Eliminate Back Pain and Reclaim Your Life

This is the first of a series of several stories about people who have come to me in pain, and, through learning to relax their chronically tight muscles, have told me that they literally feel as if “they have their life back.”


This photo shows a slim, athletic body that looks to have almost perfect posture. Look closer, though, and see how her back is arched in a C-shape. Tight muscles have arched her back and over time created stiff, painful back muscles all along the back of her body.

“I just feel old,” Sarah told me when she came to my office for a consultation. “I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s my age, but I don’t think so. I used to be able to run, take yoga class, and work out, but now everything just hurts. I even used to ski and now I can’t even do that! I mean, I’m only 46, but I feel like I’m 80.”

Her doctor told her that she might have arthritis due to her age, but that there’s nothing wrong with her. He suggested she slow down and rest, and that “might feel better with time.” Sarah was thin, healthy and very athletic, but with chronic back pain. She was not only tired, but scareGreen light reflexd. She couldn’t imagine her life without movement and exercise.

Green Light

After the very first session in which she learned how to relax the large muscles of her back, she said “she knew there was hope.” She learned that nothing was wrong with her; she had simply gotten stuck and created bad habits of sitting and standing which were causing her back pain. She had habituated to what Thomas Hanna called the Green Light Reflex.

This full body reflex instantly contracts the muscles of the back of the body any time there is a demand put on us and there is a need to get something done. It is a positive response to stress and allows us to run, walk, stand, or carry things. However, you don’t want to  get stuck in this reflex pattern.

Movement that helps

At the end of her first session, I taught her the sitting exercise; she learned that the way in which she sat caused her back muscles to constantly contract. She was shocked to realize that for  years she had been sitting with an overly arched lower back while all the time thinking that she was sitting up “straight.”

“I’ve been teaching my children to sit the same way. I’m very particular about their posture, and I always tell them to stand up straight. I can now see that I’m teaching them the wrong way to sit,” she confessed.

Sarah learned several easy, gentle Somatic Exercises, which, when done every day, helped her to remember what it feels like to both release and control her muscles. She told me, “I didn’t even know that I wasn’t relaxed until I started doing these exercises.” We did three more sessions, but I haven’t seen her in a while. However, I do hear from her personal trainer that she’s back to working out and feeling excellent!

To purchase my Pain-Free Somatic Exercise DVDs, visit the Essential Somatics® store.

The Way You Move Can Help Relieve Your Pain

How many of you tried jumping to see how you felt? Did you notice how you jumped? Arms in the air? Legs pulled up?

An enormous number of Americans nowadays work in a sedentary job – at a computer, desk, or in a car.  If you are one of them, think for a minute about that sedentary posture – hips at right angles, back tight, shoulders hunched, or for some, pinned back tightly. Try this: sit like that intentionally. Then get up and look down. Clasp your hands together in back of you and hunch your shoulders. Now jump. You don’t get very far, do you?  As a colleague of mine said, “The sedentary posture is the antithesis of the ability to jump.” I would add that it’s also the antithesis of the ability to run quickly, squat down, or twist to the side.

Sitting is, as I’ve written before, a repetitive task. It creates tight, frozen muscles that can cause back, neck, shoulder, hip or knee pain. It keeps us from being able to do fun things like jump, run, reach, bend over or even fall properly. Anything that is repeated – factory work, loading packages (as a postal worker would do), carrying children, cooking – creates the condition for certain muscles to remain contracted and others to become underdeveloped.

To return to jumping: If you don’t move enough, you’ll find that you have no strength in your legs. If you’re “de-conditioned” to move, you won’t have proper muscle development to balance, push off, and relax certain muscles while others work. Going to the gym and doing the same repetitive exercises everyday might build a certain amount of strength, but it won’t necessarily give you the freedom of movement to “mixing things up” and move in a variety of ways.  It may even cause repetitive strain. It is important to be strong; it’s as important to be adaptable and able to move quickly, in many different planes of gravity.

In our Hanna Somatics classes we teach that movement, like life, is about choices and options. There are many ways to move – you just have to begin to explore them. In exploring, you’ll find that muscles “wake up,” pain begins to recede and awareness of one’s self and one’s movement creates positive, and enduring physical as well as  mental and emotional improvement.

You Are How You Move

Thomas Hanna once told a story about Moshe Feldenkrais, and how he said that if you want to get some insight to how a person thinks and feels, just look at their posture. Our posture and movement tells more about us than we realize. Just an animals take powerful stances in order to defend their territory, or cats arch their backs in anger or apprehension, so do humans move according to how they feel.

Think of the man who puffs out his chest in order to act tough, or the teenager who slumps and round their shoulders in an effort to hide in a crowd. In today’s New York Times there is a wonderful article about the photographer Philippe Halsman, who photographed famous people jumping. He called this experiment “jumpology.”

The article quotes Halsman, who died in 1979 as saying, “When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping, and the mask falls, so that the real person appears.”

Enjoy the article – and then jump. See what it feels like. Notice how you move when no one’s looking. Then take that awareness into your day and see how you move in general. Social, familial and stress related issues impact our movement from the time we learn how to walk as young toddlers. Through deliberate awareness we can change the way in which our bodies move and respond to stress – but only if we’re aware.

Intelligent, Sensible Movement for a Pain-Free Life

The other evening I attended a fascinating Buddhist meditation and lecture. Lama Gursam spoke about awareness and practice. He said that the only way to truly understand how to let go of painful, annoying or unpleasant experiences or feelings was through mindful observation, meditation and practice. This method, he stated, has been proven to positively affect the brain, the body’s physiology, and one’s overall health. Self exploration and awareness of one’s physical, mental, and emotional state is essential to the goal of creating happiness for yourself and others. As he said, “it’s not just in your head, it’s in your heart and body.” He added that wisdom was necessary as well, and wisdom comes with time.

This is the essence of what I teach my clients in Hanna Somatics: there is no quick fix for muscular pain, bad posture, back pain, habitual muscular contraction, emotional muscular tension or limited movement.

In order to achieve “body happiness,” the methods are the same:

  1. Awareness of one’s emotional, mental, and physical state (including awareness of one’s habitual movement). When you practice the movements you learn in Hanna Somatics, and stay focused on the sensations in your body – the differences between before you begin your movement practice, and after you finish – you are allowing your brain to soak up the sensory feedback. This teaches your brain something new: it creates quantitative, muscular change at the brain level. Being aware of how you respond emotionally to stress in your life brings awareness of the connection between the mind/body. Again, it helps you to regain control over your body, mind and overall health.
  2. Experiential practice. The experience must come from the inside out – from you. It is your brain, your muscles, and your puzzle to figure out through diligent practice. The fun part is that Somatic Movements are easy, gentle and pleasant to do. Much like the peace and quiet one experiences in a deep meditation.
  3. Patience. When you are patient, you cultivate the understanding that anything worth mastering takes time. It simply cannot be achieved overnight. Period.
  4. Wisdom. Take time to look logically at what works and what doesn’t work. Many of us do things because people tell us we should, that it’s “good for us.” Stick with your Somatics practice daily for several weeks, and don’t believe me – you be the judge.

Fluid Movement = Painless Exercise

Let’s talk a bit more about Dr. Vijay Vad and his sensible prescription for pain relief: “exercise, yoga, and other alternative strategies.” He also mentioned that “flexibility needs to come first.”

Flexibility first… but how?

Flexibility is crucial to keeping muscles and joints in healthy working order, however, Dr. Vad emphasized strengthening exercises and has not given any hints as to how to gain that much needed flexibility.

Accidents, injuries, surgeries, over-training at the gym, and over-stretching in yoga class (among other things) can cause muscles to involuntarily contract. If this happens repeatedly muscles learn to stay involuntarily contracted; this is known as Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), and it is the cause of most muscular pain.

The advice to get back to exercising and strengthen those muscles that are causing pain is putting the cart before the horse. Tight muscles that cause pain are holding tension; they pull on joints, often pulling one’s structure out of alignment. If you have back pain, hip pain, neck, shoulder, hip, or even knee pain, the first and most important thing to do is to learn to relax the muscles that are causing your pain.  Then, and only then, should you consider strengthening the muscles.

Hanna Somatic Education is the key

How do you relax your muscles in order to regain flexibility and begin the process of creating a strong, healthy body that is pain-free?  Reeducating the muscles and reminding them of their ability to contract, lengthen, and relax is the best alternative. Hanna Somatic Education teaches this method; you actually learn to reset the muscle’s length, making them longer, and more flexible, helping to prevent a repeat injury.

Read more here.

Pain-Free Pain Relief

I just read an article in the New York Times about Dr. Vijay Vad, a sports medicine specialist from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. He is a doctor who believes in the “power of the mind-body connection” and who sees yoga, exercise, and other alternatives as positives strategies for pain relief. This is truly good news!  With Hanna Somatics I see firsthand how chronic muscle pain can be reversed when the client understands how the brain controls the muscles, and how one’s emotional and psychological habits affect one’s muscles.

He said something, however, that I firmly disagree with: when asked whether or not one needs to be willing to “get worse in order to get rid of pain eventually?” he responded that yes, when it comes to exercises sometimes you have to be willing to deal with getting worse before you get better; that’s called “pain desensitization.” I don’t exactly know what kind of exercises Dr. Vad is referring to, but I teach a method to relieve back pain, neck and shoulder pain and other chronic muscular dysfunctions in which there isn’t any “pain desensitization.”

The pain doesn’t have to get worse before getting better.

Hanna Somatic Education teaches you to relax muscles that have become so tight that nothing you do relaxes them for the long term. It teaches you to use the sensory and motor tracks of your brain to reset and lengthen chronically tight muscles and move – from the inside out – more efficiently.  It’s a process of improving the functioning of those tight, painful muscles so that  your exercise or yoga is more effective. You gain awareness, control and balance through gentle, easy movements that anyone can do. After doing Hanna Somatic Exercises, some people report soreness (because, after all, they’re relaxing tight, “frozen” muscles and using them in a way they haven’t in a long time), but rarely pain. If you’re experiencing pain, then you’re doing something wrong.

I have seen people relax tight back muscles in one hour of gentle movement and report relief that chiropractors, physical therapists, and massage therapists couldn’t achieve. The best thing about it is that they were the ones improving their own bodies and muscular function. You improve muscle function, reverse chronic pain patterns and improve posture, all through a pain free series of gentle movements. Nothing painful or difficult about it.

Get Up Off the Ground (the Easy Way!)

On Monday I wrote about my client who was able to get down on her hands and knees to garden, but couldn’t get up. I taught her an easy way to use her body synergistically – meaning using the body as a coordinated whole – to make it easier to get up. As many of us get older we unconsciously begin to move more less efficiently, in a more segmented way. We stop rolling over to sit up (as a baby would) or squatting down to pick something up (which strengthens the back and hips). If we want to look  behind us, many of us turn just our neck, and forget that it’s easier and more efficient to turn the entire torso. Well, the same goes for getting up off the ground.

When you use the feet, pressing down into the ground and then straightening the legs to stand up, you have more stability and balance. Think of dancers and athletes who use the muscles of the feet to give them more spring as they jump, and more cushioning as they regulate their landing. Using the feet, legs, hands and arms together will help make getting up off the ground easy and effortless. So try this movement and let me know how it goes. Happy gardening!

Using the Feet for Better Movement

I have a client who complained to me that she can get down on the floor, but she can’t get up. She loves to garden, but has resigned herself to bending over at the waist, with knees bent slightly, in order to plant, dig ,or pull weeds. This, she admits, only causes back pain.

Use full body movement to get up off the floor.

Last week I taught her a simple way of getting up off the floor. She can get onto her hands and knees with no problem. It’s getting from her knees to her feet that poses the challenge. I taught her to tuck her toes under (like a runner at the starting line), then rock herself back and forth, from her hands to her toes – sensing the shift in weight from her hands to her feet. Then, when she felt balanced, she pushed with her hands and rocked back onto her feet, and slowly came up to standing. She did it twice and was very excited!

Get to know your feet. They’re a crucial part of the sensory motor system.

When she returned to me last week she told me that she had a lot of trouble with the exercise and wasn’t sure she could do it. She also mentioned “I absolutely hate going barefoot, even at the beach. It’s torture!”  Sensing the root of her problem, I immediately segued into a lesson about her feet. For 20 minutes I had her play with her toes: stretching them, pulling them, seeing how far apart she could get one from the other, slowly pointing and flexing. I told her that the feet are one of the body’s most important sensory organs, and that, when constantly confined to shoes, they lose muscle control and sensation.  Loss of awareness of one’s feet, and the wearing of cushioned shoes is also implicated in an increased number of falls in senior citizens. I suggested taking every opportunity she could to walk barefoot.

When you can sense your feet you will move more easily.

Finally I had her stand up. She was shocked at how she was able to sense her feet and move them easily. She exclaimed, “I can lift my toes! I can’t remember the last time I did that!” She wondered if “making friends” with her feet wouldn’t maybe make barefoot walking more pleasant. I assured her it would.

Then I explained that, in attempting to rock back onto her feet to get up, her feet hadn’t been able to feel the ground and help her out. She’d been missing a crucial part of the movement! Without feeling in her feet she hadn’t been “grounded” enough for the muscles of her feet to flex and push to help her get up. Once she regained voluntary movement in her toes and feet, then she her “getting up off the floor” exercise would be a breeze! Reeducating her feet would improve her balance and stability as well.

Take a few minutes and play with your feet.

Stand and slowly roll up onto the balls of your feet, and then come down. Pull your toes, and notice how far up the leg the sensation goes. Then take a walk. Your feet will thank you.

Being able to sense and move the muscles of the feet is another factor in relieving back, hip and knee pain. Remember that the body is connected as a whole. When we walk, if we’re unaware of how our feet meet the ground, we may be pounding down in a way that actually contributes to knee and hip pain. This pounding can, in turn, work its way up to the back.