To Clear the Mind and Reawaken The Body You’ve Got To Move

This article in the New Yorker 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 decided to not let the weather get in my way and embark on a hike up Mt. Snowdon, the tallest mountain in Wales. 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, Alzheimers and other problems.

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.

 

“Muscle Knots” Are Muscle Tension, Which Is Sensory Motor Amnesia

There is some confusion as to what “muscle knots” are and where they come from. This article asks the question “how do they happen and how can they be prevented? Are they harmful and should they be treated? Allow me to answer these questions in the simplest way possible:

“Muscle knots” are not mysterious; they are areas of “Sensory Motor Amnesia” (SMA)

SMA is habituated muscle tension that develops when we become habituated to stress and/or certain ways of moving. These areas of accumulated, learned muscular tension are “stuck” at the level of the central nervous system and cannot, physiologically, release and relax.

If you’ve ever had back, neck or shoulder pain and gone to a massage therapist to “pound out” the knots in your back, only to have the knots return, it seems that there is little that can be done. Not so. The reason these knots seem to stick around despite the best massage therapist’s effort, and don’t show up on scans and MRIs despite extreme pain is because what it happening in the muscle is a neurological event in the brain – a functional problem of the sensory motor system. Sensory Motor Amnesia is not a medical problem that can be diagnosed through conventional medical methods. It is a functional  problem of the sensory motor system that can be easily “unlearned” through somatic education.brain-side

Muscle knots can be prevented first and foremost by understanding how Sensory Motor Amnesia develops in your brain due to repetitive stress responses and/or repetitive, habituated movement habits. Muscles have two functions: they contract and they relax. When muscles can no longer fully relax this is an indication that you have accumulated muscle tension that you are no longer fully aware of. The only way to fully release these “knots” is to make sure that the brain is fully in control of the muscles.

Muscles knots are only harmful when they get in the way of free, efficient movement.

Movement is medicine, movement is life and painful muscle tension can cause you to move less efficiently and, for most people, minimize the amount of movement you do. In order to live a healthy life we need to be able to move strongly, vigorously and with endurance for as long as we live. If you’re not planning on moving a lot then muscle knots won’t hurt you. The lack of movement will, however.

Treatment of tight muscles doesn’t work. Re-education of tight muscles does.

If you want to untie a knot, you must look at the cord carefully then gently undo the tangle. Yanking on the cord will only make the knot tighter.

~ Thomas Hanna

Muscle knots can’t really be “treated” successfully – for the long term.  Treatment is what bodyworkers and doctors do when they attempt to fix tight muscles (or postural imbalances) from the outside. And there are therapists who can help provide short term relief. Yet muscle tension Pandiculation demonstrated (1)develops from the inside out (Sensory Motor Amnesia) and, since humans are self-regulating, self-sensing beings, not cars or bicycles that need fixing, their muscles must be educated so they can contract and release fully in order to get rid of muscle knots.

Through active involvement of the brain – rather than through manual manipulation – people can more easily and safely learn to  eliminate “muscle knots,” restore full muscle function in all planes of gravity and prevent them from coming back by doing three simple things:

  • Become aware of your daily movement habits and reflexive responses to stress. Repetitive contraction of muscles without full relaxation creates muscle knots.
  • Learn to pandiculate instead of stretch. Animals pandiculate up to 40 times a day!
  • If you have chronic muscle tension, learn how to eliminate your patterns of Sensory Motor Amnesia with a daily routine of Somatic Exercises**

Muscle knots are not an inevitable part of life; they are a symptom of stress adaptation.

**or through a series of hands-on Clinical Somatics sessions with a skilled practitioner.

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

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 unaware of them and unable to control them.  The fixed habits of walking that develop through trial and error as toddlers are critically 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. Unconscious habits can change 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.” Many accept their unfortunate limitations with fatalistic resignation. They feel trapped and frustrated by muscle pain and few sensible solutions as they 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. It’s whether these habits serve us or not that is the question.

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. 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!

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 (the Landau Response), a reflex that is invoked automatically every time there is a “call to action – ” an urgent  Tanzanian-Trip-3-474deadline, or the need to rush to get somewhere. The brain contracts the  muscles of the back to move the body forward. Reflexes are neutral, helpful and often life-saving. Yet if you live in a society where this 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. The back muscles (as well as gluteal muscles, hamstrings, shoulder muscles) can become rigidly and painfully contracted.

Indigenous people have stresses those in industrialized western culture don’t have. What they have to a greater extent than us is 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 “are we there yet?” culture.

Try this somatic exercise for relief of your back pain.

Were a group of indigenous people to sit in front of a computer for 40+ hours a week, drive cars in rush hour traffic, drastically reduce their movement (except the occasional workout), or be subjected to technology that demand constant attention, they, too, would likely develop back pain. It is their environment, their lifestyle and their attitude toward life (rather than their spines) have more to do with why they suffer less from back pain than most western societies.

We adapt to our environment for better or worse. If you want the perks that come with our stressful western industrialized society you would to well to incorporate the wisdom of movement and awareness of indigenous cultures.

 

 

Adapt or die.

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

In the course of a typical clinical training day in Clinical Somatic Education 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.

A recent training module in Norway lasted 10 full days. On a day off (after day five) we visited one of Norway’s most spectacular natural landmarks: the Preikestolen, 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 occurred spontaneously. It was something I recall doing as 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 discussed our hiking IMG_4979experience. None of us has daily 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, efficient movement and optimum coordination. Yes, they also teach you how to relieve chronic muscle pain for the long term, yet that only occurs once you regain voluntary 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 Exercises. 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.