A Strong Core is a Core the Brain Can Control

I recently received this email from a woman who purchased Move Without Pain and my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD:

We are often told (by doctors, exercise experts in the media) that it is good to strengthen our "core muscles" - and often Pilates or Yoga is recommended for that purpose. We're also told that soft muscles and ligaments make us vulnerable to low back pain. Do Hanna Somatic exercises help strengthen our core, such that we don't necessarily have to add another type of strengthening exercise routine to our already busy lives?

"Core strengthening" is often considered a panacea for low back pain, and a lack of "core strength" is often blamed for low back pain! Neither one is accurate. In reality, most people with back pain, limited movement and poor posture are suffering from Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The muscles of the core respond involuntarily to stress reflexes by twisting or rotating  to avoid pain or injury (Trauma Reflex), slumping and drawing inward (Red Light/Startle Reflex) and contracting the back (Green Light/Landau Response) to move forward. If you continuously repeat these actions, the muscles of the core learn to stay tight, short and overly contracted. Strengthening muscles that have habituated to stress reflexes is a recipe for more pain. It simply doesn't work and can sometimes cause harm.

What is "the core" anyway?

"The core" of the body comprises the front, sides d5c71e70ed10d57c667d879908bb48ccand back of the body, from the skull to the pelvic floor and out to the hips. It is not just those abdominal muscles that we are told to suck in and draw up in order to support the back. The core includes the deep muscles of the back that flex and extend our spine and the muscles of the waist (which strap our ribcage to our pelvis) that allow us to laterally flex as well as twist. It is like a girdle of muscles that strap the upper and lower halves of the body to each other.

Repeatedly contracting your abdominals (as one does with sit-ups) creates excessive muscle tension that can prevent fluid, efficient and pain-free movement. Overly contracted abdominal muscles contribute to back pain, neck pain and pelvic floor dysfunction. When the muscles of the back, waist and abdominals are supple, relaxed, and fully under the brain's control, movement is easy and efficient. The trouble is, most people can tighten their core but cannot fully relax it. This poses a problem when it comes to strengthening for long term health and fitness.

Hanna Somatics helps strengthen the core and relieve low back pain by restoring full brain control of the muscles.

Hanna Somatic exercises do not intentionally teach you to strengthen the muscles of the posture pillow excore. They teach you to regain voluntary control over those muscles of your core which are, for most people, in a state of Sensory Motor Amnesia. They restore full muscle length at the brain level through slow, aware movement, and pandiculation so you can regain balance and have a supple core whose long muscles can flex, extend, side bend, and rotate voluntarily. Hanna Somatics doesn't take the place of the movement you love to do; it prepares you to do what like, only better.  Hanna Somatic Exercises teach you to find your own comfortable, neutral posture for support of your spine as you learn to sense and control your muscles from the inside out.

Is it important to strengthen the core?

Yes, it's important to be strong and it doesn't have to be a burden - one more thing you feel obligated to do in your busy life. It all depends on how you do it and what you choose to do.

We all need to be strong. Being strong stresses our skeleton in a good way, and can prevent osteoporosis as it aids in bone density. Strong muscles that the brain can control support and stabilize you in any given task so that you can maintain your physical independence as you age. Somatic Exercises improve your sensory motor awareness so you can self-monitor and self-correct your movement and posture in response to the stresses of life.

In another post I will discuss some ideas for functional daily strengthening that will be less of a burden and can be integrated into your life.

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

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

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

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

A word before you begin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movement to Clear the Mind and Reawaken the Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movement Mornings: Do You Start Your Day With Movement?

I am always inspired when I meet people whose curiosity about movement takes them into exploration outside the box. One such person is the ever-curious Panayiotis Karabetis of Movement Mornings. I was a recent guest on his podcast  and we had a blast recording it. Here are some highlights from our discussion:IMG_4689

  • Pandiculation vs. Stretching
  • How to move “somatically”
  • Martha's 3 should's in life
  • Moshe Feldenkrais and Thomas Hanna
  • A brief history and explanation of Hanna Somatics
  • Sensory Motor Amnesia
  • Making room for play in your life is important
  • Falling apart as we get older is a choice
  • Pain-free moving starts with walking

Click here to listen and enjoy!

Here's what Panayiotis has to say about Movement Mornings and its dedication to sharing the good news about movement:

As movers, we're motivated by a unique force that makes our fidgety goals impossible to ignore and that's what Movement Mornings sets out to explore. Each month, we dive into the morning routine of influential people in the movement community to share new insights and inspire us to get better at what we love doing most: moving!

How Movement Can Calm the Savage Beast

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

Movement + real food + clean air = good health

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

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

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

The Key to a Healthy Life: Never Stop Moving

According to a report in the Lancet from October 2009, half the children born since 2000 can expect to live to be 100.  When I read that I thought, "That's not possible! Most of the kids I see today - at least where I live - are chauffeured around by their parents and never go outside to play. You can't stay healthy if you don't move." In a New York Times Health article, Jane Brody states that, "there is no virtue in simply living long; the goal should be to live long and well." She discusses how diet, proper nutrition, and supplements are important to long-term health. The second ingredient to aging well is - you guessed it: movement. Vigorous, aerobic movement. There are so many possibilities for incorporating movement into your life - and as many excuses not to (I'm too busy, I'm too tired when I come home from work, I don't like exercise, it's boring...)

I grew up in an era when physical activity was a given. I walked to school, walked to my friends' houses, hiked in the summer, and took dance lessons during the school year. Everyone I knew walked, played outside, hula hooped, rode a bicycle, or skateboarded. Movement has always been my friend, rather than something I have to check off my list every day to make sure it gets done. I'm fortunate that way; no one has to convince me that movement is good for me. It was always part of life... not an after thought to it.

Without movement I get agitated, distracted, and tired. How many of you notice the connection between the amount of time you spend moving, and your inability to focus, your agitation level, or physical discomfort? Not exercising per se, but moving. Having a movement-filled life just may bring back the joy of movement for some people.

Outdoors, with a friend, in nature = good brain health

Here's another movement benefit that may get you off the couch: great ideas often come from movement. Einstein said that not a day went by when he wouldn't walk in the woods around Princeton with a companion; he felt that his best ideas came from this kind of movement. And indeed, according to studies highlighted in the book Spark by Dr. John Ratey, the combination of movement, companionship and nature result in the highest level of release of an important protein called BDNF (Ratey calls it "Miracle-Gro for your brain").

I'm also very fortunate to have a mother who has never taken the time in her IMG_0058busy life to "slow down, and take it easy." She's 86 and still hiking; in the photo at the right you can see us together on our trek in Nepal. The common myth about aging is that we inevitably become decrepit as we get older; most people succumb to, yet it never registered with my mother. She's always moving: hiking on the weekends, taking long morning walks up and down the hills of our town, and climbing mountains in the Himalayas, Africa, Australia and beyond.  She is just what Jane Brody's talking about: she is in perfect health, has rarely taken prescription drugs, and has a wit as sharp as a katana.

I aspire to be like her as I age. There is so much information and support for those of us who want to stay healthy for as long as we walk this earth.  Life is short, so take control where you can, starting with your health.

How Somatic Education Can Improve Fitness Training

I'm preparing for a series of upcoming presentations, each one to a different audience. I will be speaking and teaching to military personnel, fitness and strength trainers, people with back pain, and rehabilitation specialists. The terminology I use may be tailored to the audience, but the focus will be the same for all: the basics of Hanna Somatic Education:

  • Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) and why it's one of the most important conditions to understand, when addressing muscle pain and dysfunction.
  • The Three Stress Reflexes that all humans respond with in regards to stress, and how they cause muscle imbalances and pain.
  • Pandiculation is the safest, most effective way to reset muscle function and length for pain free movement and optimum muscle control.

Fitness training can benefit from Somatic Education by incorporating a basic understanding of the simple points cited above.

Fitness training is sensory motor movement training.

Programming your brain is more important than strength training and aerobics. Central nervous system programming must never be neglected at all stages of training.

— Mel Siff

In the above quote, Mel Siff is talking about somatic education: the ability to train your brain to sense and control your muscles and movements. It's about more than just performing a movement with strength and power; it's about quality of movement. If your brain isn't in control of your muscles and movement, it doesn't matter how strong you are; your movement won't be effortless and efficient. Aerobic strength is important - but if your brain is recruiting muscles it doesn't need for a specific movement, because certain muscles are involuntarily and habitually contracted (Sensory Motor Amnesia), you'll be working too hard.

Sensory Motor Amnesia is the result of habituated adaptation to stress reflexes.

The brain and nervous system respond to everything in the environment - accidents, injuries, surgeries, sudden falls, long hours in a car or 40 hours a week on a computer. The brain teaches the muscles, due to continuous stress, to contract and adapt, altering the way in which you move - often without your even realizing it.

What your brain is no longer aware of can negatively impact your athletic form, "movement memory," and ability to recuperate from injury. This also creates postural imbalances (pelvic imbalances, leg length discrepancy) that can result in injury.

Training functionally "amnesic" muscles can, over time, result in chronic muscle pain and structural damage.

Stress reflexes occur in full body patterns of muscular contraction.

When stress occurs suddenly (accidents, falls) or over long periods of time (emotional stress, seated work), the brain contracts the muscles in a pattern - a kinetic chain. It's never just one muscle causing an imbalance or movement problem. A fitness trainer who is able to spot a full body muscular imbalance through proper assessment before training begins can help prevent injury and improve form and quality of movement.

Look at the weightlifter in the photo at right. Notice the slight imbalance in the center of the body: his waist muscles on the right are slightly shorter than on the left. The bar isn't level. Being able to see these slight differences and teaching an athlete to regain balance can keep him playing for a long time.

Slumped shoulders, overly contracted abdominals, over-arched back muscles and hips that don't move easily are all signs of sensory motor amnesia.

Pandiculation is more effective and safer than stretching.

Most people find stretching unpleasant and painful. Muscles that have learned to stay contracted must learn to release and this can't be done by stretching. Learning the subtle, but very important difference between pandiculation and stretching will set you apart from other fitness trainers. Your client will learn to reset their muscles - without strain - something they can also learn to do it at home with somatic exercises. As Mel Siff advises, they'll be training their brain to make their movements smarter.

Pandiculation uses all aspects of a muscle's ability: eccentric, isometric and concentric - all in one, slow intentional movement. Pandiculation increases one's awareness of the muscles involved in the movement pattern (envision a cat or dog "stretching" upon getting up from rest) and gets the nervous system ready for action. A trainer can learn to pandiculate any movement - from the "butterfly" to the "L" sit to the "woodchop." No matter the action pattern involved in your sport, you can pandiculate it.

Hanna Somatic Education simplifies things.

If you can see patterns in your clients (and yourself): flexion, extension, side bending, and rotating, and teach them to regain symmetry within these patterns, your clients' muscles will balance out, and their quality of movement will improve.

In Hanna Somatics, less is more. Slower is better for regaining muscle coordination. Then it's on to ballistic, quicker movement. And this is the territory of the fitness trainer.

Visit the Essential Somatics® store for our Pain-Free DVD series.

Contact Martha to find out how to bring her to your fitness center to conduct Somatics for Fitness Trainers workshops and clinical sessions.

How Somatics Can Help Runners

Running is one of the most convenient activities available for those who want to move vigorously.  University of Utah biologist David Carrier hypothesized that our ability to run long distances evolved in humans for the simple reason that the ability to pursue predators for long distances (endurance hunting) meant a steady food supply. We were born to run, but for some people, running is a painful and laborious activity.

As with any sport – and especially one that can be taken to an extreme – runners suffer from injuries and Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). The most frequent running injuries are knee pain, iliotibial band syndrome,  plantar fasciitis and hip pain.

Running when injured creates more injury.

Many runners will often continue to run, even when they are nursing an old injury. Some of the runners I've worked with say that they figured they could just "run it out" thereby fixing the problem. Unfortunately this causes more harm than good. Here's why:

  • When you're injured, your muscles reflexively adapt and learn to move differently. This is called compensation.
  • Long-term compensation develops into Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).
  • Running while compensating for an injury doesn't doesn't change what your muscles are doing; it only creates more compensation.
  • You must first eliminate the compensatory pattern (the SMA) before you can regain your original running form.

Runners often run on uneven, paved roads.

A majority of runners in cities and suburbs run on uneven asphalt roads. The road is slightly graded to allow for water runoff, so rather than using the legs and hips equally, they run with a slight tilt in the hips, with  more weight on one leg than the other. This causes the waist muscles on the higher side of the graded road to contract tighter than the other side. It's slight, but when this kind of sensory motor amnesia develops it alters the gait and contributes to iliotibial band pain and knee pain. The angle of the road also put the foot an an awkward angle to the ankle.

Runners often have limited hip movement.

When hip and pelvis movement is limited, you will be more likely to have iliotibial band syndrome, back pain, hip joint pain, and hamstring strains. A pelvis that doesn't rotate gently doesn't allow the body to move gracefully and efficiently. If the body is stiff and the hips and pelvis are rigid, the swinging action of the legs while running (or walking) will come solely from the hip joint - what I like to call "running with your legs instead of your whole body." This can create overuse injuries of the hips and hamstrings. Here's a ChiRunning article that goes more into depth about pelvic rotation.

Orthotics and "supportive" running shoes reduces the foot's ability to move.

The feet are one of the most important sensory organs of the body. When we encase our feet in  shoes we risk losing sensory awareness and motor control of the muscles of the foot and lower leg that help us stabilize ourselves for upright movement. There is more of a tendency to "heel strike" when wearing thicker running shoes. This is both jarring for the spine and inefficient for forward motion.

Orthotics, thought to fix foot problems, interfere in the ability of the feet to absorb impact properly and adjust to changes in terrain (as in trail running). Thankfully there's a trend toward more minimalistic and "barefoot" running shoes, which allows both the foot and lower leg muscles to move naturally.

Here are 5 somatic exercises for an easy "warm up" before running:

  1. Back lift - for control of the back muscles
  2. Cross lateral arch and curl - for control of the abdominal muscles
  3. Side bend - to equalize waist muscle function
  4. Steeple twist - for gentle twisting of the shoulders, spine and hips
  5. Walking exercises - for proper mechanics of walking and pelvis rotation

After your run, try these:

  1. Reach to the Top Shelf - for full body lengthening
  2. Hamstring pandiculations - if you need it (from Pain-Free Athletes)
  3. Standing calf release - if you need it (from Pain-Free Athletes)

Visit the Essential Somatics® store to purchase the Pain-Free Athletes DVD and more!

Many thanks to Jim Hansen, a runner and Somatics enthusiast whose shared running experience helped me write this post. Check out his blog, Recover Your Stride.

Football, Somatics, and Post Concussion Syndrome

I will be writing a series of blog posts about sports and Somatics, but for today I'd like to focus on concussions, and the muscles that contract secondarily due to the kind of impact that would cause a concussion.

Superbowl 2012 was a nail-biter...

...and I loved every minute of it. I love watching movement... and football players really know how to move. I  have profound respect for the extensive training that goes into being able to sprint, jump, dodge, fly, fall, and manage to stand back up and do it all over again on a dime.

Football season is over, yet many of these players will now start the job of rehabilitation to get them back to top form for next season.

Football is a terrific spectator sport, but brutally hard on the athletes. It is a sport whose players could benefit from Hanna Somatic Education. Why? Because football involves serious repetitive injuries, with concussions causing a great deal of concern.

Sensory Motor Amnesia and professional sports go hand in hand.

The most common injuries in American football are to the knee, ankle, leg, pelvis, and shoulder, and head: snapped ACLs and MCLs, dislocated shoulders, ankle sprains, hamstring strains, and concussions. All of these injuries can lead to some form of compensation while the injury heals; compensation triggers the brain to put certain muscles on "cruise control" (Sensory Motor Amnesia). A bad case of Sensory Motor Amnesia could ruin a player's career - and to a lesser extent make full recovery very costly and time-consuming.

A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that can change the way your brain works. Concussions warrant immediate and expert medical attention. However, those suffering concussions also have secondary muscular pain that is often associated with what doctors call "post concussion syndrome." It is believed that PCS can develop due to an actual neck injury associated with the accident that caused the concussion.

Here's the rub: It's never just one muscle causing the problem.

The "neck injury" that is most written about in regards to PCS is one of myofascial neck pain. The tight neck muscles pull the vertebrae out of alignment. Seeking chiropractic care can be helpful, but reeducating the muscles that coordinate together with the neck (and that contracted in response to the injury) will yield rapid, long lasting results. It will also be vastly less expensive than treatments that seek to "fix" the muscles symptomatically.

The muscular response to a concussion has been identified as almost identical to "whiplash:"

  • the head snaps forward and back suddenly
  • one side of the body retracts (if there is a side impact)
  • the muscles of the neck and shoulders contract strongly
  • the muscles of the front of the body contract
  • the muscles of the back, which go from the sacrum up to the base of the skull, contract strongly

How do you really release and relax muscles that have been violently contracted during the accident or "hit" that results in a concussion?

Pandiculation gently releases the muscles of the neck, shoulders and back and restores proper muscle function.

Pandiculation - tightening, lengthening and relaxing of muscles - is the safest and gentlest way to restore proper brain to muscle function. "Hands-on" pandiculations, which are done one-on-one during clinical Somatics sessions, allow the practitioner to guide the client through many different combinations of movement (within their comfort range) that involve the tight muscles. You will reeducate the muscles to stop contracting so that the pain ceases.

In this post I present a few gentle seated pandiculations for neck pain relief. The Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD has even more easy, gentle Somatic Exercises to relieve neck and shoulder pain at home.

Concussions can happen in any sport: skiing, horseback riding, ice hockey, soccer, boxing, lacrosse, volleyball, cyclocross, cycling, and basketball. A concussion is a medical problem that requires medical attention. The secondary muscular pain that accompanies a concussion is most efficiently reversed with Somatic Education.

How Movement Education Can Prevent Obesity and Improve Learning

Daily movement improves overall health.

I've written before about the importance of daily, vigorous movement for everyone. One doctor cites studies in a compelling video that shows that daily movement is the best prescription doctors could possibly give to us to help us improve our overall health. You don't necessarily need to go to the gym - just find an activity you enjoy, and do it every day. "Movement education" is akin to eating habits: first and foremost we learn it at home. However, it is also the responsibility of our society to encourage movement in every aspect of life - from the creation of recreational areas, available playgrounds for underprivileged children, parks, bicycle lanes, and longer gym periods at school.

Movement enhances creativity.

I encourage my clients with desk jobs to get up at least once an hour to do simple movements that "wake up" their muscles. This keeps muscles from getting tight and "frozen." It also stimulates the brain, relaxes the nervous system and enhances creativity.

Thomas Hanna wrote about the importance of encouraging somatic awareness in our lives, especially when children go to school. In schools children are encouraged to stop paying attention to their bodies and movement when they are constantly reminded to stop fidgeting, keep their feet on the floor, etc.

In the Western world, children sit at desks, eyes facing forward. They are rewarded for sitting still and keeping quiet. They learn to ignore the sensations of their own bodies. They learn to stop moving. Even on playgrounds children are told not to run in order to prevent any injury or liability on the part of schools.

It's old news to say that children are getting heavier and moving less, creating a true public health crisis. Children who don't move become adults who don't move, and who risk developing Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), joint pain, diabetes, and musculoskeletal problems. I will leave it to Dr. Kwame Brown to further explain the detrimental effects of "movement-deprivation" on young children and adults. Suffice it to say that the more one moves, the more one's brain develops.

For anyone in the teaching profession and for those working with children in any capacity, I would highly recommend Dr. Brown's work. He will be teaching his first New Jersey Move Theory weekend seminar in Pompton Lakes, NJ.

Here's a video of Kwame teaching children, through play, the basics of movement:



Why You Should Vary Your Movement

One of the basic Somatic Exercises we teach is called the "Seated Twist." It is a wonderful exercise that never ceases to astound my students. In this exercise you learn to increase your range of motion and ability to twist around yourself by doing seemingly random things like moving your head while keeping the body still, or shifting your eyes side to side without moving the head. It is a gentle exercise, with no forcing whatsoever.

Varying your movement can improve your movement.

I love teaching this exercise because my students experience the dramatic changes that can occur in their movement merely by differentiating movement in simple ways. In this Basic Human Movements video from his Intervention: Course Corrections DVD, Strength coach Dan John points out this same principle in regards to strength training. He notes that athletes often sequence their workout drills according to what they want to do. However, if they really want to quicken their progress, they should do the movements they don't already do. People are amazed that simply doing more of what you don't normally do can increase motor control, strength, and athletic ability.

One of the reasons this works so well is because movement variation stimulates the brain with new and different sensory feedback. The result is improved motor output. You improve your overall movement and strength without having to push harder.

This doesn't just apply to movement; it applies to life: the way in which we live our lives shows up in our bodies. Give yourself permission to explore new ways of solving life's problems and suddenly, often with less struggle, those problems sometimes solve themselves. I like to call this giving yourself "permission to explore."

Differentiated movement creates intelligent motor control.

Moshe Feldenkrais, originator of the Seated Twist exercise, developed some extraordinary movements based on what he called "Differentiated Movement." He discovered that differentiating patterns of movement brings instantaneous improved coordination and range of movement in the muscular system. Seemingly random differentiations - moving the head separately from the torso, the eyes separately from the torso and head - increases our ability to move and twist the whole body - eyes, head, neck, shoulder girdle. This occurs not through force, but through intelligent sensory awareness of what we’re doing, yielding greater motor control.

When I was a young ballet dancer, I would occasionally get frustrated and take a day off to do something completely unrelated to dancing. My favorite "other" activity was vigorous bicycle riding. I'd look for the steepest hill possible and just ride. I'd get a vigorous upper body workout, then return to the dance studio and find that my ability to do the steps that had seemed impossible had improved - without practice - and with little effort. I was differentiating and didn't know it!

For those who simply want to improve their mobility and overall health by, for example, walking, it's also important to vary your movement.  Take a different route, find an uneven path to stimulate your sense of balance. Jog for a block and then return to walking! It's easy to get stuck in the repetitive movements of today's society: sitting with  eyes straight ahead, driving, working at a computer.  These repetitive, "stuck" postures are the source of back, neck, shoulder, hip and knee pain. It's critical that we remind our muscles that they can move in varied ways  - bending, reaching, twisting, rotating, pulling, pushing.

Try this fun exercise!

When you're struggling with a movement, stop. Do something different for a few minutes: circle your arms like a windmill, run in place or do "the twist." Make it fun. Then return to the original movement. Is there a change? If so, what kind? Is the movement easier?

Somatic Exercises stimulates your brain.

For professional athletes, a short routine of Somatic Exercises is an excellent use of movement differentiation. You move slowly as you focus on sensory awareness and proprioception. You practice movements you probably think you don't need to practice (like side bending, twisting, moving the shoulders and hips in different directions). You'll find that those different movements help to increase your overall movement mastery, with less force and struggle.

Visit the Essential Somatics® store to purchase DVDs or Move Without Pain!

Is Yoga Dangerous? Not When Done Somatically

In an article called "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body," by William J. Broad the question of  yoga injuries is discussed. Many yoga teachers are hesitant to admit that they suffer from injuries. Yoga in its original form is a true somatic discipline ("somatic" meaning being aware of what it feels like to be you). The way it is taught in most yoga studios in the United States is more like fitness than mindful, somatic movement. For many Yoga students the element of somatic awareness is completely absent. The goal for many is to look like the teacher and get into the posture no matter what. This is how injuries occur.

"Athleticized" Yoga causes injury.

The rise in Yoga injuries and muscle pain says more about the way in which many embrace Yoga than it does about (most) Yoga postures. This is similar to Thomas Hanna's contention about the source of most back pain:

"The prevalence of back pain has everything to do with the kind of lives that we live and the kind of society in which we live."

We live in a culture that "athleticizes" everything, and Yoga is high on the list. Yoga can be practiced in a non-competitive way with the sole goal being one of mastering movement and improving posture and breathing. So can life. The answer lies in the awareness of what you're doing and how you're doing it.

3 Ways People Get Injured in Yoga

#1 They have Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) and don’t know it. As you attempt to perform a Yoga movement, some muscles won't lengthen fully, while others over-work. You may be able to do an asana on one side (triangle pose, for example), yet not the same way on the other. You keep stretching and breathing, but the muscles don't release the way you're told they should.

#2 They don't know that they are stuck in a full body reflex pattern of muscular imbalance. SMA presents in patterns of contraction. If you've had a trauma, regaining muscular balance, symmetry, and coordination is critical before engaging in any sport - much less yoga.

If you do any sport or vigorous activity when your muscles are stuck in a specific Stress Reflex, you're bound to get injured sooner or later. Certain muscles will be recruited involuntarily when the muscles you're supposed to be using can't function optimally

(Hint: Our major goal in Hanna Somatics is to teach you to reverse SMA as it presents within the three somatic reflex patterns. It's easy and it gives you back control of your body!)

#3 They over-stretch.

You can read more about my take on stretching here. When you stretch a muscle quickly, or beyond its comfortable length, you will evoke the Stretch Reflex. It is a protective spinal cord reflex which contracts the muscle against the stretch to save it from injury. Over-stretching is a major factor in Yoga injuries, from hamstring pulls to lower back injuries.

Instead, learn to pandiculate. Pandiculation resets the muscle length and restores full muscle function at the brain level. In fact, you can easily learn how to pandiculate many of your Yoga stretches!

Ultimately, if you're getting injured doing yoga, you're doing something wrong – or you're overdoing it.

Hanna Somatics and Yoga complement each other. Hanna Somatics can improve your yoga practice and help you prevent many of the common injuries associated with Yoga.  Many Yoga teachers are in fact becoming Hanna Somatic Exercise Coaches and incorporating Somatic Exercises into their classes.

To learn more about Hanna Somatics and how it can help you eliminate chronic muscle pain and regain balance and symmetry, check out the Essential Somatics® store.

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."


Debunking the Myth of Stretching... Again

Outside Magazine recently ran an article called The 10 Biggest Fitness Myths. In this blog post I'll add my perspective on the one they consider to be the #1 fitness myth: the usefulness of stretching.

Myth #1: Stretching prevents injuries and improves performance.

The brain controls muscles and movement. Any movement we perform on a daily basis establishes habits at the level of the central nervous system.

There are good movement habits (pole vaulting, riding a bicycle, writing) and there are bad ones (learning to hold the back tightly due to repetitive athletic training, or limping on one side due to an injury).

When we work out and perform repetitive tasks, our muscles accumulate muscle tension. They learn to stay tight and become involuntarily contracted. This is called Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The only way to reverse chronic muscle tension is for the brain to take back voluntary control of the muscles and movement.

When you passively stretch a muscle that has learned to stay contracted (or has become involuntarily contracted due to repetitive tasks or an injury), you are pulling it into a length you want it to have. You are acting upon the muscle. If you pull that muscle farther than it can go you will invoke the Stretch Reflex, a spinal cord reflex that contracts the muscle back against the stretch to prevent against muscle fiber damage. This can make the muscles tighter than they were before.

SOLUTION: PANDICULATION = “no-stretch stretching"

Pandiculation is the best way to reset muscle length, and sensory motor control of the muscle.

A pandiculation is an action pattern that involves contracting a muscle first, then lengthening it slowly past the point that it was contracted before. This slow, deliberate action actually resets muscle length at the level of the central nervous system and allows the brain to take back voluntary control of muscles that were once involuntarily contracted. A pandiculation releases tight, "frozen" muscles that cause pain and allows them to function optimally again. The end result is enhanced muscle function, improved sensory motor awareness, and muscles that coordinate efficiently and properly.

It's easy to pandiculate: simply contract into the tight muscle, then slowly lengthen all the way. Then completely relax.

Pandiculation prepares your muscles for use in sports, or to wake up for the day, or even when you get chronic pain or a cramp. Pandiculation simply prepares your muscles for use.

In the Outside Magazine article they finish their piece on stretching with the following conclusion:

The jury is still out on the best pre-workout alternative, but dynamic stretching, which incorporates a range of body movements rather than muscle isolation, doesn’t stress tissues to the point of activating the nervous system’s protective instincts.

They then suggest four movements that could work as "dynamic stretches" to "warm up" the body:

1. 20 Jumping jacks 2. 1 minute of skipping, forward and backward 3. 1 minute of high-leg marches, kicking each leg in front like a tin soldier 4. 10 reps of "Kick your own butt:" hop on one leg, kicking the other leg backward, touching your buttocks

While these are interesting and useful movements, they are not "dynamic stretches"! They are movement patterns that don't reset muscle length or brain control of otherwise tight muscles.

Somatic "stretches" for improved muscle function

Try these Somatic Exercises (which actually are "dynamic stretches"). They will retrain your brain to take back control of the muscles, leaving them more relaxed and efficient. And yes - they will improve your athletic performance:

  1. Arch & flatten to lengthen back muscles (1 minute)
  2. Arch & curl to further lengthen back muscles and coordinate the abdominals with the back (1 minute)
  3. Washrag to lengthen waist muscles, abductors, and back muscles (1 minute)
  4. Hamstring pandiculation to lengthen the hamstrings in coordination with the back muscles – it takes the place of the painful stretch seen in the photo of Drew Bledsoe above (1 minute)
  5. Reach to the Top Shelf to lengthen the latissimus and trunk rotators, and coordinate hip movement (1 minute)

View these exercises here. "Reach to the Top Shelf" (seen in the photo above) and "Arch & Curl" can be learned by watching my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.

3 Myths About Perfect Posture

There are varying opinions about what "perfect" posture is, and many people who come to me explain their muscle pain, saying that they've always had terrible posture. Posture isn't something you're born with - it's something that develops in response to your movement habits and responses to stress. Here are a few myths about "good" posture:

Myth #1 - As long as your neck is straight, and your spine is aligned, you won't have back pain.

Many dancers with beautiful, long necks and straight spines have terrible back pain! A long neck and straight spine can be caused by strongly contracted back muscles and postural conditioning that says "pull your chin in, pull your shoulders back, and all will be well." What happens with this posture is that the straight neck is met with an opposite arch in the lower back - an arch that is often exaggerated and causes back pain.

Myth #2 - As long as your posture is "correct," your movement will be effortless and efficient.

No doubt about it - aligned posture results in more efficient movement. However, if the aligned posture is one that you've put ON your body, as opposed to one that you've DEVELOPED from within your own sensory awareness and movement, you just might be using muscles less efficiently. Some standing postures, like "tadasana" (mountain pose) in yoga, are great for doing yoga poses, but very fussy and inefficient for all around daily movement.

Here's a good example and one I use all the time when teaching my clients how to walk:

Nearly half of the construction workers in India are women; they balance rocks and other heavy things on their heads. They don't take posture lessons to learn how to do this. They learn by doing - meaning they have to figure out what to do in the center of their bodies that will allow them to carry weight on their head (the periphery). They let their pelvis move when they walk, they take smaller steps, and they keep their torsos long and lifted out of their hips. Their posture develops from their daily functional movement.







Myth #3 - There is one, "perfect" posture that fits everyone.

The one thing I found while researching the "perfect" posture is how many different opinions there are about what it means to "stand up straight" or stand in "alignment." One posture expert says that we should allow our pelvis to be anteverted:

"Proper posture is standing with your tailbone back and ribcage forward, shoulders slightly behind the body. Your pelvis is tipped forward and sacrum angled back. The lower border of your rib cage is flush with the abdominal contour."

Another fitness expert teaches people with back pain to drop the tailbone, tuck in the lower abdominal muscles and relax the shoulders to neutral.

The most common advice for back pain sufferers in regards to posture is to tuck the pelvis forward (retroverting) in order to lengthen the back muscles and take the load off the muscles. What this actually does, while momentarily relieving muscle pain, is to cause the front of the body to contract and round forward. This is not a good strategy for efficient, pain-free movement.

How do I find "perfect" posture?

Here's a simple exercise to help you figure it out:

  • Stand in your normal posture, whatever that is for you. Notice where your discomfort is - in the lower back, hamstrings, neck, shoulders or hips. Walk around the room for a minute, paying attention to the way in which your feet meet the floor (do you heel strike? Roll out? Roll in?).
  • Stop and put something light on your head, like a pillow, as in the photo.
  • Hold it gently on both sides with your elbows out and up. Notice how your ribs have to lift in order to allow your hands to reach up to the pillow. Breath into your ribs and let them expand gently. Notice how the abdominal muscles lengthen, yet contract to support the spine and the center of your body.
  • Walk slowly, letting your hips sway gently. Imagine that your pillow is a load that must not fall off your head. Breathe deeply as you walk.
  • Now take the pillow off of your head, bring your arms to neutral, and just stand. Relax your buttocks and breathe easily.

How centered does your posture feel now? Do you feel "straighter?" Taller? Is it easier to stand up and feel supported in the center of your body? This movement exploration is like the old fashioned exercise of putting a book on your head in order to achieve good posture!

Visit EssentialSomatics.com for more tips and information about Hanna Somatic Education. Learn to relieve muscle pain easily, rapidly and effectively with my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.

Explore Your Movement and Relieve Your Pain

Last week "Michelle" came to me with severe sciatica. Sciatica is a full body pattern of muscle contraction that causes the sciatic nerve to become pinched, sending pain down the leg in most cases. Her back muscles on one side were like steel rods and her pelvis was slightly twisted, causing one buttock to contract while the other one was soft. Michelle had participated in one of my workshops and found many of the Somatic Exercises to be challenging. No matter how she moved, everything hurt. As she left the class I wasn't sure if she'd gotten anything out of it. Two days later I received a call from her; she wanted to come in for clinical sessions to continue to learn how to relieve her sciatic pain once and for all. Here's what she told me:

I went home after the workshop and sat at my desk.  I suddenly realized that I'd been twisting my upper body one way and my lower body the other way to sit and work at the computer. The light bulb went off for me as I remembered your explanation of the Trauma Reflex and how it contributes to back and hip pain. Twisting my pelvis had become a habit!

Before we could even start to work, she put her hands on her head and showed me what her mother used to do every day when Michelle was growing up. She looked like a hula or belly dancer, rotating her hips in large circles and letting her belly be soft as it moved.

She told me she would ask her mother why she did those movement, and her mother would tell her, "because it makes my back feel really good!"

She asked me, "should I do stuff like this? It feels really good when I do it!" My answer was an unequivocal "yes!"

You may find out that you're smarter than you think.

Michelle's mother's brain was telling her that it’s GOOD to move her hips that way. Finding movements that feel comfortable and relaxing can be just what you need to keep your muscles supple and relaxed. By doing this you can figure out for yourself what helps and what doesn't help.

Many people do exercises only because they're told to do them. Blind adherence to what the teacher is telling you to do without being present and involved in the process yields few positive results, whether it's in life itself or with your body. It deadens the channels of awareness rather than opening them and letting learning flow in.

I often need to remind my clients to FEEL the movement rather than to DO the movement. The feeling will guide and inform the movement. If a movement is uncomfortable - back off and go more slowly in a smaller range of motion. Forcing a movement just for the sake of doing the movement can cause injury.

People like Michelle's mother, figured out that putting her hands on her head and gyrating like a belly dancer several times a day would keep her back feeling good.

The possibilities for healthy movement are endless, and the awareness we can gain about ourselves, our bodies and the way in which we interact in our own lives through Somatic Exercises and movement exploration helps relieve pain, and improve muscle control.

If you're like Michelle's mother and have already made up some fun Somatic Exercises or fun movements that you find helpful - whether they're done lying on the floor or standing up - I'd love to have you share them with me.

How Somatic Exercise Can Improve Your Weightlifting

I just received an email that continues the thread of my last blog post about the efficacy of combining Somatic Exercise classes with private clinical sessions for more long lasting pain relief: Barry Kinsella is a weightlifter from Dublin, Ireland, owner of the blog Weightlifting Epiphanies.

Barry took his time watching my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD, experiencing the movements, and learning more about how he reacted to them, before writing a review. He decided to further research the field of Somatics himself, as he did his daily Somatic Exercise routine to continue to experience the changes he was slowly creating in his body.

Read Barry's comprehensive review of my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.

Barry took the time to further investigate Somatics, letting me know that

...a good few weightlifters will be interested in your DVD and also in Somatics itself. The more people that know about it the better.

Having suffered injuries as an competitive athlete, he realizes that he could use a few sessions with a Certified Somatic Educator in Ireland. This would help him continue learning how to release his patterns of compensation and adaptation even more rapidly. Barry looked intellectually at Hanna Somatics, but knew that changing one's habitual patterns of muscle tension and movement is something that had to be experienced in his daily Somatic Exercise routine. That's a critically important distinction to make.

Regain full muscle function through pandiculation.

One of the methods Barry learned from my DVD is to pandiculate instead of stretch. He learned to contract into the tension, and then slowly release out of it. This action of contracting first, then slowly releasing is what hits the reset button in your nervous system and muscular system. Because it is a voluntary action (not passive, like most static stretching), your brain voluntarily regains both sensation and function of the muscle and its synergists. The muscles release past the point that they were involuntarily (and painfully) tight before so the brain now has the full muscle length.

You don't have to be a weightlifter to feel tight and sore, either. Many of us experience habituated muscle tension simply from years of "life" and stress. We adapt to our life circumstances no matter who we are - athletes, office workers, dancers, teachers, children, teenagers. We hunch our shoulders, tighten our backs, limp if we suffer an injury on one side, clench our jaws when we're upset. We can all benefit from learning to release these adaptations and adjustments so that we can move the way we used to before the stress kicked in.

You also don’t have to do everything Barry did in order to learn more about Somatics.  "Waking up" your awareness and staying awake and attentive to your movement habits, reflexive responses to stress or compensation patterns can be simple:

Whatever you choose to do, if you have muscle pain and have "tried everything," Hanna Somatics will provide you the common sense knowledge, techniques, and exercises to help you live life pain-free. You will wonder why you hadn't heard about it years ago!

Tips For Getting The Most Out of Your Somatic Exercise Routine

Somatic Exercises, when done between 10 - 15 minutes daily, are profoundly effective at keeping you pain-free no matter what your stress. However, the single biggest benefit of Somatic Exercises is one of IMPROVED SENSORY MOTOR AWARENESS. This means that the exercises help remind your brain to FEEL (sensory) and MOVE (motor) your muscles so that your self-awareness is more accurate and your muscles move more efficiently. Recently a reader told me that he does his Somatic Exercises faithfully, but finds that the same problem - a tight back, sore neck, achy shoulders, "that low back pain on the right side" - keeps cropping up. Why is this?

The answer is that you need to apply the awareness you gain from the Somatic Exercises to everything you do during your day. Here are a few coaching tips to help you apply the improved awareness and muscle control you gain from Somatic Exercises to your daily life:

  • Become aware of movement patterns inherent in your job. If your is a repetitive physical job (gardening, landscaping, typing on the computer, driving, lifting packages, holding children), begin to notice the pattern of movement and the muscles involved that contribute to your pain.  Gardening is usually one-sided, as is holding children. Driving requires sitting and using one leg to accelerate or brake more than the other.
  • Become aware of how you sit. Is your pelvis at an angle? Is your back over-arched? Do you shift/slouch into one hip? Do you slump forward? Arch & Flatten, the Back Lift, Cross Lateral Arch & Curl, and the Seated Awareness Exercise target the back and abdominal muscles and help to improve awareness of how you sit. Find them on my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.
  • Do a few minutes of seated Somatic Exercises every hour if you work at a desk. Even 5 minutes every hour can remind your muscles that they don't have to stay "frozen." This will keep your brain in voluntary control of your muscles so they can be as relaxed as possible.
  • Become aware of how you drive. See "how do you sit" above. Many of us clutch the steering wheel when stressed. This locks down the shoulders and creates upper back and neck pain. The "seated twist" is great for reversing tension that comes from driving.
  • Use a mirror to help you see your own posture. Becoming aware of what you really look like - as opposed to what you think you look like - helps you to self-correct so that what you sense internally agrees with what you see in the mirror.
  • Become aware of how you reflexively respond emotionally to upsetting events or the need to get something done. This is hugely important!  Our brains adapt to stress by tightening our muscles - even when we're not moving. The Somatic Exercises teach you to regain voluntary muscular control, but you are the only one who knows how emotional upset affects you. Do you tighten your back? Hunch your shoulders? Stop breathing when worried? The Steeple Twist and Human X are wonderful catch-all movements that relax the front, sides and back of the body for a full body stress-buster.
  • Add more movement to your day. There are lots of great functional movements you can do that take only a few minutes. This helps to differentiate your movement habits.  Here's a link to some great ideas for "movement snacks" from Frank Forencich of Exuberant Animal. My Reach To the Top Shelf movement takes 2 minutes to do and can be done anywhere:

Stand with feet apart and both arms up. Slowly reach up with the right arm and let the entire right side of your body lengthen. Allow the left hip to slide upwards (look closely at the middle photo) as you roll up onto the ball of the left foot.

Come back through neutral and reach up with the left arm as if reaching for something high on a shelf. Allow the right hip to slide up as you roll up onto the ball of the right foot. Be sure to keep both knees straight. Repeat this sequence 3-5 times, reaching with one arm, then the other. You're lengthening one side of your body as you shorten the other side! It's like a full body yawn!