Freedom and Habits – Can They Exist at the Same Time?

Here is a quote that exemplifies what we teach in Hanna Somatics:

How easily we allow our old habits and set patterns to dominate us! Even though they bring us suffering, we accept them with almost fatalistic resignation, for we are so used to giving in to them. We may idealize freedom, but when it comes to our habits, we are completely enslaved. Still, reflection can slowly bring us wisdom. We may, of course, fall back into fixed repetitive patterns again and again, but slowly we can emerge from them and change.

While this quote comes from a Buddhist website, it is the same philosophy underpinning Hanna Somatics. From a Hanna Somatics perspective it means that set patterns and habits, while useful in many ways, can dominate our posture and movement if we are unable to control them.  The fixed habits of walking that we painstakingly integrate through trial and error as toddlers are important. They allow us the freedom to move forward in life. Yet, when other habits take over and become fixed patterns, like slumping at the computer, gritting our teeth when we’re angry, tightening our bellies when we’re anxious, contracting our back muscles as we rush through our busy lives – we gradually lose our sense of well-being and our freedom. It changes who we are.  getty-cartwheel

Habitual responses to stress become muscular habits at the level of our brain and nervous system. Once we develop a habit we are helpless to change it until we spend thoughtful time becoming aware of:

  • What the habit feels like (back pain, hip pain, sciatica, neck pain).
  • How it shows up in our bodies (slumped shoulders, face forward, leg length discrepancy).
  • How it is limiting us (“I used to dance and now it just hurts my hip…I can only walk a few blocks and then my back gives out…”).

Many people become resigned: “Well, I’m not getting any younger.” “It’s all down hill from here…” or “I probably ache because of my age.” As the quote above states, many people accept their unfortunate limitations with fatalistic resignation. They feel trapped and frustrated by muscle pain and few sensible solutions. They are often encouraged to seek a solution to their pain  “out there” – massage therapy, bodywork, physical therapy, the latest gizmos to relax muscles. They don’t realize that in most cases the answer lies within: in their own brain and sensory motor system, and how an awareness of what they’re doing repeatedly, (whether emotional, physical or psychological) can be the piece of the puzzle that they’re missing.

This is the message of Hanna Somatics: freedom comes through awareness of one’s ability to sense and control oneself from the inside out as they move through life. It is a patient and persistent practice of awareness – of what it feels like to be you, how your old habits have created habits of pain and limitation, the meaning you have given to what has happened to you over the years, and how you can change limitation to freedom – on your own, from the inside out. We need habits in our lives; they create a necessary element of stability – in movement. We need, however, to be aware of whether they are serving us or not.

The way in which we move is a reflection of our lives and our thoughts. What does freedom look and feel like to you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. What 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!

The Real Reason We Have Back Pain

In this NPR story about back pain, some old myths about back pain persist. The biggest one is that strong abdominals will help relieve back pain. I understand the opinion that the shape of one’s spine (a “J” spine, as compared to an “S” spine) may be why some indigenous cultures don’t have back pain, but there too much is missing from this discussion.

Back pain, caused by chronically contracted muscles that will not release, is a functional adaptation to stress.

The answer to back pain is simpler than people realize: for the majority of back pain sufferers, back pain develops, slowly, over time due to what they do repeatedly in their daily life. Whatever you do consistently becomes a habit in your central nervous system, brain, muscles and movement. The inability to sense what you are doing and why – and choose to change it in the moment – results in a  loss of control over one’s muscles, movement, and for many suffering from pain, their lives. Efficient, easy, effortless movement and personal freedom go by the wayside.

Thomas Hanna, Ph.D, author of the book, Somatics, puts it this way:

….the almost epidemic prevalence of pain in the lower back is not specifically a medical problem. that is, it is not a condition of break down of some kind, a disease process…it is actually something that is in some sense a kind of psychological, or emotional process. 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. Now if I were to try and put a finger on the most general pathology of urban industrial society…I would say that the pathology is that of proprioceptive illiteracy. Most human beings grow up losing the ability to perceive internal events in their own bodies.

He describes the Green Light Reflex (also know as the Landau Response), which occurs in response to a demand, the Tanzanian-Trip-3-474need to get going, finish a deadline, rush, rush, rush. The brain contracts the back muscles to erect the spine and move the body forward. Reflexes are neutral, helpful – often life-saving. Yet if you live in a society where that reflex is evoked thousands of times a day your brain gradually habituates to the reflex to the point where you can no longer – voluntarily – relax, nor control your back muscles. Muscles have two functions: they contract and relax. Muscle tension is the result of muscles that cannot relax. These are the muscles that cause pain.

Indigenous people have their own stresses – ones most of us thankfully do not share in our western culture. Yet what they have is this: movement. They move more than they sit; they move slowly, they differentiate their movement, they squat, and as they walk, their pelvises move. Their pace of life is slower. It is not a “how fast can we get this done?” culture.

Put a group of indigenous people in front of a computer for 40+ hours a week, make them drive cars in rush hour traffic, take away their movement (except the occasional gym workout), and subject them to technology that demands their constant attention – and see how long it takes for them to develop back pain.

There is nothing special about their spines; it is their environment, lifestyle and, I suspect, their attitude toward life that spells the difference between why they do not suffer from an epidemic of back pain as most western societies do.

We adapt to our environment for better or worse. We can choose to live in our western society and reap the benefits that come with our stressful life. We just need to learn how to control it so it works for us.

This one somatic exercise can do more for your back pain than any strengthening or correcting of your posture.

 

Adapt or die.

How To Move Vigorously Without Stiffness and Pain – Hanna Somatics For Hiking

I just spent two weeks in Norway teaching the final module of Clinical Somatics (Hanna Somatics) training to my European class. In the course of a typical clinical training day we have a full 60 minute somatic movement class followed by hIMG_4994ands-on pandiculation work and clinical practice and more somatic movement exploration geared towards what we will teach our clients. Somatic Exercises, part of any Clinical Somatics session, are true “restorative exercises” that involve pandiculation rather than stretching.

A hands-on “assisted” pandiculation (the main clinical method used in Hanna Somatics) confers a deep release of muscles as well as renewed sensory and motor control. It sends strong feedback to the sensory motor cortex in order to “reboot” voluntary control of formerly restricted movement. The end result is that you are able to recruit and activate the muscles you need for a given action and not those you don’t need.

Pandiculation and Somatic Exercises takes the brakes off your movement so you can move efficiently and freely in any given activity.

Our training module lasted 10 full days. We took a day off from training after day five and visited one of Norway’s most spectacular natural landmarks: the Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), an extraordinary 604 meter cliff overlooking the Lysefjorden. The guide book said that the 2.4 mile would take two hours.

The path was rocky and steep, with giant rock steps and occasional boulders, as well as stretches of beautiful wooden walkways. We reached the top in 90 minutes, a full half hour faster than expected. After a simple lunch on a solitary outcropping of rock we literally skipped down the mountain, rock to rock, jumping and zig-zagging (and yes, walking when necessary). Our desire to skip, jog and dance down the mountain happened spontaneously. It was something I recall last doing when I was a teenager, climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Rather than my knees and hips aching when I reached the bottom, my knees felt perfectly fine, strong and solid. My hips felt loose and relaxed.

The next day when we resumed class we talked about our hiking IMG_4979experience. None of us has access to a mountain like the Preikestolen or this kind of vigorous training on a daily basis, so we were elated – yet not surprised – to discover that not a one of us was sore. Our hips, back, knees and feet felt great. Why was it that we could do such a strenuous hike and feel strong and exhilarated rather than sore and stiff the next day?

Somatic Exercises and pandiculation prepares you to move well.

The answer lies in what Somatic Exercises and pandiculation confer: brain control of muscles, movement and coordination. Yes, they help teach you to relieve chronic muscle pain for the long term, yet what makes that happen is when you regain control of your muscles. 

If you want to be able to move vigorously in any given sport or activity – whether hiking, weight lifting, cycling, walking the dog, running, climbing stairs or carrying your own groceries – you can do it without pain and residual soreness when you do Somatic Movement. You may have discomfort while moving vigorously (muscles that are being taxed can feel uncomfortable when they’re finally being used and stressed), but that’s not the same thing as pain. Regaining freedom of movement and staying in control of your body and movement despite the stresses of your daily life is a learned skill that you can learn no matter your age. I can’t wait for my next hike!

Click here for information about the Myth of Aging retreat at Hollyhock August 19 – 22, 2015.

Click here for information about the Myth of Aging Somatics and Yoga retreat in Bali in October, 2015. A full week of Somatic Movement, outdoor activities, Yoga and meditation.

 

 

 

 

 

2 Day Move Without Pain Somatics Workshop – York, United Kingdom

I get a lot of emails from people asking me when I’ll be teaching classes or workshops in their area.  They want personalized help with their exercises and daily routine. They’ve bought my book or DVDs and would like to have me see “if they’re doing the exercises correctly.”

The best way to get that help is in person. I’m usually busy teaching clinical trainings or Somatic Exercise Coach trainings, but now, for those of  you who want to learn directly from me, ask me questions and be assessed in person…here’s your chance!

Learn to move freely, efficiently and intelligently  – a 2 day Somatics workshop for the general public

Experience two days of movement classes with me, Martha Peterson, author of the book, Move Without Pain and Certified Hanna Somatic Educator. I will teach you all the most importanIMG_2442t basic Somatic Exercises – and more – from Thomas Hanna’s “Myth of Aging” series. You will enjoy a comprehensive experience of Somatic Movement, pandiculation and how to apply the improvements you experience in your body to your daily life. There will be group discussion, plus plenty of time for questions and answers about Hanna Somatics and how to address your particular muscle pain condition.

If you’ve been working with the Somatic Exercises and would like individualized attention from me, come learn to deepen your Somatics practice. If you’ve “tried everything” for your back, neck, shoulder or hip pain, and have only experienced short term relief, come learn a new perspective on movement and muscle pain and begin building your Somatics practice.

Participants will learn:

  • How to recognize the three stress reflexes (red light, green light, trauma) in yourself and others.
  • How muscles become habitually tight and painful and contribute to recurring injury, poor posture and inefficient movement.
  • How your movement habits and reflexive responses to stress contribute to conditions such as low back pain, neck, shoulder, hip and joint pain, sciatica, and chroP1020371nic headaches.
  • How to release tight, painful muscles safely without stretching.
  • A daily routine of easy, safe and profoundly effective movements that, when practiced daily restore muscle control and awareness and eliminate chronic muscle pain.

Each participant will receive an audio practice CD and a DVD of the basic Somatic Exercises which you will learn in the workshop.

Click here for a full workshop description and to register.

This workshop is of special interest to anyone struggling with chronic functional muscle pain: back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee or foot pain – or limited movement. The workshop is appropriate for people of all ages and fitness levels. No previous experience of Somatic Exercises is necessary.

What Is Freedom, Really? Somatics and ALS.

A first year clinical student was approached by a woman with ALS. She requested that my student work with her so she can retain movement. This woman shared with her that her family pressures her to do physical therapy and occupational therapy treatments, yet her experience is that all the yanking and stretching they do with her only leaves her exhausted, tight and in pain. She wants something different, something more gentle and more gradual.

My student guides her through gentle movements – some passive, some active – encouraging her to do what she can do and to move in a way that gives her pleasure: small movements of the neck or shoulders, gentle flexion and extension of the feet and legs. There’s not much movement, yet the client, who can no longer speak due to her condition, writes out that she feels better. She wants to return for more.

What is she seeking?  She wants to feel herself until she can no longer feel. She wants to control what she can control until it is gone. She wants to sense freedom until she has lost it. To feel herself and to sense herself through movement is the purest form of freedom a Soma has and she is doing all she can until it is taken away from her. Her mental attitude bespeaks an intention that is extraordinary and her commitment to herself is one I don’t often see – even in those who have the ability to control their movement and choose what they want to do.

Most of us are fortunate to have a choice about how we want to live, move and express ourselves. Many think that they don’t have a choice, or that it’s “too complicated” to make the choice that would bring health, happiness and an inner sense of well-being. My student’s client gives me pause to consider how precious it is just to sense my own body.

Back Pain After Gardening? Keep Reading…

One of my clinical students from the UK, Karyn Clark, wrote the following article, which I want to share with everyone on this blog. For all you gardeners out there who are gearing up for the summer season, read this! It will give you some pointers about how to recuperate from a day of wonderful, yet repetitive gardening.

11160009_870839839648700_6727914488985578643_nThe author, pandiculating in her garden.

It struck me whilst out gardening over the weekend how many people like me jump at the chance of a nice sunny day to get out into the garden and cram in as much as possible before the rain comes or it’s time to go back to work. We pull, we dig, we shovel, we hit.

For many, we do more physical activity in those 4-6 hours than we have done since the last time we were out in the garden. People spend a lot of time reaching, bending and reaching, stretching up and reaching, pushing their bodies that little bit further to get to that last branch or weed at the back of the flower bed. They dig and plant, bend and pull. All in all, they spend the majority of the day with their back in an over-stretched forward flexion position. Then it happens…the stiffness, the tightening, the inability to move any further because of the back pain. For most it’s that deep aching across the low back. For others it’s more intense radiating further into the buttocks or down the legs.

So what do we do? We hobble back into the house, chuck our clothes in a heap and sink into a nice hot bath. “Ahhhhhh,” it feels so good! The pain is easier; we relax, as do the muscles, deeply.After a good half an hour we get out. Our poor relaxed muscles are required once again to jump to it and do their job, stabilizing and moving the joints of the body. As we get dried and dressed we sadly realize that the stiffness and pain is actually still there.“STRETCH” we think “I need to stretch!” NOW STOP! Lets go back over this:You’ve spent all day stretching, bending, reaching, attempting to contort yourself into positions that Iyengar would be proud of. Is stretching really the answer? I’m afraid not.

The science of stretching versus pandiculation

So you’ve been stretching inadvertently all day, evoking the “stretch reflex,” also called the myotatic reflex. It is a pre-programmed response by the body to a stretch stimulus in the muscle. When a muscle spindle is stretched an impulse is immediately sent to the spinal cord and a response to contract the muscle is received. This reflex protects muscles from tearing.

By stretching further we continue to evoke and deepen the stretch reflex, yet many people when in pain are so desperate to alleviate it they continue to just push it that bit further in a vain attempt to release the pain. The best idea is to  stop stretching and try something different: pandiculation.

If the muscle is contracted and stuck in that pattern of contraction we need to reset the brain; after all it is the brain and the nervous system that controls the muscles, so lets start with that. We need to re-set something called the Alpha Gamma feedback loop, also known as Alpha Gamma Co-activation. This feedback loop ensures optimum functioning of the muscle’s length from contraction all the way to relaxation.

A muscle starts at a certain length. When the muscle is stretched, the muscle spindle stretches and the fibres fire more strongly. When the muscle is released from the stretch and contracts, the muscle spindle becomes slack, causing the fibres to fall silent. The muscle spindle is rendered insensitive to further stretches of muscle. To restore sensitivity, gamma motor neurons fire and cause the spindle to contract, thereby becoming taut and able to signal the muscle length again.

When we pandiculate we start by tightening into the contracted pattern that the muscle is involuntarily stuck in and then lengthening out of it in order to retrain the muscle to relax. This re-sets the Alpha-Gamma Co-Activation loop. To pandiculate means to “yawn.” When we yawn we contract and then slowly release, thus relaxing the muscle. Animals pandiculate, babies pandiculate, many adults pandiculate upon waking.

So the next time you’re gardening, firstly be kind to yourself, take regular breaks, lay down and pandiculate throughout day to help prevent the back from going into spasm. And if it it does, don’t stretch!

When your back starts to ache, lie down (like Karyn in the photo at top) and do the basic somatic movement called Arch and Flatten. This simple Somatic Exercise will teach your back muscles to release and relax. You can do it on the lawn in the middle of your gardening day. Allow the movement to flow with your breath and make sure it feels good. Arch and Flatten just may become your best friend!