How Somatics Can Improve Your Yoga Practice

The New York Times recently published an article about the different ways people are getting injured while practicing yoga. It reported that in pushing the limits of one’s ability to stretch and bend, more people are getting injured. Yoga is an ancient philosophy of life which includes the practice of asanas, (postures) and its benefits are numerous: improved posture and muscle control, improved breathing, balance, and calming of the mind. However, when you push it, yoga can cause injury.

I’ve had several Somatics clients who have been injured in yoga class. In fact, some of my clients are even afraid of yoga.

The three reasons people get injured when doing yoga:

  1. Having Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) and not knowing it
  2. Lack of awareness of one’s body
  3. Stretching too much

Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA)

When you have SMA you have muscles that are involuntarily tighter than they should be. This means that while you’re trying to perform a yoga movement, the muscles required to perform the posture aren’t coordinating properly. Some muscles are working while others are compensating and working too hard. You feel out of balance; you can do a posture on one side and have trouble with it on the other side. In Hanna Somatics we teach you to reverse your SMA through slow, gentle movement patterns that make you aware of which muscles are under your voluntary control and which aren’t.

Lack of awareness

When you can’t sense your muscles, you can’t do what the teacher is asking you to do. You’ll imitate a movement instead of initiate a movement from within. You’ll push yourself farther than you can comfortably go because you can’t sense and feel what you’re doing. Somatics is sensory motor learning. We teach you to regain sensory awareness and motor control from the inside out through basic, slow movements done at your pace.

Stretching too much

Overstretching is common in yoga. When you stretch, you passively take a muscle farther than it can comfortably go with the intention of making it longer.  This can invoke the Stretch Reflex, which contracts the muscle tighter than it was before. Overstretching is one reason why some people feel tighter after a yoga class than when they started.

So how can I practice yoga without getting injured?

In Hanna Somatics we teach pandiculation – an active lengthening that begins with a contraction. It’s what cats and dogs do when they lengthen their bodies after getting up from rest. It overrides tight muscles and resets the muscle length at the brain level. When you pandiculate, you only lengthen a muscle to its comfortable length. There is no forcing involved.

Somatics and Yoga aren’t mutually exclusive. They complement each other beautifully! Hanna Somatics can jump-start your yoga practice and help you prevent many of the common injuries associated with yoga.

Lumbar Supports Don’t Prevent Back Pain

Many clients who come to me with back pain ask about lumbar supports; do they have the right one? Should they use it or not? Science Daily cites studies reporting that lumbar supports don’t actually help those with back pain.

I agree. And here’s why…

Back pain is a result of chronically contracted back muscles.

Your back doesn’t need “support” to “fix” your pain; it needs those chronically contracted muscles to be addressed! Every time we are called to action (the phone rings, our children call us for help, running to catch the train, checking our email, standing at our job) our back muscles contract to enable us to move forward and “get the job done.” This is called the Landau Response. Thomas Hanna called it the Green Light Reflex.

The Landau Response is a primitive brain stem reflex hardwired into our nervous system that instantly contracts our back muscles in walking, running, reaching, bending, etc. However, when that reflex is triggered hundreds of times a day it can become habituated and cause the back to arch like a bow while the shoulders tighten back and the neck straightens. It can contribute to sciatica, hip, shoulder, neck and joint pain. It’s a useful reflex, but we don’t want to get stuck in it. When muscles tighten even when we are at rest, this is called Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). The photo at left shows what an habituated Green Light Reflex looks like.

When we use a lumbar support, our lower back is actually back-support-pillow-for-chair1being encouraged to STAY arched, as in the photo on the right. Perhaps this is why the studies cited in the Science Daily article found that lumbar supports didn’t actually relieve people’s back pain.

Back pain comes from contracted muscles, therefore it is important to learn to RELAX those muscles through gentle Somatic Movements. Then you can learn to sit balanced and straight, rather than with a supported curve. Try this easy seated movement in order to improve your sitting. You can save yourself some money (and pain) by not having to buy that lumbar support.

How To Save Money, Time and Agony When It Come To Muscular Pain

It is an understatement to say that most people in the industrialized world live a stressful life. One article from UW Today states,

“Low-back pain continues to impose a huge burden on industrialized societies, in terms of symptoms, medical costs, productivity, and work absence. Annual costs related to back pain in the United States alone may run as high as $100 billion per year.”

By the time most people come to see me they’ve spent a minimum of $1000 in their attempt to cure their pain. Medical copays, personal trainers, months of physical therapy, special exercise equipment, pillows, and pain-relief gadgets can add up. There are myriad treatments as well that attempt to “fix” back pain, and many clients who come for Hanna Somatics sessions have already spent weeks (and often years) doing them in their search for relief from muscle pain and tension: massage therapy, therapeutic ultrasound, physical therapy, laser therapy, acupuncture, MRIs, X-rays, medication, to name a few…

Why don’t these therapies and popular methods of pain relief work for the long term?

Doctors and therapists who perform these methods approach the problem as a medical pathology. Muscle pain and dysfunction isn’t a medical problem, but a functional problem. There is no doubt that poor muscle function can cause structural issues; an uneven gait or limp can cause hip damage. However, preventing structural issues in the first place is of paramount importance. But many doctors don’t know how to effectively address muscle and joint pain and postural problems.

So how can I relive my pain for the long term?

The only effective approach to sciatica, piriformis syndrome, low back pain, poor posture, scoliosis, shoulder and hip pain, herniated disks, decreased flexibility, and joint pain (to name a few) is, in most cases, to improve the function of the sensory motor system so that the entire musculoskeletal system functions optimally. This is a functional approach to a functional problem.

To improve the function of the sensory motor system, it is essential to address the root of the dysfunction: Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).

Muscles move bones and the brain controls the muscles. If muscles are pulling and pushing on bones and nerves, causing tingling and pain (“entrapment”), there is a reason for it: there is something that you are doing to cause your muscles to contract and stay contracted. Any reflexive response to stress will become habituated in the muscles. That means your muscles will become “frozen” and “stuck.” Tight muscles cause pain. Relaxed muscles relieve pain and allow our bones and structure to become balanced again. No doctor or therapy can fix your crooked posture, tight buttock or rounded shoulders. Only you can.

Hanna Somatic Education will give you the tools to address your SMA and to correct it in the future… for the rest of your life.

Improving Balance By Relaxing the Core

In my last post I wrote about how using crutches while recovering from an injury can lead to back pain, hip, shoulder pain, and sciatica due to Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). After the injury is healed balance needs to be restored, and walking needs to become smooth and effortless again. You can work on this before you get off your crutches. Below is a video showing three simple movements to get you started. The first one addresses the muscles of the front and back of the body, and the others address the muscles of the waist and hips. These movements will help remind you to regain coordination of your walking once you’re off crutches. Oh – and you don’t have to be injured to benefit from these movements! Anyone who feels stiff in their gait, or is suffering from knee, foot or hip pain will love these movements. Your posture will improve and you’ll stand straighter, with less effort.

Remember to do these movements SLOWLY, GENTLY, AND WITH AWARENESS. Somatic Movements release pain because you are nudging your muscles into greater, more intelligent movement through use of the brain. It’s no different from learning a new dance step or improving your swimming stroke. You’re improving control and sensation of muscles, which allows only the muscles necessary to do the work. Why work hard when you can work efficiently and effortlessly?

And if you’re on crutches now, or have had a serious injury, contact me to set up a session, attend a class, or receive advice.

Pain Relief After Injury For Those On Crutches

Have you ever had an accident or surgery and had to use crutches? Are you using crutches now? If so, then you know that using crutches can create sore shoulders, tight hip muscles, sciatica, and an aching back. Using crutches can cause you to literally forget how to walk properly, twist and turn your torso, or move your hips well. This is an indication that you are experiencing Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). When you become dependent upon crutches you begin to compensate and adapt in a way that helps you get through the injury, but gets in the way of a smooth gait once you’re back on your feet again. You lose the most basic sense of balance and coordination due to your very real need to rely on the crutches to help you through the day.

However, while you’re on crutches there is a lot you can do BEFORE you get off of them. Here are two photos of “Lynne,” a client I worked with who is still on crutches due to a broken left ankle:

BEFORE: Notice her hip on the left side; it’s higher than the right hip.  Notice the hem of her shirt, which angles up to the left. This occurs due to lifting the left hip to crutch around and protect the left ankle. It’s no wonder that Lynne complained of back pain; she had to shift all her weight onto her right side to compensate for her injured left side.

We worked to relax and release the muscles of the Trauma Reflex – the muscles that help you side bend and twist –  which reflexively tighten to avoid further injury. Then we practiced several movement patterns to help Lynne remember how to move her hips easily.

AFTER ONE SOMATICS SESSION:  
Notice the difference in Lynne’s left hip. After pandiculating the muscles of her waist and working with her hips and legs, she was able to bring herself back into balance. Her weight is evenly distributed on both feet. She reported her back pain gone and a renewed ease of movement in her hips. She said that being balanced “felt strange, because I guess being out of balance became normal for me.” How right she was! Her brain had learned instantly how to compensate, so engaging her brain with sensory motor learning, was her path to regaining coordination and balance.

In my next blog post I will show you some of the movements I gave Lynne to practice in order to remind her muscles to relax while she continues to heal. When she gets off her crutches her rehab will be easier and more effective.

To learn the movements that will help you regain a smooth gait, relaxed muscles and optimum muscle function, check out my instructional DVD, Pain Relief Through Movement. The methods and movements you will learn in this DVD will teach you to balance your muscles, regain body awareness and relieve pain – all on your own!