I Think, Therefore I Feel

In his book The Body of Life, Thomas Hanna writes about several studies conducted at Magill University over 30 years ago involving measuring muscle tension and emotion.  They found that there was not only a correlation between thinking and muscle tension, but that there was a change in tension depending upon whether the subjects’ thoughts were pleasant or unpleasant. This work by Robert Malmo proved that one’s thoughts – and especially those that are emotionally charged – create muscular tension in the body – even when one is not moving!

Hanna went on to discover that there are three very specific brain stem responses to stress that, when invoked repeatedly, create habituated muscular tension:

  • Green Light Reflex
  • Red Light Reflex
  • Trauma Reflex

When we talk about emotions it’s impossible to separate out the bodily feelings – or somatic awareness – from the emotion. Have you ever noticed that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when someone you don’t really like walks into the room – or when you read a newspaper article that upsets you? Have you ever noticed how you respond to good news? If you watch a soccer player celebrate a goal, they jump in the air, they throw their arms up, their backs straighten and their entire body lengthens in joy. And next time you’re upset about something and don’t want to talk about it, notice what you feel like. Neck tight? Back? Jaw set?

This is just a beginning, but an important one. Gaining an appreciation for how your brain affects your body can open up a world of possibilities that you might not have been aware of.

 

 

“Let’s Move!” It’s a Way of Life!

One of my very favorite quotes about health comes from Frank Forencich, author of the book Play As If Your Life Depends On It:

WARNING: Before beginning a program of physical inactivity, consult your doctor. Sedentary living is abnormal and dangerous to your health.

It simply couldn’t be said any better.  Physical inactivity is detrimental to one’s health for several reasons:

1. It’s unnatural for humans not to move. We are genetically predisposed to move. A LOT.

2. Inactivity affects the brain and its ability to learn, imbed new memories and problem solve. Humans learn through movement. You don’t believe me? Look at a baby – always moving, always discovering, always learning.

3. Inactivity impairs your physical functioning, reduces muscle mass, impairs sensory motor functioning and leads to premature death, according to the World Health Organization.

I’m very excited that Michelle Obama, with her “Let’s Move” campaign, has decided to make her mark as First Lady with a common sense campaign to positively affect the health of children and, by extension, their families. I especially like how she says, that it’s “time to modernize the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge and increase participation in the challenge, so it’s not just about how athletic kids are – how many sit-ups and push-ups they can do – but how active they are each day.”

The distinction between “exercise and fitness” and “physical activity and playing” is an important one. Most people don’t generally like to “exercise.” That means repetitions at the gym, sweating on the stairmaster while watching Oprah, and just counting down the minutes until you’ve done your allotted 30 minutes of cardio for the day.

A life filled with active play, and movement is a completely different model of “fitness.” Play stimulates brain growth and social learning while toning the entire body – all in a more enjoyable way.

The inactive lifestyles of many of today’s children can be attributed to more than just the availability of technology and its replacement as an after-school past-time. There can be social and cultural reasons as well.  Dr. Kwame Brown, a young, forward thinking neuroscientist, is one of the founding Board of Directors of the International Youth Conditioning Association, and the creator of MoveTheory, an organization which engages with individuals and organizations throughout the United States to create Active Play for children and adolescents. He makes some important points about why kids nowadays might choose inactivity and video games over playing outdoors. Check out Kwame’s blog and see what you think.

Now that you’ve read this post, get outside, take a walk, run up and down a flight of stairs, turn on some music and shake your booty, find a hula hoop and get those hips moving, go play hide-and-seek in the park with your kids. That’s just for starters…

Three Steps to Improved Posture

In my last post I discussed the Top 3 Myths About Posture. If you looked in the mirror and thought, “Oh dear! I need to do something about my posture,” here are three simple things to address.

1. AWARENESS

Stand in front of the mirror. Take a look at yourself. Are you balanced? Notice your shoulders. Are they level, or is one higher than the other? Look at the center of the body. Do you tilt to one side or the other? Are your arms of equal length?

Stand in profile. Take a look: where’s your neck and head? Is it thrust slightly forward? What about your lower back? Is it overly arched? Are your knees locked back? Are your shoulders rounded forward – or maybe “pinned back” military style? If you don’t know what you’re doing habitually, it’s difficult to change things.

2. PROPER SITTING

Most of us sit for a prolonged period of time every day – at computers, in cars, and watching TV. Long ago our days were filled with physical labor and activity and periods of sitting were the exception. Because we sit so much it’s important to be aware of how your sitting affects your overall posture. Do you slouch? Do you sit up overly “straight”, arching your lower back and pulling your shoulders back? Do you crane your neck forward in order to read the computer screen? Do you sit with more weight in one hip than the other? Read the full article on my website here: Effortless Sitting. See what you discover about yourself.

3. PROPER SHOES (or better yet, go barefoot)

Proper shoes are critical, especially for you women out there! The higher the heel, the more likely you are to over-contract your back muscles. It will also result in chronically tight calves, hips and thigh muscles. Walking with too much weight into the ball of your foot is simply not normal, and it completely changes your posture.

The muscles in your foot will compensate to accommodate tight shoes. Thick soled shoes do not allow your foot to feel the ground properly and will affect your proprioception. Soft-soled shoes allow your feet to sense the ground more effectively, putting less strain on your lower leg muscles and improving your awareness.

Walking barefoot is a terrific way to improve your posture. Feel the difference in how you walk when you’re barefoot.

Now get out there and experiment!

Top 3 Myths About Poor Posture

I’ve heard several very common misconceptions people have about their posture.

Thankfully due to advances in Hanna Somatic Education and neuroscience, more people are accepting the fact that they have the ability to change their posture through diligent awareness and practice. At one time I accepted the idea that I simply had “bad knees,” (after all, I’d had 4 knee surgeries!), and one day I would need a knee replacement. On top of that I believed I probably had arthritis, which accounted for my inability to kneel for any period of time. After studying Hanna Somatic Education and regaining a new awareness of my movement, I realized I was wrong on all counts: I’m arthritis-free  and more happy kneeling now than sitting in a chair!

Myth #1: Poor posture is hereditary.

Sometimes it seems that way. Mother and daughter have identical posture. The son walks exactly like his dad. But the latest scientific research on “mirror neurons” in the brain, suggests otherwise. Mirror neurons are key neurons in our brains that fire when we watch others perform actions. In working with children I often see an imitation of their parents’ posture. We are their first teachers, after all. One young woman I worked with had straight, tall posture until she hit about fourteen years old. Then, under school stress, she began to imitate her mother, slumping forward in a slouched posture. She is now aware of her tendency to slump when stressed (a symptom of the Red Light Reflex), and is able to voluntarily self correct.

Myth #2: Poor posture is the result of weak muscles.

Posture is a learned, habituated way of holding yourself in response to life’s stresses. Even in cases of scoliosis, there is an adaptation to a one sided trauma that creates a side bending/twisting. We learn to hold ourselves according to has happened to us and/or what we do every day. That being the case, when our posture is one of imbalance (i.e. muscles too tight, shoulders slumped forward, side-leaning), proper coordination of muscles is thrown off. The end result is unequal control of agonist and antagonist muscles. What is required here is full body, functional re-education of those muscles so that coordination is regained and balanced posture is more easily maintained.

Myth #3: Your posture has “always been that way.”

Again, with rare exceptions, posture doesn’t happen to you. Our posture is a look into how we adapt to our surroundings. Our posture is a snapshot of our accumulated tension and, in many cases, our attitudes toward life. We are creatures of adaptation, physically and emotionally. If we sit at a desk all day, we will adapt in order to be able to do that all day. Maybe we’ll over-arch our lower backs into the Green Light Reflex of forward action. If we are worriers, we will probably tend to hunch our shoulders and slump and get stuck in a Red Light Reflex. This can cause painful neck and shoulder problems. If we have suffered a traumatic accident, we might tend to lean more to one side than the other. This posture can cause sciatica, hip pain, plantar fasciitis and knee pain. It’s called the Trauma Reflex. Posture is an on-going, fluid process of being.

Lengthen the Hamstrings, Touch the Toes

You might notice that the title isn’t “stretch your hamstrings, touch the toes.” That’s because using your body weight to try and pull yourself down toward the floor to touch the toes just doesn’t work. Static stretching of your muscles can potentially tighten your hamstrings further if you push past the point of your muscle’s present length by sheer force; there’s a nifty protective mechanism called the myotatic reflex (“stretch reflex”) that prevents you from causing fiber damage to the muscle. When this reflex is invoked, it actually causes the muscle to contract back against the stretch.

So if you shouldn’t stretch, they how are you supposed to lengthen your muscles? Pandiculation consciously engages your brain to reset your muscles. First you contract, then slowly lengthen, then relax completely, much like a big yawn.

Try this pandiculation in place of your regular “touch the toes” routine:

hamstring-pan1

 

Test out your present range: bend down to touch your toes. Let’s say that you can only get as far as in the photo.

 

 


hamstring-pan2

 

 

Inhale and lift your head, tighten your back, buttocks, and hamstrings ,and lift yourself back up a little. Be aware of tightening those muscle groups in a pattern.

 


hamstring-pan3

Slowly lengthen and release down toward the floor only as far as is comfortable. Then inhale, engage the back, buttocks, and hamstrings, and slowly lift the head again.

 

 


hamstring-pan4

Again, slowly lengthen down toward the floor, only going as far as comfortable. You will notice that it’s easier to go further, as the muscles are being released actively. When you’ve gone as far as you can, lift the head, tighten the back in a bit of an arch, and engage the buttocks and hamstrings.

 


hamstring-pan5

For the last time, slowly and consciously lengthen and release down toward the floor. Look how far you’ve come!

Bend your knees and roll yourself back up to standing. Close your eyes and the different sensations of your back, buttocks, and legs.

 

 

Not only does this variation help to lengthen the hamstrings, but it may also help you find relief from back pain!

Let’s All Do What the Animals Do

Moving and lengthening your muscles is not only crucial to maintaining flexibility and muscle health, but it’s also second nature to us as humans. However, animals don’t stretch and they don’t pull muscles and have repetitive strain syndromes. You may be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. Yes, they do!” But…

…they actually don’t. Here’s what a stretch looks like:

static-stretch

Stretching

Here’s what animals do:

cat-stretching

Not stretching

What animals do is called pandiculation.  Add to that vigorous, daily, full body movement and you have a recipe for amazing health, agility, awareness, endurance, and strength.  Stretching, on the other hand, is a passive forcing of a muscle, often past the point of comfort. Pandiculation involves sets of muscles that would normally coordinate together, while stretching usually targets one set of muscles in isolation.

If you were to take your favorite stretches and pandiculate them instead, you would get a lot more bang for your buck. Try tightening the muscle you wish to lengthen, then slowly “yawn it out,” as if you were just waking up in the morning. Then completely relax. Feels good, doesn’t it?