles on the back of the body when the head is lifted and shoulders contract.

Neutral and balanced posture is confident posture.

Here are a few excellent Somatic Exercises that will teach you relax and release the front and back of your body so you can stand taller and more confident. Do them slowly, gently and with awareness to the movement.

The Flower will begin to teach you how to release the muscles of the front of the body that, when chronically contracted in response to stress, round you forward. The more you do this movement, the more your brain will be able to self-correct your posture should you begin to slump again.

The Back Lift, from my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD, is the most profoundly effective Somatic Exercise IMG_3540for getting your brain back in control of the muscles of the back of the body - relaxing and releasing them so the front and the back can coordinate together. For a video about the Back Lift click here.

The Washrag brings the back, front and sides of the body together as a connected whole. It helps to open the front in a safe, natural way.

Somatic Exercises teach you to regain awareness of the way in which you move, how you adapt to stress and what it feels like to regain control of your body and movement. They are the best way to improve posture and find the easiest, most efficient way to move. Rather than doing mindless repetitions of strengthening, you will learn to sense and move voluntarily. Strength is important, but never strengthen something you can't feel.

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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Getting Back to Basics in 2015

2014 was a brilliant year for Hanna Somatics. Thank you to all those around the world - from Australia to Calgary, the UK, Norway, Germany, and the US - who supported me in my teaching and trainings. Thankfully, the word "somatic" is no longer foreign to most people's ears. New, more somatic, and exploratory movement disciplines are becoming more popular. Yoga teachers, Pilates teachers, personal trainers, massage therapists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths are teaching Somatic Exercises as a complement to their primary practice.

The people I taught around the world this past year are thirsting for a somatic approach to pain relief and mindful, life long movement. They understand that the body, which for many is the source of unhappiness, can be our own powerful "canary in the mineshaft" that signals an imbalance - in all areas of our lives. One of the safest gateways to "re-membering" who you are, what you want and what is basic to your quality of life is through your own somatic experience: your body.

Many turn away from the slow, mindful somatic exercises as "too boring" or "too slow." I understand that. Yet when it comes to learning to master movement, slow is the new fast.

We run marathons, but we cannot breathe into our bellies or swing our hips. We cannot move slowly, but we strive to do 100 sit-ups as fast as we can. We have back pain, but rush around taking care of others with no time for ourselves. We don't see that our emotions and lifestyle have a profound impact on our muscle tension and level of happiness. There's a disconnect here that, over time, will translate into a "what happened to me?!" experience that just may be your wake up call.

Enter "the basics."

I love Dan John's blog post, Going From Point A To Point B. His advice may be geared towards strength training, yet it is a life lesson that, to my ears, is purely somatic: if you want to get to Point B (the Olympics, Super Bowl, weight loss) you need to know where Point A is. Once you know where Point A is you can map out a direct line to your goal. Point A, from my perspective as a Somatic Educator is what it feels like to be in your body - right now, today. But there's more...

The Basics

A free and easy walk. If your goal is to run a marathon, but your pelvis is rigiIMG_7079d, your legs don't swing easily and you "clunk" when you walk... you need to learn to walk freely. The is the quintessential human movement. We want to be able to walk - unaided - well into old age.

Pandiculate often! If you still stretch, learn to pandiculate. Cats and dogs pandiculate up to 40 times a day. Pandiculation restores full muscle function and length. Just slowly lengthen out your limbs, as if you were just waking up from a nap.

The ability to hike your hips up and down (like a slow salsa). If you don't know where your waist muscles are and can't isolate them one at a time, it's time to learn. Hips and a pelvis that move up, down, forward and back contribute to fluid walking.

The ability to move your shoulders in opposition to your hips (think shoulder shimmies). Do your shoulders move in gentle opposition to your hips when you walk or do you walk like a refrigerator, solid as a block with no movement in the center, swaying back and forth? If yes, then this is why you might be losing your balance. If your shoulders are stiff, your hips will be stiff. They're connected. That's basic.

The ability to twist through the torso. If you walk stiffly (see above) and can't remember IMG_1769the last time you twisted your upper body in opposition to your lower body, it's time to regain that skill. Your spine needs to be able to twist to help you walk freely.

Sadly, many people have completely lost connection with a sense of what it feels like to be in their bodies. For them Point A is taking the time to learn to sense yourself. Take all the time you need because what you cannot sense you cannot control. This applies to your body, your life, your choices and your dreams. Change comes first through awareness, then patient, persistent and fun practice.

All these basic movement skills can be learned through Somatic Exercises.

Click here for Pain-Free and Move Without Pain DVDs.

Click here to attend a class.

Click here to find a practitioner who can help you learn to move well in 2015.

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!

Politics Can Be a Pain in the Neck - Literally

The midterm elections are over. The results are in. But are the aches and pains of election season over in your body? Did political ads create residual aches and pains? Political ads are designed to elicit emotional reactions and responses - those of anger, fear, hope, or excitement. political-attack-ads-slide11-1Emotions create muscular tension in the body, as the brain responds to any and all feedback in the environment, whether mental, emotional, physical, or even imagined! Political ads, repeated over and over again can cause tension in your muscles that, after a while, your brain can no longer voluntarily control.  Just as a baseball player practices swinging a bat repeatedly; it commits an efficient, effective swing to muscle memory, just as our emotional reactions to overplayed political ads create habituated muscular tension. It can become embodied stress that we feel at a loss to control or change.

First comes awareness, then comes change.

For example, if your response to a political ad caused you to feel fear, worry or a sense of instability ("That's it! I'm moving to Canada!"), the muscles of the front of your body contracted strongly. This is called the Red Light Reflex - a primal response to fear which causes us to withdraw inward. It contributes to most chronic neck and shoulder pain, shallow breathing and fatigue.

If your response to those ads is anger, panic or agitation, you may feel the muscles in the back of your body getting tight, as if to flee, take action - "Do something for Pete's sake! The country is falling apart!" This is the Green Light Reflex - the root cause of most chronic back pain.

If your back, shoulders, neck, etc. hurt more than usual in the last month, it is probably due to some  very effective political marketing strategy. Beware - the holiday shopping season is upon us already and is no different in its affect on the body!

The stress of political campaigns will never go away - especially if you read newspapers and watch television. The good news is that humans have an innate ability to self-teach and choose their actions based upon trial and error and new information. Our enormous and impressive brain can learn whatever we put our focus on. We can also unlearn that which is not working to our advantage.

When you understand that change is effected first through awareness (How do you respond to your life stresses? What does it feel like to live in your body?) and then through action (what can I do to make a difference in how I feel?), you will be on the road to taking back control of your muscles, aches and pains and quality of life.

Click here to purchase the Pain-Free Somatics DVDs.

Click here to take a Somatic Movement class.

Click here for free self-care Somatic Movement videos.

Thank you to Tricia Engelking, RYT, SEC for her inspiration in writing this post.

All images taken from clotureclub.com

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!

Train for More Than the Gym - with Somatics!

Earlier this year I was interviewed on En*theos by one of the innovators of the functional fitness movement, Frank Forencich. In his most recent book, Beautiful Practice, he writes:

We are stuck in the middle of a mismatch. Our ancient bodies, wired by evolution for survival in a wild, natural habitat, are struggling to live in radically different  modern world. Challenges are everywhere: overwork, sedentary living, toxic foods, social chaos and habitat destruction surround us. This is what I call “The Primate’s Predicament.”

And now we’re suffering. Our bodies are suffering with lifestyle diseases, our minds are stressed, our spirits are confused. And our primitive, habitual responses just aren’t working.What we need is a practice, not just to alleviate our suffering, but to live the beautiful adventure we call life.

Movement is probably the most important element in the adventure of Life. Human beings learn through movement; it is in our nature as self-learners of the highest order. We have adapted over time because of the ability of our cortex to do one thing: LEARN. The question is, what is important to learn and adapt to and what is potentially harmful? How many people realize that learning how to relax and recover is a critically important aspect of good health? Stress resilience is a skill.

Humans adapt or die

I consider Hanna Somatic Exercises a critical part of one's daily practice. Our birthright as human beings is to move easily and effortlessly, yet it takes practice and skill. Learning to prepare yourself to move with intention and voluntary control can spell the difference between "successful" aging and the traditional idea of aging: inevitable decrepitude, pain, a cane and a slow demise.

What we are missing is the understanding that every part of the human body is interconnected. We are not "a knee," "a hip," "my tight psoas," or "that painful IT band." We are a system that moves in patterns, as an integrated whole. If one part of the system is out of balance, it causes an imbalance throughout the entire system. This system we call our "body" is efficient in the best of times, and completely out of control in the worst of times when, as we adapt to stress, we forget what it feels like to move and sense as we did when we were children. Somatic Exercises recreate the basic movements of bending, reaching, twisting, side bending and extending - the non-negotiable basics of all movement that came so easily to all of us long ago. They remind our brain who is in control!

Tomorrow in Astoria, NY I will lead a Somatic Exercise Coach Training for a group of fitness trainers at the Matrix Fitness Center. It will be the first such training of personal fitness trainers whose goal it is to learn more about how Somatic awareness, the first step to any movement practice, can positively shift the course of one's training regime, whether the goal is to lift weights, play tennis, do yoga, dance, train for a marathon, or simply walk without pain.

A somatic perspective is long overdue in the fitness arena. Many people don't feel as if they've gotten anything out of their workout if they aren't hurting; somehow, they say, they "just don't feel anything." The belief in "no pain, no gain" is the quick road to misery and a short-lived athletic career. There is a more intelligent way to approach movement - one that the trainers tomorrow will begin to experience: Less is more and slow is fast when it comes to learning how to move well.

Relieve Hip Pain Easily and Quickly

Everyone these days seems to have hip pain - and it's usually one-sided. To demystify this right from the start, most chronic, one-sided hip pain is due to habituation of a very common reflex: the Trauma Reflex. This is a reflex that is invoked involuntarily in response to accidents, injuries, surgeries, or falls. It can also become habituated due to using a computer mouse, holding a baby on one's hip, or holding a heavy bag on one shoulder. The muscles of one side of the waist and trunk become tighter than the other side. This changes the way you walk and can lead to plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, and sciatica.

You must change the sensory motor nervous system in order to relieve muscle pain.

Think about it: if you could relax the muscles you would, right? But you can't. This is because you have learned so well to adapt and adjust to the stresses of your life (physical, mental, emotional, and occupational) that you don't even notice your movement or posture until pain sets in. The key to long-term pain relief is to learn to "reboot" your brain and nervous system so your muscles learn to fully relax. You are the only one who can do this; in Hanna Somatics we teach you how.

The first step is know what to look for. I like to ask clients to pay attention to specific things as they walk: Do both arms swing gently? Does one hip move more than the other? Do you land more heavily on one foot or the other? Do you notice a difference from one side to the other? Invariably even clients who say, "I've never paid attention to how I walk," will tell me that they notice one side moving while the other side feels stiff.

"Dorothy" came to me with pain in one hip, and discomfort IMG_1865when walking. She was very active, and loved to garden.  Notice in the photo at right how the right hip is higher up than the left hip. Notice the hem of her shirt; it curves up and to the right. Her right arm and hip are touching. Notice the difference on the left side; her back is more relaxed and there is space between her arm and hip. Her right shoulder slumps down while her left shoulder is level. This is a typical Trauma Reflex posture.

It wasn't surprising that Dorothy had discomfort when she walked. She was literally out of balance, with one foot and leg moving differently from the other, like a car with a flat tire. This kind of muscular imbalance creates hip pain on one side of the body; if it is not addressed it can also contribute to structural damage.

Dorothy didn't notice these imbalances until I pointed them out. She initially said that she felt IMG_1866balanced and even! Why? Because this "out of balance" posture had become an unconscious - therefore, uncontrollable - habit. In order to release the muscles around the hip joints and pelvis and relieve her hip pain, she needed to learn to regain conscious awareness and voluntary control of the muscles of side bending and twisting - the very ones that were hitching her pelvis up and tightening around her hip joint.

After only one session, she was able to relax her right hip so that it was even and level with her left hip. Notice the difference in the level of her hips in the photo to the right. The hem of her shirt is even as are her shoulders.

After a hands-on clinical Somatics session that addressed the muscles of the Trauma Reflex, I asked her to walk down the hall one more time. She noticed that her gait was smooth and effortless, and her hip pain was greatly relieved. I sent Dorothy home with several easy Somatic Exercises (arch and flatten, the side bend, and the washrag) - to do at home to reinforce the improvement she had made. I saw her her a few more times to help her release the muscles of the back and front of her body, and she reports that she continues to feel looser and more comfortable both in her hips and in her walk. It's amazing what a little awareness and movement can do!

How Technology Causes Neck Pain

Recently I read this article in the Royal Gazette about one woman's saga of neck pain. Her struggle to reconcile with the fact that her iPad caused her recurring neck pain is a common functional adaptation to our increasingly technological world. Most of my clients sit for up tcradleo 12 hours a day hunched at the computer. They say that their job is taking a toll on their health and their ability to move freely.

Trying to sit up straight and view my computer screen is killing my body. I feel as if I'm getting "old" before my time.

Their doctors tell them that they have degenerative disks, yet neck pain is merely the symptom, not the cause of the problem. The root cause is the habituation of a well known, yet ignored involuntary stress reflex common to all humans and vertebrate animals: the Startle Reflex (or Red Light Reflex). This reflex is invoked in response to fear, anxiety and worry, the need to protect oneself, or repetitive slumping over a computer, smartphone or iPad.

The "posture of senility" and fear is the posture of the computer generation.

Migraines-in-teenagersWhat does the Red Light Reflex look like? Hunched and slumped shoulders, face thrust forward, chest collapsed, tight belly, rounded upper back. This posture used to be consider "elderly" posture, yet age has nothing to do with slumped, hunched shoulders; this is a functional adaptation to one's technology as well as one's emotional stress. Habituation of this reflex can lead to headaches, TMJ, neck and shoulder pain, shallow breathing and fatigue. The solution is to restore awareness of one's posture and movement, and learn to release and relax the muscles involved so you can return to a neutral, pain-free posture.

A picture is worth a thousand words and the photo at right says it all. This young boy looks a lot like teenagers I see walking around, ignoring each other, immersed in their smartphones.  This posture has become the "new normal" for many. Even small children are boy with computerbecoming experts at slumping.

As you read this post, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are sitting like this little boy, mesmerized by the computer screen? Is the back of your neck tight?
  • Is your stomach tight?
  • Are you breathing deeply?
  • How do the tops of your shoulders feel? If you straighten your neck to a comfortable, neutral position can you see your computer screen?

Hanna Somatic Exercises can help reverse neck pain and improve breathing.

Migraines, eye strain, shallow breathing, thoracic outlet syndrome, TMJ and mid/upper back pain are conditions that can develop due to excessive technology use and habituation of a slumped, Red Light Reflex posture. The muscles involved in this reflex (and posture) are always at the ready: to check the phone with the neck tilted forward or crane the neck to see the computer screen. Somatic Exercises and pandiculation help you hit the reset button in your brain (the command center of your muscles) so you can relieve your pain, regain your movement and get your life back.

Try these Somatic Exercises

Remember - movement is medicine. The brain teaches you to adapt to your environment - for better or for worse. Today's western industrialized society is more and more sedentary and people take fewer and fewer breaks to stand up, shake their hips, roll their shoulders, stretch out their arms or jump up and down.

Remind your muscles that they don't have to stay tight and frozen; get up and move! Circle your arms, do the Twist, jump up and down, take some long, deep breaths and slowly roll your shoulders. And then go for a walk. Preferably without your phone.

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

How Computer Work Causes Shoulder Pain and Hip Pain

Overuse on one side of the body can create muscular imbalance and pain.

The most common muscle pain complaint people contact me about is hip pain - specifically right sided hip pain often accompanied by tightness in the ribs and waist on the same side.  There is invariably accompanying same-side shoulder pain, usually on the top of the shoulder and into the neck. To top it off, 100% of these people sit at a computer nearly all day.

Many of these people have also experienced an accident or injury that has caused them to "cringe" and contract in an involuntary brain reflex called the Trauma Reflex.  The trauma reflex involuntarily contracts one side of the waist and trunk rotators, which results in a slight side bending and twisting of the waist muscles on one side of the body. This occurs due to the need to compensate for an injury or to avoid pain on one side of the body.

Try this: Visualize sitting at your computer. Do you lean into your screen to see by thrusting your face forward? Do you reach for your mouse by rounding the shoulder forward and collapsing slightly in your ribcage? Do this do you sense a twinge of pressure or pain into your hip and up into your shoulder and neck when you do these movements?

Now look in the mirror. Does your posture like either of these photos?:

 

The photos above show a specific pattern of overuse on the computer. Look at the photo on the left and notice how the shoulder on the right side sits lower than the left shoulder. Look at the wrinkles in the woman's shirt right under her armpit and shoulder blade which indicates tight shoulder and waist muscles that pull the shoulder down.

Look at the photo on the right. Notice the same effect, only this time from the front. The shoulder on the left side (the client's right side) is pulling noticeably downward, causing the ribs to contract. Again, the telltale wrinkles in the shirt just under the armpit let you know that there are muscles tightening unconsciously all the time, while my client is standing "at ease."

If you are collapsed and contracted in the center of the body, your hip joint will also be tight.

Some studies show that between 70-90% of people are right handed. This means that most people working on computers also use their mouse with their right hand - reaching, holding the right shoulder still, and slumping slightly into one hip as they type. No wonder so many computer users also complain of shoulder pain!

But how does collapsing/slumping on one side of the body create hip pain and shoulder pain?

The graphic on the right will help you understand: this shows the external oblique muscles (the "waist muscles") that connect your ribs to your pelvis. The internal oblique muscles attach down into iliac crest of the pelvis. Both muscles help to twist the body and flex it laterally. They act like an accordion to bend the body to the side and enable the torso to turn. They are instrumental in moving the hips up and down and stabilizing the torso side-to-side.

If you habitually contract this muscle group, both the origin and the insertion of the muscles will become tight... all the way up into the ribs, shoulders, and neck, and down into the hip. The muscles will learn to stay tightly contracted and no longer able to fully contract, nor relax (Sensory Motor Amnesia) and pain will develop. The key is to improve awareness of your posture and movement habits, then consciously restore the muscles to their original length and function. Your pain will begin to diminish, your balance will improve, and your ability to move both of your hips and shoulder equally will return.

If you work at a computer and experience hip pain, shoulder pain or low back pain, you can choose to live without it. There are specific Hanna Somatic Exercises that can help you reverse this problem.

Products that can help you reverse your pain on your own:

You can also contact Martha for an online Skype session or one-on-one clinical session.

How Somatic Exercises Can Teach You To Get Rid of "Degenerative Disc Disease"

I recently read an article about Mike Crawshaw, a young British singer, who stated that his "spine is crumbling" and to avoid any potential harm through surgery, he chose to exercise. One doctor is quoted as saying, ‘The right kind of exercise can be helpful. You can strengthen the back muscles that support everything. This helps deal with the spasms in the affected muscles that cause pain. It’s possible to help with these problems without surgery.’ Crawshaw made the best decision for himself by finding a way to strengthen his back muscles. The doctor's statement, however, isn't completely correct; strengthening back muscles "to support everything" will not help deal with muscle spasms in the areas that cause pain. If back muscles are stuck in a state of heightened tension that pulls the discs closer together, you are more likely to "strengthen your pain" than to relieve it.

First here is a perspective on degenerative discs from a Somatic Education perspective. Then we will discuss strengthening the back in order to "support" the allegedly weak spine:

Is a "degenerative disc" caused by a disease process or is it a case of poor muscle function, which results in compressed, herniated and otherwise weakened discs?  The label "degenerative disc disease" sounds like a pathology that supposedly develops with age. Yes, arthritic changes can emerge due to age, poor diet, lack of sufficient water, lack of movement and overuse injuries; all of these can contribute to disc problems.  Most "degenerative discs" that I have seen in my practice are another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia, which can be eliminated when one learns to regain control of one's muscular system, improve nervous system function of the muscles, and restore muscle length.

Muscles put pressure on discs. Release the tight muscles and the discs have more room to move.

In an X-ray, discs that are squeezed tightly together look as if they're X-rayabout to crumble, causing the spine to buckle like an unstable building. Look at the X-ray on the right. Notice how one disc (the black arrow) has a lot of space, while the other (white arrow) is squeezed together. It doesn't look good, does it? The spaces between the discs are uneven and the spine is being pulled into an uneven "archer's bow," which gives the appearance of excess pressure on the lower vertebra (white arrow).

But what exactly pulls the spine into this shape? The muscles, of course.

 

And why would the muscles pull on the spine like this? They are stuck in what Thomas Hanna called the "Green Light Reflex," a reflex that contracts the muscles to prepare them for action. This reflex, like all reflexes is simply an unconditioned response to stress. The problem occurs when it becomes conditioned and habituated; the brain can literally forget how to relax the muscles. Here's the thing: you can't see muscles on an X-ray; all you can see is the result of the bones being pulled by the muscles.

Never strengthen something you can't feel.

Degenerative disc disease is a functional problem of the sensory motor system, not dissimilar to many other musculoskeletal problems that are deemed structural by the medical world. Once you lose awareness of your movement and how the way in which you respond and adapt to stress (mentally, emotionally and physically) you, too, may develop problems with your discs. There is a solution that doesn't involve surgery: Clinical Somatic Education and Hanna Somatic Exercises.

We all need to be strong, so awareness of what you can and cannot feel and control in your body is the first step to strengthening. The second step is to regain full muscle function and length. Once this is achieved, your brain now works with a muscle that is not being restricted by Sensory Motor Amnesia. Think of it this way: moving with Sensory Motor Amnesia is like trying to drive with the emergency brake on. Once Sensory Motor Amnesia is eliminated, create an enjoyable strengthening routine and be sure to include Somatic Exercises as a warm-up and cool-down to maintain optimum muscle function.

The Link Between Neck Pain and Computer Work

The photo at right is a classic example of today's typical "computer slouch."

Look at the angle of the neck, the slump of the chest, and the rounded shoulders. If you sit like that long enough, you will develop neck, shoulder, and back pain. You might even find it difficult to take a full breath. This is called the Startle Reflex. Thomas Hanna called it the Red Light Reflex.

It is rare to meet someone nowadays who doesn't spend significant amounts of time on the computer.

Even senior citizens are now reconnecting with old friends, not to mention staying in touch with grandchildren, via Facebook and email. Children are beginning to use computers on a daily basis, both in school and at home - often in place of outdoor play. Hundreds of millions of people work at computer terminals, often for hours at a stretch without getting up.

Any repeated movement or posture becomes a habit.

If you have to sit for hours, with elbows bent, wrists immobile and fingers typing rapidly, the brain will teach the muscles to be ready to sit and type again, in just the same manner, the next day. The wrists will be tight, the biceps tighter than usual to hold the arms steady and the neck will hold your head right where it needs to be in order to look at your computer screen. Eventually this learned posture can lead to muscular pain, TMJ, carpal tunnel syndrome, back, neck, and shoulder problems. This state of chronically contracted muscles is called Sensory Motor Amnesia. No amount of strengthening and stretching can get rid of this. You must learn how to sense and move your muscles again in order to regain freedom of movement and reverse this posture.

Children have the same potential as adults to become stuck in an habituated, slumped posture - one that tightens the chest, restricts breathing, overuses the back, neck, and shoulder muscles, and can eventually lead to postural dysfunction and muscular pain. They are learning, at an increasingly young age, to slump and tighten the front of their body as they play video games or use their iPads. Encouraging children to spend time outdoors moving - running, riding bicycles, jumping, climbing trees, playing - will go a long way in keeping a child aware of his body and healthier in the long run.

Here are a few helpful Somatic Exercises you can do at your desk every hour. They will teach you to release, relax, and lengthen your muscles - and eliminate neck and shoulder pain - while increasing body awareness.

The Flower - This movement teaches the muscles of the front of the body to release and lengthen so you can stand up to a relaxed and balanced neutral again. This will also help you breath more deeply and fully.

Here are some neck pandiculations that help me when I have to spend time at the computer:

Turn your head to the right at a 45 degree angle.

Slowly tighten your left shoulder up toward the ear, as you slowly tighten your neck back toward the left shoulder blade.

You'll feel a contraction at the top of the shoulder and on the left side of the neck.

Slowly lengthen out of the contraction, and allow the neck to lengthen as the chin points to the right chest. The shoulder relaxes back to neutral.

Repeat 3 times, then do the same sequence on the other side.

Remember to move slowly for greater awareness in retraining your muscles to relax.

You are teasing out the muscle tightness, not by stretching, but by pandiculating - tightening first, then lengthening, much like a yawn. This movement should help you become more aware of the habit of hunching the shoulders. Once you're aware of a habit, it's more easily reversible.

Heal Herniated Discs with Hanna Somatics

I've gone to an acupuncturist, pain medicine doctor, sports medicine doctor, massage therapist, physical therapist - and they all told me, "you'll never get rid of this. It will never go away."

This is what my client, Joanne (not her real name) told me before her first clinical Somatics session. She had a herniated disc, severe back pain and sacroiliac joint pain. She had a feeling that "life's impacts," as she called them, had more of an effect on her than anything else. I agreed with her. I explained some basics about muscles and bones in order to demystify what up until then had been an elusive problem for her:

  • Muscles attach to bones and muscles move bones.
  • The brain and nervous system senses and moves your muscles.
  • The brain reflexively responds and adapts over time to stresses in the environment by tightening muscles in specific, full body patterns.
  • If these stress responses are on-going or severe enough (i.e. an accident), the brain and muscles learn to stay chronically contracted as if the stress were still occurring, even as if has stopped.
  • Because muscles learn to be really good at contracting and holding the body tightly, they must learn to relax and release. This can only be achieved through improving one's ability to sense and control one's muscles and movement.

Herniated discs are the structural result of poor muscle function.

With the exception of a traumatic accident, discs herniate because the muscles attach to them are so strongly contracted - and unable to relax - that they push the disc material out.  sciatica An X-ray can show a protrusion in your spine - but the question doctors fails to ask is, "What is happening in the muscles, that is putting excess pressure on the spine and discs?

Herniated discs are one of the most common muscle pain conditions I see in my clinical practice; they are yet another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia. More specifically, herniated discs are the result of habituation to two Somatic Stress Reflexes:

Trauma Reflex: The brain's response to an accident, injury, surgery or one-sided functional task (such as holding a baby on one hip). The muscles of the waist and trunk rotators contract on one side in order to avoid pain.  There is always a slight side bending or twist apparent in people with a trauma reflex. The waist muscles (the internal and external obliques, the quadratus lumborum, which "hikes" the pelvis on one side) cause an uneven pull on the lumbar spine (or on the cervical spine in the case of a cervical herniation). This, in affect, herniates the disc.

Green Light Reflex: This reflex contracts all the muscles of the back of the body, from sacrum to occiput, is a "call to action" response, invoked hundreds of times a day in our busy industrialized society. It is the cause of most chronic back pain. The muscles of the back contract strongly, yet feel weak and fatigued.

Over the course of five clinical Somatics sessions Joanne learned to release, relax and regain control overthe muscles of her waist, back and pelvis, all of which had become rigid and contracted over the years. She learned to pandiculate rather than stretch her muscles, restoring full muscle function and length to her weary muscles. When she learned to release her back muscles her shooting pain began to disappear. Once her waist and trunk rotators began to soften she enjoyed moving her hips and pelvis without fear of pain when she walked. "My husband won't know what's walking in the door!" she laughed after one session.

Here are three of the most important exercises that Joanne did to help her relax her back and waist muscles - Arch and Flatten, to release tight back muscles, the Side Bend and the Washrag.

Joanne now understood that her loss of body awareness and muscle control - the very thing that had contributed to her muscle pain - had developed over time due to stress. The next step for her is to continue to improve her ability to self-sense and self-correct through her practice of Hanna Somatic Exercises. Life is movement, and the learning is hers to explore for the rest of her life. She will only get better and better.

Her doctors were wrong and she knew it all along. Her pain has gone away.

Self-Awareness, Here-ness, and There-ness

I remember the first time my daughter cried from joy. It was a profound moment of self-awareness.

last-unicornShe was seven years old. She was watching The Last Unicorn - a animated movie about a unicorn who learns that she will soon be the last of her kind and tries to defeat the king who is destroying them all.

(Spoiler alert!) She thought the unicorn was going to die at the end of the film, but it didn't. My daughter was so relieved and happy that she cried. She sat on the couch saying, "Oh Mommy, oh Mommy, I'm crying, I'm crying!" She was perplexed by this new expression of joy and relief that came through her tears. It was a spontaneous burst of emotion that came out of her experience of what Thomas Hanna called "Here-ness" - the first person, somatic experience that only she could have.

Thomas Hanna made the distinction between "Here-ness" (first person awareness) and  "There-ness," (third person awareness) some 30 years ago. The third person is an objective view of something from the outside looking in.  It's the perspective with which doctors view you as they look at your body. "You" are the charts, graphs, blood test results, or images on an MRI or X-ray. This is helpful when it comes to diagnosing a disease, yet it fails when seeking to understand why someone would have muscle pain, poor posture and other functional problems.

Most of us are encouraged to think about ourselves as a "body," as if the body were separate from us, as an "it." This thing called a body should be able to be fixed and shaped as well as look a certain way.

Here's the catch: no one knows what it feels like to be you, no matter their credentials. If you look at someone in the objective sense, only they can sense or experience what is going on inside of them; you will be unable to appreciate what they are experiencing from their perspective. This is what is called the "somatic perspective." We may live in a body, yet what happens in the body occurs from the inside out. Learning occurs from the inside out. Experience and wisdom is honed through one's first person awareness (one's "Here-ness") as we learn, grow and change through life. This is the awareness that Hanna Somatic Educators teach their clients to reclaim.

It is through awareness and sensory motor learning that chronic pain, postural dysfunction and lack of control over one's body can change for the long term.  Self-acceptance, appreciation of one's body and one's Self, and, for many, more happiness flow from there.

As children we discovered how to walk through exploration, trial and error. We incorporated that learning into our internal process; we gained confidence. This  process of sensory motor learning and internal monitoring, so immediate for children, is slowly "bleached away," as Hanna put it, by society and its emphasis on third person objective thinking. The real stuff  - the stuff of growth, strength, inspiration and real change, lies beneath - in our inner life.

Tapping into the "Here-ness" and letting it inform you can be strange, uncomfortable, and transformative, especially in a society that values youth, external looks and outside experts. You may find that things begin to change - that maybe even you begin to change. You may become stronger, more in control, more trusting and accepting of yourself.

When this occurs our experiences becomes richer and fuller. It is like returning to those moments of wonder as a child, when your joy overflows as you discover that the unicorn will indeed live on forever. These moments can inform us, improve our awareness of habits that no longer serve us or ways in which we run from ourselves.  Try it - you'll be amazed. And you may find yourself crying with joy when you least expect it.

The Last Unicorn is property of Rankin/Bass Production.

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