Heal a Herniated Disc 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 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 de-mystify what up until then had been an elusive problem:

  • Muscles attach to bones and muscles move bones.
  • Your brain and nervous system senses and moves your muscles.
  • Your brain responds and adapts to stress in your environment by tightening muscles in specific, full body patterns.
  • If these stress responses are on-going or severe enough (ie. an accident), your brain/muscles habituate involuntarily as if the stress were still occurring, even as if has stopped. This is a neurological event in your brain.
  • Your muscles learn to become really good at contracting and holding your body tightly, so they must learn to relax and release. Only you can re-train your muscles to release and relax. It is a process of remembering how to sense and move your own body more accurately.

Discs and bones only move when muscles move them and muscle dysfunction affects structural integrity.

Why is this important to understand? Because muscles and bones have no mind of their own. They only sciaticarespond to electrical signals from the brain. Yes, an X-ray can show a protrusion in your spine – but the question medicine fails to ask is, “what happened – or is continuing to happen – in the muscles, that is putting excess pressure on the spine and discs?

Herniated discs, one of the most common muscle pain conditions I see in my clinical practice, are the structural result of poor muscle function. They are yet another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia. More specifically, herniated discs are the result of habituation to two stress reflexes:

Trauma Reflex : the brain’s response to an accident, injury, surgery or long term compensation due to all of the above. The muscles of the waist and trunk rotators contract more on one side in order to avoid further 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, plus the quadratus lumborum, which “hikes” the pelvis up 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 rushed, industrialized society. It is the cause of most chronic back pain. The muscles of the back are like steel rods, yet feel weak and fatigued.

Over the course of five clinical sessions Joanne learned to regain awareness and control over the 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 and  the Side Bend and the Washrag.

Joanne now understood that her internal process of “forgetting” how to move her muscles, which contributed to her pain, had developed over time due to stress. Now the internal process of remembering how to move and maintaining mastery and freedom of movement with Somatic Exercises and renewed awareness was her’s to continue to do for the rest of her life. Her doctors had been wrong and she knew it all along.



Have Fun With Your Somatics!

Today was a big day for my second year clinical Somatic Education students. It was a day of public clinic in which they worked with members of the public, some of whom had had previous experience with Hanna Somatics and other who were new to it. Each client had specific aches and pains: back pain, shoulder and hip pain, Achilles tendon pain. My students taught clinical lessons as my assistant teacher, Laura Gates and I observed and critiqued them.

The most important part of a clinical Somatics lesson is the self-care homework: the Somatic Exercises. These simple movement patterns help reinforce the often dramatic changes people are able to make in their muscles and movement during the session. They literally “wake up” the brain’s awareness of what it feels like to be in one’s body and how to control the muscles and movement. In addition, they enhance immune function, improve breathing, mental focus, reduce muscle tension IMG_5252and stress and improve proprioception and sensory motor function.

One of my students, Ales Ernst from Slovenia, was working with a client who told him that the Somatic Exercise she had the most trouble with was the “back lift” (an excellent movement that releases and relaxes tight back muscles). He asked her to show him how she did this movement at home. He notice that she was rushing through the exercise as if she were at the gym: fast, at maximum strength and without fully relaxing. Here’s what he advised her that made all the difference in her experience and awareness:

Imagine that someone were watching you do this movement (in her case, it was the “back lift”), and they didn’t know what you were doing. You would want them to be thinking, “Wow, I think I want to do that as well. It looks really pleasant and enjoyable.” It’s like watching a young child play; you may not know what game they’re playing or what’s going on in their head; you just know they’re having fun. It shows in their body and movement. If you approach your Somatic Exercises in this manner you cannot hurt yourself or over-exert yourself. See if you can make the movement as pleasant as possible.You’ll only learn more about yourself, and the more you learn about yourself the better your life can be.

After several slow repetitions of the back lift, done with this in mind, she laughed and said, “I feel so relaxed! I think this will become my favorite Somatic Exercise!”

Ales’s simple explanation gets to the heart of how to do Somatic Exercises. We understand all the good reason as to why to do Somatic Exericses, yet as Ales pointed out to his client, they way in which we do our Somatic Movements – our intention – makes all the difference. Do we do them because we want to or because we “have to?”  Most of us spend a lot of time doing what is expected of us (what we “should” do or think we should do) and very little time doing what we want to do. If we do our Somatic Movements as if they were an unpleasant obligation our brain gets an entirely different message than if we do them because we enjoy them.

Stress research has proven that when people feel forced to do something their stress response goes way up. When people do something they enjoy (what they want to do) their stress response is low. The more pleasurable something is, the more we want to do it and the more you get out of it.

Somatic Movement practice is a gesture of kindness you make towards yourself. It’s a time to slow down, be mindful, explore, play and, in a sense, return to yourself.
Engage with your Somatics practice – whether you do Somatics on the floor or explore fun movements while seated or standing – with an eye towards making it as pleasant as possible.

You just might find yourself doing more of what you want to do in your life instead of only doing what you think you “should” be doing. The process is yours.

3 Easy Ways to Eliminate the Pain of Snow Shoveling

In New Jersey we’re experiencing yet another a massive snowstorm that dumped upwards of a foot of snow. While I absolutely love snowstorms and consider snow shoveling an excellent “workout,” I can do without the lower back pain it can cause.

My back is killing me, Mom. Can I have a massage?

My 21 year old son came in from an afternoon of earning money shoveling snow.  His back was in spasm and he desperately needed relief. I promised him a massage after he’d done a few Somatic Exercises first. I explained that if I were to massage his muscles while they were in spasm, they might contract back against the pressure. This is called the “stretch reflex.I assured him he’d enjoy his massage more once he’d reminded his muscles that they didn’t need to stay tight and “frozen.” When he got up off the floor after only five minutes of movement, he expressed amazement at how much better his back felt.

Relieve muscles spasms safely with Somatic Exercises and pandiculation.

Here’s what I taught him to do so that his brain could regain control of those involuntarily contracted muscles that were causing his back pain. To maximize the benefits, do these easy, safe Somatic Exercises before and after snow shoveling:

ARCH AND FLATTEN (free video)

This exercise teaches your brain to regain control of the back muscles as you gently contract the back muscles and roll the pelvis, and then slowly release the back back to neutral. Go slowly and notice the pleasant wave-like feeling as your back moves from the base of your head all the way down to the tailbone.


Lie on your back with your knees up and feet planted. Place your hands, with fingers interlaced, behind your head. Inhale and gently arch your lower back and tip your pelvis in the direction of your feet. This tightens the back muscles (only go as far as is comfortable and never force!). Exhale and slowly relax your back to the floor. When your back is flat, tuck your chin, point the elbows toward the knees, pick your head up, and slowly your curl up as you contract the abdominal muscles. Inhale and slowly relax back to the floor. This is not a sit-up! As you curl up, you’re lengthening the back muscles as you tighten the belly. When you slowly come down, you’re relaxing the abdominals.

THE SIDE BEND (free video)

This exercise relaxes the muscles of the trunk so that both sides of your waist muscles are relaxed and released. When we shovel snow we always tend to shovel on one side only. Afterwards our backs on that one side are killing us! This exercise will help you relax out of that twist once you’re done shoveling.

THE WASHRAG (free video)

Enjoy lengthening and releasing the entire center of your body as you learn to gently “wring your body out like a washrag” – from your shoulders down to your hips.

These easy, safe movements can be done every day to keep your muscles remembering how to relax. Because the brain controls the muscles, repetitive activities like snow shoveling can teach your muscles to become rigid and “frozen.” The solution is to get the brain to remind them how to relax again. All it takes is five minutes of gentle, aware Somatic Movement and those muscles will begin to relax and release.  Then you can go back outside in the snow and play!

Click here to purchase any of the Pain-Free Series of instructional Somatic Exercise DVDs.

Train Yourself for Life – Not Just For the Gym

Last week I was interviewed on En*theos by one of the innovators of the functional fitness movement, Frank Forencich. I had a great time discussing Hanna Somatics, why people develop muscle pain, how awareness is the first step to any movement practice and what we do as clinical practitioners of Somatics that helps people get long term pain relief and freedom of movement. For those of you who have read my book, the chapter about “Standing Somatics” was inspired by Frank Forencich’s Exuberant Animal, play-based functional fitness method. Frank has interviewed experts in the fields of movement, physical health, preventive and stress medicine to give you a comprehensive overview of  what it takes to live healthily and fully.

In Frank’s words, here’s something worth thinking about:

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.

I highly encourage you to tune in to this exciting 3-day virtual conference  and use whatever it is that inspires you to move forward, with independence and awareness, into the life that you envision.

Here’s the link: http://www.entheos.com/Training-the-Whole-Person/Martha-Peterson

Happy learning!


New Year’s Resolution #1: Get Rid of Back Pain

How many of you have back pain and found that last year you spent hundreds of dollars and countless hours last year attempting to get rid of it? You may have tried stretching, chiropractic, dry needling, foam rollers, surgery or even drugs, but none of these methods have helped you…for the long term.

Hanna Somatics has a long term, scientifically based solution to back pain.

Education is one of the best ways to demystify almost any problem.  The more you know, the more you can help yourself. When it comes to eliminating chronic back pain there is some simple, profoundly sensible scientific information that is missing in most medical and therapeutic approaches to this problem: how the brain senses and controls the muscles.

The brain to muscle connection acts like a simple feedback loop, much like the underlying system of a computer: sensory (feeling) information goes into the brain and motor (movement) messages go out to the muscles.  You sense, you move, you sense, you move.

When it comes to back pain specifically, there is a specific brain reflex, called the Landau Response (or “Green Green light reflexLight Reflex”) that is at the root of most chronic back pain. This reflex is invoked whenever there is a “call to action” to get something done: the alarm clock goes off, we’re late for work, we need to stand all day, we’re rushing here and there. What happens is this: all the muscles of the back of the body, from the base of the skull down to the tailbone contract tightly to move us forward into action. In its extreme, the Green Light Reflex looks like me, in the photo at right.

The Green Light Reflex is a positive response to stress. However, we don’t want to get stuck in this (or any) reflex pattern. We need to learn to relax the muscles of the back when they are no longer needed for an action.

Whatever we do consistently becomes a habit at the brain level. If we constantly contract our backs in response to stress, yet neglect to remind those muscles to relax and release when they’re no longer needed for an action, the muscles will learn to stay tight and contracted. Tight muscles are inefficient, fatigued and painful muscles that are constantly “on.”

The easy solution to back pain is to learn to release the tight muscles of the back.

No doctor, massage therapist or physical therapist can release your back muscles for you; you must do it for yourself.

Arch and Flatten is one of the most basic, safe and simple movements you could ever do to begin to regain control of your back muscles, relieve muscle pain and take back control of your body. Click here to watch and learn this exercise.

Basic Somatic Exercises are a simple, inexpensive way to begin to learn to take back control of your back muscles so you can get rid of your pain – for the long term. I am convinced that if doctors, physical therapists and massage therapists were to teach Somatic Exercises to those with back pain, they would help save millions of healthcare dollars.

You can learn Somatic Exercises through my DVDs, in my book, Move Without Pain, or by attending a workshop or Somatics training.

A Somatic Year in Review

P10205992013 has been an extraordinary year of growth, expansion and learning for many of us in the field of Somatic Education. Never before have I met so many inspired, inspiring and eager people from all backgrounds wanting to learn how to get back to the basics of movement in order to live a healthier, more functional life. Those I have met have wanted simple, sensible answers to the questions: how can I move more easily and how do I get rid of chronic muscle pain?

I have had the good fortune to train students in Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, Norway, and the United States in the clinical methods of Hanna Somatics and proper teaching of Somatic Exercises. The work of Thomas Hanna is spreading across the world and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. It only means that around the world people are learning to regain body awareness and control as they eliminate chronic pain and take back control of their lives.

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

I will leave you with an edited (and abbreviated) quote from Thomas Hanna from his groundbreaking book, Somatics. It sums up a New Year’s message that I hope you will come back to throughout 2014:

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

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

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

Somatics Isn’t Just About Movement; It’s About Life

How would you feel if you arrived at your office in the early morning and this was your view out of your window?


Every morning last week as I went to work I was treated to this magnificent visual “good morning.” My reaction was to stop, smile, sense the wind on my face (even if has been raining slightly) and feel grateful to be feasting my eyes on such beauty. It made a difference in the way I felt throughout the day.

The above photo was taken in Stavanger, Norway, at the studio of my Norwegian clinical student, Sol Brandt-Eilertsen (http://www.solsomatics.no) where I was teaching a clinical training module in Somatic Education. Imagine being treated to such a calming scene each morning.

IMG_1906The studio is also home to a swam who sits happily in a puddle in the driveway all day long. He’s there when we arrived, there when we left in the evening. This swam is just part of the scenery – nothing extraordinary to the locals. For the other students and me, however, the swan, the boats, the wind-whipped sea and the cloudy, unpredictable skies had a positive emotional affect on us. It was a sensory experience that made us want to reach our arms into the air and breathe deeply.

In addition to the swam and gorgeous coastal scenery I noticed, over the course of the week, how little my right hip (the one with the two labral tears) bothered me. I credit my hiatus from long hours writing at my computer and answering emails to this added extra pain relief and improved movement. When I travel I spend very little time on the computer. This is a good thing for my body. I sleep better and feel calmer. So it goes with Somatics.

A Soma is a body as experienced from within.

Everything we experience in our lives is first a sensory (feeling) experience, which is followed by a motor (movement) response in your brain. Whether it is a newborn baby that makes you to smile broadly or a fight with your spouse that leaves you physically exhausted, it all begins with sensation and awareness. Some responses to one’s environment are reflexive and predictable, common to all human beings when they respond to the stresses of life.  Thomas Hanna codified these postural reflex patterns and called them the red light, green light and trauma reflexes.

To be “somatic” doesn’t just refer to the way in which you move. It refers to everything you do in life. You see, like it or not, everything you do is responded to by the sensory motor system with a muscular response in the body. Since you are the only one who can sense what it feels like to be “you,” you are the only one who can choose how you want to feel. And this can impact all aspects of your life.

If your back hurts constantly, when was the last time you stood up to take a break from your computer? If your neck bothers you do you walk down the street hunched over your phone? Are you aware of how your thought patterns, attitudes, movement habits, and emotional responses to life contribute to your muscular pain or limited movement? What brings you joy and calm? Do you bring those things into your life or push them off for another day?

An easy and gentle way to bring more somatic awareness into your body and life is through a practice of Somatic Exercises. These exercises help change the way you sense, feel, move and control your body.  This awareness and control invariably filters into other aspects of your life.

One of my clinical students has a student in her weekly Somatic Exercise class who reported that not only is sheIMG_1769 feeling pain-free and more flexible after incorporating a daily Somatics practice into her life, but she is feeling happier about herself – freer and more able to express herself. This woman’s sentiment is what keeps me traveling around the world teaching people how to teach Hanna Somatics.

Somatics teaches freedom by way of somatic awareness, and you can’t get much better than that.

To buy Martha’s Essential Somatics instructional DVDs, click here.