5 Steps to a Painfree Workspace

Do you ever find yourself with work-related neck, shoulder, or back pain? Try this awareness exercise that, in 5 steps, can change how you sit:


Step 1

Sit in your chair and, if you have a mirror, take a look at how you’re sitting.


Green Light


Red Light

The Green Light posture is one with an arched back with the weight pitched forward. The back muscles are contracted from the tailbone up to the base of the neck.

The Red Light posture is one with a rounded back, and slumped neck and shoulders, with the weight in back of the pelvis.



Both postures are very common in those who work on computers all day long. Arched or rounded, either extreme can create chronic muscular pain. We adapt to our environment in order to make our job easier, so how you sit is merely a habit – a form of adaptation.

Step 2

Now close your eyes and sit up to your normal sense of straight. Look in the mirror. Are you arched? Rounded? Notice how you feel, but don’t try to change it. Now close your eyes.

Step 3

Inhale and arch, letting your head tip back. Relax your belly and let your pelvis move. Then exhale and round gently, letting your head drop down. Repeat 2-3 times.

Slowly come back up to neutral (“straight”). Sense your weight. Is it on top of your sitbones? In front? In back. Do some self adjustment. Rock side to side on your sit-bones. Feel your hip flexors at the groin line. Are they relaxed?

When you feel relaxed and balanced, open your eyes. See if your internal sensations agree with what you see in the mirror. If you’re still arched or rounded, close your eyes and do it again until your internal sense of your back muscles agrees with what you see in the mirror.  This exercise can permanently change the way in which you sit. You’ll be able to sit effortlessly without fatigue.

Step 4

Repeat this exercise several times a day until your feel that you’ve successfully “reprogrammed” yourself to sit correctly.

Step 5

Place your hands up to your keypad. Notice where your arms are; your shoulders should be relaxed, not raised and tense. Sense your shoulders. Are you holding them up in order to reach the keypad? Are you tightening your shoulders down?


For those of you who discover after doing this exercise, that your workspace is  ergonomically out of sync with your new-found seated posture, you’ll probably want to change the placement of your workstation.

How’s Your Workspace?

Lucky me! My colleague, Carrie Day, and I mentored a Somatics teacher-in-training today. Carrie demonstrated a session using me as “the client.” We were reviewing the proper teaching of the clinical lesson that deals with the Red Light Reflex, which looks like this:

Carrie took me through the lesson and taught me to relax and release the muscles that, when tighten and habituated, can cause us to slump forward, with rounded shoulders, a tight belly and neck jutted forward. We focused on the pattern that is created when we slump – tightening into the pattern and lengthening out of it. After the session I stood up and walked around. Both Carrie and the student said, “you look completely different! You look more relaxed!”  Indeed, I felt amazing. I might teach Somatics to others, but being a human being means that I live in the same world that the rest of us live in… I had been spending far too much time on the computer and driving in my car. I guess I was overdue for a “Somatic check-up.”

Last week I worked with three separate clients, all with the identical problem: searing back and neck pain. They’d tried many different methods to try and alleviate their pain, all with different levels of effectiveness, but none with long-lasting success.

Every one of them was, to a certain extent, stuck in the Red Light Reflex. The problem went back to two things: long hours at the computer, and long hours at a computer terminal that wasn’t properly set up. One had the keyboard too high (which encouraged her to hunch her shoulders up to be comfortable) and the others had it too low (which resulted in tight lats and an arched lower back in an attempt to keep their hands down by their keyboards all day). Their bodies were in a perpetual state of exaggeration, either overly “straight” or overly slumped forward. Both were able to rapidly gain awareness of what they were doing to create their muscular pain and are feeling quite happy about it. Now their challenge is to change their workspace to accommodate healthy biomechanics.

So You Think You Can’t Learn Because You’re Older?

I frequently hear my clients tell me, “not much is going to change at my age.” Thankfully more and more is being written to prove how untrue that statement really is. The older we get, the harder it can be to change old habits, and yet the more important it becomes if we want to live fully and be in control of our lives.

There was an interesting article in the New York Times about how to train an “aging brain.” In it they discuss how “bumping up against people and ideas that are different.” Scramble the neural pathways a bit to keep your brain developing well.

Somatic Exercises make you smarter and more aware.

This is what Moshe Feldenkrais called differentiation.”  He taught that doing “un-habitual” movements that we normally don’t do disrupts the habits in our brains and leads to more intelligent, and controlled movement and coordination of the body as a whole.  He went on to create some powerful movement sequences based upon his discoveries.  His “seated twist” exercise, also taught in Somatic Exercise classes, is the best example of this type of learning.

When you give the brain new, different and sometimes complicated feedback, the brain responds differently. IMG_1769You are setting down new neural pathways. Give the brain the same old, same old, and your habits remain the same.  Your brain doesn’t  get any “smarter”  and nothing changes.  Mix things up a bit, add more movement, done in a slightly different way, or play with a different way of doing things (like brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand) and your motor output will not only be different, but it will be more coordinated.

Here’s an interesting fun fact:  it’s been discovered that the cerebellum, once thought to only be involved in monitoring movement,  is also linked to cognitive growth in the brain.   Frank Belgau, an educator and psychologist, performed an experiment with a group of special ed kids. He put them on his own version of the “bongo board” and had them toss bean bags back and forth for several minutes.  Here’s what he observed:  their math abilities improved, as did their balancing skills. They realized that it not only helped them hone their spatial awareness, but that their thinking skills improved as well. Cool, eh?

This is exactly what we do in Hanna Somatics: we challenge the 7-9-07-bongopongbrain with new and different input, to teach the body to do new things and to hone the skills you already have.  This is an intelligent way to improve the muscular system.  It’s also fun and easy.

So try something new and different each day:

  • brush your teeth with the non-dominant hand
  • use your mouse with the non-dominant hand
  • when you turn to look around behind you, rather than just turning your head and neck, try turning at the waist, first.
  • walk backwards (be mindful!)
  • if you carry a purse or laptop bag on one shoulder, put it on the other shoulder. Notice how your posture changes
  • take a dance class

Re-connect those neural pathways,  feed the brain and prepare to feel, move and think better than ever!

To PT or Not to PT

One of my clients recently suggested I read an interesting article in the New York Times about physical therapy.

It was indeed interesting, because there are many different views on physical therapy. My personal experience with PTs has been purely one of post-operative rehab. I like my PT because he’s not a big believer in movement that has no inherent function (such as the hip adductor machine). He taught me functional movements that helped me get my gait back, and said, “go outside and figure out how to make your own workout.” Now that’s good advice.

Does PT even work?

As the New York Times article discusses, physical therapy is often the first line of defense for doctors whose patients have chronic muscular pain despite clear diagnostics. PT is paid for by most insurance, yet the jury’s still out as to whether or not it’s actually is effective in treating chronic muscular pain for the long-term. I’ve met several very capable PTs who utilize myriad methods that help their patients feel better. But my concern arises from the large number of the people who come to me after weeks or months of PT because they simply do not feel better and have not regained their freedom of movement.

What can I do to experience results when recovering from an injury?

In my experience, the most effective way to eliminate chronic muscle pain is through education, not treatment. When muscles are chronically tight, as in the case of low back pain, it’s because the muscles have habituated to whatever stress the person has adapted. Inherent in that is a full body pattern of contraction. From a somatic point of view, the function of the muscles needs to be changed in order for the muscles to relax and the pain to go away. The client has to learn to do that for him/herself.

Many PTs think that a muscle or joint is painful because it’s weak. Often that’s true, but in many cases it’s not. In contrast to PTs, Hanna Somatic Educators learn to look at a client as a whole when treating pain or physical restriction in a certain part of the body. We want to know where the full body restriction is keeping the client from moving efficiently, or what full body pattern of holding is causing the pain. Where is the Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA)? What is the client doing every day in order to teach the muscles to stay tight like that? How did the client respond reflexively to the trauma that might have taken place? How did they compensate?

Physical therapy has its place and is terrific post operatively or after a physical tear or break. I’m looking forward to the time when PTs and Hanna Somatic Educators can combine their training for maximum effect. I also look forward to a time when a doctor will give you a referral to a Hanna Somatic Educator if you are experiencing “unexplained” pain or movement restriction.

Standing Tall, The Easy Way

Last summer I spent a month in India. As someone who observes the world through the lens of movement, I couldn’t help but observe the way in which people moved. I saw old women squatting to wait for the bus or while cooking their food. I saw children playing and running with abandon. I noticed how people walked miles just to get to work. However, one thing stood out: I saw no rounded shoulders and hunched backs.

In Hanna Somatic Education, we call that the Red Light Reflex. In much of Western medical thought it’s the “posture of senility” or “old age.” This hunching posture contributes directly to shallow breathing, back pain, neck and shoulder pain and compressed, painful joints. The photo at right gave me some insight into a possible reason why rounded shoulders and stooped posture was difficult to find: these female construction workers were carrying loads on their heads. In carrying and balancing their load, the belly and waist muscles were long and extended.The ribs were open and up. In addition, the  their hips swayed gently as they took small steps or climbed stairs.

Fluid and easy makes walking easier

It’s impossible to carry a load on one’s head if one is stooped, or if the hips are tight and don’t sway, or if one takes large, fast steps (think running for the train!). Like an earthquake-proof building gently sways during a tremor, our bodies are supposed to move freely, twisting slightly as we walk or run. This allows for coordinated, efficient movement. Moving with a rigid torso, while thought to prevent back pain, can actually contribute to back pain!

Now try this movement exploration!

Lie down on the floor and relax. Breathe deeply and sense the center or your body. Do this for about one minute. Then stand

It’s impossible to carry a load on your head if you can’t walk fluidly.

up and take a walk around the room. Walk your normal walk, but pay attention to what it feels like to walk:

  • How are your feet hitting the floor?
  • Are your arms swinging gently?
  • Where are your eyes looking? Up? Down?
  • Do your hips sway?
  • Are your shoulders hunched or straight?

Stop and put something light on your head, like a pillow. Hold it gently on both sides with your elbows out and up. Notice your ribs. Breath into them and let them expand with the breath. Notice how the abdominal muscles lengthen, yet contract to support the spine and the center of your body. Walk slowly, letting your hips sway and rotate gently. Breathe deeply as you walk. If possible, try this exercise barefoot; this allows for more awareness of the feet as you reach for the floor with each step. Thick sneakers or shoes actually get in the way of smooth walking and awareness.

Now take the pillow off of your head, slowly bring your arms to neutral, and walk. See if it’s easier to walk with your torso upright, your hips swaying, and your spine stacked on top of your hips. How’s your posture? Are you more on top of your hips as you walk? Are your legs swinging? Is it easier to move your hips?

This movement exploration is like the old fashioned exercise of putting a book on your head in order to achieve good posture! My clients tell me that this exercise has helped them eliminate their back pain and remind them not to slouch. Do this for several minutes, then lie down and sense the center of your body. Breathe deeply. Notice any differences. Take this awareness into your day and see how it affects your movement. Let me know how it goes!

Exuberant Movement, Exuberant Life

Carrie Day and I joined 28 other fitness and movement specialists for an exuberant weekend workshop of play-based fitness and learning taught by Frank Forencich, fitness expert, human biologist and creator of “Exuberant Animal,” and Dr. Kwame Brown, Executive Director of the International Youth Conditioning Association.

Check out the introductory video on www.exuberantanimal.com

Frank Forencich, author of Play As If Your Life Depends On It and Exuberant Animal, made a clear case for play-based fitness, a form of “functional fitness” that is becoming quite popular. Play is the oldest form of “exercise” there is. Play has social, political, physical, cultural and cognitive aspects to it. It’s profoundly important stuff. It’s not jumping jacks and sit ups. If you want to know how to stay fit, just go to the playground and watch what kids do.

It was a weekend of vigorous, challenging play as we learned to appreciate play for its inherent structure and important lessons, both physical and cognitive. We participated in robust games, functional movement concepts, agility  and balancing games, FUN core conditioning moves, partner resistance training, and outdoor group training with hula hoops, medicine balls, laughter, silliness and extreme amounts of camaraderie. I have never felt so fit, strong, and happy while working out. Carrie put it well when she said, “It’s so amazing to me how profound play and the connection play creates with others can affect every single aspect of life.”

I noticed a connection between Hanna Somatics and Exuberant Animal: I had to take what I’ve learned through Somatics and put it into play, literally and figuratively. Somatics is all about proprioception, and remembering movement patterns we’d forgotten how to do. So is play. Playing dictates that you stay present and somatically aware of what you’re doing with your partner or group, with the ball or the hula hoop. You can’t daydream while you’re balancing on one foot, or running and tossing a medicine ball back and forth. Exuberant play is on your feet, vigorous, challenging “Somatics in action!”  Enlivening, stress relieving, and energizing. They complement each other beautifully.

I couldn’t help but think of how much more fun I would have had in school if gym class had been taught like this. All gym teachers, school districts, and fitness trainers could stand to benefit from what Exuberant Animal is teaching. Movement and play makes us smarter, happier, healthier, more in touch with one another and with ourselves. If you haven’t read Frank’s books, do so. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.

Move Without Pain

Move Without Pain – in stores December 2010

Great news! I recently signed a book deal with Sterling Publishers. My book, Move Without Pain, will be in stores next December 2010.

Many of you have read the book Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health, by Thomas Hanna, PhD. It is the first place to go for the definitive theory and scientific underpinnings of the discipline of Hanna Somatic Education. Move Without Pain is a simple, straightforward “dummies’ guide” to Hanna Somatics. It is filled with color photos of all the most basic and important movements we teach, along with detailed pointers on how to do the movements. There are thoughts on core strengthening, exercise, and posture as well. My hope is that those who want to understand the basics of chronic muscular pain and its root cause will gain practical information and easy to understand tools in order to reverse their pain.