Standing Somatic Movements for Quick Back Pain Relief

5 minutes of “standing somatics” you can do anytime, anywhere…

Last week I wrote about a challenging client who couldn’t lie on the table to do her Somatic Movements. I described some creative and fun movements that I coached her through that were truly AHA! movements for her. She’s forgotten that she could move her body as a whole and not just as separate parts.

Here’s a short video I made of the movements she and I did together. These are movements that you can do once an hour, standing next to your desk, if you’re an office worker. You can do them interspersed throughout the day, just to “wake up” your body.  Try them out and let me know how they go. “Sharon,” my client for whom I created these movements, tells me that they’re working wonders for her! Remember that as with any Somatic Movements, go slowly, pay attention to the movement pattern itself, and then, if it feels comfortable and natural for your body, feel free to speed it up.

Pain Relief and Improved Breathing

I recently read an article about how slow yoga-like breathing has been shown to reduce pain. It shows children learning the techniques taught in yoga: slow, aware “belly breaths” that help to create a balance between the sympathetic (fight or flight response to stress) and parasympathetic nervous systems.

This makes a ton of sense to me. I’m only a beginner in yoga, but I thoroughly enjoy the start of each class, in which we sit quietly and focus our awareness solely on our breath, or Prana. It’s a moment of quiet, stillness and slowing down. Have you ever observed a baby breathing? As they inhale, the belly swells with each inhalation. A baby who breaths from the upper chest is one in distress. Most babies, thankfully, haven’t yet learned to not relax. They haven’t yet been told to hold in their stomach so they don’t have a pot belly, or so they “support the back.” They just do what comes naturally.

Ideally here’s what happens when you to take a full, deep breath: the diaphragm comes down and creates a vacuum in the upper chest, the viscera swell out slightly to help this happen, and the rectus abdominis muscle relaxes. If the diaphragm doesn’t descend, and the belly doesn’t swell, it means that you’re breathing shallowly. This in turn, affects your entire physiology – the brain, the heart, and the workings of your internal organs. This can adversely affects mood, energy, and all metabolic processes.

I have a lot of clients who have simply forgotten how to breathe properly. The real problem lies in their lack of awareness that they’re not breathing as fully as they could or should. They come to me with back, neck, or shoulder pain and are unaware of the fact that their overly contracted abdominal muscles – often the result of their Red Light Reflex posture – is the source of their pain. Their abdominal muscles are so tight they are incapable of voluntarily relaxing them. It’s as if they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, always on alert.  This Red Light Reflex causes one to tighten the belly, contract the shoulders, and collapse inward. It occurs in response to bad news, fear or anxiety and is a primal response that can save you from danger. You just don’t want to get stuck in it!

When habituated, this posture leads to shallow breathing, which has been linked to higher rates of heart disease. Learning to gain control of the abdominal muscles, lengthen and relax “the core” of the body goes a long way toward relaxed, free and easy breathing and improved overall health.

Remember the phrase “the breath of life,” and whenever you are able, remember to stop and inhale. Enjoy it.

To learn Somatic Movements that can help improve breathing, relax painful back muscles and increase flexibility, check out my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD!

Accidents, Pain, and Movement

Accidents can cause muscle pain problems, even years after the accident is over.

This week I worked with three different clients, all with the same problem: they’d suffered an accident to one side of their body, had it medically/surgically fixed, and then never felt the same again. They had back pain and hip pain on one side. They all had excellent doctors and physical therapists who’d helped them heal. They’d completed their rehab exercises, and all had been pronounced healthy again. Two had suffered severe falls onto the knee and one had had a sports injury resulting in a groin pull that never seemed to heal.

Despite the structural healing, they didn’t feel or move well. Here’s what all three clients looked like from the back. This photo illustrates the Trauma Reflex that occurs in response to accidents or injuries suffered to one side of the body:


Trauma Reflex

Notice the difference in the waist muscles: the right side is tighter and shorter than the left side. The right waist muscles are “hiked up” higher than the left.

So imagine the following scenario:  you fell on your right knee and broke it. Reconstructive surgery followed, and you were on crutches for a month. You couldn’t put much weight on the painful side and you had to compensate for your right side’s limited movement. Rehab followed and you finally got back full extension and flexion of the injured knee. You were pronounced “all better,” but walking just never felt the same. Pain began to develop on the left side of your body, most notably in your left hip.

A Trauma Reflex can cause limited movement in the center of the body.

This need to “recruit the neighbors” on the left side to help out until the right side healed is the brain’s reflexive response to accidents, injuries or surgeries. It is unavoidable, yet necessary to protect the body from further pain or injury. The result is tightness on one side of the body.  This affected the rotation the of pelvis and my clients walked as if they were a car with one flat tire. Those muscles had learned to stay tight and to compensate. They’d become “frozen,” and unable to relax. Slowly, but surely I taught my clients to regain sensation and control of the back and waist muscles so they could regain their balance and coordination in order to move both sides of the hips and allow for easy walking. This relaxed muscles in the shoulder and neck as well.

So if you’ve suffered an accident and think you might be compensating in some way, let me know. I can help and you’ll be walking with ease in no time.

Read my book, Move Without Pain, and learn the Somatics Exercises that can teach you to eliminate back, neck, shoulder and hip joint pain and improve movement – no matter what kind of accident or injury you’ve suffered.

Full Body Movements Can Relax Painful Muscles

The body moves as one intelligent, whole system. When muscle pain occurs, the system itself simply needs improvement.

Most people find Hanna Somatics (also known as Clinical Somatics) because they have an issue that their doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and energy healers can’t seem to fully address. A muscle, or a part of the body hurts (that is not related to a pathology), and most practitioners focus on that one area in order to try and “fix” it.

Eliminating muscle pain is an educational process.

Hanna Somatic Educators teach people to remember how to move the way they once did. That, simply put, is an educational process. Rather than focusing on one specific area of pain or one muscle group that needs to learn to relax and release, we address full body movement patterns. This, I’ve found, is a missing link for everyone who walks through my office door. The body should move as an integrated whole, beautifully coordinated – not as a series of separate parts.

Sometimes our clients teach us as much as we teach them. Last week I worked with “Sharon,” an older client with scoliosis, stenosis, and sciatica. She realized that her muscles are stuck in a pattern of non-movement and that retraining her brain (the command center of the muscles) to remember how to move her muscles is reversing her pain. Now she not only walks longer distances without pain, but her tilted posture has improved so that standing “straight” is less of a strain.

Break bad movement habits out of gravity and new movement is easier to integrate while in gravity.

However, she’s uncomfortable working on my table. Hanna Somatic Educators normally work with a client on the table first, because the brain will re-engage old patterns of muscular holding while in gravity. But with Sharon we threw out the rule book and did something new. I got her on her feet and said, “let’s move.”

She stood slightly away from the wall and “reached up to the top shelf” to begin to re-pattern the movement of the hips – one hip up, the other down, as the waist lengthened on one side and shortened on the other side. We played a few slowly paced Exuberant Animal resistance games of reaching across to your partner’s hands (like “Patty Cake”), to lengthen the trunk rotator muscles on one side.

Sharon’s AHA! moment came when I reminded her to allow her hips, legs and knees to move along with the movement. She’d forgotten that the whole body moves as one. She was like a child learning a new dance step. What fun! Between each movement game she walked up and down the hallway to integrate the new awareness she had created. No pain at all. She was overjoyed.

Here’s a short video of some similar movements to what I did with Sharon. It’s from a recent Exuberant Animal weekend. Enjoy!

Pain Relief for the Office Worker

Here are a couple of great seated exercises to do at the office. Sometimes, despite your best efforts to stay aware and relaxed while working, stress can get the better of you and you find yourself slumping, arching forward, or sitting rigidly for long periods of time as you work. Remember that anything you do repeatedly will become a habit! You want to create positive, aware habits. This way you’ll be better able to sit and work efficiently.

Here’s a quick video, live from my office! You’ll learn three simple movements you can do at home or at the office to keep you feeling loose. It’s always good to move in all three planes: front to back, side to side and twisting. Try these out and let me know how it goes!

Recess, Play, Goofing Off – Which Is It?

On Monday, on the front page of the New York Times was the following article about a school in Newark, New Jersey that hired a “recess coach” to get kids to play during recess: Forget Playing Around: Recess Has a New Boss.

Being a fan of play, I read this article with both a tinge of sadness (that it seems that nowadays you have to teach a kid to play) and relief (finally, they’re accepting how important play is for kids!). I’m impressed that this school is taking movement and recess seriously, and not allowing kids to stand around with the excuse that “I don’t know how to play.” I’m sure this is the direction Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is wanting to go in. Teaching play-deprived children the rules of play can prevent behavior problems, and bolster physical, and cognitive learning. Our brains develop through movement. Without it we’re in trouble.

Dr. Stuart Brown, head of the National Institute for Play, wrote a paper called Play – Evolutionary, Universal & Essential in which he describes how play shapes our central nervous system and “…is absolutely necessary for the development of empathy, social altruism and other social behaviors needed to handle stress.”  These changes occur at the brain level. As a Somatic Educator, the absence of play in children lets me know that there will be a generation of kids growing up who are proprioceptively ignorant as well; the basic movement vocabulary of reaching, pulling, pushing, jumping, running, squatting, rolling and bending will not develop in their nervous systems and their future will, undoubtedly, include chronic muscular pain.

And although some respondents to the New York Times article were chagrined that a child should need to be taught how to play, it is a serious problem for many kids – both suburban, but predominantly urban children. Parents no longer allow their children unfettered freedom to go outdoors and wander, play, meet new friends.  I can only encourage parents and teachers to reintroduce games, like hopscotch, jump rope, tag, hide-and-seek, and kickball. It’s a start anyway.

Gotta go – time to play with my little neighbor next door! Our favorite game is “…I’m gonna get you!” What’s your favorite game?

The Core is the Tribe

I had lunch with my mother the other day. She told me about a conversation with my sister, who lives on Whidbey Island, Washington. My sister prefers to travel by bicycle (though she owns a truck for her gardening work), and doesn’t own a cell phone. The conversation went like this:

Mom: Cary, you really should have a cell phone. I mean, what if you were to have an accident on your bike? You could be lying there with no way to call for help.

Cary: Mom, if I had an accident, within five minutes a car would drive by with someone in it who probably knows me – and if they didn’t know me, they’d jump out of their car to help me anyway.

I had to laugh, because it’s absolutely true. You see, my sister, Cary Peterson, lives in what I would say is the modern approximation of a tribe. She coordinates the “Good Cheer Garden,” with a purely volunteer staff that grows vegetables for the Whidbey Island Food Bank. She’s truly considered an “elder” of her tribe, having had her hand in several different aspects of community life for over twenty years.

There are plenty of recent articles and studies that show that exercising with friends results in better health and greater motivation. Apparently happier married couple live longer than single people. Why is this? I would have to agree with Frank Forencich, creator of Exuberant Animal, who, in addition to teaching  joyful, fun movement, also emphasizes the importance of the “tribe.” Back on the ancestral grasslands of Africa, the tribe was our survival. In an environment replete with every kind of danger imaginable, “going it alone” would have meant certain death. Our environment deeply affected our behavior, from our need to cultivate awareness and control, to our ability to move quickly, and intelligently, to our need for community, the modern day version of “the tribe.” The tribe taught us, nurtured us, and kept us alive. Tribal behavior quite possibly caused our brains to grow as well.

Is it any wonder that so many of us feel lonely and disconnected in modern day life? How many of us can say that we have a “tribe” that supports and nurtures us, and is there for us during the different stages of life?

For those of you who feel connected to a tribe, I’d love to hear your stories and comments.

Adults Just Wanna Have Fun

Let’s play a game.

Close your eyes and imagine yourself as a child, outside in your backyard, a local park, or the school playground. Which games did you play? Choose your favorite one and start playing it in your imagination. Feel your heart, your breathing, how your sense of time disappears, your imagination soars. Are you with friends or alone with the grass, trees, and your imagination? What are you doing? Feel your arms, legs, feet, all moving together in play. What are you playing? Freeze tag? Monkey bars? “Manhunt” in the dark? Bring your game to a close as you lie on the ground, exhausted and exhilarated. Now open your eyes. How do you feel? What did you notice about your body? Play does a body good, doesn’t it?

As a child I loved swinging on the jungle gym, jumping rope, playing kickball and dodge ball – but mainly I loved to dance. I also loved hula hoops. Remember them? When was the last time you played with one? At our “Exuberant Animal Jam” we had a mother and daughter, Ariana Shelton and Laura Marie of Hooping Harmony, who reintroduced us to “hooping,” an updated version of the good ol’ hula hoop:

What a workout hooping is! And yet how mesmerizing and powerful. I discovered that although it looks difficult, the undulating rhythm that comes from the center of the body (back and forth) is the simple power behind the ability to keep the hoop spinning. Forget crunches, and sit-ups – try hooping for 20 minutes (the time will absolutely fly!) – and you’ll feel tall, strong and centered. Here’s a photo of me “hooping” in my backyard with Laura Marie and an LED hoop:

Laura Marie and Ariana got my college age son hooping, along with several fellow “Exuberants.” Yesterday after my work day was done, as the sun was setting, I went outside and hooped for a while. What fun. Just like being a kid…

Play is the Medicine Man

According to a recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 16,000 citizens, some 200 health and youth-related organizations, and the National Wildlife Federation recently petitioned US Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin to promote outdoor recreation and make it a priority during her tenure.

Two things caught my eye about this article: the fact that the Surgeon General has now usurped the role of your mother (“get outside and don’t come back until dinner’s ready!”), and that the National Wildlife Federation, of all organizations, would join in to petition to encourage outdoor recreation.  But then again, that makes perfect sense. For the majority of our existence on earth, where have we lived? Certainly not indoors, with a remote control in our hand.

One of the most engaging writers out there who takes on the question of humans, movement and our relationship with our environment is writer and “Chief Creative Officer” of  Exuberant Animal, Frank Forencich.  He believes that humans, like it or not, exist in cooperation with our environment and the earth. For millennia we had a sense of tribal community and adapted to a predator-rich environment. This sharpened our wits, strengthened our bodies, and honed our awareness of our surroundings. It was eat or be eaten (generally speaking). This constant vigilance and need to be increasingly more creative in securing food and survival made our brains grow and develop. The earth, in a sense, was and still is, an extension of our own bodies.

So what does this have to do with kids and outdoor activity?

Our most primal learning tool is PLAY. You don’t believe me? Check out this incredible video.  Humans, like animals, learn to interact socially, pick up cues about body language and facial expression, strengthen our bodies, hone our balance and roll play – all through play.
Play makes you smarter.
Play is simple.
Play encourages laughter. (Who doesn’t want that?)
Play stimulates problem solving and creativity.
Play builds strong bodies and even stronger brain synapses.
Play is cathartic.
Play keeps you young, no matter how old you are.
Play heals.
Play reminds you that you are the master of your own body.
Play takes you outdoors so you can feel the elements against your skin.
Play reminds you of your own power.
Children, when given a choice, will choose play over just about anything. It is primal and natural, and it’s what they do best and how they learn.
Get outdoors, be exuberant, be an animal!

Writing Can Strengthen Your Brain

Recently, a friend of mine sent me and article about the use of occupational therapy for children without severe disabilities to help them with very basic fine motor skills.

Years ago, this friend heard me lamenting the loss of penmanship in the elementary curriculum. It no longer exists in most US school systems having been deemed antiquated and unnecessary. People are hiring occupational therapists (professionals whose focus was once on severely movement impaired children with real diseases or disabilities) to teach their children how to have legible handwriting and to improve their muscle function.

My profound concern is that it does not appear that there is a big push to address the source of the problem and reintegrate playing and exploring into a child’s daily life at school and at home.

The importance of play

Anthony DiCarlo, a principal quoted in the above article, is a voice of reason as he states, “…very few [kindergarten students] have had unlimited opportunities to run, jump and skip, or make mud pies and break twigs. I’m all for academic rigor… but these days I tell parents that letting their child mold clay, play in the sand or build with Play-Doh builds important school-readiness skills, too.”

Moving, playing, getting down in the mud, arts and crafts, carpentry – all of these activities  are crucial to one’s brain development. And what does penmanship in particular teach you? Patience, diligence, control of your body in order to master a fine motor skill. It brings you back to your own sensory motor process and teaches mastery (at whatever level) and planning.

The importance of penmanship

In the book The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, MD, the author writes about Barbara Arrowsmith Young, awe-inspiring scientist and founder of the Arrowsmith School in Canada. She works with children with severe brain weaknesses and learning disabilities. Her expertise, which comes from decades of evolving discoveries regarding her own brain dysfunctions, has helped thousands of children through the use of what she calls “brain exercises.”

She uses tracing of complex designs to stimulate weakened neurons in the pre-motor area. She has found that this improves reading, speaking and writing in children. Not only did this one particular child’s reading ability improve through tracing (think learning cursive letters – it’s all about tracing and repetition), but his speaking abilities improved so that he could express himself better.

If it were up to me, I would argue for keeping penmanship as a full fledged subject in elementary school because of its positive affects on the brain. Additionally, it is a valuable eye-hand coordination exercise and can be a beautiful art form. The argument that children will be using keyboards and therefore should ignore their penmanship is ridiculous at best. Step away from the keyboard; it will be here for the foreseeable future, but your fine motor skills may not be.